Australian Heist by James Phelps

Australian heistAustralian Heist is partially “local” history.

In 1862 a gang of bushrangers held up the gold escort travelling from the gold fields of Forbes to the town of Orange, stealing a large amount of gold and banknotes; the largest single robbery in Australian history.

The gang hid among the Eugowra rocks, after partially blocking the nearby road with an overturned bullock dray. As the poorly guarded gold escort diverted closer to the rocks to avoid the obstacle, the bushrangers opened fire on the coach, wounding two of the police guards, before escaping with its gold and money.

They were led by Frank Gardiner.  His accomplices are assumed to have included Ben Hall, John Gilbert and John O’Meally. Gardiner “retired” from his life of crime after the robbery, but was soon replaced, and perhaps surpassed, in Australian bushranger mythology by those three, whose criminal exploits extended over a wide territory including the towns of Forbes, Bathurst, Carcoar, Lambing Flats (now Young) Murrumburrah, and Jugiong.

After covering the robbery itself and the ensuing trial of the few gang members who were apprehended,  Phelps continues with a highly abridged account of the survivors, including the Hall/Gilbert gang and its changing membership. The book culminates with the fate of Frank Gardiner and rumours about his share of the stolen treasure.

Hall and Gilbert Graves

Ben Hall’s grave at Forbes and  John Gilbert’s grave at Binalong. (photos by Onesimus)

Phelp’s book comes across as a semi-fictionalised account of a true story. He draws on historical documents about the event , in particular accounts of trials that followed the robbery, but clearly uses his imagination to recreate interaction between the participants during parts of the story where there would be no record of their conversations or their specific actions. He acknowledges this in the Author’s note preceding the story, by saying:

I have also used and recreated historically accurate dialogue based on court transcripts and police reports where available. Some details and scenes have, however, been re-imagined, with  a deliberately modern spin.

While that approach is probably intended to make the story more compelling, it raises questions about what is truth and what has been assumed. That question regularly came to mind as I was reading.  The “deliberately modern spin” didn’t work for me, at times created a jarring anachronistic effect.

One day I hope to read a more authoritative, historical account of the Eugowra robbery that will hopefully help me to distinguish the line between history and Phelps’ embellishments. 

Some time ago I read Game, a fictional look at the latter part of Ben Hall’s life. That was also based on historical accounts, but made no claim to be a historical record. However, I found Game had a more convincing authenticity of the period it depicted

I have a slight personal connection to this story. It was during a short trip around the territory of these bushrangers that the possibility of moving from Sydney started to develop as an option, and eventually Gloria and I moved to an area associated with this story.

The following songs portray some of the Hall/Gilbert mythology.

I met Jason and Chloe Roweth many years ago when they performed at a folk club near my then Sydney home. The last time I had contact with them they were living in a town near to my current home, in the region once frequented by the Hall/Gilbert gang.

 

Advertisements

Remembering Anita Cobby, by Mark Morri

cobby.jpgThe murder of Anita Cobby shocked 1980s Australia, perhaps more than any other crime.

A young nurse, travelling home from her shift at a Sydney hospital didn’t make it home. She had caught the train from the city to Blacktown and then started walking from the station to her parent’s place.
Her body was found a few days later, naked and severely injured. Her throat had been brutally cut, almost decapitating her.

someone-else-s-daughter.jpgI came across this book when I was looking for a copy of Someone Else’s Daughter, an earlier account of the case. Gloria had read a borrowed copy of that book not long after Cobby’s murder.

Gloria was also a nurse who relied on public transport to and from work, having to walk to the bus stop each night to catch a bus to the hospital. Her interest in Cobby’s fate was understandable.

Remembering Anita Cobby looks beyond the case itself, for the first time giving John Cobby’s story. As Anita’s husband, John was the initial prime suspect – even if only for a short time. He has never recovered from his wife’s murder and the subsequent treatment he experienced.

Anita had been dragged from the street into a car while walking home from the train station. In the car she was  sexually abused and brutalised by its five occupants. They took her to a paddock, dragging her through a barbed wire fence, to a place where they raped her, and after realising she’d be able to identify them, murdered her.

Mark Morri developed a friendship with John Cobby starting when he spent three days interviewing him the year after Anita’s murder. Years later Mark and John agreed to this book being written as a tribute to Anita, telling John’s side of the story.

He had been incapable of telling it all those years ago but now he was as ready as he’d ever be. It would never be an easy process for someone who, thirty years later, was still dealing with the trauma he’d gone through.

The story of Anita Cobby’s murder was big news for several years, but throughout the telling of that story, there was rarely any reference to her husband John. Crippled by grief, he avoided everything related to the case as much as he could, trying to escape through drugs, by fleeing overseas, and even committing himself to a psychiatric facility. To avoid attention, he changed his name to John Francis.

After a while he remarried and had a family, but could never be freed from the memories, feelings of guilt and the nightmares associated with Anita, so the marriage eventually failed. His children were in their teens before they learned of their father’s relationship to Anita. That knowledge helped them understand things about John that they’d been seeing throughout their lives.

This is a “sneak peak” of a TV show I saw on the weekend. I’ll try to post the full version later in the week. Like the book it tells the Anita Cobby story without omitting the effect her murder had on her husband.

Remembering Anita details John struggles through grief and addiction and how he was eventually able to reclaim the name Cobby.

I mentioned above that Gloria had worked as a nurse, and therefore felt some affinity with Anita. John was also a nurse and had met Anita when they were working at the same Sydney hospital.

John continued nursing, and through this book I found out that at one time he worked (possibly as relieving agency staff) within the same ward of the same hospital on the same shift that Gloria usually worked at the time. Whether their paths ever crossed we don’t know.

White Nights, Ann Cleeves

White NightsShetland is an excellent TV series; one of my favourites. My interest in crime fiction was strongly influenced by it.

While watching the first series I was drawn to the  novels by Ann Cleeves upon which the series was based.

The TV version features Jimmy Perez, a detective whose life is complicated by a late-teen stepdaughter, Cassie.
One of the additional pleasures of Cleeves’ books is that they depict Perez when he first meets Cassie’s mother, Fran an artist, and Cassie is still a young girl. The two formats therefore cover a wider time period and because I saw the TV version first, the books seem to provide a backstory to the series.

White Nights starts with Perez’s first real date with Fran, at an exhibition of her art. That night out then leads to the discovery of a murder victim in shed near to the gallery.

This all happens mid-summer, within a period known in Shetland as the “simmer dim”, when the sun never really sets, resulting in a lingering half-light instead of a normal night darkness.

The thing I like most about this book is the depth of character, its vivid portrayal of landscape, and the journey it gives into Shetland life.

In my opinion, the richness throughout the book almost makes the concluding solution of the crime irrelevant. It’s not a book that puts all of its eggs into the “who-dunnit-basket”.

For me the resolution of a crime novel works best when the guilty party is revealed and the reader can then see how obvious that person’s guilt was – despite having not having seen it throughout the rest of the book. With White Nights, while  I found the conclusion plausible, I seem to have missed clues and reasoning  within the rest of the book, therefore for me it lacked that ultimate, satisfying, “of course, how could I have missed that” reaction.

 

Not From That Man…

murder-at-myall-creekI have a lot of respect for books and the written word. I like my books to be (and remain in) the best shape possible.
When I buy a book I closely check the condition and when possible will avoid copies with creases (no matter how small) or other blemishes.

I had Murder at Myall Creek on a bookstore wish-list for some time – and so was excited to find a second hand copy in very good condition for a fraction of the cost.

But before I read it I chose to tear it up and throw it in the recycling bin.

Doing something like that is very out of character for me; but there was a reason.

I saw the author on TV.
He was the Prosecutor in the Keli Lane case and I was not impressed by some of his tactics in that case. [See my previous post]
I decided I couldn’t trust the man and therefore didn’t want to spend time reading his account about a historical mass murder of Aboriginal people.

I’d like to learn about the Myall Creek Massacre, but not from that man.

 

2 + 2 = Variety

Two books plus two films, a diversity of genres and forms, with little in common: all in a weekend’s “work”.

caedmonOn Saturday I finished the last 30 or 40 pages of Peter Robinson’s Caedmon’s Song.
Kirsten is making her way home after celebrating the completion of her studies at a northern university. She wakes in hospital after suffering a horrific attack.
As the months pass, during her slow recovery, several young students are murdered, presumably by the same attacker.
There is pressure to break through the suppression of her memories of her own attack, in the hope of identifying the man and bring his killing to an end.

Alongside Kirsten’s story the book also follows Martha Browne, visiting the northern coastal town of Whitby, claiming to be researching a book, but keen to keep to herself as she plans for some kind of mission aided by her “spirit guides”.

Robinson said that the book was partly inspired by the case of the Yorkshire Ripper, and the question of how a surviving victim of a serial killer might respond to their survival and recovery.

lady Later on Saturday I started reading Lady in Waiting another book that alternates between two stories. In the present day Jane Lindsay is struggling with the seeming breakdown of her marriage, when her husband takes a job in a another city.
In the past there is the story of Lucy Day, a young seamstress working for Lady Jane Grey.

The two stories are brought together by the discovery of a ring hidden in the spine of a centuries old prayer book bought as stock for Jane’s antique shop.
The title “Lady in Waiting”, could be applied to Jane Lindsay, waiting for her husband’s return to the marriage; to Lucy Day, waiting on her Lady Jane; or to Lady Jane herself, waiting to find out the future planned for her by her family.

I’ve had a five decade interest in Lady Jane Grey since I read or heard about her as a pre-teen in the late 1960s. She is the forgotten first Queen of England, whose reign lasted just over a week.
She was the chosen successor of the Protestant Edward VI who wanted to deny his Roman Catholic sister Mary from taking the throne after his death. Jane, Edward’s cousin, was an educated and devout Christian in regular correspondence with leading protestant theologians in Europe.

Mary’s military support made Jane’s position untenable and Jane was executed on Mary’s orders early the following year, at the age of 16.

Swallows_and_Amazons_(2016_film)Swallows and Amazons is a classic children’s book that I’ve never had the opportunity to read.
A year or two ago I started to watch an old film version of the story, but lost interest only half an hour in.

On Saturday Gloria bought this new version on DVD, A wonderful film in which the Walker children face dangers, imagined and real, during a holiday in the Lake District of northern England.
They sail their boat “Swallow” to a an island to camp out for the night, but find the island has already been claimed by the “Amazons”, a group of locals.

As the rivalry between the Swallows and the Amazons intensifies, they find themselves being drawn to work together to face a more serious, common enemy.

Set in the 1930s, it s story that wouldn’t translate to a present day setting, where children would be discouraged from pursuing risky outdoor adventure, even if they could be torn away from the digital adventures pursued in the comfort and safety of their own homes.

 

downsizingDownsizing is another film Gloria found on Saturday morning.
I wasn’t really interested in seeing it, and almost halfway into the film I was wondering why I’d bothered.

As the human population increases the harm it does to the planet, scientists discover a way to “downsize” people and animals – basically shrink them to a fraction of their natural size.
This is seen as a potential life-saver for the planet. Reduce the population in size and reduce the consumption of resources as well as reduce the resulting waste footprint.

The major enticement to encourage potential recruits for the project is the promise of more affluent lives in custom made small communities. Current basic finances convert to the equivalent of millions of dollars in a community where a few metres of land are the equivalent of several acres when the scale difference is taken into account and the “downsized” people can live in mansions that would previously been the size of a doll house.

The first part of the film concentrates on the wonders associated with the downsizing opportunities, using some interesting special effects to show the interaction between people of vastly different scales. Downsizing is presented as a favourable option with no down-side; apart from one or two hints that its outcome may not fully be what it is presented to be.

There are occasional hints of political unrest – with questions being raised about the legal rights of downsized people. They consume so little, and therefore contribute so much less to a consumer driven society, so should they have equal voting rights?
And it becomes clear that downsizing can be misused and abused by Governments as well as by less than honourable corporate groups.

Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek, who, along with his wife, choose to downsize. Safranek soon finds that he may have made a mistake in making that irreversible choice.

As I said, after half of the film I was wondering about the point of it all, but then the film took a significant turn. That change came about with the introduction of a Vietnamese character, Ngoc Lan Tran, played by Hong Chau.
She gives the film a spark it was lacking and brings it to life, a Jesus worshipping woman devoted to serving the less fortunate.
Through her Safranek starts to see another side to the downsizing programme. Alongside the advertised affluence, there is a hidden world of poverty, making their new world no different to the one they’d chosen to leave behind, where affluence is enjoyed at the expense of many who are usually unnoticed.

It is a clear film of two halves. The second part turned it from something self-indulgently forgettable into something thought provokingly memorable. It’s something that has stayed with me since I saw it on Saturday evening.

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer

Belinda-Bauer-300x482

Blacklands was Belinda Bauer’s first book, through which she became an accidental crime writer. *

In the Author’s Note at the end of the book she writes:

Blacklands was never intended to be a crime novel. I thought it was going to be a very small story about a boy and his grandmother.

12 year old Steven Lamb’s life is dominated by his uncle Billy, even though the two never met. Billy didn’t live to enter his teens. He fell victim to a paedophile serial killer long before Steven was born.

Steven’s small family lives with his grandmother who regularly stands at the window, looking through it as if still waiting for her son Billy to come home.

Steven reasons that the dysfunction within his family, the lack of expressed love and warmth, has been caused not only by grief over Billy’s murder, but because his body was never discovered.

Steven is determined to put things to right by finding his uncle’s remains. He sets out with map and spade onto the nearby Exmoor, but it’s a project hampered by scale, having no clue where it would be best to dig.

That’s something only one person knows for sure, Arnold Avery, the man guilty of Billy’s murder.

Steven starts a surreptitious correspondence with Avery, trying to learn the secret of Billy’s grave, instigating a disturbing interaction between the two.

Bauer tells the story from the points of view of Steven and Avery. Each of them have far different reasons for continuing the correspondence, but the shared focus on Billy’s murder and burial has consequences Steven couldn’t have imagined.

One piece of writing advice that I picked up from somewhere regarding the construction of a short story, was that if you include a description of a gun early in the story, that gun has to be used before the end of it. In other words, particularly in short form writing, don’t clutter the story with unnecessary detail – make everything is pertinent.

Blacklands is not a short story, but Bauer seems to follow that advice throughout the book. There are so many colourul little details introduced that could have been  legitiamtely put aside after they’ve added dimension to a character, but instead they become vital, active elements later .

I didn’t need to find yet another author to follow, but this book has made me add Bauer’s work to my growing list of books to read.

Her most recent novel Snap has been longlisted for this year’s Man-Booker Prize.

 

____________________________________

*

It wasn’t until a lunch to sign a contract with her publisher, Transworld, that Bauer learned she was all set for a career as a crime novelist. “We were sitting in this posh restaurant with a contract between us and [her editor] hands me a pen and says: ‘Just tell us what your second book is going to be about.’ I said: ‘It’s going to be about these two children in a spaceship,’ and she took the contract away, whoop, like that tablecloth trick. And she said: ‘No, it has to be a crime novel.’ I was floored – I had no idea how publishing worked, because I’d always done such diverse scripts as a screenwriter. I literally had to make it up there at the table,” says Bauer.

So, having “never read anything that was actually marketed as a crime book”, she started out as a crime writer on “possibly a different footing to someone who was immersed in the genre”.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/aug/10/belinda-bauer-interview-man-booker-prize-longlist-snap

Catching a Serial Killer interview

When Detective Steve Fulcher arrested Christopher Halliwell for a murder, the taxi driver said there was another body. In an effort to build trust and find the second victim, Fulcher failed to caution him a second time. Christopher Halliwell is now in jail for two murders, and there are potentially more bodies to find. But the man who caught him has been drummed out of the force.

from: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/latenightlive/how-to-catch-a-serial-killer/9236808