Good Reading : June 2006
JUNE 2006 ı goodreading 19 categorical of violence imaginable. Of course, many of these books are poorly researched and have little to recommend them. Australia does the same, although not to the same scale. And just as reality television programs about police and crimes present actual footage, rather than reconstructions, today’s crime readers devour reality. Written accounts of true crimes told with as many firsthand wit- nesses as possible, as many photographs of crime scenes and actual people as possible – especially the criminals themselves – and insights into the dogged investigators and the grieving relatives, are popular worldwide. Good true crime writing requires a tremendous amount of research – just as Capote pioneered – whether it’s inter- views, court and police records, or financial files. It should sit lightly and when done properly it helps to bring the characters to life and move the story along at a brisk pace. Journalists are partic- ularly popular choices for publishers who want fast turnaround crime books – also a strong trend in Australia.This is because journalists often have desirable police and court contacts, along with a familiarity with news deadlines so they can work quickly and accurately to get information out as soon as possible. And some journal- ists can write exceptionally well. There have been some stand-out books by Australian non-fiction crime writers to whom Capote probably would have given the nod: John Bryson’s Evil Angels, the story of the 1980 death of baby Azaria Chamberlain; John Dale’s Huckstepp: A Dangerous Life, the story of Sydney prostitute Sally-Anne Huckstepp; Les Kennedy and Mark Whittaker’s Sins of the Brother, the definitive story of Ivan Milat and the Belanglo Forest back- packer murders; and Helen Garner’s more recent Joe Cinque’s Consolation, a thoughtful portrayal of the trial of Anu Singh who killed her Canberra uni- versity student boyfriend. The universal trick for true crime writers is to find a subject that stands the test of time – a problem as big today as it was back in 1959 for the doyen himself. In a 1966 interview with the American writer George Plimpton for The New York Times, Truman Capote explained why he chose murder, and in particu- lar the story behind a 1959 news brief about the random killings of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas: ‘After reading the story it suddenly struck me that a crime, the study of one such, might provide the broad scope I needed to write the kind of book I wanted to write. Moreover, the human heart being what it is, murder was a theme not likely to darken and yellow with time …’ Capote was right. But apart from being able to grip the public’s imagina- tion, the subject must also be capable of maintaining the author’s attention and passion for as long as it takes. Capote again: ‘If you intend to spend three or four or five years with a book, as I planned to do, then you want to be reasonably certain that the material does not soon “date”.The content of much journalism so swiftly does, which is another of the medium’s deter rents …’ Of course not all writers can afford the luxury of five years. The race to the book- shop shelves is common and often fierce in Australia – particularly when a big criminal trial concludes, removing any legal barriers that might have prevented publishing all the gory details. For example, at least four of five books about the murdered British tourist Peter Falconio and his girlfriend Joanne Lees, who survived the attack in the Australian outback, have been published since December when a jury found Bradley Murdoch guilty of Mr Falconio’s murder. One British journalist, Richard Shears, penned the final thousand words of his effort, Bloodstain: the Vanishing of Peter Falconio, one day after the trial ended, and his book along with two others was out before Christmas. Joanne Lees has recently moved to Sydney to write a book on her ordeal which will bring the tally to six. Meanwhile, And Then the Darkness, another of the books on the same topic by journalist Sue Williams, is about to be adapted to film. While Australia does not have the The universal trick for true crime writers is to find a subject that stands the test of time — a problem as big today as it was back in 1959 for the doyen himself, Truman Capote.