True Crime by Ted Bassingthwaighte
The whole crime scene!
So, you are ‘standing at the shoulder of monsters’ and what do you expect to see or hear or feel? Are you just a curious observer? Do you feel slightly voyeuristic? Or do you want to ride that imagination train into the deepest, darkest, scariest tunnel of criminal intent? Whatever you chose you’ll be free to return to the safety of your humdrum life either a little scared or hyper alert of your surroundings. If you are like me, you will repeatedly step back into the criminal mire . . . simply because it is fascinating.
The best true crime stories are not always those with the most blood and guts. Sure, the gruesome crime scene is tantalising but not always necessary. The back story fleshes out the characters in a way that you invest in them, even identifying with some. The real-life experiences of others mirror our own lives in their mundanity or tragedy.
Of course, the central character or characters in the story are the ones we most want to understand and hopefully disassemble. And if the story includes a detailed police investigation and follow-up court appearances with a guilty outcome you feel a kind of satisfaction.
But what if the crook is unpunished or even worse undetected? You can empathise with the victim. But can you feel their pain and grief and that of their family who never recover from that moment of malevolence in their normal lives?
One recent story that has stained my memory is Denis Ryan and Peter Hoysted’s Unholy Trinity – The Hunt for the Paedophile Priest Monsignor John Day – Allen & Unwin https://www.booktopia.com.au/unholy-trinity-peter-hoysted/prod9781760529628.html
As a former NSW police detective and Child Sexual Assault investigator, I immediately connected with Denis Ryan, a former Victorian police officer who tried for decades to get paedophile priest, Monsignor John Day before a Court to face multiple allegations of his child abuse across country Victoria over many years.
Day was protected by a church that, up until recently, never took responsibility for the criminal behaviour of its priests. Ryan’s determination also ran afoul of his own police bureaucracy whose intransigence to the problem further compounded the angst and hurt of many of Day’s victims. Unholy Trinity is an emotional and at times infuriating read as one wonders in a civilised society such as ours how evil like this can occur, persist and go unpunished.
Conversely, one of my favourite Australian authors is Tom Gilling. Gilling, with retired NSW detective Clive Small, wrote the police insiders story of the hunt for serial killer Ivan Milat https://allenandunwin.com/browse/books/general-books/true-crime/Milat-Clive-Small-and-Tom-Gilling-9781760293307
The police procedural true crime story does not get much better than this book. Gilling and Small allow the reader inside the police organisation and don’t hold back on all the intricacies and obstacles surmounted in the pursuit of Milat. Of course, the subject, a psychopathic serial killer, is pretty alluring as well.
Close your eyes for a minute. It’s daylight, summer. You are in the bush and birds chatter, a slight breeze whispers through the treetops. A battered Toyota four-wheel drive crashes off a hardly noticeable fire trail into a bush clearing. One man, possibly two, climb out and without talking or looking at each other, they open the rear door. On the floor lay two human shaped sacks bound head to toe wriggling in defiance. A German accented female voice cries out, ‘Please, please, please let us go!’ The ancient Belanglo forest watches, powerless to stop evil and ready to succour more innocents after evil is done with them.
I was fortunate or unfortunate enough, depending on your moral compass, to be in the Glebe Morgue participating in an autopsy of my own when I saw the headless skeleton of one of Milat’s victims, the 20-year-old German backpacker Anja Habschied. She lay on a stainless-steel autopsy table next to her friend Gabor Neugebauer, 21. Both innocents were discovered in bush just off a disused fire trail in the Belanglo forest almost 12 months after disappearing from Kings Cross in December 1991.
The image of the gaping holes Milat’s frenzied knife attack inflicted on their skeletons left an indelible stain on my memory. A testament to the violence and suffering this wicked man inflicted on his victims.
On reflection I realise now how important books like this are to society. As difficult and as distasteful it is to read about the behaviour of evil-doers we need to know what happens so as to understand it and prepare for it. Who knows if it will ever visit any of us?
Next week: The best . . .
Ted Bassingthwaighte is a retired NSW police detective living in Newcastle with his wife and dog. Since his retirement in 2009 he has been writing. He reviews books for the NSW Police news magazine, has entered HWC short story competitions, winning a prize in the HWC 2014 Grieve competition. He is a member of the HWC and participates regularly in HWC events. He hopes to have his true crime manuscript ‘Bloody Odyssey’ edited and ready for publication in 2019.