CRIME CULTURE: A book written by one of Australia’s most renowned forensic anthropologist full of Australian cold cases is bound to be a gripping read. Until it isn’t, writes G. L. Marlowe.
Cold Case Investigations by Xanthe Mallett had all the ingredients for a good true crime read: a writer who has worked in the field, cases that have captured the Australian imagination, and the examination of these cases with forensic evidence. Sadly, however, it fell flat.
I wanted to like this book I really did. Most cases I had some knowledge of but I was curious as to how the case of missing William Tyrell – currently the focus of a coronial inquest – would be tackled, and to uncover the murders perpetrated by Ashley Coulston which I had never heard of.
Writing true crime is a difficult task. There are issues of ethics, questions surrounding where authorial license can be used to fill in gaps, making sure all of the objective facts are correct, and that all perspectives are considered. When writing a book about some of the most infamous cold cases in Australian history it is imperative not to tell the same facts that have been repeated and now ingrained in Australian cultural memory. In a book you have the potential to go in depth, to turn over evidence, poke holes in people’s behaviour and evidence, and research until you come to a conclusion that may or may not support the hypotheses that already exist.To make it interesting you have to either provide new evidence and hypotheses, or tell it in a new way.
Neither was accomplished here.
There were five issues I found in this book: sweeping statements not backed up by evidence; lack of prosaic skill; an absence of fact checking; the lack of structure; and the misleading nature of the term “cold case”.
Evidence is crucial when making a claim about possible motives, why certain perspectives exist and the behaviour and actions of people. Without evidence there is an awkward grey area of possibility. This possibility is where the evidence available and human behaviour must overlap before an inference can be made. Sweeping statements that can be easily explained by a variety of other hypotheses are ineffective and call into question the validity of the rest of the following analysis. Below was one such claim by Dr Mallett:
“The fact that Christine had already gone off by herself and eaten food they had not brought with them indicates that she had already had one illicit rendezvous that day, before both girls hurried off to keep their date. This suggests this was not the first time the girls had met this boy.”
Meanwhile there is no witness evidence to suggest this. It’s a possibility, but there was no corroborating evidence that Marianne Schmidt and Christine Sharrock met their eventual killer that day. Christine having food not brought with them in her stomach, does not automatically indicate that she met a boy. Andrew Byrne’s The Pretty Girl Killer – a book with its own issues, nonetheless – claims that it was because her grandmother gave her money. Food does not automatically equal a secret lover’s meeting and if that is the view you are taking there needs to be more explained to the reader.
Aside from the bold claims which should have been flagged by an editor, so should some of the syntax and structure. The writing of this book left a lot to be desired. An editor’s job is to make sure the sentences don’t read in a clunky way or to omit any tautology. It’s also their job to make sure everything is where it should be for maximum impact.
Whilst proposing that Christopher Wilder was the true perpetrator of the Wanda Beach Murders there would be the best time to include any facts, figures or images that relate to him. Therefore I must ask the question why start recounting the story of Wilder in the chapter about backpacker killer Ivan Milat? It was a short book. This was only one indication that a fair chunk was padding. The age regression to find out what Wilder might have looked like would have been useful while trying to prove the point that Wilder was the surfy teenager believed to be the murderer at Wanda Beach. When talking about Milat, the exposition didn’t need to be interrupted by a complete recap of the first chapter with important information tacked on at the very end.
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Fact checking is a must when writing a factual account. Broad statements are one thing, getting your facts wrong is another. Poor Mallett was unfortunate that this reader knows some places around New South Wales. Galston Gorge being one of them. On the 31st of December 1989 a camera belonging to James Gibson, later found to be one of Milat’s victims, was found. This is an agreed upon fact. However, Mallett writes:
“Galston Gorge is 120 kilometres north of Sydney.”
Seems inconspicuous but a quick internet search on the Milat case proved my point. Galston Gorge is 120 kilometres from Belanglo State Forest. If I had not learnt to drive on this incredibly dangerous and often twisty, unfenced road where each turn was a precarious precipice onto careening to my death, I probably would not have noticed this. As soon as I did, I began to wonder what else may have been a mistake.
The book went through the cases chronologically however inserted within each chapter is an “expert insert” which explains any forensic techniques that come up. Now this would be helpful if it was succinctly summarised in a line or two. However, it was taking chunks out of academic work which occasionally went for pages. It weighed the book down and disrupted the flow. Most of the time these academics were referenced and given credit to, although on the rare occasion Mallett forgot to credit them within the text.
The nature of these inserts are generally helpful in understanding forensic science however they interrupted the flow. This interruption continues at the end of each chapter which showcases Mallett’s expertise in techniques completely unrelated to the investigation she has previously talked about or the investigation she is about to talk about. Occasionally she interjects this with a tenuous links such as: “Had Karlie Pearce-Stevenson’s SIP been analysed from her hair and portion of her femur, an SIP analyst with knowledge of human tissue development would have been able to establish that she originated from the Darwin area and to determine elements of her movement across the country”.
All this serves as is an ego boost and indicating to the reader how informed she is and knowledgeable in her field which really should be conveyed throughout her analysis of the cases. It should be integrated (if needed at all) rather than randomly placing it at the end of the chapter.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary (and any other one you can find on through a quick Google search) a cold case is “a case (a series of events investigated by the police) that has not been solved.” The focus being on has not been solved and victims haven’t received justice. Cold cases come in many forms whether they be crimes which law enforcement believes they have the answer to but not the evidence prove such as the case of Keren Rowland and Peter Letcher (and many others) which is often attributed to Milat, or the case of Mr Cruel in Melbourne during the 80s which still confounds Australia due to the lack of evidence pointing towards a suspect.
If the victims had been the focus of each chapter it would have been a book of cold cases (as it had been with the Beaumont Children). But by focusing on the perpetrators it becomes a book of some cold cases and major serial offenders who may have hurt others. There was not the cases by case analysis of potential Milat victims or potential Coulson victims but rather throwing them altogether and not giving a comprehensive overview of the cases. But rather the pattern they fall into
However despite her claims to give the victim a voice, Mallett prefers to focus chapters on convicted murderers before providing a little summary of their potential victims. This is not giving the victims a voice. This is tacking them onto an offender’s legacy. The focus is not on them, but their untimely death and how it fits into a pattern of another’s behaviour. True crime over the past couple of years has had this constant caveat which Mallett also uses of “I wanted the victims to be centre stage.” Feeling the need to add that statement, proves that there is concern about what has been communicated. It is essential to represent the victims of a crime for who they were not what happened to them or by giving them and their families’ justice but this does not occur. Not only is it ethically and morally the thing to do. It is good storytelling. It prompts an emotional reaction and forces people to care.
Lastly, some of these cases had been solved such as the Angel of Belanglo. While it was unsolved for many years it was eventually solved. By reporting on this case (while Mallett had worked on it) it provides less time to talk about cases which are still unsolved and needs either reviving or information to be solved. In the chapter about William Tyrell, Mallett highlights the case of Rahma el-Dennaoui and mentions how it never quite received the attention from the media that Tyrell did. Now this can be chalked up to the media’s focus on predominantly white victims of crime and despite her critique of this Mallett perpetrates the same bias. Why focus on Tyrell (which is a worthy case but highly publicised) when there are other cases such as the one of little Rahma el-Dannaoui that have faded from the public consciousness.
Despite my rantings and ravings Cold Case Investigations did provide effective explanations of the facts of well known cases for those who were unfamiliar with them and providing a synopsis of the major players, the crimes, and the potential (in some circumstances, actual) perpetrators. Other hypotheses are examined and discarded before arriving at the most likely conclusion. Other suspects were examined in some of the cases. Further cold cases were mentioned and prompt further reading, which will hopefully trigger someone who knows something to come forward.
This account was a good starting point for the basics of each cold case but would have benefitted from further editing and a deeper dive into why these cases weren’t solved, or, what is it about these cases that have resonated with the Australian public.