Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Book Review - The Gatton murders by Stephanie Bennett

The Gatton murders : a true story of lust, vengeance and vile retribution by Stephanie Bennett

Sydney: Macmillan, 2004                                                           ISBN 1405035749

There are some crimes that resonate down the ages; usually particularly brutal, and often unsolved. Australia is the home of quite a few in this category, and the most famous could until recently have been the Gatton murders. While Australians of my generation may not have an intimate knowledge of the crime, for my parent's generation it was very well known.

The murders, of three siblings of the Murphy family - Michael, Norah and Ellen (with the women being raped as well) - produced a huge outcry, and to this day no one has been brought to book for them; a mystery that the book under review, despite claims to the contrary, gets no closer to solving. The Gatton murders is the first book on the subject to be written since all the relevant police files have been made available to the public, so Bennett has much previously unused material to hand. However, the file material does not add much to what was already available from contemporary newspaper reports and from the inquest. So, we are left with no appreciable addition to the known facts of the case, which are as follows -

The three Murphy siblings rode into Gatton from their farm to attend a dance on the night of Boxing Day 1898, which, they discovered when they arrived in the town, had been canceled. On their way back home, they were waylaid on the road by person or persons unknown, led into a paddock, where their horse was shot, as was Michael, the two women ravished, and all three smashed on the head with a branch. They were discovered the next morning by their brother-in-law, who was concerned when he saw they hadn't returned home from their night out.

By the time the police had arrived at the crime scene, much evidence had been compromised by sightseers, and the investigation never recovered. The autopsies were bungled, and unfortunately the officer running the investigation, Frederic Urquhart, was a poor manager of men, a poor judge of character, and a man of fixed ideas. He quickly formed the view that the murders were committed by a wandering swaggie, and most of his investigations led in that direction.

Bennett is keen to point out the flaws in Urquhart's approach, and bemoans the relative lack of information gleaned from local residents. The Murphy family themselves seemed strangely disconnected from the investigation, to the extent that they had virtually  be dragged to the inquest, and many other locals had alibis that seemed to be doubtful. There was so much speculation, from the press, and members of the public, that it has become very hard to separate fact from fiction.

Unfortunately Bennett simply adds to the speculation. Her refutation of Urquhart's thesis leads her on to a grand thesis of her own, which is in some respects more flawed than his. She has built a house of cards based on "what ifs", and "just imagines" that become, several pages later, accepted facts. The story she builds, of a revenge attack on Michael Murphy gone wrong, strains credulity too much. She doesn't present a convincing case that Murphy had made the enemies he did, or that her perpetrators would have joined forces, or that they would commit the outrages that took place. 

There is evidence of sloppiness in her writing as well - Bennett paints a picture of the race meeting on Boxing Day, and writes of totalizer machines and Boy Scouts, both of which didn't make their appearance until the next century. Not much research would be required to avoid a mistake like that, which, possibly unfairly, casts doubt on the rest of the book. Her assumptions of human nature also have a very 21st century feel to them, and her bald assertions of how people might have felt are sometimes off the mark, in my opinion.

While the book does provide a list of files Bennett has accessed, there is no index, which is an appalling oversight in a book such as this. This of course is probably the publisher's doing, so shame on you Macmillan! This book really needs one, as once you are in the grip of Bennett's version of what happened, the reader really needs to refer back to the earlier sections of the book that map out the facts without so much interpretation. The lack of it does Bennett no favours.

The bibliography is nice to have, but has two glaring holes in it for a book claiming to be comprehensive: the extraordinary Gatton man by Merv Lilley, who claims that his father was the murderer, and Captivity Captive, the novel by Rodney Hall, based on the murders. While both books don't get closer to finding out who did the deed (although Lilley's father certainly seemed capable of it), they are fascinating insights into the psychology of murder, and when they come to their theories of who and how, they are no more fantastic than Bennett's.

If you read this book, read Lilley and Hall as well - taken together, they make for a fascinating look at this tragic episode in Australia's history.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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