2004 ,259 p
This book gave me nightmares. I usually do my non-thesis reading in bed, just before falling asleep and this book falls well into the ‘not thesis’ category. But not once but three nights in a row I found myself sitting up in bed, heart pounding after a nightmare prompted by reading this book. So I decided that if I was ever to finish it, I’d have to read it by light of day.
You only have to say the word ‘Snowtown’ to an Australian and they’ll immediately think of a disused bank in a small, South Australian country town, with barrels stuffed full of rotting, dismembered body parts. It’s a sordid tale: a boorish, violent man on a self-propelled mission to rid the world of paedophiles, drawing vulnerable and rather simple men into his campaign to torture and kill the “dirties” as he calls them. Twelve lost, marginal often mentally ill victims: so many dysfunctional histories of sex abuse and neglect. Truly the stuff of nightmares.
The author, Susan Mitchell, was born in Adelaide but at the time of writing this book was living in Brisbane. She had been a presenter on ABC radio in Adelaide, and she still had contacts and friends there. This book is only partly about the Snowtown murders. It is just as much about Adelaide itself- Adelaide the city of churches; Adelaide the planned city surveyed and planned by Colonel Light (hence the second part of the rather clever title ‘Murder in the City of Light’); Adelaide the festival city with its Festival of Ideas and its Writers Festival; Adelaide with its worthy Wakefieldian principles and Adelaide with its enlightened social policy. How does this Adelaide reconcile itself with Snowtown, the lost Beaumont Children, the drowned law lecturer George Duncan and the sense that there’s something just a little strange about Adelaide? As she puts it:
If a city is planned to be perfect, if its citizens think of themselves as having the best possible life, if the expectations of Utopia are ever-present, how, then do they cope with its underbelly, with the serpents slithering about, unnoticed and disregarded on these hot, bright, plains of Paradise? (p. 63)
This book is written as first-person reportage, much like Helen Garner’s work in Joe Cinque’s Consolation or The First Stone, or Anna Krein in Into the Woods, or Chloe Hooper in The Tall Man. As with Garner and Hooper’s work, much of this book is set in a courtroom listening to evidence, watching witnesses and the legal system at work. However, Mitchell doesn’t do the hard yards in quite the same way: instead of sitting in the courtroom day after day (which lends its own perspective on the proceedings), she jets back and forth between Brisbane and Adelaide, catching up on the transcripts in between times.
Now that I was reading the book by harsh (and comforting) light of day, I became much more aware of the second part of her quest in writing this book: to reconcile the City of Light with the city that spawned Snowtown. And, I have to admit, I became increasingly critical. She sits in her five-star hotel, ordering room service and a good bottle of wine, and then mulls over the transcripts of terror that she has read.
She speaks to people: which people? you ask. Why, lawyers, Christopher Pearson the conservative bon vivant, wealthy philanthropists, writers, the Lord Mayor of Adelaide of course. The brightest stars in the City of Light.
She hops in her car and drives to Elizabeth, the impoverished industrialized town in which the murders took place, and gets her directions from a helpful girl on the telephone. She drives around looking, looking at the “sullen, blank stares of the people in the malls, of the people loitering outside Centrelink, of the teenage mothers dragging little children behind them (p. 77). ” What a relief to return to leafy Dulwich, in her house with its high ceilings, open fires and leadlight windows where “An open fire, a deep couch and a glass of wine could, perhaps, take the chill out of my soul” (p.79)
Or what about a day trip to Snowtown itself, where the bulging barrels with their appalling stench were stored in a disused bank, a plastic curtain shielding them from curious eyes? Again, driving around, safe in the car, she is looking, looking, although at least she does get out at one stage. She has a quick conversation with the only person she sees, the elderly owner of a bric-a-brac, antiques and gift shop.
Perhaps I should follow her and buy some useless piece of bric-a-brac just to give her some income, I thought. It was a damning legacy for this small town, forever branded through no fault of its own as a place of torture and murder. …Of course, as soon as I shut myself in the car the thought of what had happened in that bank was so chilling and repulsive that I put my foot on the accelerator and left Snowtown behind, a diminishing reflection in my rear-view mirror( p. 98)
There are no conversations with the denizens of the dark side. Even if she felt unable to actually talk with the Snowtown woman or the people in the Elizabeth mall or those outside Centrelink, surely there would be a nice Lord Mayor of Elizabeth (rather than Adelaide) to talk to; or the lady behind the Centrelink desk, or the local vicar.
Mitchell is completely aware of her pusillanimity and her preciousness. She mocks and berates herself, and pours herself another glass of very fine wine.
In the middle of the night, I found myself jolted awake, feeling as if I were suffocating at the thought of the torture in the bathtub that these victims endured. But by light of day, I found myself feeling grubby and complicit in Mitchell’s voyeurism and smugness- while at the same time, compelled to keep turning the next page. I strongly suspect that she was aiming for exactly this response in her middle-class, educated, reading audience. But I’d like to think that I’d at least get out of the car.
I am posting this review to the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge. I suppose that I will post it under the category ‘True Crime’, which feels rather odd as I don’t often read books in this category. I could just as easily post it under Memoir on Non Fiction other as well. I don’t really know how to rate the book because I think that it would be influenced by my emotional reaction to the book and the stance of the author.
Read because: I’d heard of the book (I think I heard her interviewed on the radio when it was released?)
Sourced from: my own bookshelf, bought second-hand.