2015, 293 p.
Mass journalism and crime have gone together, ever since those lurid, shrieking sensation newspapers of nineteenth-century England. Certain crimes draw attention, especially those involving children and beautiful young women and the whole case, from arrest through courtroom to punishment, becomes a media sensation in itself. Journalists and writers are drawn to such cases: think, for instance of Helen Garner turning up in court day after day for her book on Robert Farquarhson This House of Grief , or John Bryson’s book Evil Angels on Lindy Chamberlain which ended up a feature-length film (and one which bestowed on us Meryl Streep’s classic “a dingo took my boi-boi”). Gideon Haigh is a prolific journalist with thirty books to his credit. Many of these relate to his great love, cricket, but several examine corporate business life as well, with books on BHP, Bankers Trust and James Hardie. With this book Certain Admissions: A Beach, a Body and a Lifetime of Secrets, he turns to the true crime genre, in a book that echoes Garners’ work, and also that of Senior Crown Prosecutor Mark Tedeschi and biographer Suzanne Falkiner with their books on Eugenia Falleni .
I hadn’t heard of John Bryan Kerr or the murder of Beth Williams on Albert Park Beach in December 1949. Apparently though, the case is well-known amongst the legal profession and police and it became a trope of popular culture- Graham Kennedy, for instance, joked about it many decades later in a reference that obviously went over my head. Twenty-four year old John Bryan Kerr- handsome, with a mellifluous voice and confident bearing- was accused of murdering the twenty-year old typist, whom he had met under the Flinders Street clocks and whose body was found dragged into the shallows of Albert Park Beach. A confession was tendered by the police, but refuted by Kerr; the case went to the courts three times; Kerr continued to maintain his innocence throughout his imprisonment where he became a poster-boy for rehabilitation, and he was dogged by notoriety for the rest of his life.
Haigh starts his narrative on the steps of Flinders Street Station, the quintessential Melbourne meeting place. Witness statements are able to reconstruct Beth Williams’ interactions with various people as she stood there waiting, but from that point there are two different narratives. The first is the one produced after questioning by two old-school coppers, Bluey Adams and Cyril Cutter. It was a remarkably short confession statement, considering the time that it took to elicit it, and Kerr disclaimed any involvement with it from the start. The second narrative was the one that he gave the court, three times, with barely a deviation, and the one that he maintained in the many newspaper articles and letters that were written after his release from jail.
The pictures in the middle of the book reinforced the sensational nature of the trial and its aftermath. People crowded to get into the courthouse and newspapers ran long series publishing his letters to his parents. Even in jail, where usually the identity of prisoners is suppressed in any publicity, he featured in stories about rehabilitation programs being introduced into the prison system. Always handsome, he photographed well.
The story is told chronologically over fifty years, but like all good journalists, Haigh teases out complications and counter-narratives. He looks at the accused and the victim, but also at the police and the milieu in which they operated, and the legal counsel and judges who were involved in all three cases. As a reader you lean one way and then another (and I suspect, Haigh as an author did the same thing). There are no footnotes- that would have made it a different sort of story- although he does give his sources at the back of the book, many of which reside at the Public Record Office.
This is very good non-fiction, but it’s not history, nor is it the cutting, reflective, literary rumination of a Helen Garner (see here her July 2015 essay on darkness and crime). The links between sources and his assertions are not specific enough for history and the narrative rambles off into digressions and asides before returning to the main story. He offers observations and raises broader questions about the nature of confession and celebrity, but these are not mounted into an overarching argument. Frustratingly, the book lacks the index that would mark out the bare bones of his search, and a ‘search’ is very much the way the story is framed. Increasingly as the narrative nears recent decades, he inserts himself into the story, and it comes as a jolt to recognize familiar names -Ron Iddles, Barry Beach- as the story is brought forward into the spotlight of more recent crimes, most particularly that of Jill Meagher. These are not criticisms: instead, they are the hallmarks of the journalistic approach that Haigh employs so skillfully.
As time goes on, people ail and die; the case splutters back to life with media attention then fades again; there is in the end no definitive answer. A lesser writer would have seen this as defeat, but Haigh takes this in his stride. The consummate journalist, he is thorough and clear and he admits to his limitations, making you feel as a reader that you are in the hands of a professional. It’s a very good book.