Tag Archives: true crime

Trace: Who killed Maria James?

Non-fiction book about making a podcast about an unsolved murder

Content warning: murder, graphic violence, child sexual abuse

I started listening to this podcast when it first aired back in 2017 and I was immediately engrossed, but perhaps not for the same reasons as everyone else who listens to true crime podcasts. In 2008 a friend of mine went missing while travelling overseas and was found dead several weeks later. The answer to the question of what happened to her has never been resolved. In fact, her case has also been discussed in episodes of different podcast. So listening to this story about a woman who was murdered in her own bookstore being told by someone who was truly committed to finding out the truth gave me hope that perhaps one day the truth of what happened to my friend will be uncovered. When the author came to the Canberra Writers’ Festival the following year to discuss her book, I knew that I had to go along. I’m not quite sure what led me to finally pick it up three years later, but the timing couldn’t have been better. After all these years, the Victorian Coroner is re-examining the case. The podcast had a new episode out just this month and you can keep up to date with the court proceedings here.

Image is of “Trace: Who killed Maria James” by Rachael Brown. The paperback book is resting against a red brick wall next to a small silver microphone. The cover is white with interlocking puzzle pieces. Behind the missing pieces is a photograph of Maria James in red.

“Trace: Who killed Maria James” by Rachael Brown is a non-fiction book about the making of Season 1 of the true crime podcast “Trace“. This season is about the unsolved murder of Maria James, who was found stabbed to death in her own bookshop in 1980. Brown reviews historic case material and interviews police officers who were involved in the original investigation while she tries to negotiate the production of the podcast and navigate interviews with witnesses who may be reluctant to speak out.

This is an engrossing book that goes into much deeper detail than the podcast, with a strong focus on Brown’s own experiences researching and recording. With the extra space afforded by the book, Brown is able to give a lot more detail about the different leads that were and were not followed by Victoria Police. She outlines the initial investigation, and shares the in-depth interviews she has with the detective who was the lead of the case. I think some of the most powerful parts of the book are when Brown, in her signature honest style, acknowledges the choices she made as a journalist and the times where those choices were mistakes. Brown is forthright about balancing the needs of the interviewees, the priorities of the producers and pursuing promising lines of enquiry. The most harrowing parts were about Maria’s sons and their experiences of abuse by priests of the Catholic church, and the stories Brown uncovered from over survivors of abuse. Perhaps, however, the most disturbing parts were how many errors there seemed to be in the way the evidence in Maria’s case was handled and whether or not these errors were accidental.

An incredibly important book not just for true crime fans or even fans of the podcast, but for all of us who believe that the truth should not be obstructed.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction

Joe Cinque’s Consolation

Content warning: death, mental illness, murder

I’ve been listening to the podcast “Chat 10 Looks 3” which is hosted by Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb for a while now, and they are both enormous fans of Helen Garner. I have actually never read anything by Helen Garner before, and so I was inspired to try one of her books. I wasn’t quite sure where to start, but there was one story (as someone who lives in Canberra and went to the Australian National University) that I have always wanted to know more about.

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“Joe Cinque’s Consolation” by Helen Garner is a non-fiction book about the killing of engineer Joe Cinque by his girlfriend Anu Singh with a lethal injection of heroin in Canberra in 1997, and the subsequent trials in the ACT Supreme Court. Although not present for the aborted joint trial by jury, writer Helen Garner attended the trials of Anu Singh and her friend Madhavi Rao and interviewed friends and family of the accused as well as Joe Singh to try to understand why this death happened.

This was a really difficult book to read. I’m not sure if it was because of the familiarity of the surroundings to me – parts of Canberra, the ACT Supreme Court, even the street where Singh and Cinque lived. I’m not sure if it was because of the familiarity of the mental health system to me. Maybe this book just felt a bit too close to home.

Also, maybe it was Garner’s writing style. She had a compelling but really terse tone that seemed quite at odds with her descriptions of her own emotional reactions to the events around her. I read the book and didn’t feel like I found much empathy or even information but instead found a lot of judgment. There was something about this book that reminded me of a Louis Theroux documentary I saw once. Unable to get an interview with Michael Jackson, Louis Theroux instead spends his time interviewing everyone he can who is as close as possible to the pop star, trying to find out the real story. I felt like Helen Garner in this book was a smarter version of Louis Theroux. She tried to get to the heart of the story, but in the end, without being able to speak to Anu Singh directly (which was hardly Garner’s fault) the book felt unfinished somehow. I also felt like despite trying to instead shift the focus on Joe Cinque, and having access to his family, the picture of Joe Cinque was incomplete as well.

There were two other things that got under my skin as well as made me think. The first was that despite all the focus on Anu Singh and her actions, you simply cannot tell this story without shining a spotlight on the inaction of the people closest to her. I think this was a source of tension in the story because although the temptation is to think of Anu Singh as some demonic succubus, the reality is that she did what she did because the people around her didn’t stop her. It was a completely preventable crime, yet nobody prevented it – despite Singh’s clearly deteriorating mental state. I felt like this was a concept that Garner herself struggled with, because I felt like Garner’s gut reaction was to dislike Anu Singh.

This leads me to the second point – Anu Singh through a feminist lens. I think Anu Singh herself was problematic because although everyone who knew her was attracted (or repelled by) her beauty, histrionics, fragility and body image obsession – apparent paragons of femininity – she then rejected that femininity by becoming a criminal of the worst kind. Suddenly she wasn’t a thin, pretty and melodramatic young woman anymore. She was a sinister she-devil who used sex to commit an abhorrent crime. I think perhaps Garner struggled to find an objective medium when it came to Singh’s character, especially one that encompassed mental illness, and particularly a personality disorder. Garner focuses a lot on femininity and female relationships in this book, but despite being drawn to the women she meets while researching this book, she never quite seems to be comfortable in that kind of discourse or those kinds of relationships. The lingering of the book over what Singh and Rao are wearing, how they were sitting, how they were reacting during the trial irked me. Perhaps these superficial observations would have been less prominent if the book had been written today. Perhaps today there would have been more of a focus on Singh’s deteriorating mental health and the inability of society to prevent her from hurting herself and others.

The entire time I was reading this book, I kept misremembering the title as “Joe Cinque’s Desolation”. I was looking for the consolation, as I think Helen Garner was as well, and I honestly don’t think in the end either of us found it. I think this is a powerful, insightful and well-researched book (given the circumstances) but I don’t think that it contained any revelations larger than the fact that Australia’s mental health system needs some significant improvement and people need to take threats their friends make seriously.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction