THERE’S one reason Australians are obsessed with crime stories, according to one of the nation’s best-known crown prosecutors.
“It could be you …” says Margaret Cunneen SC.
It may seem perplexing we as humans are attracted to such macabre moments but our capacity for empathy and imagination — to see ourselves in the victim’s or the perpetrator’s shoes — means we just can’t get enough.
Cunneen writes the foreword for new release Murder by the Prosecution by journalist, Andrew L Urban, which profiles what he considers to be grave miscarriages of justice and wrongful convictions.
Among them, the murder conviction of Hobart grandmother Susan Neill-Fraser who is currently serving 23 years for killing her partner Robert Chappell aboard their yacht in Sydney on Australia Day, 2009.
The contentious case, which is currently in its final bid for appeal, has divided Tasmanian society.
Cunneen is not a diehard Neill-Fraser supporter (of which there are many) and does not necessarily advocate for her innocence. However, confers there may have been legal errors made.
“I am becoming more concerned about it the more I find out about it and I do start to share the doubts of author Andrew L. Urban about this case,” says Cunneen.
“I was cynical at the start because it’s a lady from a rather high-class background, a mature lady, a lady of some means and sophistication and we don’t like to think that such a person could ever commit murder but if we’re honest, if each of us is honest within ourselves, we’ve all considered it in our lives … We’ve had the mens rea (idea) without the actus reus (action) but sometimes those things will coincide in even the most unlikely person,” says Cunneen.
In recent years, crime fiction and non-fiction has exploded as a genre in Australia.
Neilsen BookScan Australia, which monitors book sales, notes that novels within the Crime, Thriller & Adventure genre have increased in sales by 11 per cent from 2016-2017, in comparison to Fiction as a whole, which grew by one per cent in total.
The category now makes up 31 per cent of all adult fiction sales and in 2017 was worth $74 million.
“Father’s Day sales this year were dominated by the category with seven out of 10 books in the Top 10, a mix of Australian and international authors,” says Harper Collins fiction publisher, Katherine Hassett.
But crime as a topic has long been a talking point.
“Remember all the early detective stories, the newspapers were absolutely onto it. It was always a seller since the days of Jack the Ripper,” says Urban.
“It’s an extreme human experience serious crime, and it’s that extremism that’s its appeal.
Fiction has entertainment value and I would argue that so does true crime — but true crime has ballast.”
Such real-life gravity is chilling when it comes to the issue of wrongful conviction. The idea that an innocent person could be locked away for years, as was the case with South Australian man Henry Keogh who did 20 years for his fiance Anna-Jane Cheney’s murder before being released on appeal, is nauseating.
Cunneen admits she would rather see the prosecution fail and a murderer be acquitted than an innocent person be jailed incorrectly.
“Every prosecutor I know feels that way — we’d hate to be responsible for someone going to jail who shouldn’t and that was something about Andrew’s book that ruffled my feathers slightly: why would a prosecutor, who’s not really on a side — our ethics say that we are presenting the evidence on behalf of society, which includes the accused person — what would be in it for us to maliciously go after a person?”
Murder by the Prosecution is published by Wilkinson Publishing, RRP $29.95.
Want more real-life crime reading? Go to True Crime Australia.
NEALE WHITAKER LISTS HIS LITERARY LOVES
Can you list the three books you’ve loved the most?
For most bookworms it’s a tough call — this week Neale Whitaker, co-host of Foxtel’s Love It Or List It, takes on the challenge.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
I’ve always had a thing about India, since backpacking there in the 80s. It’s a country that grabs you by the heart and sometimes the guts. I love the slow pace of Indian writing, the detail and minute observation of human behaviour. Mistry is a spellbinding author and this is my favourite of his novels. Middle-class Indian life set against a backdrop of political turbulence in the 70s and 80s.
Lady Sings The Blues by Billie Holiday and William Dufty
“Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen and I was three.” The opening line of jazz singer Billie Holiday’s autobiography is seared into my memory. I read it at a surprisingly young age (when I was a teenager myself) and it kickstarted a lifelong love of jazz, soul and blues. To this day I can’t think of anyone I would have loved to share a bourbon with more than Billie.
Terence Conran’s Inspiration by Terence Conran and Stafford Cliff
Sir Terence Conran has inspired me throughout my career. To me he’s the man who invented the concept of “lifestyle”, that nexus between home, fashion, food and travel. His style is timeless. I love all of Conran’s books but this one gives the most candid insight into his own home and personal tastes and passions. It’s a very personal scrapbook.
Do crime stories and thrillers float your boat or are you more into Neale Whitaker’s reading style?
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And remember there’s a 30% discount on our Book Of The Month — The Ones You Trust, written by Caroline Overington and published by Harper Collins. Go to Booktopia and use the code NCBT18.