October 2007

Arts & Letters

A righteous certainty

By John Birmingham
'The Killer Within' by Paul Toohey, Allen & Unwin, 240pp; $29.95
Paul Toohey’s ‘The Killer Within’

Lawyers are a bit like junkies in some ways. If you let one into your life, you might as well throw open the door to a crack house full of them. While Bradley John Murdoch, the toothless, grotesquely tattooed outback killer, was on trial for the murder of Peter Falconio, beset on all sides by lawyers, I too was surrounded by them.

Mine were Canberra lawyers for the most part, with a smattering of private guns from the Sydney bar and a couple of the bigger corporate outfits. They were as diverse a bunch of punters as you’d get from any random sample of humanity, but I did note one curious thing about them. As a species they all flatly refused to believe that any jury could convict Murdoch. Some of them were simply adamant that he was innocent, while some indulged themselves in a bout of weasel wordage about evidentiary flim-flammery, technical mumbo and procedural jumbo, which in the end amounted to the same thing.

Interestingly, most of the normal, humble, non-legally-qualified folk I knew were equally convinced of Murdoch’s guilt. It was a simple matter. Bradley John Murdoch just looked wrong. He looked like exactly the sort of cove who’d lure you to the edge of an empty road, shoot your companion in the head and tie you up, intending to do you no good at all. He oozed malevolence.

As quickly becomes clear from Paul Toohey’s magnificent exercise in neo-journalism The Killer Within: Inside the World of Bradley John Murdoch (Allen & Unwin, 240pp; $29.95), outback Australia is crawling with Murdochs. They populate the pages of Toohey’s book, “a breed, a kind”, and in one of the most brilliant, sustained passages of literary non-fiction ever published in this country, he does for them with a vengeance. They are pissed-off men with resentful minds, loving dogs, weapons, mates and mud crabs; disappointed by a woman, by all women really, the worthless bitches; hating equally boongs, coons, slants, coppers, faggots and the soft, seething mass of maggots infesting the coastal cities of the continent; inked up to the max with dense networks of tattoos, sporting the appearance of working men, but mostly living at the edge of criminality or enjoying the happy sinecure of a never-quite-explained bit of compo or sickness benefits. “The overall mission is fishing, shooting, or sticking pigs, being a citizen of the north, checking in on old friends in small towns, never disclosing more than necessary, because the mission is, really, yet to be determined. It is not even possible to articulate it. It is simply life, the way of the track.”

They are chronically drunk and stoned, sometimes prodigiously, ruinously so. Losing a stubby to breakage “is like losing a son” to them. They practise balance in these matters, especially on the road, where mid-strength or even light beers are preferred because they can be supped all day, while maintaining a “semblance of sanity”. Two or three cones, packed tight with the finest heads, take the edge off the beer buzz, while a line or two of speed sharpens the mind without destroying the restful, comforting ambience of the dope: “With twelve light beers, four cones and two lines under a man’s belt, any variables a day might throw up become just about manageable.”

As Toohey’s forensic examination of Murdoch and his world reveals, Peter Falconio’s killer was a damaged giant among damaged men, even by the excessive standards of their peculiar milieu. A rapist, a bigot, a violent psychopath rendered unnaturally dangerous by rampaging amphetamine psychosis, he was recognised by seemingly everybody around him as a righteous certainty for the Falconio killing, but because everybody around him lived in a twilight zone of criminality and drug-fuelled madness it was a long time before anyone thought to give him up, and only then did so as a matter of “dishonour among thieves”. And even then it made no difference. Not immediately.

Murdoch was finally brought down, not by great police work or even a lucky break for Mr Plod, but by his own drug-ravaged hubris and the grudge-bearing capacity of an erstwhile business colleague, James Hepi, one of the few men in Murdoch’s life who refused to be monstered by him. Hepi was a fearsome, rock-fisted Maori who made elephant bucks running high-quality dope around north-western Australia and who emerges from a background of rampaging lawlessness as a genuine knight errant and possibly the only character who actually grows on his journey through this narrative. By the end of The Killer Within, Hepi is both self-aware and remorseful in a way that belies his first appearance in the story. It was he who introduced Murdoch to the world of drug running and so, in his own words, it was he who put Murdoch on the same road as Joanne Lees and Peter Falconio in July 2001. “I feel responsible,” he told Toohey. “I gave the guy means and motive for being there.”

Hepi picked Murdoch as a righteous certainty for the murder within days of Falconio’s killing. By then his partner was so far gone into violent paranoia that Hepi knew things between them could only end badly. Murdoch narked him out to the cops for drug trafficking, but Hepi cut a deal to bring Murdoch down for killing Falconio. Unfortunately the Northern Territory investigators were too slow to take up the offer, and before they could put the arm on Murdoch he almost certainly abducted and raped a mother and daughter in South Australia. Toohey’s furious indignation at the inadequacies of the criminal-justice system reaches escape velocity at this point. Murdoch was found not guilty of the rapes; but, free of the constraints and conceits of the courtroom, Toohey lays out “the whole truth”, which bore only a vague resemblance to the sanitised and “careful script” presented to the jurors of this second, largely forgotten trial.

The author brings an unusual blend of outrage, zeal and world-weary contempt to this work. It is not merely a story of crime and punishment, but of a weird, otherworldly place where the extremes of life made Murdoch’s accelerating rush to the edge of humanity almost inevitable. Toohey passes through it all with a keen eye for the bizarre, the shameful and the flat-out crazy which all too often form the everyday banalities of life in the deep north and far west. He routinely puts himself in places other journalists would literally fear to tread, and despite the obvious scorn his investigations arouse in many of those with whom he was forced into intimate contact, Toohey never falls back into the reflexive hard-boiled cynicism which is almost the raison d’être of the trad crime reporter. Even Joanne Lees, whose self-destructive faculties seem to vex him no end, is portrayed as a deeply wounded, flawed and complex individual whose manifest shortcomings in no way justified the treatment she suffered, first at Murdoch’s hands and later from the media. For Murdoch, however, and for the legal system which did its level best to see him escape, there is only well-earned, beautifully worded contempt.

John Birmingham

John Birmingham is an author, a columnist and a journalist. His books include He Died With a Felafel in His Hand and Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney.

@JohnBirmingham

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