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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

'The Murder of Allison Baden-Clay' by David Murray


From the BLURB:

How did a father with no criminal history come to be on trial for the brutal murder of his wife?

It began with a phone call to Brisbane police on 20 April 2012. Allison, wife of real-estate agent Gerard Baden-Clay, was missing.

When investigating officers arrived at the family home, in one of the city's wealthiest suburbs, a neatly dressed Gerard had been getting the couple's three daughters ready for school. Scratches on his face were shaving cuts, he told them. Police weren't so sure and opened one of Australia's biggest ever missing persons investigations.

Ten days after Gerard reported Allison's disappearance, the body of the former beauty queen was discovered on a creek bank 14 kilometres from home.

The Murder of Allison Baden-Clay is written by the investigative journalist who covered the case from the start. It weaves together exclusive interviews and police and court records to explain how a father with no criminal history came to be on trial for a brutal murder. It's also a story about everyday choices and their consequences.

I don’t normally read true crime novels – truth be told, I don’t read much non-fiction in general but true crime is a particular genre I avoid. This is odd, I’ll admit, since I am an avid-newsreader and will often get sucked into particular current events, often harrowing, and wonder about them for days on end. But true crime books just don’t appeal … until I got sucked into Serial Podcast, that ode to investigative journalism hosted by Sarah Koenig and spin-off of This American Life. The first season delves into the 1999 murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee, and her ex-boyfriend Adnan Masud Syed life-sentence conviction for her murder.

It was the end (and my enjoyment) of the 12-episode season one of Serial podcast that prompted me to read outside my normal comfort zone … and I picked up David Murray’s true crime novel about the 2012 disappearance and subsequent murder trial of Allison Baden-Clay because another pop-culture phenomenon got me thinking back on the case. I saw ‘Gone Girl’ – the adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller – this year, and the story of a wife-gone-missing and her husband faltering in the glare of the media spotlight had me drawing some serious parallels to the Baden-Clay case (as was Flynn’s intention – having researched many past famous cases of uxoricide for her book).

So I delved into David Murray’s true crime book – the case still so fresh, as the guilty verdict (and sentence of life imprisonment) of Allison’s husband Gerard Baden-Clay was handed down in July 2014. David Murray – a journalist for The Courier-Mail and Sunday Mail – was on the case from the first hints of a drama unfolding back in April 2012, when Gerard Baden-Clay phoned police to report his wife missing.

The book opens on April 20, 2012 with Gerard making a phone-call to police to say he woke up to find his wife gone, unreturned from her usual morning walk and himself starting to worry because she had a conference to attend. When the first two officers on the scene see Gerard Baden-Clay they are struck by a weeping wound on his cheek, what looks to be scratch marks, but he claims are cuts from shaving. It is these startling wounds that immediately kick investigations into high-gear, and ultimately lead police to Gerard Baden-Clay as their prime suspect in the murder of his wife, once her body is found days later, unceremoniously dumped down a creek embankment.

David Murray then draws back from the case to take a broader look at the lives of Allison Dickie, and her future husband Gerard Clay (name changed to ‘Baden’-Clay to reflect his family’s affiliation to Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout Movement).

At times David Murray’s investigations into the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents of Allison and Gerard bored me … but the somewhat excessive information becomes crucial later on, as Murray rather masterfully builds a character depiction of Allison, but especially her elusive husband.

Journalist David Murray having contacts in the wealthy Brookfield area where the Baden-Clays lived started calling around town almost immediately to get an idea of this family in the wake of their tragedy. He was told glowing stories of Allison’s kindness and hard work, her self-sacrifice and love for her three young daughters. What he found about Gerard was trickier – sometimes hearing scathing character assessments from disgruntled former colleagues, locals who found Gerard’s entire family odd and self-important, and Murray was told the worst-kept secret in town was Gerard’s numerous affairs buried behind his family-man persona.

Living in Melbourne when this case was unfolding in Queensland, I quickly realised that I only knew the bare bones of this case which was dominating headlines around Australia, but especially in Queensland. I didn’t realise that there was such gossip and many armchair-detectives speculating almost immediately that “the husband did it”, or the numerous compelling pieces of evidence that left little doubt in people’s minds. In one particularly fascinating chapter, Murray comments on the new-age of reporting that was born out of this case that saw reporters ‘live-tweeting’ from inside the courtroom, and saw the case discussed (much like Serial podcast was) by internet-sleuths:

The amateur sleuth has long been a staple in crime fiction. The idea that average Joes and Josephines can crack cases that have stumped the professionals appeals to armchair detectives the world over. 

Because I was so unfamiliar with all but the bare facts of the case, I found details into the Queensland police force’s amazingly detailed and steadfast case really fascinating. But I understand there’s probably not a lot here that Queenslanders who were glued to their TV screens didn’t already know – no thanks again to the Internet buzz the case created.

Almost 1500 lines of inquiry were run out during Operation Kilo Intrigue, three times as many as the average murder investigation. 

But on the flipside of no really new or startling information, I found that David Murray’s true investigative strength lay in deciphering the ‘character’ of Gerard Baden-Clay. I think this case especially resonated because fairly soon the public realised that, behind the smiling photos and public appearances, the Baden-Clay’s lives and marriage were in tatters. Financial crisis and extramarital affairs were plaguing them; yet family, friends and the wider community thought them to be a tight-knit, happy family. There’s always going to be intrigue in ripping away a seemingly perfect veneer to show a darker underbelly – it’s the human condition to be fascinated by the masks we wear.

Murray unravels Gerard’s many lies and misdirection’s about his real estate business, his mistress and the story he weaved that seemed to even convince himself that he was untouchable. At one point in deciphering Gerard, Murray reached out to an ex-FBI consultant who specialised in body language. Murray sent him a link to Gerard Baden-Clay’s one impromptu media interview that was indeed very damning, and seemed to paint him as a consummate actor – imitating grief. To compare what this FBI specialist thinks about Gerard’s performance, Murray watches a clip of Tom Meagher, in a grotesquely fascinating chapter;

I went back to YouTube and searched for clips of Tom Meagher. It seemed an obvious comparison and revealed a tale of two husbands. Meagher’s wife, Jill, vanished after a night out with friends in Melbourne in September 2012. It occurred just three months after Gerard Baden-Clay had been charged with murdering the wife he reported missing. As initial reports about Jill’s disappearance became public, a few cynics eyed her husband with suspicion. But Tom was an open book, throwing himself in front of the media in a constant push to keep his wife’s face on TV and in the newspapers.

David Murray’s book is also an ode to the Queensland police force who left no stone unturned, as well as a hat-tip to the everyday citizens who were quite incredible in helping to search for Allison. One story in particular about the boss of the Queensland Herbarium who went above-and-beyond as a specialist witness for the police, investigating plant varieties discovered matted in Allison’s hair was particularly touching, even while still so macabre.

Where the book falters is also, ironically, where Serial Podcast dropped the ball a bit too. As a recent article on the podcast pointed out; "Serial doesn’t really explore the wider issue of someone killing a woman,” and nor does Murray. I think there’s little doubt that there was psychological and emotional abuse happening to Allison at the hands of Gerard during their marriage. In a couple of paragraphs at the very end of the book there’s a description of how Allison’s cousin (who works for the Ipswich Women's Centre Against Domestic Violence) attended a Domestic Violence workshop and was shocked (and then oddly comforted) to see a photo of Gerard Baden-Clay flash up on the screen during a talk about types of men who kill their partners – Gerard being labelled a Narcisisst. Murray then makes a one-line mention of Allison’s cousin starting a Facebook page for people dealing with domestic abuse to share stories and seek support … this struck me as odd, when Murray went into so much fine detail about the Queensland Herbarium boss conducting research into plant varieties that he wouldn’t look further into this side of Allison Baden-Clay’s murder.

So. I’ve done it – read a true crime novel for the first time in years. It was a morbidly ‘enjoyable’ (that doesn’t feel like the right word, somehow?) reading experience. I’m not sure I’ll be rushing to pick another one up – I admired Murray’s attention to detail, his efforts to paint a full picture of Allison and how remarkable she was – consequently, highlighting what the world lost when she was murdered. Much like Serial pocast, this book is also an ode to investigative journalism, and it's eerie connections to Gone Girl make it a fascinating read to boot. 

4/5

2 comments:

  1. I am tossing up whether to read this or not...
    As a Queenslander, I watched the coverage unfold and funnily enough was taking a media and crime subject at uni at the time where we analysed a lot of what took place. I also happened to have a day off work when the verdict was handed down and watched the liver coverage. I feel like there's not too much more this book could give me that I didn't already know, but given Gone Girl and Serial it would no doubt still be an interesting read.

    The point you make about the wider issue of partner violence and homicide is very valid. As a journalist in a region which has a DV rate more than 60% higher than the state average I have done a lot of stories with local police about how to combat those rates and the answer that continually comes up is changing community attitudes: we need to start talking about this stuff before we can have any hope of fixing it. Anyway, good job calling it out in your review.

    On that note, I would also recommend to you Anna George's What Came Before - it's quite devastating to read, very confronting, but also a sobering look at how relationships can result in violence.

    Michelle @ The Unfinished Bookshelf

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    1. Thanks Michelle :)

      it's weird - I doubt you'll find much groundbreaking new information here, but Murray does explore just how big a case this was at the time, and how far-reaching the online 'armchair sleuths' were in discussing it (and even where they were right/wrong). For that reason it's probably well worth a read - and like I said, there are some touching instances mentioned here about the everyday people associated with the case, who took up a sort of crusade of justice for Allison. Plus his dissection of Gerard's "character" (I know it's non-fic, but there's no other word for it) is fantastic investigative journalism in itself.

      Have not read the Anna George, but was seeing the cover everywhere in 2014. Because I found both this and Serial lacking in discussions about violence against women, I'll def be adding 'What Came Before' to my TBR pile!

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment :)

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