Deathly silence

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Over the last century our nation has striven to become an increasingly civilised and progressive flagship of democracy and equality. But the reality of how we treat each other in the context of certain unfortunate circumstances appears set in stone. Although probably not its primary purpose, Stephanie Bennett’s book, The Gatton Murders, deftly reinforces this disparity in the evolution of our social maturity.

The book is a well-researched, forensically sound who dunnit. It reconstructs the events leading up to, and following, the Boxing Day assaults and murders of two sisters and their brother, on their way home from a dance in 1898 outside the rural Queensland town of Gatton. It also examines the associated murder of a teenage boy two weeks earlier in nearby Oxley.

The author makes no secret of the fact that much of what she proposes is speculative. Bennett even invites the readers to draw their own conclusions from the facts and information she presents. Her tendency to leave some loose ends untied provides plenty of opportunity to ponder what secrets may have been permanently erased by the passing of time. However, the author skilfully interprets the evidence available at the time in the context of what she has gleaned about the lives of the principal players and the community surrounding them. This results in a fascinating albeit complex study of how seemingly disparate events and individuals can merge and collide resulting in unspeakable tragedy.

The circumstances of the Murphy siblings’ deaths have long held a macabre fascination in this country and have provided inspiration for stories that focus on white settlement in a dangerous, untamed land. Rodney Hall’s Captivity Captive is an obvious example. Bennett’s book goes some way further, providing a detailed insight into the challenges facing a late 19th-century town such as Gatton.

Her analysis of the deficiencies of the police investigation and the internal bickering and conflict which undermined any potential for competence, invites comparisons with frustrations voiced about the Victorian Police 20 years earlier around Glenrowan. It portends the propensity for such flaws to plague our police force well into the 21st century.

The book also examines the price a community, or more notably its women, will pay to ensure that the appearances of a God-fearing society are kept up, even where this results in an intolerable loss of young lives.

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of this book from a contemporary perspective is its analysis of young men in groups and what they are potentially capable of doing. The book examines what happens to young men, particularly when spurred on by alcohol, inspired by an asocial leader, and provided shelter by a frightened, ashamed community which can find sufficient justification for their deeds to look away and remain silent. ?

The Gatton Murders, Stephanie Bennett. Pan Macmillan, 2004.
isbn 1 405 03574 9, rrp $30

Celia Conlan is a lawyer. 



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Existing comments

Dear Celia,
Stephanie's account of the Gatton murders was indeed well documented and researched, I also published a short story in 2008 titled "as plain as day" my version sold very well both in qld and interstate,i started researching the murders over thirty years ago ,i always said that i would write the book when i retired, you can obtain a copy from the Brisbane library or from any angus and robertson book store.
lyle f reed | 26 May 2010

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