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Book reviews

  • 18 May 2007

The Pyjama Girl Mystery, Richard Evans. Scribe, 2004. isbn 1 920 76936 6, rrp $30 ‘Who was the Pyjama Girl? Who killed her? I don’t know.’ Writers who eschew tidy resolutions are hard to come by. But crime writers who leave unanswered the classic ‘whodunnit’ conundrum are almost unheard of. In the face of a complex case of murder, the conclusion of The Pyjama Girl Mystery is refreshingly non-committal. Author Richard Evans traces a decade-long series of mistaken identifications, bizarre theories and official oversights following the 1934 discovery of an unidentified female body near Albury in New South Wales. The picture he paints tells many stories: of a corrupt and incompetent police force; of a blind faith in forensic science despite its fallacies; of a pervasive social compulsion to sexualise and render responsible female victims of violence. The former journalism lecturer’s real talent lies in his ability to unravel the web of myth and hyperbole spun by the Australian press. Accordingly, his own account of the case is determinedly matter-of-fact. The style is simple, economical, and self-consciously devoid of literary flamboyance. What remains is an unreserved indictment of those all too willing to dispense with evidence in their pursuit of a more seductive, more convenient version of the truth. Jess Low

Stargazing: Memoirs of a young lighthouse keeper Peter Hill. Vintage, 2004. isbn 1 740 51276 6, rrp $22.95 ‘Open your curtains over the black starry night sky above Hampstead, or Boston, or Sydney ... and read a favourite poem. Then stare at the sky and contemplate the vastness of the universe. Gradually, you will turn into a lighthouse keeper.’ In 1973, art-school underachiever Peter Hill applies to the Dr Who-ishly named ‘Commissioners of the Northern Lights’ for holiday work doing a job that everyone must have fantasised about at least once. Despite his waist-length hair and 19-year-old Aquarian idealism, he’s accepted and spends six months as trainee keeper on various tiny islands off the Scottish coast. Despite the realities of Watergate, Vietnam and the Yom Kippur War seeping in via TV and newspapers, Hill’s world contracts to a cocoon of story telling, midnight watches and endless rounds of biscuits and cheese with tea. In an age of ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30’, he’s thrust into close quarters with some colourful and often crusty older men who offer low key but lasting mentoring in life, love and gourmet cooking. Though the gap between the events and their retelling occasionally shows