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The book corner: Dogging the man in the iron mask

  • 11 November 2022
Justice in Kelly Country: The story of the cop who hunted Australia’s most notorious bushrangers by Lachlan Strahan. Monash University Publishing As I prepared to read Justice in Kelly Country, I mused on the challenge of the task faced by the author. The life of a policeman whose career stretched over thirty years encompasses so many events and relationships. When a significant part of that story is intermeshed with such a fiercely contested story as Ned Kelly’s, telling it introduces the further complexities of the writer’s sympathies and judgments.

The question of sympathies is raised by the man on the cover of this book. Lachlan Strahan is writing on the life of Anthony Strahan, his great-great-grandfather. Furthermore, like the Third Murderer in Shakespearian plays, Anthony Strahan has been remembered only for his part in the tragedy of Ned Kelly, in which he is allowed to speak only a single line that defines him. According to the notoriously unreliable Pat Quinn, Ned’s uncle, Strahan said he would ‘shoot Ned Kelly down like a dog’. This evidently made a strong impression on Ned, who repeats the line in his Jerilderie Letter. Later writers have used it to characterise Anthony Strahan and the behaviour of the police at the time.

This background suggested that the book might be an Apologia in which the author tries to set the record straight. It is far more than that. Lachlan Strahan is careful in his analysis of evidence and self-reflective about his family ties. Indeed, one strand of the book concerns his relationship with his father, who was a great defender of Ned Kelly, proud of his own Scottish ancestry, and who blamed his policeman ancestor for his part in hunting Ned down and forcing him to commit greater crimes. In the course of his research the writer discovered that Anthony and his siblings were actually Protestants from Ireland. Lachlan’s father, it seems, had transferred to his great-grandfather the hostility he felt towards his own father for his neglect and lack of interest. The writer proves himself alive to the risk of prejudice in his task.

In recovering the story of Anthony Strahan, the author faced the difficulty that few details of him had been passed down by the family and that none of his own personal writing had survived — perhaps burned with the family homestead not long after his resignation from the police. The author had to rely on Anthony