Trace: Who Killed Maria James by Rachael Brown

‘He doesn’t know it yet, but this one will bury its hooks into him.’

On 17 June 1980, Maria James, 38, was found murdered in her bookshop at 736 High Street in Thornbury, an inner suburb of Melbourne, Victoria.  Her murder was brutal, and it remains unsolved.  This was Ron Iddles first investigation as a 25-year-old recruit to the homicide squad.

On 25 November 1982, a coronial inquest found that Ms James’s murder was committed by a person unknown.

On 30 November 2018, the coronial inquest was reopened, with the earlier finding set aside.

I picked up this book having not listened to Rachael Brown’s podcast of the same name, after hearing that the coronial inquest was to be reopened.  I found the book difficult to put down.  Ms Brown has undertaken her investigation with a mix of determination and sensitivity.  Sensitivity for Ms James’s two sons, Mark and Adam, who were aged 13 and 11 when she was murdered, and determination to try to get some answers.  Ms Brown found that that a pillow, mistakenly included in Ms James’s evidence bag, had resulted in the police not having the killer’s DNA.  Suspects were ruled out based on this faulty DNA analysis.  A quilt, which should have been in the evidence bag and may have contained useful DNA, was missing.  But there are other elements of concern as well, leads that may not have been followed up or seem to have been ignored.

The narrative shifts between the time of the murder, significant events in the years following, and the present. The picture I had when I finished the book was of a devoted, dedicated mother who was trying to protect her son from abuse by a priest. This story is not yet complete.

I hope that the reopened inquest can provide Mark and Adam James with some answers about their mother’s brutal murder.  I understand that the Victoria Police are also undertaking their own official investigation of this cold case.

‘Sometimes the truth can never be fully told, because it breaks your heart forever.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro

‘One measure of the career of Robert Moses is longevity.  His power was measured in decades.’

Robert Moses (18 December 1888 – 29 July 1981) was, for over forty years, the most powerful public official in New York.  This was despite the fact that he was never elected to public office.  At one stage, he held twelve titles (including NYC Parks Commissioner and Chairman of the Long Island State Park Commission).  Some of the public authorities he led (some of which he created) had such a high degree of autonomy from official scrutiny that he controlled millions of dollars with limited (if any) accountability.  He was able to issue bonds to borrow huge amounts for new projects with limited (in any) input from legislative bodies.

‘The city might own the Triborough Bridge, but only the Triborough Bridge Authority could run it.’

In this book, which won both the Pulitzer and the Francis Parker Prizes, Robert Caro writes about how Robert Moses developed and applied his power. Robert Moses began as a reformer, over time he became an emperor.  His public authorities operated as an unaccountable branch of government, controlling both state governors and mayors.  How he did this makes for fascinating reading.

‘Parks, highways, urban renewal—Robert Moses was in and of himself a formative force in all three fields in the United States.’

I read that Robert Moses personally conceived and completed public works which cost 27 billion dollars.  An incredible achievement.  Those works included the Jones Beach, Fire Island, and Bethpage Parks, the Triborough, Throgs Neck, Henry Hudson, and Bronx-Whitestone Bridges, the Major Deegan, the Van Wyck, and the Long Island Expressways.   But at what cost?  Many people in New York were displaced by some of his expressway projects.  Several of the bridges he built were not tall enough to enable buses to travel on the roads beneath them.  Public transport was not a priority for Robert Moses, and consequently many people were unable to use some of the public recreation facilities he built.

‘When he replied to protests about the hardships caused by his roadbuilding programs, he generally replied that succeeding generations would be grateful.  It was the end that counted, not the means.’

I came across Robert Moses in a book I was reading some years ago about New York.  This book was recommended to me and while it’s taken me a while, I’m glad I read it.  Mr Caro has provided a well-researched, easy to read account of Robert Moses and his power.

Students of public administration should read this book.  As Lord Acton wrote in 1887: ‘Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Italians at Cleat’s Corner Store by Jo Riccioni

‘The first time she saw them, they were mending the gate on Henry Repton’s land .’

The story opens in the village of Leyton, England in 1949.  An Italian family, a father and two sons, has arrived.   Mr Onorati and his sons Vittorio and Lucio are working for Mr Repton, hoping to establish new lives for themselves after World War II.  Connie is a local girl, seventeen years old, working at Cleat’s Corner Store.  Most of the villagers are suspicious of the Italians, and Cleat’s Corner Store is the perfect place to gossip and to air their concerns.  Gossip?  Surely not.  Mrs Cleat, the shop-keeper, does not indulge in gossip, she provides updates.

The story alternates between Montelupini in Italy and Leyton.  The sections set in Montelupini start in 1939 and, moving through until 1944, provide a view into the lives of the members of the Onorati family during the war. Lives in Montelupini are at best disrupted by the war and at worst destroyed. The sections set in Leyton progress more slowly, between 1949 and 1950.  Connie, abandoned as a small child by her mother and living with her aunt and uncle, is constrained by her aunt’s and the village’s expectations.  It isn’t until she meets Vittorio and Lucio Onorati that she realises that a life outside the village might be possible.

It took me a little while to get into this novel.  I needed to adjust to a slower reading pace, required to establish the characters and setting. But once I did, I was swept up in the two quite separate stories.  Aspects of both are heartbreaking, but it was the Montelupini story which held my attention.  Vittorio and Lucio Onorati are very different from each other.  Vittorio is outgoing and gregarious and has quite an impact on life in Leyton.  Especially once he leaves the Reptons. Lucio is very different: quiet, artistic, an observer.

I found the ending totally satisfying.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


The Lost Man by Jane Harper

‘Dead men didn’t talk’.

Remote outback Queensland provides the setting for Jane Harper’s third novel.   At the edge of two properties owned by members of the Bright family, in the middle of nowhere, is a grave known to all sixty-five of the locals as the stockman’s grave’.  Only three words are visible on the headstone: ‘… who went astray’.  It is here that Nathan and Bub Bright find the body of their brother, Cameron (Cam).  They are shocked.  Cam’s car is nowhere to be seen and he has no water or other supplies.  Why would he have left his vehicle, and why was he there?

There’s no evidence of foul play, Cam clearly died of dehydration.  His car is located some nine kilometres away, stocked with water and other supplies, and starts easily.  So what went wrong?

Slowly, while the Bright family (which includes Cam’s wife and two daughters), prepares for his funeral, Nathan reflects on the past.  He’s struggling to work out why Cam died.  Some aspects just don’t make sense to him and he can’t let it go.  And, as Nathan tries to make sense of it all, he revisits his own past, his failed marriage, a mistake he made which led him to be ostracised.

‘But two people can remember different versions of something and both think it’s the truth.’

To write more about the story might spoil it, and I don’t want to do that.  It’s a complicated journey and it’s not always easy to differentiate red herrings from clues.  The setting is important: the vast distances, the isolation, the red dust and the burning sun. There is more than one lost man in this story, but there may be some hope.

This is Ms Harper’s third novel.  I have enjoyed each of them but this one is my favourite.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Force of Nature by Jane Harper

‘The women were late to the rendezvous point.’

Five women set off on a hike.  Four women return.  The missing woman is Alice Russell.

The women are one of two teams involved in a corporate team building exercise, sent off to hike through the rugged Giralang Ranges.  What went wrong?  Federal Investigator Aaron Falk (‘The Dry’) was one of the last people that Alice Russell tried to call on her mobile phone, so local police have asked for his help. Why was Alice trying to call Aaron?  He and his partner Carmen Cooper are investigating possible criminal activity in the family-run company Alice works for, and she was helping them.  Aaron Falk very much wants to find Alice alive.

The women who return are understandably traumatised by Alice’s disappearance. Add to the mix the fact that there’s an unsolved local mystery involving a serial killer, and the fact that two members of the family (who own the firm under investigation) were on the hiking teams.  Could they have become aware that Alice was working with Aaron Falk?

The story shifts between past and present.  In the present, we are caught up in the investigation.  In the past, we are with the women in the events leading up to Alice’s disappearance.  Along the journey, we are learning about the women.  The bushland of the Giralang Ranges is unfamiliar and seems hostile to the women who quickly become lost.  The tensions between them are heightened, disagreements become physical, civilised women turn feral under the stress.  Mistakes, misunderstandings, the weather all contribute to the tension.  Will Alice be found alive?

This is Ms Harper’s second novel, and I found it just as absorbing as the first.  There are plenty of twists, lots of suspense and nature itself plays a leading role.  I liked learning more about Aaron Falk, and hope that he and Carmen Cooper will feature in another novel.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women by Jenny Hartley

‘Urania was a house of unspoken stories.’

I picked up this book after reading a novel by J.C. Briggs (The Murder of Patience Brooke) in which both Charles Dickens and Urania Cottage were featured. Yes, I was peripherally aware of this aspect of Dickens’s life, but I’d not explored it in any detail.

So, what is the story of Urania Cottage?  In 1846, Charles Dickens wrote to Angela Burdett-Coutts (a wealthy woman, an heiress whom he’d first met in 1839) about a plan he had for establishing an asylum for women and girls working as prostitutes in London.  Angela Burdett-Coutts was aware of this problem (she frequently saw prostitutes parading outside her home in Piccadilly).  And, as she had already decided to give a large percentage of her fortune to good causes, she was very interested in Charles Dickens’s plan.

In 1847, Charles Dickens found Urania Cottage in Shepherd’s Bush (then still in the country but connected to the city by omnibus).  In June 1847, the lease was agreed.  Angela Burdett-Coutts funded the establishment but gave Charles Dickens almost a free hand in setting it up.  While Charles Dickens had originally hoped to establish a home for thirty young women, this was impractical, and Urania Cottage was large enough to take around a dozen young women, sharing bedrooms.

The purpose of Urania Cottage was to train these young women for useful employment.  He hoped that after about a year, each woman would be ready to emigrate (to Australia, Canada or South Africa) fully equipped to lead a life free of crime.

In this book, Ms Hartley writes of the time and effort Dickens invested in Urania Cottage.  The book includes the names of the women who passed through Urania Cottage.  Not all the women settled in, and some were sent away for bad behaviour.  Ms Hartley details some of their stories.  I wonder just how much Dickens drew on the women at Urania Cottage in developing some of the characters who appear in his fiction.

I wonder how many of the women who passed through Urania Cottage were able to forge new lives for themselves?  As one of the purposes of the Urania Cottage experiment was to remove all evidence of the past and associated shame for the women involved, we’ll probably never know.  We know more about the failures than the successes.

I found this an interesting book about an aspect of Charles Dickens’s life about which I knew very little.


Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Kal  by Judy Nunn

‘Find gold for me at the bottom of the world.’

Two generations of two families feature in this huge novel about Kalgoorlie in Western Australia.  The novel opens in 1892 in Italy, and ends in Kalgoorlie after the involvement of some characters in World War I. The Brearleys are an Australian family: Maudie was brought up in a tent on the goldfields, and now runs a pub in Kalgoorlie.  Her husband ‘Flash Harry’ is an opportunist, always looking for an angle.  And there’s his young son, Jack.  The Giannis are an Italian family, drawn to ‘the bottom of the world’ in the hope of a better life. There are two Gianni brothers: Rico and Giovanni, and the story of how they came to Australia is quite convoluted.  Caterina, a young woman from the same area of Italy, is banished to Australia.  She also ends up in Kalgoorlie.  Coincidence is marvellous.

But once in Australia, the Giannis are not always well treated.  Rico has a hair-trigger temper which often leads to violence.  The Giannis enter into a partnership with Harry Brearley in a mine called the Clover.  Then just as they are getting ahead, Harry Brearley sells the mine.  The brothers though they were equal partners but find that they were not.  Harry’s action starts a feud between the families.  And you’ll need to read the novel for yourself to see how it is all resolved.

‘Kalgoorlie will become a city of substance, a city in its own right, not dependent on gold alone.’

This big novel was just what I needed to read during a couple of very hot days when any more strenuous activity was beyond me.  This story was sometimes enjoyable and frequently predictable.  It was also inhabited by an interesting blend of (mainly) awful characters.  I didn’t really get a great sense of Kalgoorlie from the novel: I was too busy focussed on which awful characters would do what (and to whom) next.  It’s part love story and part adventure but it never really grabbed me the way that ‘Tiger Men’ did.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

‘Oh, calamity!’

Pirriwee Public School’s Trivia Night starts off badly and ends up worse.  Perhaps there were a couple of contributing factors:  the caterer gets stuck in traffic, and the cocktails contained way too much alcohol.  But murder?  But who has been murdered, and why?

‘No.  The school has not had a trivia night end in bloodshed before.  I find that question offensive and inflammatory.’

Before we find out who is killed, Ms Moriarty takes us back to a day six months before the trivia night, to meet the main characters. On this day Madeline Mackenzie turns forty. She reflects on this milestone as she takes her five-year-old daughter Chloe to the kindergarten’s orientation day. Both Madeline and Chloe are excited, even though Madeline has a few reservations about her ex-husband’s daughter attending the same school.  Madeline is also concerned about her teenaged daughter from that marriage.  Madeline meets Jane Chapman, a young single mother who has just moved into the area and is enrolling her son Ziggy. It’s the beginning of a new friendship.  And there’s Celeste Wright, happily married, beautiful and rich with her twin sons Josh and Max.

But things are not necessarily how they appear on the surface.  Welcome to a world of cliques, school room politics and secrets.  The story unfolds through the perspectives of Madeline, Jane and Celeste, interspersed with comments by other characters sharing their perspectives after the murder.  Or was it a tragic accident?

‘Let me be clear.  This is not a circus.  This is a murder investigation.’

The characters are realistic, their stories and circumstances are believable.  I admire the way in which Ms Moriarty combines humour and tragedy.  Why, I wonder, did it take me so long to get around to reading this novel?

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Truth by Peter Temple

‘Below them, paw prints of light came on, walking in big strides down to the river.’

A stifling hot summer in Melbourne. It’s bushfire season.  A young woman is found naked and dead in a new and secure residential building on top of a casino.  The bodies of three known criminals are found, tortured to death, in Oakleigh.  Inspector Steve Villani, head of homicide, wants to solve these cases but he’s not getting much help.  Steve Villani has some baggage of his own: adulterous and guilt-ridden; concerned for his father, Bob, who refuses to leave his property despite the bushfire danger; worried about his youngest daughter who’s on the streets in the company of drug addicts.

I’ve read this novel twice.  While aspects of the story haunt me, it is the character development of Steve Villani which held my attention.  Steve Villani is a strong, flawed character trying to juggle personal and professional concerns, trying to project strength while dealing with his own vulnerability. And he needs strength.  His attempts to find out who committed these crimes is obstructed: the owner of the residential building has powerful friends; his own subordinates are not helping.

What will Steve Villani do? Villani once helped another officer disguise the fatal shooting of an unarmed suspect as an act of self-defence. He comes to realise that one of his own colleagues might be responsible for the crimes he is investigating.  Will he be tempted to hide these crimes?

It’s a bleak, savage world.  The young woman murdered is seen as being of no consequence, does anyone care to know who tortured the three criminals?  If Steve Villani does care, will he be able to find the answers he is seeking?

I found this novel a worthwhile but uncomfortable read. I kept wondering how many truths it contained and about the politics of corruption.  It’s an ugly world.  And yet, despite my discomfort, I recognise Mr Temple’s skill in making me stop to think about the people and their actions.

‘When the pity leaves you son, it’s time to go.  You’ve stopped being fully human.’
Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles by Scott Richardson

‘Who is Lymond?’

There would be no point in reading this book unless you’ve read (or are reading) Dorothy Dunnett’s marvellous six book series: the Lymond Chronicles (first published between 1961 and 975).  The series, set in mid-16th-century Europe (with travel to Russia and around the Mediterranean) tells the story of a young Scottish nobleman, Francis Crawford of Lymond, from 1547 through 1558.

Scott Richardson writes:

‘This study of the Lymond Chronicles has in large part been elicited by my urge to come to terms with this fascinating, complex protagonist.’

And Lymond, to those of us who read and reread the novels, is certainly fascinating and complex.  These novels challenge readers on a number of different levels.  There a complex relationships and secrets.  Lymond himself is erudite and tricky, possessed of near superhuman powers.

‘Nothing of importance in the Lymond Chronicles, however, is simple or direct.’

Scott Richardson analyses Lymond in a number of different roles (I prefer hero to spy) and also through the challenges he meets (and the games he plays) throughout the series.   I say the games Lymond plays, but it is really the games the author is playing with the reader as we try to work out ‘who’, ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘when’.

I enjoyed reading this book for the different analyses of Lymond.  I don’t agree with all of Scott Richardson’s conclusions, but I don’t need to.  Like so many other Dunnett readers, I’ve been reading and rereading these novels for over thirty years, and I find something new to marvel at on each reread.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith