Death on the Derwent: Sue Neill-Fraser’s story by Robin Bowles

‘The facts and rumours surrounding the event have polarised the close-knit Hobart community.’

On the night of 26 January 2009, Bob Chappell went missing from his yacht Four Winds and was never seen again.  The yacht had been moored near the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania’s marina in the Derwent River.  Bob Chappell had intended to spend the night on the yacht and was found to be missing the next morning. 

Bob Chappell’s body has never been found.

‘The police were investigating a murder with no body, no weapon, no witnesses and no confession.’

In 2010, Sue Neill-Fraser, his life partner of 18 years was found guilty of his murder and sentenced to 26 years imprisonment.  There have been several appeals, and in March 2020 Ms Neill-Fraser gained leave for a second appeal against her conviction.  This appeal has not yet been scheduled (as of 25 July 2020) because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Ms Bowles sets out the story in three parts: the disappearance of Bob Chappell; a summary of the way the case was dealt with by the legal system; and the ongoing challenging of the legal system in this case.

Before reading this book, I knew little about the Sue Neill-Fraser case.  While I appreciate the amount of detail and background information that Ms Bowles has included, it took me a while to adjust to her writing style.  For example, initially Ms Bowles’s referring to her connections to Tasmania, of knowing ‘who’s who in the zoo’ seemed irrelevant but I soon realised that it was part of her scene-setting, of describing the environment in which events took place.  I do not necessarily share all of her conclusions (I am an expatriate Tasmanian with no establishment ties), but I think her observations are relevant.

We may never know what happened to Bob Chappell, but I am gobsmacked that Ms Neill-Fraser was convicted of murder on the case made by the prosecution.  While I do not necessarily agree that:

‘When you go into court, you are putting your fate into the hands of twelve people who weren’t smart enough to get out of jury duty.’

I do have concerns about the way the case was presented and can only hope that the most recent appeal is successful.  Usually, when reading books about true crimes, there is an outcome.  In this case there is not.  Yet.  Ms Neill-Fraser is still in gaol, is still awaiting a determination of her appeal. Ms Bowles started her investigations in 2015, and when this book was published wrote:

‘So that’s it, really.  My job is done.  I never expected this story to cover this many years and still not have an ending.’

I finished this book dissatisfied, not with the book, but with the process surrounding Ms Neill-Fraser’s conviction. I will be extremely interested in following the appeal which hopefully will be heard later this year.  The appeal hearing has been delayed by COVID-19 restrictions: Ms Neill-Fraser’s legal team are based in Melbourne.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy

‘The animals are dying.  Soon we will be alone here.’

Franny Stone desperately wants to follow the Arctic terns on what is likely to be their last migration to Antarctica.  The terns are teetering on the brink of extinction because of climate change.  Franny managed to secure a berth on one of the last ships heading south from Greenland.

As we travel south, Franny’s story unfolds over different timelines.  She is a restless soul, in search of answers, meaning and redemption.  She is erratic and unpredictable, drawn to the sea.  We will gradually learn what Franny is running from and what she is looking for.

‘My life has been a migration without a destination, and that in itself is senseless.’

I picked this novel up and became spellbound.  I wanted to know more about Franny and her past, I wanted to understand the why and the what.  This is a sad story, but it is so beautifully told that I could lose myself in some passages before being buffeted by others.  Is it possible for Franny to find peace?  Is it possible for the world to survive our depredations? I wonder.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Into the Night by Sarah Bailey (Gemma Woodstock #2)

‘Freezing air slices my lungs every time I breathe.’

Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock has recently moved to Melbourne.  She is still adjusting to life in the city and mourning the life she has left behind while trying to find her feet in her new workplace.  Gemma has been assigned to partner Detective Sergeant Nick Fleet, and she’s finding him a bit of a challenge as well.

When a homeless man is murdered, Gemma is assigned the case.  She wants to solve the case and appreciates just how difficult it might be to find the murderer of a lonely, isolated man in a big city.  But then a young actor is murdered in the middle of a crowded scene being filmed in the city.  Who killed Sterling Wade, and why?  And will Gemma have to stop investigating the murder of the homeless man because of this new case?  Can she and Nick Fleet work together effectively?

‘Starting work on a case is always like beginning a jigsaw without having looked at the picture on the box.’

I found this novel totally absorbing.  Gemma Woodstock is a brilliant, flawed character who is facing plenty of challenges in her own life while trying to be a good detective.  Gemma’s intuition and self-destructive behaviours wrestle for dominance as she and Nick Fleet try to work out who killed Sterling Wade.  The murdered homeless man is never far from her thoughts, nor are the family and friends she left behind in Smithson.

If you enjoy crime fiction by Australian authors, and you’ve yet to make the acquaintance of Gemma Woodstock, don’t hesitate.  She’s a wonderfully flawed, complex, intelligent hero.  There are three novels.   I somehow managed to read them out of order which, while it didn’t detract from my enjoyment, isn’t the best way to come to terms with Ms Bailey’s hero.  Highly recommended.

‘The terrifying truth about every case we work is that no matter what, the answers are out there somewhere.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Where The Dead Go by Sarah Bailey

‘The girl pushes blindly through the wall of trees, tripping over her feet.’

DS Gemma Woodstock, now living in Sydney, has just returned home to Smithson to attend the funeral of her son Ben’s father Scott.  She’s in a new relationship, but not yet sure how committed she is.  She’s restless, claustrophobic and wants to do the right thing by Ben.

In the Australian coastal town of Fairhaven in NSW, a fifteen-year-old girl, Abby, goes missing.  The following morning, her boyfriend is found murdered.  The police in the area need help, her old boss is approached, and Gemma volunteers.  Within hours, she and Ben are on their way to Fairhaven.

Gemma has a young, inexperienced team to work with.  Everyone knows everyone else in this small town, and there’s no shortage of speculation about who might be responsible for the murder.  But where is Abby?

This is a case with plenty of twists.  Gemma learns of another missing person case in the area: a young couple who disappeared and were never found.  And there are secrets being held which may have an impact on the investigation.  Gemma herself has some personal issues to resolve as she tries to juggle parenting Ben with the demands of the case.

Gemma Woodstock is a complex character: dedicated, insightful, and flawed. Her tenacity enables her to work through the information (and disinformation) received.  I enjoyed this novel.  I did work out some elements before the end, but not all.

This is the third Gemma Woodstock novel.  I wonder what Ms Bailey will write next?

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower (1928-2020)

I first read and reviewed this novel at the beginning of 2015.

‘As she spoke, she had an impression of something not pleasant happening to her, something irreversible and magical and inevitable.’

The first part of the novel opens just after the end of World War II, in Sydney, where the Howards live in their house on the north side of Sydney Harbour. Mr and Mrs Howard are both biologists, and ‘Mrs Howard was a useful example of a woman who combined a successful career with a happy home life. Whenever such a phenomenon needed illustration, journalists and producers were as likely to think of Alice Howard as anyone in town.’

Their son Russell has returned home in one piece after a period as a prisoner of war. Their 17 year old daughter, Zoe, was considered by family and friends to be remarkable. Perhaps she is: Zoe is an excellent student, captain of the school, editor of the school paper, a competent sailor and photographer who can handle a car better than her father.

‘To live without the interest or attention of other people, without making an impression: in her mind, Zoe groped to imagine such a state.’

Through the Howards, we also meet another brother and sister, Stephen and Anna Quayle. Stephen and Anna have been orphaned, and live in Parramatta with an uncle and his seriously disturbed wife. The uncle is preoccupied with his wife and doesn’t have much attention left for Stephen and Anna. Stephen, who intrigues Zoe, works as a salesman and Anna will be a clerk. Zoe is destined for Paris, to study film or photography. Russell will marry the well-educated Lily, and will open his own publishing company. Such a contrast between the lives of, and opportunities for, these four young people.

‘You can’t explain anything to a rich, lucky person. They don’t know.’

The second part of the novel opens eight years later, when the death of Alice Howard brings Zoe home from Europe. Zoe is now a successful photographer, in a relationship with a film director, with a career ahead of her. But once she meets Stephen again, she decides to marry him and remain in Sydney. Anna is widowed: her husband David, a musician, died less than two years after they married. Russell and Lily married, as expected, and have twin daughters.

‘Be satisfied. Be satisfied. This is what you wanted. This is what you’ve got.’

By the late 1960s, in the final part of the novel, Zoe is forty. She has devoted herself to trying to make Stephen happy. Anna has found success making pottery, while Lily has sacrificed her academic career for her daughters. None of these younger women has had the same success that Alice Howard had in combining a career and marriage.

‘He shook his head. Zoe checked an impulse to speak. Once so impulsive, she was now very skilled at checking impulses.’

The relationships in this novel – between individuals, between those with power and those without can be both straightforward (when individuals have a clear idea about what they want) and complex (when individuals make choices without fully appreciating the consequences). And even clarity about the future can be obscured when an individual world view is based in ignorant naivety. Can any of the younger generation move beyond the barriers of class and power, beyond the expectations of others to find their own place in the world?

In this novel (and in fact) Australia is not as egalitarian as it pretends to be. And that is an uncomfortable truth which I’d like to ignore, but can’t. I enjoyed the way Ms Harrower constructed this story, and I wondered why the novel was withdrawn from publication after it was completed in 1971. In some ways, I think Australia has become even less egalitarian since then. I’ll be adding Ms Harrower’s other novels to my reading list.

‘It occurred to her that there might be nothing braver in the world than to allow yourself to be understood.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower (1928-2020)

I read and reviewed this novel back in 2015.

‘Now that your father’s gone – ‘

Laura and Clare Vaizey are at boarding school when their father dies, and the lives they had anticipated for themselves (especially Laura) are changed forever. Their mother removes Laura from school and sends her to business school to learn shorthand and typing. Laura, no longer able to dream of pursuing a career in medicine, becomes responsible for her sister Clare. Mrs Vaizey decides to return to England and, on the last ship bound for England as World War II breaks out, abandons her daughters.

Laura finds work in a factory, where the owner Felix Shaw pays attention to her. Although Laura is unsure about Felix, she agrees to marry him, partly (at least) to prevent Clare having to leave school.

‘I think you’d better just marry me, and both of you come to live in the new house. I’ll fix everything.’

Felix’s way of fixing everything is through controlling Laura. He belittles her, he manipulates her, and he crushes her. In the claustrophobic environment that Felix controls, neither of the sisters can relax. And over time, Laura begins to reflect Felix’s values.

‘She had achieved this state with much painless suffering, committing murder by proxy.’

Although Clare sees Felix for what he is, she cannot persuade Laura to leave him. Laura has almost entirely lost any sense of herself as an independent person. Can Laura be saved? Or will Clare have to abandon her in order to save herself?

For me, two tragic themes are central to this novel. The first is the warping of Laura’s spirit as, oppressed by Felix, she becomes more like him. Gone is the clever independent girl who dreamed of being a doctor, replaced by a fearful woman reflecting Felix’s views in order to find an uneasy peace in her world. The second is the awfulness and power of manipulation, where people seek (whether physically or psychologically) to impose their wills on others. Laura has been doubly unfortunate: a narcissistic self-serving mother, and an insecure controlling husband.

This is a thought-provoking novel. It is uncomfortable and confronting, raising questions about choices, and imbued with an undercurrent of malicious destruction. I am uneasy with aspects of the story, they reflect a reality I have observed.

This novel was first published in 1966, and was reissued in 2012. The setting may seem dated, the issues raised are not.

‘It is a wonder of the world to notice how fundamentally people change from one second to the next when they are given their own way.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

A Treacherous Country by K.M. Kruimink

‘How came I to a place like this?’

Gabriel Fox has travelled to Van Diemen’s Land on a quest.  The novel opens with Gabriel in the company of a man he calls his Cannibal travelling from Hobart-town.  Gabriel’s head is full of questions, such as:

‘… can the season truly be called winter, if it is at the wrong time of the year, and the leaves have not fallen?’

Gabriel and his Cannibal are travelling.  Gabriel is hopeful of selling two harpoons he bought in Sydney-town at a whaling-station, north-east of Hobart-town.  Once he gets rid of the harpoons, Gabriel wants to find the woman he has been despatched to find, and for whom he has a letter, and return to England.  He has a letter of credit to use for his expenses.

The story unfolds slowly: we are in Gabriel’s head and that is the only perspective we will have.  He has been tasked with finding Maryanne Maginn, who first set foot on Van Diemen’s Land some thirty years earlier. Why this is important and who has tasked him will gradually become known to us.  But it is not Gabriel’s quest as much as his description of the land he is travelling through and the people he meets which held my attention initially.  A day’s travel north-east of Hobart-town will take him to a whaling station on the east coast of Van Diemen’s Land.  The whaling station is for sale.  Sadly, the whales have already been hunted to near extinction.

Gabriel and his Cannibal arrive at the whaling station and take part in a whale hunt.  Gabriel’s harpoons are used successfully.  But a man dies, and Gabriel becomes part of a group which takes the body back to his widow in Hobart-town.

The descriptions in this novel are so vivid: I can picture the whale hunt (even if I don’t want to); I can see the poor horse Gabriel bought and which is subsequently stolen from him; I can feel his discomfort in his dirty, wet clothes.  Gabriel has several different challenges to meet, before a somewhat surprising ending.  Surprising, but strangely satisfying.

If you enjoy nineteenth century historical fiction set in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania since 1856) you may enjoy this as much as I did.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko

‘Too much lip, her old problem from way back.  And the older she got, the harder it seemed to get to swallow her opinions.’

Kerry Salter heads home.  She cannot avoid it now: her Pop is dying.  She heads home on a shiny new Harley-Davidson Softail.  Her first conversation is with three crows: one bites a dead snake on the head, and its fangs wedge the bird’s beak shut.  Kerry feels ‘certain the crow was going to spend several hideous days before starvation claimed it.  But he hadn’t ridden three hours to worry about a doomed waark.’

That doomed crow is a sign of what is coming.  Kerry gets back to Durrongo and heads back into a family caught up in a cycle of family dysfunction, carrying its history of injustice.  She’s only planning on staying for twenty-four hours, but things don’t go at all according to plan.

This story is ‘in your face’ confronting.  Problems from the past are part of the story as is a current threat.  Jim Buckley, the mayor of Durrongo, wants to build a prison on the Salters’ ancestral land.  There’s important family history associated with the land, and Kerry’s older brother Kenny is keen to sort out Jim Buckley.  Kerry’s younger brother, Black Superman, who has made a life for himself in Sydney, can’t escape either.  And there are old wounds to be treated as well as secrets to be uncovered and managed.

I do not want to write more about the story because much of the power of it is in the way Melissa Lucashenko tells it.  These pages are peopled with complex humans: people trying to do the best they can with limited resources in circumstances that are often hostile.  Difficult issues are addressed, with insight and compassion and humour.

I finished this novel feeling uncomfortable with many of the issues raised but also feeling that I had a better understanding of at least some.

‘You can go as far as you like, but the past always comes along for the ride.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Darkness for Light (Caleb Zelic #3) by Emma Viskic

‘Make good decisions.’

Private Investigator Caleb Zelic can see some light at the end of the tunnel.  He is in therapy, he’s tentatively reconciled with his wife Kat, and he’s connecting with friends in the deaf community.  He is working hard at making good decisions.  Caleb is deaf and relies heavily on lip-reading to understand speech.

But it is all about to go horribly wrong for him.  Again.

A severely injured person, a violent confrontation, a kidnapped child.  Caleb’s ex-partner Frankie begs him for help.  But just who can Caleb trust?  The police are giving him mixed messages. Can Frankie and Caleb save the child?

At the same time, his friend Alberto is in trouble.  Alberto’s café, which employs other deaf people, is being targeted.  Who wants to destroy his business, and why?  Can Caleb help?

Two different crimes, and Kat might not be safe either.

Wow!  This is the first Caleb Zelic novel I have read, and now I want to read the first two.  This novel has several strands and a few twists (including one I really wasn’t expecting towards the end).

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Goldminer’s Sister by Alison Stuart

‘Out of the way, woman!’

June, 1873.  After travelling from England, Eliza Penrose has arrived in the goldmining town of Maiden’s Creek, Victoria.  She’s looking to start a new life with her brother, William, whom she’s not seen for five years.  But Will does not turn up to meet her, and when she arrives at her uncle Charles Cowper’s home, she discovers why.

Alec McLeod is a mining engineer who came from Scotland to try to escape the memory of his dead wife and child.  He’s determined to never fall in love again, despite the best efforts of the single women of Maiden’s Creek.

After their inauspicious first meeting, Alec and Eliza are thrown together.  There are dangerous work practices at the Maiden’s Creek Mine, and lives are endangered. There are secrets to be uncovered, and the closer Alec and Eliza get to the truth, the more care they need to take.

I really enjoyed this novel.  It is set two years later (and in the same town) as ‘The Postmistress’.  Ms Stuart brings her characters to life and doesn’t shy away from demonstrating the hardships of life on the goldfields, especially for women and children.  There’s action and romance, and a cast of well-developed minor characters as well.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Harlequin Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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