Books, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Book review: A Murder without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle

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If there is to an antidote to the gratuitous way our media covers violence against women, its key ingredients might be found in A Murder without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.
While it is impossible for one book to change years of writing conventions, certainly one or two ingredients for such an antidote can be drawn from the example it provides of a radically human approach to those who are rarely rate more than a passing mention in the column inches dedicated to crime coverage: the family of the deceased.
When women are killed in Australia — and there are a couple every week — their faces splashed across news site home pages and the  headlines usually detail either grisly descriptions of their final weeks or hours, or worse but still common, the murderer’s reasons or excuses.
But in Murder without Motive, journalist and debut author Martin McKenzie-Murray shuns these conventions. His book is not about James Duggan, the young man who was found guilty of strangling 19 year old Rebecca Ryle just 50 metres from her Perth home in 2004. The book, available online and in bookshops on Monday, is about a quiet and kind girl who wanted to become a nurse called Becky and her family shattered by Duggan’s terrible act.
McKenzie-Murray shows a respect and recognition of the importance and complexity of the Ryles’s perspective that we rarely see in the most successful examples of the true crime non-fiction genre today.
This is not another Serial, the smash-hit podcast replete with extensive interviews with jailed murderer Adnan Syed, while the teenage girl he was convicted for killing, Hae Min Lee, is rarely mentioned as anything more than a body “all pretzeled up in the boot” after the first few episodes.
Nor is it similar to Netflix’s Making a Murderer, where Steven Avery’s victim Teresa Halbach is accorded similar treatment followed by the clips of her miserable and understandably somewhat vengeful family, which are used to imply that perhaps Avery was denied a trial free of jury bias.
It would be crass to describe the decision to focus on the Ryles as ‘refreshing’. But it is important to recognise it is deliberately different from standard crime reporting.
Because of this fundamental decision, Murder without a Motive is a bold bid to become if not a classic, at least a corrective of its genre’s least impressive tactics. This is a book focused on life rather than death, on love and learning how to live again rather than wading into minds of murderers.
Even irregular consumers of true crime stories will know the phrases the bereaved cling to in attempts to describe their pain. Murder without Motive gets beyond those phrases, into the hot, aching wound that comes from losing your child violently, forever.
McKenzie-Murray only mentions his contempt for contemporary explorations of criminality briefly, in the afterword of the book. But there is little doubt this alternative approach might have enabled him to capture quotes from Rebecca’s parents Francis (Fran) and Marie that many journalists couldn’t never dream of drawing from their interviewees.
“I struggled because of the anger,” Rebecca’s father Fran says in the book. “I spent a lot of time wanting to kill him, the first few months. I spent a lot of time speaking to a psychiatrist about these fantasies. I saw him for about two-and-a-half years. It was useful.”
We meet the Ryles early in the narrative. We learn their histories: why they moved to Australia from the England and why they remain in the home so close to the site of the tragedy. The pair open up about how the death of their daughter affected their drinking, their jobs, their relationship and even their sex life.
The other key voice is McKenzie-Murray’s own. It emerges early on and becomes one of the strongest stylistic decisions of the book. The early chapters are firmly from the author’s perspective as he  details his own experiences growing up in Perth, his brother’s relationship with Duggan, how he made contact with the Ryles, and how their relationship grew.
The personalised narration recedes in the middle of the book, and any initial concerns morph into greater trust for the author, who you feel you as a reader know enough to trust. McKenzie-Murray remains present throughout the book, perhaps even too much so  on one or two occasions, eschewing the classic journalist approach of trying to disappear in the story. Yet this enables him to draw on the insights into police procedures and interrogation tactics he gained while working as a speechwriter for the Victorian Police Commissioner.
McKenzie-Murray doesn’t quite succeed in connecting the intensely personal story of one family’s grief to broader social issues. However the insight into the nature of suburban violence provides some context for Duggan’s actions against a woman he barely knew.
It is the book’s treatment of Duggan’s reason for his actions that is likely to be the most polarising for readers. Its author doesn’t offer likely motive but neither does Duggan, in any of his interrogations or public statements after the trial, quoted throughout the book.
The reader learns what his motive was for the crime — at least the one argued by the prosecution — which concurred with Ryle’s belief that his victim had rejected his advances.
There are occasional, self-aware flirtations with psychoanalysis but overall Murder without Motive avoids extensive theorising about motives, or probing into Duggan’s childhood to find causes or early trauma.
This absence of the emotional engine that has driven much of the true crime genre’s recent resurgence could have left the book feeling half-done. But here it delivers an in-depth insight into murder from the perspective of those who deserve the public’s understanding more: the family left struggling in its wake.
A Murder without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle is published by Scribe.
You can buy the book here.

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