When we read true crime, we might think it’s about trying to work out why people commit murder, what leads to awful events, and how society deals with it. It may, at the same time, feel prurient to be peering into the windows of a house where someone was killed, or to hear in dramatic and colourful prose about dreadful violence. Against these moral challenges there is the increasingly confronting need for us, collectively, to understand how ordinary people can do extraordinary and awful things.
While true crime has become commonplace since Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, we don’t seem to be any closer to understanding the “why” behind the “how”. Maryrose Cuskelly says she started out curious about the community disrupted by three murders, rather than the crime itself, and the book that became Wedderburn was originally going to be called “A Bit of Dust” because that was the ostensible reason for the feud that led to death.
Just a bit of dust, raised along a dirt road, and a man who said he was goaded beyond his breaking point.
Wedderburn is a town of about 700, 220 kilometres north of Melbourne. A “thriving little community” its tourism site says, where you can fossick for gold or go on bushwalks. Still up on the website is an announcement promising a “fantastic day of madcap mayhem” in November 2015, when the comedy duo Hamish and Andy were due to visit for a Melbourne Cup community event. It’s not far from the tiny towns on the now famous “silo trail” and it’s got a couple of goldrush historic buildings, but you’d have to say there’s not much going on in Wedderburn to attract attention.
Wedderburn, like Helen Garner’s controversial Joe Cinque’s Consolation from 2004, sets out explicitly to honour the dead.
On 22 October, 2014, however, Wedderburn made the national news. The 65-year-old Ian Jameison (pictured below), who lived a few kilometres outside the town centre, went next door with a knife and attacked Greg Holmes. He left him on the ground with horrific injuries, went back to his own house, took out two guns and headed over the road to Holmes’s mother and step-father’s place. Both Mary and Peter Lockhart were shot, not just once but several times, first from a distance, then up close.
Jameison then phoned the police and several friends, to give himself up, saying he had been pushed too far, and had snapped.
“Wedderburn makes an effort”: that’s how Cuskelly begins a chapter describing the place and its people as she tries to piece together some kind of reasoning for these events. The picture she paints is of a neat town, with ok amenities, a swimming pool and clean public toilets.
When Jameison killed his neighbours, Cuskelly discovered that many of the townspeople were ready to blame at least one of the victims. Peter Lockhart had it coming. He was not only a bully, with a mean temper, he may even have been, according to the gossip, a paedophile who had molested his own stepdaughter. As for his step-son Greg, he had only lived in Wedderburn for a short while, and was back from a stint in the army, suffering post-traumatic stress.
Cuskelly spends time talking to people who were friends of both Jamieson and Lockhart. Wally, whom Jameison had spoken to just a short time before the murders, is unerringly loyal to his mate, positive that he was provoked and sure he would get a reasonably short sentence. Jacquie and Paul, who were neighbours to the other side of Jameison’s property at the time, were equally loyal to Peter and Mary. They’d had their own run-ins with Jameison and had witnessed the escalation of the feud between the men.
Cuskelly’s pursuit of the people behind the headlines and court case is gentle and respectful, and as she builds her story, gradually she tries to work out what kind of people these were, how they lived before they killed or died, and what happened next. While the book’s cover asks, somewhat dramatically, “is murder something that lives next door to us all?”, Cuskelly’s questions are, I think, more modest and nuanced than that. She wants to peel off the crust of fear and prejudice that forms over an unimaginably dreadful event to get to the tenderness beneath, and she does it with admirable delicacy and decency.
Helen Garner is the doyenne of this crime-and-court genre and there are ways in which Garner’s style – the point of view, the self-analysis, the way the writer walks a fine line between objectivity and judgement – appears to have influenced Cuskelly.
Wedderburn, like Garner’s controversial Joe Cinque’s Consolation from 2004, sets out explicitly to honour the dead. While she doesn’t have the confidence of Garner, while she doesn’t court controversy or force conclusions, Cuskelly is nevertheless aware that there is always a moral doubt attached to turning such dramatic and shocking events into stories. At one point, she tells one of those to whom she is talking that they’ll come to resent her no matter how careful she is with what they’ve told her (there’s no afterword to let us know if this was actually the case).
And if the book set out to be a portrait of a killer, Cuskelly doesn’t push further than what she is able to glean from her interviews and Jameison’s court appearances. Again, there’s a respect within the writing that is admirable, although occasionally she tries too hard to find support for a theory about this man’s murderous moment and his subsequent self-pitying and recalcitrant behaviour.
Wedderburn is more or less in my own home territory, and when these murders happened, their proximity made it somehow more horrible. It can’t be heightened fear, I don’t think, although you do for a while pay more attention to the sound of gunfire in the distance. It’s become commonplace now for reporters to ask neighbours in streets and suburbs where violence happens for a response and it’s often something like, oh, that’s never happened here before, this is such a quiet neighbourhood. The irruption of evil is shocking, but there’s an inadequacy which borders on immoral in the way responses are gathered – often by reporters following a cliched expectation and with no gravitas in the face of tragedy.
I’d forgotten these murders, I confess, in the few years since they happened and it was only the publication of Cuskelly’s book that reminded me this happened an hour out of Bendigo in one of those small, sleepy, hard towns that dot this region. As I write, news comes from Mildura up on the Victorian border, where a man has shot his mother and brother – another story about guns and rage that we momentarily are alerted to, horrified by, then forget.
Towards the end of Wedderburn, Cuskelly writes: “I feel I have caught a glimpse of what lies beyond this tale of murder, grief, cruelty, obstinacy and hard-headedness. It is that, even in the wake of events that leave us gasping at the depth of suffering some of us are made to bear, decency, resilience and compassion may endure.”
Let’s hope so: it’s small consolation against the enormous banality of evil.
Wedderburn by Maryrose Cuskelly (pictured above) is published by Allen and Unwin
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