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Category: True Crime

Book Review: This House of Grief by Helen Garner

Reviewed by Joelene Pynnonen

Australia was devastated when, on Father’s Day, 2005, a seemingly loving father drove into a dam, his three sons buckled into his old Commodore. He made it out of the submerging vehicle, none of the boys did. Three months later, when Robert Farquharson was charged with murder, the country was shocked.

This coldblooded crime, committed in the rural Victorian town of Winchelsea, captured the public’s compassion. Helen Garner’s included.

This House of Grief is true crime writing at its best. Rather than sensationalising the tragic deaths of Jai, Tyler and Bailey, it digs deeper. Garner doesn’t try to emotionally distance herself from the trial. Instead she allows us to see it through her eyes – to be bored by the minutiae of tyre track angles, car speed and the physics of a car’s trajectory on a downward slope. Through Garner, readers are also charmed by the cheery exuberance of defence barrister, Peter Morrissey, and confused by the sympathy that a figure like Farquharson evokes.

It is this approach that gives the most powerful view of Farquharson. In This House of Grief, he is painted, not as a monster, but as a man as devastated as anyone over the deaths of his sons. This House of Grief doesn’t try to excuse Farquharson for his crimes, nor diminish them. But it shows Farquharson’s humanity. In not trying to other him, Garner shows the face of men who kill their children. Though, interestingly, she doesn’t contextualise Farquharson’s crimes within a wider society. Reading This House of Grief, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was an isolated occurrence, although in reality it is something that happens with some regularity.

In This House of Grief, we get a glimpse of all major players in the case. The time spent on some of them may be brief, but is no less dynamic for that. Garner is an expert at people watching and her writing brilliantly captures the drives and personalities of the people at the centre of the trial.

This House of Grief touches on the Farquharson boys, Farquharson and his ex-wife, Cindy Gambino’s relationship and the circumstances of their separation. These aspects, however, are very much peripheral to the trial. As much as she can, Garner stays out of the personal lives of the boys and their estranged parents. This in no way diminishes the emotional impact of what has happened. Arguably, it makes it stronger. All of the many emotions that filter through the book are seen first-hand by Garner. She spends almost no time trying to guess at the emotions and events behind the scenes.

Though dark, devastating and heart-wrenching by turns, This House of Grief is a worthy addition to the true crime genre. With a focus on the people rather than the graphic details, it gives a deeper insight into the emotions and events surrounding a family annihilation.

This House of Grief – Helen Garner

Text Publishing (August 20, 2014)

ISBN: 9781922079206

Review: The Wilderness of Ruin by Roseanne Mantillo

Montillo_wildernessReviewed by Krista McKeeth

The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer by Roseanne Montillo

In late nineteenth-century Boston, home to Herman Melville and Oliver Wendell Holmes, a serial killer preying on children is running loose in the city–a wilderness of ruin caused by the Great Fire of 1872–in this literary historical crime thriller reminiscent of The Devil in the White City.

In the early 1870s, local children begin disappearing from the working-class neighborhoods of Boston. Several return home bloody and bruised after being tortured, while others never come back. With the city on edge, authorities believe the abductions are the handiwork of a psychopath, until they discover that their killer–fourteen-year-old Jesse Pomeroy–is barely older than his victims. The criminal investigation that follows sparks a debate among the world’s most revered medical minds, and will have a decades-long impact on the judicial system and medical consciousness.

The Wilderness of Ruin is a riveting tale of gruesome murder and depravity. At its heart is a great American city divided by class–a chasm that widens in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1872. Roseanne Montillo brings Gilded Age Boston to glorious life–from the genteel cobblestone streets of Beacon Hill to the squalid, overcrowded tenements of Southie. Here, too, is the writer Herman Melville. Enthralled by the child killer’s case, he enlists physician Oliver Wendell Holmes to help him understand how it might relate to his own mental instability. With verve and historical detail, Roseanne Montillo explores this case that reverberated through all of Boston society in order to help us understand our modern hunger for the prurient and sensational.

The Wilderness of Ruin features more than a dozen black-and-white photographs. 
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published March 17th 2015 by William Morrow & Company (first published February 1st 2015)


This historical/true crime novel focuses on the area of Boston, Massachusetts in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s, opening up with a short introduction to the murderer and torturer, young Jesse Pomeroy. It then goes on to the history of the area and weaves Jesse’s story in throughout the rest. The beginning of the novel felt a little disjointed before it settled into a more cohesive read. The book is broken up into sections, but the reader will still get a good idea of what it was like to live in Boston during this era.

What I most enjoyed about this story was that it opened my eyes to a lot of other subjects. However, I do think that not all of the events that are presented in the story will appeal to everybody. I, myself, had a hard time getting through the section on the great fire and how city regulations and laws were changed to make Boston safer. Yet without that part of the story, I don’t feel it would have had the same effect on me with regard to the displacement of its peoples and how the whole community of Boston and surrounding areas suffered from it.

When the book began to explore how the prison systems changed, the introduction of solitary confinement, and laws regarding the death sentence, I really felt drawn in and didn’t want to put the book down. I found it fascinating that this discussion about ‘madness’ was conducted at both the scientific and societal levels.

If you are looking for something that focuses only on Jesse Pomeroy, this is not the book as there was not a lot of information about the case to build a full novel on. Instead, what you’ll get are the ideas that surround the complicated notion of “madness” and what was happening in the community of Boston and it’s people during that time in history. The Wilderness of Ruin focuses on a specific location at a specific time and a mysterious young man named Jesse Pomeroy, asking the question “Why did he kill?”. It reflects on the sensationalist newspaper reports and how scientists also tackled the question. I ended up really enjoying the book as a whole, and would recommend it to those who love historical novels.

True Crime Review: Midnight in Peking by Paul French

Reviewed by Krista Mckeeth

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China
by Paul French

In the last days of old Peking, where anything goes, can a murderer escape justice?
Peking in 1937 is a heady mix of privilege and scandal, opulence and opium dens, rumors and superstition. The Japanese are encircling the city, and the discovery of Pamela Werner’s body sends a shiver through already nervous Peking. Is it the work of a madman? One of the ruthless Japanese soldiers now surrounding the city? Or perhaps the dreaded fox spirits? With the suspect list growing and clues sparse, two detectives—one British and one Chinese—race against the clock to solve the crime before the Japanese invade and Peking as they know it is gone forever. Can they find the killer in time, before the Japanese invade?
Historian and China expert Paul French at last uncovers the truth behind this notorious murder, and offers a rare glimpse of the last days of colonial Peking. Hardcover, 272 pages

Published April 24th 2012 by Penguin (Non-Classics) ISBN 0143121006 (ISBN13: 9780143121008)

Historian Paul French puts a bit of a unique twist on True Crime. He focuses on a unsolved murder that took place in China just at the onset of war with Japan. The mixing of different cultures and peoples at this time in Peking’s history is pivotal factor in why this crime was unable to be solved .

The balance between the cultural history and development of Peking and the procedures taken to solve this crime were equal factors. As the murder victim was originally from Britain both police forces had to work together. They were also given a time limit on how long they had to unravel the details and arrest a suspect. When the time limit is up, Pamela’s father takes on the case himself and with all of these documents 75 years later, the author believes he has solved the mystery and presents it to us in a very convincing format.

After telling her father that she was going roller skating, Pamela fails to come home. He goes looking for her and comes across a murder scene in which the dead is literally gutted and unrecognizable that he has to identify her body by a piece of jewelery and her hair color. All of her body organs are removed and her face is butchered. Leading the investigation into several different directions, most likely being that this was not an crime of passion, and whereas there is no blood at the site of the body the murder had to have been carried out elsewhere. And this is what leads them into a large amount of questioning of people, business owners and possible witnesses that were out that night in various parts of the city that Pamela was known to frequent.

The author gives us insight into the city of Peking. How the people that were coming and going from this city at this particular part of history were just as much a part of the way that the investigation was handled as the murder itself. People and businesses coming and going in the recent years with the impending war with Japan looming upon them. The combination of rules and regulations that both sides of the police forces had to abide by and a time limit that could only frustrate matters. Even her own father who was very familiar with Peking himself, unable to to find the answers before he died as well. A sad story that the author was able to bring to light many years later.

True Crime: Criminal Profiling


Article by: Kylie Fox

A specially trained detective walks around a crime scene, not swabbing for blood stains or measuring the size of the stab wounds that have penetrated a victim’s body. He notices instead the position her body lies in, whether any attempt has been made to cover or hide the body, the area of the body the wounds are administered, the type of weapon used, signs of struggle and items on or near the body.

This specialist learns all he can about the victim – victimology – so that he can walk in her shoes for a time, figure out why she was targeted. Was there something in her daily routine, in her recent or past history or in the way she looks that could have triggered this response?

He reconstructs the victim’s final day, final hours, final minutes in this world and plays them over in his mind until they make some kind of sense. He feels her horror, her fear and her pain emotionally and physically until he’s certain he has those last moments right.

Then, using all of the physical and psychological clues that he’s gathered, he inserts himself into the mind of a killer. Possibly an even more terrifying place to be than the mind of the victim. He walks the path the murderer would have taken, reconstructs the crime and, more importantly, the thought process that the perpetrator used.

He can tell us the age and sex of the killer. Possibly a range of occupations and his social status. He may tell us we’re looking for a plumber or a postman or an unemployed loner.

He cannot tell us his name.

But this kind of information can help narrow down a long, and ever growing, list of suspects. It can help police feel more confident when they make an arrest – this suspect fits the profile.

Criminal profiling is still looked upon by some as a bunch of hocus-pocus with no real place in criminal investigations. But when the police have run out of ideas or where there is no physical evidence to go on, the criminal profile is often the next point of call for investigators.

What are those clues that a profiler can see that leads to their often frighteningly accurate profiles? What do they see that other police cannot?

Using a series of case studies, many referencing John Douglas, one of the founders of the FBI’s profiling unit and author of the Mindhunter series, we are going to explore exactly that in this new regular column on the Tara Sharp site.

Next time – we’ll begin with the basics of the serial killer. The triad of symptoms almost always displayed in the perpetrators of serial murders.

True Crime: Strange But True - A Ghost Strangled My Wife!

“It wasn’t me, it was the ghost!”

Article by: Kylie Fox

I’m sure the courts have heard just about every excuse going to explain a criminal’s behaviour – but how many times do you think they’ve heard the “it wasn’t me, it was a ghost” defence?

That’s exactly what Wisconsin man, Michael F. West, told police to explain how his wife sustained severe injuries consistent with being punched in the face and strangled.

West first explained away the injuries by claiming his wife had fallen but when asked specifically about her neck injuries, he said, “A ghost did it!”

Of course it did!

West has been charged with strangulation and misdemeanours of battery, disorderly contact and resisting or obstructing an officer.

Oh, and he’s been ordered to stay sober until his case goes to court! Not a bad idea, I’d say.