Back in 2014, I wrote a piece for the Wheeler Centre site about what I described as the ‘new wave’ of true crime works. These books differed from the earlier style of true crime work, which, with a few exceptions, were liable to be by the numbers, often quickly written books about sensational crimes – serial killers being a favourite – put together from various second hand sources, with a bit of local colour thrown into the mix.
The new wave of true crime books I was referring to, were more literary, focused on the political processes around the crime in question and, indeed, had a much broader definition of what ‘crime’ was. More often than not, they also seemed to be written by individuals that were either directly involved in the crime in question or somehow managed to shoe horn their own life experience into what they are writing about, so they become as much about the author as whatever crime they are writing about. When these kind of true crime books work, they can work big time. But they don’t always work.
If I had to classify it, I would say Helen Thomas’s Murder on Easy has more of the former type of book in it than the latter. But it is a vastly superior example of basic true crime reporting; a detailed, sometimes exceedingly so, account of ‘Melbourne’s most notorious cold case’; the brutal murder of two young women, Sue Bartlett and Suzanne Armstrong, in their small workers cottage on Easy Street, Collingwood in January 1977.
I was keen to have a look at this book for reasons of my own. I lived in Collingwood, very close to the cottage where the crime occured, for a couple of years in the late 1980s. There were seven of us, from memory, in a old, rambling shared house. The faces changed a bit over the time I was there, but the basic types, artists, students, unemployed people, was constant. We drank a lot, at least one person was working on a heroin habit, Collingwood was our stomping ground, and everyone knew what had happened at 147 Easy Street.
As Thomas makes very clear, Collingwood in 1977 was a very different place to what it is now, rougher and more working class. It was still pretty rough and working class when I lived there in the 1980s. That’s why we could afford such a large shared house. But all of Melbourne was different then. And that is one of the things I liked about Murder on Easy Street. Woven into her account of the crime is a fascinating look into the Melbourne and Collingwood of 1977.
I can’t possible do justice to the wealth of information and detail presented in this book, so I won’t try. The crime was incredibly brutal and shocked the city. The police had their suspects and thought they would solve the murders quickly. But 42 years later the killer(s) remains at large.
Thomas presents some compelling evidence that the police may have made major mistakes, including not taking seriously the claims of an elderly resident who or may not have seen the murderer leaving the scene of the crime. But she is also clear that it was a much tougher case to crack than first appeared and the murder investigation was not able to rely on DNA evidence in the way that police can today.
A cast of Melbourne characters are on hand to help explain and contextualise the case: celebrity former cop, Brian ‘The Skull’ Murphy, ‘one of Melbourne’s most controversial senior officers’, and author, Helen Garner, whose books almost single handed kicked off the new wave of true crime I mentioned earlier. Notorious former crim, Chopper Read is name checked. No Melbourne true crime book seems complete without at least one Chopper anecdote.
But these flourishes aside, Thomas’s the book relies on the facts, infused with just the right touch of personal angst about the injustice of Bartlett and Armstrong’s killers going free, and a hell lot of show leather expanded trying to track down anyone who could possible shed light on the murders. It works as a portrait of Melbourne in the 1970s, an examination of how policing and murder investigations have changed since 1977, a testament to pursuing a just outcome, now matter how long it takes.