Random House Australia, Apr 2006
Reviewed by Kerrie Smith
Do you really know your neighbours? What happens in their houses? In their
backyards? Could you be living next door to people like this?
In KILLING FOR PLEASURE Australian journalist Debi Marshall tells the
stories behind the grisly Snowtown "bodies-in-the barrels" serial
killings, carried out over seven years in South Australia by three killers
and their accomplices. KILLING FOR PLEASURE took Marshall five years to
write, synthesising thousands of hours of interviews with the families of
the victims, with neighbours, and with close members of the families of
the murderers. What she describes pushes the boundaries of credibility,
both in relation to the nature of the murders, and in the slowness of the
South Australian police system to begin investigations.
The book is divided into two main parts: "Crime" and "Retribution", along
with some photographs provided of both murderers and victims.
In "Crime", Marshall made the decision to deal with the huge amounts of
accumulated material by mainly recounting the stories of the twelve
victims. This allows the reader to gain some understanding of how each
victim came to that position, and to get a picture of what happened to
each of them. Unfortunately this strategy at times makes the actual
chronology of events a little difficult to follow. The information
provided in the Appendix about the victims, the killers, and other
characters helps remedy this, but I did not realise it was there until I
had finished the book. The relationships between the victims and the
murderers is illustrated in a diagram just before the Preface, and I found
myself consulting it often.
The primary murderer, John Bunting, emerges as a manipulative vigilante, a
crusader cleaning up the world, ridding it of human "waste" such as
pedophiles, epileptics, the obese, disease-ridden, and those in need of a
"cure". The people whom he manipulates and those whose deaths he engineers
are emotionally fragile, damaged, dependent, ripe for external control,
psychotics, transvestites, and schizophrenics with low mental capacity and
often intellectual impairment. They have dysfunctional families, living
from generation to generation in an endless cycle of poverty and
hopelessness. These are impressionable, damaged people who lead
disruptive, unsettled lives. Marshall talks about "Depravity up close. A
human parade of the banality of evil."
The most horrifying aspects are: the fact that each of the victims is a
relative, or a friend, of one or more of the murderers; the escalation of
the murders; and the pleasure that Bunting, Wagner, Vlassakis and Haydon
appear to have taken in torturing and finally killing their victims.
In "Retribution" the reader finds descriptions of how the police piece the
evidence together, an account of the arrests of the main suspects, the
release of the story to the media, how the pathologists arrive at the
cause of death for each of the twelve bodies, the media parade to Snowtown,
and the poor taste opportunism shown by some of its residents.
There is not a blow-by-blow description of the trials, described by some
as a "legal gravy train". Marshall says "lengthy trials can … become very
dull." In the final chapters the trial outcomes are described.
Marshall asks such difficult and provocative questions that, as a South
Australian, I found it impossible to read the book dispassionately. Is
there something about the social and economic fabric of South Australia
that fosters such horrendous behaviour? Are these people the product of a
failing society; dereliction by the police, social services, welfare
agencies, and South Australia's Housing Trust which has placed them in
shabby suburbs with little support. At least one of the victims dies after
police surveillance has discovered who is withdrawing funds from the bank
account of a missing person. Tapped phone lines in hindsight reveal that a
person is in danger but no action is taken at the time. It is only when
the names of the three murderers are all linked to the disappearance of
one of the victims that a major crime investigation begins.
Marshall makes much of closed Adelaide society, connections by each of the
murderers and some of the victims, at some stage, to a local Pentecostal
church. She says that the South Australian police did not provide
sufficient resources for the investigation even when they knew they had
three suspects for four murders.
There are things that I don't particularly like in KILLING FOR PLEASURE.
For example, Marshall has a chapter on serial killers where she sets
herself up as an expert. Seemingly determined not to waste any of her
meticulous notes, she has included lengthy atmospheric detail such as the
description of Snowtown, a rural town in decline.
While few will read this book for pleasure, it certainly will be widely
read. During the trials South Australia had a media blackout that meant
details of the trials could not be published in local newspapers, some
evidence was taken in camera, and so for some this book will be a great
revelation. And Marshall does a good job. KILLING FOR PLEASURE is gripping
Apr 2006 Review, original version published on Murder and Mayhem
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