Debi Marshall






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 reading.

Apr 2006 Review, original version published on Murder and Mayhem


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