Difficult stories attract punters

By Rhonda Dredge

Melbourne’s City of Literature turned 10 last month without a fanfare. 

It was business as usual as laconic CBD bookseller Bill Morton manned the book table with his partner Andrea Lindores at yet another literary event. 

The booksellers were at the Wheeler Centre with the latest release by a Melbourne author, The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper. 

Hooper’s sober narration documents the tragic consequences of a tormented life in the LaTrobe Valley. 

Paperback Books had 60 copies of the book for sale and even though it might usually be found on the True Crime shelves, the booksellers were uncomfortable with the label. 

“This is an important book because it’s about a social issue and presents it in a readable form,” Bill Morton said. 

The City of Literature brings together bookshops, authors, publishers and readers through promotions and events in Little Lonsdale St, next to the State Library. Most of Melbourne has been through its doors on some occasion.

Events are ticketed but usually free and if you turn up organisers will try and slot you in. 

Heather Willingham, program director for the Wheeler Centre, is upbeat about the pulling power of locally-made stories, even those off the True Crime shelves. 

“I think the true part affects people, impacts on their psyche,” she says. “I do think there is something about the use of facts. They are facts and you can’t ague with them.”

Chloe Hooper is one author who is good at working facts into suspenseful stories. 

The Arsonist tracks the investigation into the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires near Morwell and the quick identification of a suspect.

“Brendon was a 39-year-old grown up in Churchhill but he’d had very little language when he reached school and was badly bullied,” Hooper told the audience. According to the police, however, he was “a serial fire lighter.” They charged him quickly because of the “fear of a lynch mob. They were worried about vigilantes.”

Eleven people died in the fires the arsonist lit in a blue gum plantation in an area known colloquially as the Heartbreak Hills. Gum leaves were “like thousands of fingers pointing the way the fire had gone.”

Hooper is one of a new style of True Crime writer who solidly and meticulously sifts through the facts rather than sensationalising. She brings police work alive – in this case the techniques used by arson detectives to find the source of the fire and lay charges. 

Readers are attracted to the way the best writers slowly put the pieces together. Even though there is a small True Crime audience, booksellers say that it’s involved and interested. 

One reader at the session was able to quote details about an avid investigative writer in the United States who followed the cold case of a serial killer for 30 years and died just before the case was solved using DNA techniques.

Classic true crime works such as In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt and Joe Cinque’s Consolation by Helen Garner are continually on the shelves at Dymocks in Collins St, years after publication. 

True Crime has had a bad name, in the sense that it has been associated with sensational stories focussing on crusty criminals with macho personalities who become celebrity figures.

“We get odd people coming in and asking for True Crime,” Bill admits. 

The establishment of the Innocence Initiative at RMIT University has seen a new level of compassion connected with the genre, in which some cases are re-investigated by lawyers for possible appeal and the details released to journalists. 

True Crime podcasts have also attracted more people and stories have become sophisticated ways of dealing publicly with complex crimes. Perhaps we are finally feeling secure about our ability to tell our own difficult stories and they are attracting punters into the CBD. 

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