Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

13+ Australian True Crime Books

I know Australia has a bit of a reputation, being full of snakes and spiders and other dangerous critters… but it’s not just the animals that want to kill you Down Under. Here’s a selection of Australian true crime books that might put you off visiting my home country forever (if the crocodiles and box jellyfish haven’t done that already).

13+ Australian True Crime Books - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper

The Arsonist - Chloe Hooper - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Every Australian was impacted, in some way, by the Black Saturday bushfires. It seemed to be a natural disaster on an unprecedented scale, the deadliest wildfires of Australia’s recorded history (180 people killed, hundreds more injured, and thousands of homes destroyed). Imagine, then, the stomach-dropping realisation that some of the fires were deliberately set. In The Arsonist, Chloe Hooper explores what might’ve led Brendan Sokaluk to light a fire in the LaTrobe Valley on a scorching hot day in February 2009. It sheds completely new light on what we all think we know and remember about that weekend, and the way we understand and investigate acts of arson. Read my full review of The Arsonist here.

Bonus: Hooper is probably better known for another Australian true crime book, The Tall Man, in which she investigates the death of Cameron Doomadgee in police custody.

Trace by Rachael Brown

Trace - Rachael Brown - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The unsolved murder of Maria James is a case that hits home particularly hard for Australian booklovers. The Melbourne mother of two was brutally stabbed in the flat behind her bookshop in 1980, and to this day no one has been charged with the crime. Rachel Brown initially investigated the case for a podcast, before putting together everything she had learned for a book by the same name, Trace. She very deliberately steers away from the “entertainment” aspect of the true crime genre, and spends a lot of time interrogating the ethics of what she’s doing. Ultimately, she decides that it’s the best – and maybe the only – way to generate public interest in the case, and with public interest comes jogged memories and heavy consciences that might just see the crime solved. Read my full review of Trace here.

The Teacher’s Pet by Hedley Thomas

The Teacher's Pet - Hedley Thomas - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Speaking of Australian true crime books that began as podcasts: even international listeners and readers will be familiar with The Teacher’s Pet, Hedley Thomas’s investigation into the disappearance (likely murder) of Lynette Dawson. The podcast was downloaded over 30 million times and made front-page news every time a new episode dropped, and now the whole story is laid out in this comprehensive book. It took forty years for Lynette’s murderer to be brought to justice, and it might never have happened if not for Thomas’s investigative journalism and incredible determination. Read my full review of The Teacher’s Pet here.

Carnage by Mark Dapin

When Australians re-watch or quote the viral arrest video for the thousandth time – “this is democracy manifest!”, “what is the charge? eating a meal? a succulent Chinese meal?” – they often forget the strange conflation of circumstances that saw Jack Karlson apprehended outside of a Fortitude Valley restaurant. Mark Dapin has, at long last, pieced it all together in Carnage. It’s an unusual Australian true crime book, in that it doesn’t center on the perpetrator of one terrible crime, but on a shadowy figure lurking in the background of many. As well as being the ripping yarn of one theatrical outlaw, it’s a de-facto history of organised crime in Australia from the 1960s to today.

Fake by Stephanie Wood

Fake - Stephanie Wood - Keeping Up With The Penguins

To be catfished is a uniquely modern phenomenon, enabled by the proliferation of dating apps and new levels of technological literacy that allow fake identities to be forged and verified online. At the same time, investigative journalists have never been more empowered to investigate the catfishers, and get to the heart of their motivations. Stephanie Wood fell in love with a former architect turned farmer, and the relationship only soured when he frequently cancelled their meet-ups and found flimsy excuses for her rightful concerns. In Fake, she discovers that the man she loved never actually existed, and she effectively exposes the dark underbelly of contemporary dating.

Larrimah by Kylie Stevenson & Caroline Graham

Larrimah - Caroline Graham and Kylie Stevenson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’re looking for contemporary Australian true crime books that have classic Australiana vibes, look no further than Larrimah. It has all the elements: “a missing man, an eyeless croc and an outback town of 11 people who mostly hate each other”. The titular town is a remote outback settlement with nothing to see or do, and only the occasional journalist or filmmaker dropping by to try and solve one of the most bizarre missing persons cases in Australia’s living memory. Kylie Stevenson and Caroline Graham have given it the best go they can, and ultimately they’ve written a love letter to this town, one full of dark humour and a deeply Australian sensibility.

This House Of Grief by Helen Garner

This House Of Grief - Helen Garner - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Helen Garner has written some of the most iconic Australian true crime books of the past century, and This House Of Grief is arguably the best. Robert Farquharson’s crimes horrified the nation; in 2005, he drove off a Victorian road and into a dam, causing his three sons in the car with him to drown. It took seven years for the tragic case to make it through the court system, and Garner dutifully attended each hearing and motion, taking copious notes and leaning forward when most Australians chose to look away. The resulting true crime book is one of the most haunting and incredible narratives you’ll ever read, in any genre.

Bonus: Joe Cinque’s Consolation is another of Garner’s iconic Australian true crime books, covering the murder of a young man in Canberra by his girlfriend, and the culpability of one of their friends.

Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee

Eggshell Skull - Bri Lee - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s one of the most intense and insightful Australian true crime books of the decade: Eggshell Skull. Bri Lee brings a unique perspective to the experience of sexual violence survivors in this country. She is a survivor herself, and also worked as a judge’s associate for over a year, sitting in on trial after trial on the regional court circuit, watching the wheels of justice turn over endless cases that mirrored her own. It’s one of the few true crime books that sits in the middle of the Venn diagram between the victim and the “justice” system, and it will forever change the way you think about how both perpetrators and victims are treated. Read my full review of Eggshell Skull here.

Shark Arm by Phillip Roope & Kevin Meagher

Shark Arm - Phillip Roope - Kevin Meagher - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The first line of Shark Arm sets it up beautifully: “On 25 April 1935, a 4.4 metre tiger shark – caught one week earlier off the coast of New South Wales – horrified onlookers at a Sydney aquarium when it vomited up a human arm.” The “shark arm”, as it obviously became known, led police down a rabbit hole of smuggling, insurance fraud, and – not one, but two – grisly murders. This is one of the most bizarre and unlikely Australian true crime books, one that turns every stone in an attempt to get to the truth of the decades-old cold case. Read my full review of Shark Arm here.

Reasonable Doubt by Xanthe Mallett

Reasonable Doubt - Xanthe Mallett - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Of all the Australian true crime books out there, very few focus on wrongful convictions and miscarriages of justice. Dr Xanthé Mallet, internationally-renowned forensic scientist and criminologist, sets out to restore the balance and shine a spotlight on this neglected issue in Reasonable Doubt. She uses a series of Australian case studies to explore the systemic failures of our criminal justice system, with a focus on the factors of a case that increase the likelihood of a wrongful conviction. By examining how and why miscarriages of justice occur, Mallett reveals opportunities for us to avoid them, and highlights the importance of making adequate restitution where they do occur. Read my full review of Reasonable Doubt here.

CSI Told You Lies by Meshel Laurie

CSI Told You Lies - Meshel Laurie - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Have you ever heard about a true crime case and thought “why don’t the police just…?” or “if I were on the jury, I would…?”. You might’ve fallen victim to the CSI Effect, the unrealistic expectations the general public have of forensic pathology based on that TV show and others like it. In CSI Told You Lies, Meshel Laurie offers the facts to try and counteract those false perceptions. Her approach makes this book a de-facto collection of Australian true crime stories told from a different perspective, that of the forensic pathologists who make it possible to identify and prosecute perpetrators of violent crime. Read my full review of CSI Told You Lies here.

Missing, Presumed Dead by Mark Tedeschi

Missing, Presumed Dead - Mark Tedeschi - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Dorothy Davis and Kerry Whelan came from opposite sides of Sydney. They were both (very) comfortably middle class, but other than that they had little in common. They ran in different circles, they had different hobbies, they never met. So, how did they both vanish without a trace, never to be seen again? Mark Tedeschi’s Missing, Presumed Dead unspools this tangled web. Tedeschi was the Crown Prosecutor in both cases, so he’s able to provide a lot of insight into the cases and, in so doing, he dispels a lot of damaging myths – like the assumption that a solid case can’t be built on circumstantial evidence, or that the absence of a body means a perpetrator can’t be convicted of homicide. Read my full review of Missing, Presumed Dead here.

Whiteley On Trial by Gabriella Coslovich

Whiteley On Trial - Gabriella Coslovich - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When you think of Australian true crime books, you’d be forgiven for thinking mostly of grisly murders and mysterious disappearances. Whiteley On Trial looks at a major crime of a different type altogether, but one no less fascinating: the biggest case of alleged art fraud to ever come before the Australian criminal justice system. Two men were found guilty of faking artworks by gifted Australian artist Brett Whiteley, only to be acquitted a year later by the appeal bench. The artworks were returned to their owners, with a giant question mark hanging over them – are they fakes, or are they the real deal?

2 Comments

  1. An excellent selection, I’ve read almost all of them. I’d also recommend Public Enemies by Mark Dapin, and Loose Units and Electric Blue both by Paul F Verhoeven

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