I never read non-fiction, predominantly because I read to escape so I don’t actually want reality. I usually however also struggle with the structure of non-fiction books, even when events are running chronologically there’s overlap and most just don’t work (for me!).
I was keen to read The Schoolgirl Strangler by Katherine Kovacic however, because I like her writing and met her at an event in 2019. At the time she commented on coming across these cases when researching her first book, the Ned Kelly Award-nominated The Portrait of Molly Dean. So I figured I’d push myself out of my comfort zone to kick off 2021.The Schoolgirl Strangler
by Katherine Kovacic
Published by Bonnier Echo
Source: Echo Publishing
November, 1930. One sunny Saturday afternoon, 12-year-old Mena Griffiths was playing in the park when she was lured away by an unknown man. Hours later, her strangled body was found, mouth gagged and hands crossed over her chest, in an abandoned house.
Only months later, another girl was murdered; the similarities between the cases undeniable. Crime in Melbourne had taken a shocking new turn: this was the work of a serial killer, a homicidal maniac.
Despite their best efforts, police had no experience dealing with this kind of criminal. What followed was years of bungled investigations, falsely accused men - and the tragic deaths of two more girls - before the murderer was finally caught and brought to justice.
I was surprised at how intrigued I was by the murders of these four young girls. Before I started the book I didn’t know ‘whodunnit’ or any of the backstory so – in reality for me – it was a bit like reading fiction… as if Kovacic could (yet) twist events to manipulate the outcome.
I didn’t struggle with the structure (which I commented on above) as it’s logical to keep this chronological, although there are a few tangents on offer.
What I probably missed a little was Kovacic’s voice. I like the droll humour she brings to her crime solving art dealer Alex Clayton and we only saw that a little here occasionally via some more informal language.
Here, Kovavic blends fact and—I suspect—supposition and I wasn’t always sure which was which. Of course she acknowledges that and the fact she’s limited by documentation from that time. And we’re reminded that the accounts of anyone at that time would be making assumptions based on their own perceptions, feelings and beliefs. Unless we’re hearing the account first hand, and even then… well—it might be surprising to hear this—but not everyone is always truthful.
This was also a really timely read as I’m (again) studying and something I’m grappling with in my Master of Arts (Writing and Literature) is the whole knowing vs researching and referencing. As an example, in an assignment last trimester I mentioned something about popular Australian crime fiction – rural or outback noir – and the lecturer said I should have referenced where that phrase. I mean, I didn’t make it up myself but doesn’t everyone call it that?
Anyhoo… Kovacic provides a commentary of sorts here and her writing is insightful and nuanced.
Given that the real killer seemed to simply emerge from the shadows and, having committed a vile crime, vanish again, police were doing their best. This man, a bogeyman, was like something glimpsed from the corner of an eye. Turn your head, look too closely and there’s nothing to be seen. But focus your gaze elsewhere, and you can sense movement. Something is there. pp 124-125
Kovacic takes us through the murders of the four girls fairly quickly with half of the book dedicated to the accused (Arnold Sodeman – sorry #spoiler, but I’m not sure that’s a ‘thing’ when it comes to true crime) and the trial. She points out many MANY errors made by police and I also found myself second-guessing many of their actions and assumptions.
For example, Kovacic draws some attention to another man, David Bennett, hanged after a number of offences including one involving the sexual assault of a young girl. We’re told he spent quite a bit of time at the coroner’s court after Mena Griffiths’ murder. And I could not help but consider the fact that Griffiths was the only of Sodeman’s victims sexually assaulted and it seemed to be something he vehemently denied. I wondered, if by introducing Bennett and his interest in the earlier case, Kovacic was suggesting he may have played a role. Certainly there were several witnesses to Mena’s disappearance – called in the original trial – but none of whom appeared to be called upon to identify Sodeman once he confessed.
As usual I loved that Kovacic draws in some historical fact (cos otherwise I’d learn nothing). She comments on the tense relations between the Victorian Police Commissioner and the media (and I think I remember that from an episode of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries). The police use Indigenous trackers. The term ‘serial killers’ is decades off being coined by the FBI (as detailed in the 2017 Netflix show Mindhunter and the 1995 book on which it’s based). There’s no linking of the deaths, despite the fact the government pathologist was involved in all four autopsies and police officers involved in several cases.
The trial itself in particular also considers the definition of an insanity defence with Sodeman’s counsel suggesting his client’s mania (when drinking) results in an obsessional insanity.
This book provides an intriguing insight into criminal investigations. Many times I shook my head wondering why the police didn’t do or think something I felt should have been obvious. Of course (now) we’ve had almost a century of advancements so even a middle aged woman in the middle of nowhere (ie. me) is privy to a bevy of police procedurals, CSIs and TV shows featuring coroners. Much of what was unimaginable to the police involved in investigations at the time, is far too commonplace now.
Fans of true crime will certainly enjoy this book and Kovacic’s writing and her occasional embellishments and commentary mean that crime fiction readers such as myself will enjoy it as well.
The Schoolgirl Strangler by Katherine Kovacic was published in Australia by Echo Publishing and is now available.
I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.