A Child's Book of True Crime
by Chloe Hooper
A Non-Review by J Stefan Cole
Hooper's first novel, A CHILD'S BOOK OF TRUE CRIME, Scribner,
2002, is a fine book with one problem: a hole where the
ending should be. I mean hemorrhaging from the back. The
book's fluidity, sense of place, the shear bravado of Hooper's
writing are impressive. But I glanced ahead because I could
see the pages were running out, I did a little finger measure
of those remaining and thought, uh-oh.
Too much information was still floating loose. In anticipation,
I began filling in the blanks: Kate Byrne, young fourth
grade teacher in the outback Tasmanian town of Endport,
will quit, return to the main land, get a Master's Degree
in child psychology; a scarred woman, but wiser. Either
that, or she will be done in. Murder became plausible once
it was revealed that a fan belt and the brakes of Kate's
old Mercedes had been tampered with, causing a near miss
on a desolate road. Thomas Marne, the father of her precocious,
favored student, Lucien, is Kate's lover; he and his wife,
Veronica, become Kate's favorite candidates for crime.
She is a spirited teacher. I wish I'd had her for fourth
grade. Her method is Socratic, querying her students on
wide ranging topics like truth vs. lies, the "merits
of hell," the reality of dreams. She is acutely analytical
of their responses, seeing their world as a shadow one to
the grown ups', a world of which Kate is a less than successful
member. One has difficulty imagining Kate teaching reading,
writing and arithmetic. A student, Anaminka, asks, "'But
what if this is a dream, and when you dream it's not a dream?
If in fact we are dreaming, then what are dreams?'"
There is of course no answer, and Kate wonders about death,
"What if children's terror of night and night monsters
is just their connecting the dots between dreaming and death?"
Death figures throughout the book. Lucien's mom has just
come out with a book, Murder At Black Swan Point, an expose
rehashing the local murder of Ellie Siddell twenty years
earlier, presumably at the hands of her lover's wife. Like
Kate, Ellie Siddell had come to Endport fresh out of school,
an innocent at nineteen. Big, pretty, naive, she spent her
growing up in the protected environment of a girl's school,
cloaked in middle class propriety among, "...girls
with lovely upbringings who don't understand disaster."
She had moved into her family's country home where horses
needed tending to, Ellie being a natural with animals. Soon
the local veterinarian, Graeme Harvey, a kindly fellow with
three young daughters and a loving, well-off wife, offers
her a job at his clinic. He is the sort of man no one would
think twice about, what could be better for a budding young
woman than the tutelage of this gentlemanly vet? But before
long the good doctor is unbuttoning Ellie's blouse, teaching
her the ways of the birdies and bees.
The evidence surrounding Ellie's murder is circumstantial.
The authorities conclude Graeme's wife stabbed Ellie to
death before presumably jumping off the coast at a place
aptly named Suicide Cliffs. But her body was never recovered,
and not everyone in town believes Margot Harvey did it,
or that Graeme Harvey did not. Thus begin the many parallels
in this book. Kate too has come to Endport fresh out of
school, Teacher's College, and she too lives alone, in her
deceased grandparent's beach house. Kate has taken the teaching
job for a year while she decides what to do with the rest
of her life. She is every bit as vulnerable as Ellie Siddell
was, and she too is quickly seduced by an older man.
Thomas Marne is a lawyer, a domineering, impatient sort
who bluntly tells Kate they are in the affair for the thrills.
They role play; he lisps baby talk to Kate as he asks her
lewd questions--has she been a good girl, have the students
looked into her blouse... She removes her black underwear
in his silver car as they speed down the highway toward
a seaside hotel for lunch hour lust. Kate succumbs easily
to the games and sex play. There is no intimacy. The eroticism
is lush, Kate is not inhibited, with her childlike (at time
childish) ways; she is unformed and pliable. Kate admits
that she, "fell into adultery," but Thomas, it
appears, planned the seduction, and he is in control.
Up pop a thousand questions about older men and young women,
the documentation is endless. So why does Kate do it? We
know what she imagines went on between Ellie and Graeme:
that he made Ellie feel pretty and wanted, that he taught
her all about fucking, "When they writhe, she'd think,
We're two sticks trying to make fire." And about who
she is with her lover in their forbidden pleasure: "Everyone
should have one great secret to carry round as a talisman.
Then when people look at you, thinking, she's like this,
or she's only this, they'll always be wrong."
Even before the incident with her car, Kate had begun to
obsess on Ellie and Graeme, she's read Veronica's account
of the grisly killing and has some thoughts of her own on
what really happened. A harrowing scene follows her near
miss on the road; abandoning the car to get help, she walks
miles in wild countryside that hugs the sea, where scary,
inbred, barely civilized types populate random ranches.
Yet Kate makes the analogy between herself and Ellie only
when she feels her own life is in danger. Besides tampering
with her car, someone has begun calling late at night, hanging
up without a word. Kate believes Veronica, the lithe, sophisticated
author, is making the calls, that she is on to her husband
and Kate and that more foul play is in store. Kate wonders
if Thomas and Veronica aren't working together.
Surrounding all this intrigue is a rich, textured landscape
with a dark past. We learn, on a class trip, that Tasmania
was Devil's Island, where the English sent criminals by
the boatload. And not just wrong doers, but preachers of
the good word were sent too, to see that prayer accompanied
a brutal fate. Escape was nearly impossible, there was nowhere
to go, even if sharks did not hover around the island. The
beaches were littered with white oyster shells so escapees
couldn't slip by in the dark, and, just in case, wild dogs
patrolled the perimeters as a final terrifying back up.
Some managed to break out though and they became the fabled,
marauding burshrangers of Tasmanian lore. So Tasmania itself,
settled by inmates, ministers and prostitutes, parallels
this story of sex and crime.
And Kate's obsession is informed by yet another parallel,
a wonderful device of having Ellie's murder "chronicled"
by local animals. Thus, a Child's Book Of True Crime where
talking animals shadow the world of humans. There are Kitty
Koala, Terence Tiger, Wally Wambat and Kingsley Kookaburra.
"'Wally,' said Terence, breathlessly. 'Whatever has
happened?' 'Oh, dear!' sobbed the usually gruff wombat.
'Poor Ellie Siddell...' Terence raised an eyebrow. 'Well,'
Wally murmured, slightly shamefaced, 'I guess you've heard
about her torrid personal life?'" The fear these animals
have of grown up humans, they also have for more vulnerable
humans, like children and young women.
It is not surprising that Kate begins to unravel. Unfortunately,
so does the book. It's a wonderfully engaging read that
abruptly stops. I finally understood that vital bits of
information are missing from the opening scenes with Kate
and Thomas, on their lunch hour tryst. Something I think
Ms Hooper thought was revealed is not. We get the idea that
Kate has behaved badly with Thomas, and that that becomes
the genesis of her problems. But I'm not sure what she did,
annoyed him? Did she begin to dread the lies, the detached
sex? I realized I didn't know enough about Kate to understand
her, and therefore I couldn't get what happened. We best
know Kate through her students, but this works more on the
level of insightful themes rather than insight into character,
so when Kate starts to unravel, though there is cause for
fear and doubt, there is not sufficient emotional validity.
The parts don't quite add up to a whole. We have Kate's
sensuality, her vital curiosity (a trait that bounces between
immaturity, and a refreshing freedom from stifling adult
rules), but we don't really know who she is. The ending
does not help.
I mean I literally do not know what happens. I read the
last few pages three times thinking a book this rich can't
just fall off a cliff. But it does. I forget which writer
it was that said endings are hell.
©July 2002 J Stefan-Cole