A Murder without Motive
I wanted to begin this review with an observation regarding Martin McKenzie-Murray’s journalism for The Saturday Paper, to the effect that it displays an uncommon acuity of feeling. But such a remark, I realised, was akin to describing a woman as “fiercely intelligent”. In fact, two silent qualifiers were lurking: that McKenzie-Murray displays an uncommon acuity of feeling for a man, and for a journalist.
A Murder without Motive leads the reader to self-examination. Leads by example. Long before he arrives at the question of the murderer’s motive, McKenzie-Murray interrogates his own motives for writing this book. Citing Janet Malcolm’s dictum that “Every journalist … knows that what he does is morally indefensible” and that they “justify their treachery in various ways”, he duly wonders: “What was my justification?”
He grew up in the northern suburbs of Perth, not far from where Rebecca Ryle was murdered in 2004. Her killer, James Duggan, was an acquaintance and sometime antagonist of McKenzie-Murray’s brother, and the crime, over the years, would come to stand as emblematic of the author’s suburban youth. Aged 23 at the time of the murder, and back in suburbia after university and a stint overseas, he’d “assumed that this vast ocean of banality had somehow contributed to Rebecca’s death”. Though he now calls that assumption “startlingly pretentious”, he’s been unable to shake a conviction that Duggan’s pathology was fostered, if not forged, by the “collective desire to be seen to be tough”.
From the start, Duggan’s lies and elisions obscured his motive for killing Ryle. McKenzie-Murray, though, comes to discern that the real power of this crime story lies not in aggrandising the perpetrator with an impetus he may never have possessed, but in honouring the experience of Rebecca’s family, “brave and lucid narrators of a suffering we rarely observe with care”. Observing with care is, after all, McKenzie-Murray’s forte.
So, it’s a shock to read his first email to Rebecca’s parents, which arrived out of the blue eight years after her murder, and to be reminded that he is, after all, a journalist. “The reason I’m writing to you,” he told the Ryles, “is that I’m working on a book on the death of your daughter, Rebecca.” Not With your blessing… or I’m considering… To his credit, he asks himself, early on, “Whose story is it?” That, it turns out, is the book’s central question. FL
Scribe, 240pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 6, 2016 as "Martin McKenzie-Murray, A Murder without Motive ". Subscribe here.