2014 / Sunday

True crime writers tell: It’s a struggle to find the truth

Adelaide McDowell

John Safran

John Safran

“There are no boring murders,” John Safran says. His panel mate Michaela McGuire nods agreement. Bound together by the true crime genre, they have both penned novels that reach from America’s Deep South to Melbourne’s gambling mecca, dealing with race, morality, and culpability along the way.

For Mr Safran, it was a combination of aspiring to write true crime and stumbling across an “insanely complicated” murder. For Ms McGuire, the “true crime” label was an afterthought. “When I fill out Australia Council applications, it’s narrative long-form journalism, but that doesn’t sound quite as sexy in the bookstore,” she says.

An award-winning documentary maker, Mr Safran is famous for his series Music Jamboree, John Safran vs God, Music Jamboree and Race Relations. He also hosts Sunday Night Safran on Triple J. Murder in Mississippi is his first foray into literature.

While filming John Safran’s Race Relations in the US, Safran met and staged an incident involving Richard Barrett, a notorious Mississippi white supremacist. Several years later, when he heard Barrett had been murdered, Mr Safran made his way over to the US to cover the trial and fallout. “I started connecting things in my skill set, using what I had done in my documentaries,” he says.

Ms McGuire is best known as the co-curator of Women of Letters with Marieke Hardy. Her first book was the comic memoir Apply Within: Stories of Career Sabotage and she writes a weekly blog for The Monthly called Twirling Towards Freedom. Her book, A Story of Grief, exploring the abduction and murder of ABC staffer Jill Meagher, which rocked Melbourne in 2012, began her foray into local narrative journalism.

Gambling had featured prominently in Ms McGuire’s life, from her early job as a waitress in a Brisbane casino to her uncle’s gambling addiction. “I already had the idea to write about gambling, so when I saw a news report of a man who had died at Melbourne’s Crown Casino it instantly caught my interest,” she says. The subsequent trial of a young security guard for manslaughter became her newest novel: Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law.

Anthony Dunning died in the intensive care unit of the Alfred Hospital four days after he was pinned to the floor by security staff at the casino. Two friends who were with Mr Dunning that night in July 2011 reported the incident to police; the casino did not. Following the death, the Victorian Police released a statement saying that while Crown Casino had no legal requirement to notify them of the incident, they probably had a moral obligation to do so.

“I used that perceived gap between what the law says and what most people consider to be moral and explored it throughout the gambling industry as a whole,” Ms McGuire says. But the answers are not so easily found. “If you look at controlling problem gamblers and banning people from casinos, that complicates free will. There’s no definite answer at the end of the book, I’m afraid.”

Mr Safran shares her pain. “I kept thinking there would be a point where I could 100 per cent watertight lock-off the absolute truth of what happened,” he says. “No matter how much I found out, or dug up, I could never say. All true crime writers — they didn’t know any more than I did, they just kind of offer up a fair enough version of events.”

From white supremacists and pimps to casino priests and gambling moguls, these are stories full of strange and wonderful characters, as funny as they are tragic. “Richard Barrett was a complicated white supremacist,” he says incredulously to a giggling crowd. “He seemed to be okay with black people. And was possibly sleeping with one!”

So why is true crime such a successful genre? Mr Safran has some ideas. “A murder really tests people. Things about your own character come out, how you deal with it,” he says. “It tells a story of the community. You get to see what the community is really like, what the family unit is like when it’s tested like this. It becomes a great spine for looking at other things.”

Ms McGuire was deeply affected by her case and remains attached. “I don’t know when I’ll see those names in the paper and not find out what’s happening. I don’t think it ever quite leaves you.”