Source: Review Copy (Auckland University Press)
Today, the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Awards blog tour has reached its next pit stop. A month or so ago Craig Sisterson (a judge for the Awards and also writer of the New Zealand crime fiction blog, Crime Watch), asked me if I was interested in joining the blog tour for the Ngaio Marsh Awards. Instead of just focusing on the winning titles, the aim of this tour is to showcase all of the shortlisted works and their authors. For more information on the awards click here and if you’re interested in seeing where the blog tour is going next or has already been the picture below should show all the stops.
So not only is this the first time I have participated in a blog tour, but this is also the first true crime book I have reviewed online. True crime is not a subgenre I dabble in much. I’m not into grizzly books on Jack the Ripper and I really didn’t enjoy Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008). It tried to be dramatic fictionalisation as well as a nonfiction text detailing the historical/social/cultural data and for me it failed on both counts. Not sure I even finished it, which is certainly a rarity for me. Therefore, to be honest, I was a little worried about trying another true crime book. However, fortunately for me, my fears were unfounded and Hastings book is successful book, which importantly for me delivered a writing style which was consistent, engaging, well-paced and entertainingly informative.
The story Hastings’ book relates, is of the murder of the artist Mary Dobie in 1880 in New Zealand. She, with her mother and sister had been visiting New Zealand for three years, with her sister having married someone over there. Mary and her mother were due to soon leave for the return trip to England. Yet this was not to be for Mary, as one day when she went for a walk, she did not return and as darkness was falling she is discovered, her throat cut so deeply that she is nearly decapitated.
After an introductory chapter setting up the crime in its basic details, hinting at the role the newspapers would go on to play in the investigation of the murder, Hastings then turns back the clock a couple of years to look at Mary Dobie, her family and their stay in New Zealand before the fateful day. In doing so Hastings deftly explores the wider context of the crime and how it coloured perceptions of the suspects involved. The political and social context particularly intrigued me as before, during and after the crime there was a lot of tension between the native inhabitants and the settler communities, whose government was trying to reallocate their land. Into this powder keg of tensions and barely restrained violence, Mary’s murder can be seen as a lighted match and it was especially fascinating to see how this situation affected everyone’s earnest need to know why the murder was committed and also how in turn the murder and the subsequent trial affected the land dispute.
Mary Dobie is an interesting person to read about, having not been a very conventional woman in many respects. Hastings does not romanticise her, nor whitewash her. She is not a wholly likeable woman, suffering from class snobbery in part and an imperialist outlook not every modern day reader will get along with. Nevertheless she was still a remarkable and talented woman, recording her trips around New Zealand in sketches and paintings, going to far flung places and experiencing the out of the ordinary. One contemporary newspaper wrote that: ‘It is of women like her that the heroines of history are made.’ Hastings’ handling of her is skilled, providing a balanced picture and where her outlook on native New Zealanders is myopic, he is able to fill in the gaps. For instance in a community where Mary saw happy and healthy Maori inhabitants, Hastings counters this was a government official’s findings of a settlement riddled with TB.
Hastings does a good job of providing insightful little details into the case and its aftermath, without overloading the reader with too much data. He takes you on a journey as the case twists and turns, making you wonder how it will all end. The section on the surprises at the inquest and the subsequent trial were very interesting. In particular I enjoyed reading about the legal processes and the problems this case had with following them. Reader sympathy is not centred wholly on the victim, as Hastings brings to the readers’ attention the much wider scope of victims this crime has. Looking at the confessional evidence, Hastings pulls out of it a poignant and sad story of cultural misunderstanding and fear, which ended in violent death.
So unsurprisingly I give this book a big thumbs up. Not only was it a brilliant read, but it encouraged me to give the true crime subgenre another go. The case Hastings explores is compellingly written and you can’t help but be drawn in to the individuals and the society they were living in. The only slight niggle I had was that throughout the book photographs are referenced in text, yet they are not displayed in text nor in a middle section. Instead they are clumped together at the back. Personally I would have preferred to have had the pictures closer to the in text references, as I found it hard afterwards to connect them to what I had read. However, this is only a slight issue as I say and shouldn’t put anyone off from giving this book a go.