The Many Deaths of Mary Dobie: Murder, Politics and Revenge in Nineteenth-century New Zealand
Auckland University Press, $40.00,
The Scene of the Crime: Twelve Extraordinary True Stories of Crime and Punishment
Tourism has certainly come a long way. When in 1878 Mary Dobie made the trip from England to New Zealand, travelling in the company of sister Bertha (has that name ever been fashionable?) and mother Ellen, it took her three months. Not surprisingly after such a big investment of time and effort, the women planned a stay of three years – time to attend the wedding of émigré brother Herbert and still fit in a tour of the North Island, taking in, among other places, the fabled Pink and White Terraces of Lake Rotomahana. In special travel outfits of their own design (“a stout dungaree petticoat and a loose blouse bodice of thin cotton stuff”), the intrepid trio even visited Fiji and Samoa. “No white woman had ever been there,” journalled Bertha, with some pride, of a caving expedition to the Yasawa Islands.
These women were no shrinking violets. Travelling far and wide, often unchaperoned, they pushed the envelope of what was considered acceptable in provincial Auckland society. While their adventurousness earned them some criticism from gossips, they were well-connected, confident, and moved easily in Auckland society. (Bertha made much of a family connection to Alfred, Lord Tennyson.) It’s impossible not to admire their pluck, but it’s also hard not to see them as overbearing, entitled. It’s the one overt authorial comment David Hastings allows himself in his excellent account.
Mary planned a three-year visit but, tragically, she is still with us today. She lies buried near the lonely spot on the Taranaki coast where she met a violent death. The ensuing investigation rapidly threw up more than one suspect. The motive was variously thought to be rape, robbery – or terrorism. These were jittery times. Land in the Taranaki region which had been nominally confiscated at the conclusion of the Land Wars of the early 1860s was now, belatedly, being taken from Māori. Non-violent protest by Māori was being met with arrest and imprisonment. There was a high level of anxiety among Pākehā that war could erupt, and a high level of anxiety amongst Māori that they were to be dispossessed. The killing thus became a potential pretext for a politically motivated reprisal against the nearby Māori pacifist settlement of Parihaka, led by the charismatic Te Whiti.
This is not a thriller or a whodunnit; indeed, it is meticulously researched, thoughtful, unshowy and compassionate. It’s compulsive reading nonetheless. Full of detail, first-hand accounts, court records, contemporary newspaper reports, the murder becomes a lens through which to view New Zealand society in a turbulent and fascinating time. Hastings discusses the relationship between the killing and the subsequent invasion of Parihaka, with subtlety. Although more than a year separated the two events, and the one certainly can’t be seen as a response to the other, Hastings argues that it’s undeniable that the mood of the volunteers who took part in the invasion, and that of the public in general, was still affected by the murder, and that it was linked to the dismemberment of an entirely peaceful settlement. “Murdered by a Maori” was the caption of a sketch of Mary’s tomb which accompanied an 1882 article about the invasion in the Illustrated London News.
Hastings’s book is readable, well-structured and has a good sense of story. It also has a slight tendency to repeat itself. Thus, we are reminded one time too many that brother Herbert was the author of New Zealand Ferns, a standard text until the mid 20th century, and that Mary contributed drawings to the first edition. Hastings is right, however, to stress Mary’s talent as an artist. The fact that many of the illustrations, some quite beautiful, were drawn by Mary herself, adds a layer of complexity to the reader’s response to what is, after all, the story of a terrible crime and of a life, full of richness and possibility, cut short. Mary was a few weeks shy of her 30th birthday when she died.
Hastings keeps a distance from his subject, although he doesn’t come across as cold. Quite the opposite, in fact. He treats the many issues the story raises, race not least among them, with intelligence, tact and sensitivity. But this is in no sense a personal account, and Hastings doesn’t respond personally to the story. The Scene of the Crime, a collection of reworked crime reportage from journalist Steve Braunias, is the polar opposite in this respect. Braunias himself is right at the centre of this work, responding, reflecting, judging.
And the differences don’t end there. Where one book is historical, the other is contemporary, one relatively formal, the other gonzo by persuasion. One is gentlemanly, the other has a pronounced swagger. The subtitles say it all. Murder, Politics and Revenge in Nineteenth-century New Zealand, for the one, Twelve Extraordinary True Stories of Crime and Punishment for the other. This breathy tabloid tone continues onto the back cover (“these are issues of psychology and the soul”). The text is written to a much higher standard than the cover, and is a fast, easy read despite the odd cheesy metaphor: “Crime reads like a map of the human heart.”
The risk a journalist runs when including him- or herself in the narrative is that it’s easy to come off as self-important on the one hand, or trivial on the other: “Lundy said to me, half in wonder, ‘I’ve talked to two other journalists, Mike White and Jared Savage. They didn’t make me cry. You do.’ ”
The above is a case of the former; the information that Braunias was in the habit of having Honeypuffs for breakfast while covering the Mark Lundy trial, a case of the latter. There’s a fair smattering of this through the book – as a character in his own story Braunias tends to fall flat, because he’s too careful with his own appearance, unwilling to turn the same harsh spotlight on himself which he turns on others. When he is at his most revealing, one suspects it’s not in the way he intends – between the lines lies a pushy unpleasant character, ambulance-chasing, bothering Rolf Harris’s wife, big-noting with a fellow journalist.
Braunias has an effective style, but it is marred by an unattractive tic – he cannot resist the cheap shot. Thus Mark Lundy, convicted murderer, with whom Braunias built enough trust to elicit the response referred to above, is hammered with epithets: “huge”, “fat”, “fatty”, “a slob”. Lundy is a helpless target and, whatever your opinion of the crime, this just seems unnecessary and cruel. A juror is, on the sole evidence of his T-shirt, a “munter”. A Te Ara writer, whose opinions don’t chime with Braunias’s, is “nobody”. He has a peculiar penchant for the word “blather” as a descriptor of (other) people talking. Individuals are also routinely labelled by race or sexual orientation: “a Māori guy stuck a knife between the […] ribs of an Asian guy” opens the book. “Heavy black man”, “lesbian solo mother”, “Tongan housekeeper”: these are sole references to minor characters, some of whom don’t even appear. They add “colour” only by appealing to stereotypes of race and gender. The back cover quotes a New Zealand Herald review which states that Braunias can make us see people “clearly and exactly the way he wants you to see them.” But this is quite incorrect. What is made clear is how Braunias sees people.
The book is much easier to like when Braunias steps outside himself. There’s a very good chapter on crime reporting in Timaru, where the tone becomes whimsical. He has a novelist’s imagination and can realise character extremely well. A chapter in the middle of the book opens with an effectively dramatised scene told first from the point of view of a prostitute, then from Lundy’s. And when Braunias puts personality aside and discusses the facts of the Lundy trial in detail, he is cogent, passionate and convincing.
While these books are pretty much chalk and cheese, they have one peculiar point of crossover: a prime suspect in the investigation of Mary Dobie’s killing offered as a defence the explanation that blood on his coat was horse blood, not human. At the time there was no way, scientifically, to prove or disprove his claim. A hundred and twenty years later, Mark Lundy, convicted of murder, argued that the microscopic quantity of brain tissue found on his shirt was of animal, not human, origin. And once again, astonishingly enough, there was no agreed scientific method by which to prove or disprove the claim. Tourism might have come a long way – but crime, maybe not so much.
William Brandt is a novelist and short story writer who teaches a short fiction course at the International Institute of Modern Letters.