- Welcome to The Book Muse Tanya, it’s a pleasure to have you here.
Thank you very much for having me.
- You’ve written two true crime books about Australian crime – what drew you to this genre, and these cases?
As a reader, I am a big fan of crime stories, particularly those that seek to explore the darker side of human nature. As a writer I am attracted to the true crime genre because it provides a very dramatic backdrop to tell deeply personal stories. Loss, tragedy, heartbreak and desperation are all there – both before the crime is committed and they are present in its aftermath as well. Both The Suitcase Baby and The Suicide Bride begin with true crime events, but they unfold as personal stories. Crime stories, in some way or other, are always stories about families and secrets.
- Can you give a brief explanation of the term suicide bride for my followers who may not have read the book yet?
I began the journey of writing the book by examining at one horrible true crime event in particular. In January 1904 in the inner-city suburb of Newtown in Sydney, two young brothers discovered the bodies of their parents in the family home. Thirty-two-year-old Alexander Sly murdered his wife Ellie, with a cut throat razor, and then killed himself. Their four children, all under the age of eight (Bedford, Basil, Mervyn and baby Olive) were orphaned.
As I began to explore the social and economic context in which the crime was committed, I discovered to my horror that this was not the only case like this. In the late nineteenth century there were many cases of husbands who planned their own suicide and factored the murder of their wife as part of that act (hence the term ‘suicide bride’). In the year of 1904 alone, there were murder-suicides attempted and committed by husbands in every single month in every state of Australia. The cases all shared some remarkable and macabre similarities with the Sly murder-suicide case.
- What was it about the Sly case in particular that you found interesting, and why?
It is hard to imagine a family story more tragic than that of Alexander and Ellie Sly. I had to know what happened to the children. As a researcher, I have studied child protection and from what I knew about trauma and its long-term impacts, I knew the outcomes for the children in this case were not likely to be good. I wanted to know how a child’s life might unfold in the wake of something so tragic and at a period in history which had a reputation for being very tough on children.
During the research process I also discovered something unique about the Sly family. I don’t what to give too much away, but there is a twist in the book which I think readers will find as fascinating as I did.
- Was it hard trying to determine what really happened with limited resources and evidence for the Sly case, and in turn, the fate of the children, and where did these challenges arise from?
I undertake a lot of research before I even start to write a true crime book, because I want to see if there is enough material to sustain both a big picture account of the event, and a personal story as well. I was well down the research road before I decided that there was enough viable material to write The Suicide Bride. With this book I had the unusual situation of having too much material, so I had to make decisions about which stories I was going to focus on, which characters were going to play the leads, and who would play the minor roles. In the end, those choices came down to decisions of the heart not the head.
- When writing true crime, what are the most important, or most informative sources for you, and why?
I tend to write social history and life history narratives disguised as true crime stories. For this reason trial transcripts, inquest documents and those resources that might traditionally form the foundation for a true crime account play a lesser role in my research process. I do a lot of genealogical research for my books, as I think there are powerful discoveries to be made in uncovering how deeply a crime event impacts loved ones and how long it reverberates down through a family.
- Do you find looking at these crimes from a sociological perspective rather than a criminology or criminal investigative perspective gives a different insight into the crime? What do you think the differences are?
There is no doubt that sociology deeply influences both how I analyse true crime events and how I write about them. In sociology, a lot of emphasis is placed on understanding the roles we play in collective settings, social norms, and the labels that we use to categorise people. I think this is important because it gives us a deeper understanding of the really complex context that underpins crime. In exploring murder, for example, law and order perspectives consider the question of motive: why would person A kill person B? I think sociology can help fill the bigger canvas of ‘why?’ by asking what is the social, the economic and the familial context for ‘why’.
- What sparked your initial interest in true crime stories in particular, and do you plan to look into further cases that we might not know much about, or that might not have been solved?
I think my interest in the true crime genre goes way back to childhood. We didn’t have many books in our house when I was growing up, but my Dad was an avid reader of murder mysteries. So almost every book in our house had a dead body in it – that probably had an impact on an early reader! To this day I write stories that have a twist in some way or other, and if I don’t find that twist, I will abandon a subject as a possible book and move on to another case.
Yes, I definitely have a number of books planned! I always like to select cases that have not had a lot of exposure to date. I am developing two more Sydney-based true crime books at the moment. Both of these books will also deal with issues of women and crime.
- Do you think we will ever find out why Alicks Sly committed the murder-suicide and left four children orphans?
The murder suicide of Alicks Sly and his wife made national news. It was a big story at the time. Alicks Sly was a local spiritualist and medium who believed he could communicate with the dead. He saw visions and heard voices. The family were also profoundly poor as well. All of this absolutely fascinated the public at the time, and retrospectively we continue to reflect on the different ways in which this crime can be viewed. Was Alicks mentally ill? Was there a pattern of violence in the home prior to the final tragic incident? I think the same questions that investigators were asking about the Sly case in 1904, we are still asking about murder-suicides that occur today. We might draw a clinical set of conclusions as to why this kind of crime occurs, but this analysis will always fall short in the face of something so tragic and heartbreaking.
- How often do you find living descendants of the families involved to talk to about the cases, and what are the ethical issues you navigate when you encounter them?
To date, I have chosen historical true crime stories that are very old. This means there aren’t any relatives (still living) who were directly impacted by the tragedies.
- Are there any legal issues or obstacles you face when looking into these old crimes, and like the previous question about ethics, how does it affect the outcome of your book?
I purposefully select cases that I know won’t present me with the kinds of ethical dilemmas that will disrupt the writing process. I want to be able to write unencumbered by those responsibilities.
Any ethical questions I face during the writing process tend to be more abstract and relate to writing in the spaces of grey that exist between rigid depictions of good and evil. Can a person be a villain and a victim at the same time? Can a criminal act ever be a noble choice? I hope that I offer up enough evidence to the reader, that they get to decide. I want them to make the moral call on the crime, the criminal who committed it and how they feel society should have handled what happened.
- Finally, what do you hope writing about these crimes does to help society and possibly those who have links to those involved, and can this have a positive impact on crime solving?
I think true crime stories are often written as psychological portraits, and this plays an important role in helping us to understand the pathology that can underpin some criminal behaviour. But there is also a wider social and economic context for crime. Putting moral questions about crime and criminals aside for a moment, people who commit crimes may be labelled criminals, but they are also people looking for solutions. We may not agree with their approach to problem solving, we may even abhor it, but understanding what drives people to commit crime remains important and conflicted terrain for us all to reflect on. In both The Suitcase Baby and The Suicide Bride, a criminal act resulted from absolute desperation. The people in those stories were looking for solutions. They made unthinkable choices, terrible choices. In the end what they found was not a solution at all. Their choices also created even more heartbreak for the people they cared most about. I can’t claim that my books have any impact on the field of criminology, nor the methodologies we use to catch criminals, but it is fascinating terrain to work with in terms of character and story.
Thank you for joining me on The Book Muse, Tanya and good luck with your future projects.