Title: The Killing Streets: Uncovering Australia’s first serial murderer
Author: Tanya Bretherton
Genre: History, Non-Fiction, True Crime
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Published: 25th February 2020
Synopsis: From the acclaimed author of THE SUITCASE BABY and THE SUICIDE BRIDE, the story of a series of horrific murders that began in 1930s Sydney – and a killer who remained at large for over two decades.
In December 1932, as the Depression tightened its grip, the body of a woman was found in Queens Park, Sydney. It was a popular park. There were houses in plain view. Yet this woman had been violently murdered without anyone noticing. Other equally brutal and shocking murders of women in public places were to follow. Australia’s first serial killer was at large.
Police failed to notice the similarities between the victims until the death of one young woman – an aspiring Olympic swimmer – made the whole city take notice. On scant evidence, the unassuming Eric Craig was arrested. But the killings didn’t stop…
This compelling story of a city crippled by fear and a failing economy, of a killer at large as panic abounds, is also the story of what happens when victims aren’t perfect and neither are suspects, and when a rush to judgement replaces the call of reason.
Modern Sydney has been connected to crime ever since the arrival of the First Fleet with the first lot of convicts from the UK, sent to serve out sentences for stealing bread, stealing clothes and many other crimes at what must have felt like the end of the world for those people. In 1930s Sydney, during the Depression, a violent murder occurred in Queens Park – followed by several others that were similar, and a few others had preceded the 1932 murder. It seemed Australia had its first serial killer.
Yet in 1932, even though new forensic and crime scene recording techniques were coming to light – sketches and photography were used in conjunction as part of investigations – the police did not see the link between the initial deaths – unfortunately laying some of the blame on the victim, due to their profession. Yet when Bessie O’Connor – an aspiring Olympic swimmer who lived a very different life to the other women – prostitutes – was murdered, the police hurriedly made the connection.
In these dark days, the police investigation appears to have been hurried somewhat in a desperate attempt to get the ‘sex slayer’ off the streets. Yet even once Eric Craig, who forever professed his innocence, was arrested – the killings continued after a brief break. The killer could have been a copycat, or perhaps in their haste, the police arrested the wrong man, and because of that, let the real killer go free for decades to come.
Tanya Bretherton uses the facts at hand in articles, archives and various other sources to construct her book, and whilst she extrapolates what may have happened in some places due to gaps in the information she has access to, this I felt was done respectfully and in a way that tried to give something more to the history, and show just how a forced and quick investigation can result in the wrong outcome, and possibly, lead to the real killer never being caught. She humanises the victims, and makes sure we remember their names: Daisy, Rebecca, Vera, Hilda, Iris, Bessie, Betty, Lucy, Joan and Ada, whose deaths were not properly investigated, and where their gender was also a factor in how the police viewed these crimes – that somehow they’d done something wrong, yet they hadn’t. Tanya makes them human again, seen through the eyes of those that loved them rather than their killer, and also, illustrated the dynamics of Eric Craig, his upbringing and the stark contrast between the way his mother – Leah, and his wife – Mary-Caroline as they watched the trial, and what happened to their son and husband.
Tanya also manages to get the balance between the emotions linked to the deaths and cases, and the facts – they both contribute to construct a narrative where one can believe that Craig wasn’t the killer, that he was coerced into a confession due to shoddy police work, and lack of further investigation into other possible suspects in an attempt to make the killings stop. The killings Craig was accused of were the 1932 ones, but very similar killings took place from 1926 to 1944, and suggest the possibility of one serial killer across the eighteen years – but nobody can know for sure, which is what makes this book so interesting – it posits that there could have been at least two, but this is something we will never know, perhaps lost to history forever. Still, these stories open up a seedy and dark underside of a well-known city, illustrating a time of fear and uncertainty through a dark and murky mystery. Readers of crime and true crime will find this a fascinating insight into Australia’s history and crime and justice system.