In The Scene of the Crime, award-winning journalist, author and columnist, Steve Braunias, presents a truly riveting line-up of twelve of the most infamous crime stories that have occupied the New Zealand public imagination, and which challenge our conceptions of right and wrong, victim and perpetrator, guilt and innocence.
As court reporter , originally appointed by the Greymouth Evening Star at the ripe old age of 23, Braunias remembers his initial apprehension, the being afraid of “murderers and frightened of men who gave the bash”. Back in those early days the most common events he covered were indeed about “giving the bash”, drink-driving, and supplying of marijuana. Through the years, Braunias’ advancement as a senior journalist to bigger publications meant that some of the court cases became increasingly bigger and more scandalous – cementing his compelling love-hate relationship with court reporting and the “dark side” of New Zealand life. This collection of twelve “real-life crimes” does an excellent job of sharing this somewhat grisly attraction to the court room, slowly pulling readers into the drama that is the blood and tears of real people, the prevailing mystery of the unknown, and the fleeting moments between the before and after of a crime – moments that only the victim and perpetrator can ever truly know.
The Scene of the Crime presents a cross-section of accused criminals, including the samurai sword-wielding Antonie Dixon, hit and run “road rage” banker Guy Hallwright, paedophile Derek King, ex-police officer Clint Rickards, accused of serial rape, “outback” murderer Brad Murdoch, and, of course, the infamous Mark Lundy who was convicted of murdering his wife and child. With such well-chosen subjects there is hardly a dull moment in this diverse collection, which covers just about every genre of criminal activity imaginable.
Braunias depicts the court system it as if it is a stage with all the necessary actors (lawyers, judges, court officials, rubber-neckers and concerned family as onlookers, and, of course, the star actor: the accused), and manages to contrast the artificially constructed orderliness and control of a court room to the inherently chaotic and out of control nature of the crime itself.
The book also showcases aspects of New Zealand society – almost with a sly twinkle in his eye, Braunias gets to the soul of the New Zealand psyche easily and with a few, well executed strokes of his pen. The crimes – and the criminals who perpetrate them – are not operating in isolation, there is always a context, or the backdrop of “kiwi life”. The forces of “evil” are also the everyday forces of life, money, power, sex and control – factors that easily drive most societies, but which are often down-played in the perpetuation of the myth of New Zealand as “god’s own country”, a country established and run by our hard-working, honest pioneering spirit.
The courtroom – and the media coverage of a court case – is always a place where fiction sits side-by side with half-truths and assumptions. The picture of accused criminals is tainted by this grey-space, where every man and their dog feel it is their right to make character judgements, and declare guilt or innocence, whether proven or not. Braunias presents all this mayhem, but manages to firmly put himself into a neutral place – he collects the evidence, asks the questions but throughout his narrative manages to stay fairly solidly out of the picture as a judge or hasty declaratory of the elusive truth. At times maddeningly frustrating for the reader, who seeks the confines of being able to be told to lean one way or another (guilty or not guilty? Serious psychopath or misunderstood person who was at the wrong place, wrong time?), Braunias steers clear of making grandiose pronouncements – instead he provides the details and small nuances of the evidence, and the characters involved in the trials, eschewing all hyped up sensationalism, letting the reader come to their own conclusion, which, for most of the stories, is to be baffled and taken aback by the lack of certainty, considering what we thought we knew through previous media coverage of the cases.
It is possible that after reading Braunias’ accounts you will feel like you have some icky, slimy substance sticking to you, seemingly hard to shake off – I imagine this is the aftertaste of the encounter with the “dark side” – not fictionalised, not a TV drama, not a cleverly designed crime novel, but the unfortunate truth for some truly unfortunate, real people.