The Godfather: Peter Corris on Publishing Non-fiction
Mad Dog: William Cyril Moxley and the Moorebank Killings is the first non-fiction book (not counting a few ‘as told to’ autobiographies and some co-edited anthologies) since my history of prize fighting in Australia, Lords of the Ring, in 1980. All fiction in between.
I’d forgotten how different the aftermaths of publishing fiction and non-fiction can be. After Lords of the Ring, I received messages along the lines of ‘What makes you say my uncle Charlie wasn’t a main event fighter?’; ‘ X didn’t fight Y three times, only twice’; ‘The venue for the X versus Y bantamweight title bout wasn’t at Rushcutters Bay but at Leichhardt’. There were also invitations to show me scrapbooks and memorabilia – gloves, boots and the like.
Nothing like this happens with fiction. You get good or bad reviews and that’s about it. That is, unless you’ve plagiarised or are accused of slander or a hoax.
With the experience of the book about boxing behind me, I shouldn’t have been surprised at reactions to Mad Dog but I was. Thirty-one years is a long time.
The first response came before the book was even published. An advance notice somewhere had attracted the attention of William Moxley’s grandson and he’d rung the publisher wanting to talk to me. I was very apprehensive. Moxley, in 1932, had murdered a young couple and raped the woman. He was quickly caught, reviled, given a brief trial and hanged in Long Bay gaol within a few months of the crime. I knew he’d had a son who was fostered out under the auspices of the Salvation Army and I assumed he’d taken another name. But what if the grandson was so distressed to have the matter brought up he planned some action against the book? Alternatively, what if he had a mass of documentation that I should have seen?
Luckily, nothing like that happened. Our phone conversation was agreeable. His father had used another name and the grandson had taken a mild interest in the case and looked forward to reading the book.
At a talk I gave after publication a woman produced a photograph of some girls. She said the child standing next to her mother as a child was Dorothy Denzel, the murdered woman. They’d been friends. The mother rarely spoke about the matter but had kept the photograph all her life.
I got, via my agent, an email from a woman who, as a child, had lived in the house where Dorothy Denzel had lived. A rumour had persisted ever since that the ghost of the victim haunted the house. I was put in touch with a man who’d been eleven years old at the time of the murder. He confirmed my research, which found that people in the area of the deaths kept their doors locked while Moxley was at large.
Another response was the only one to provide information that could have been useful for the book. I was contacted by a woman who had been one of the children Dorothy had had charge of as a live-in nursemaid. On getting up in the morning, she’d been surprised to find the nursemaid absent when she’d expected to have a piano lesson from her. She alerted the house. Her mother, the employer, was the person who’d identified Dorothy Denzel at the morgue. This was something I hadn’t known. It wasn’t mentioned at the coronial inquest or the trial.
Moxley had battered the heads of his victims, there had been significant decomposition, and the employer was only able to make the identification by noting the medicinal paint the Dorothy had applied to her infected fingernails. That would have been a graphic detail in the grim story.
It is now eighty years since the event I wrote about. I did not search as diligently for contemporary testimony as I should have. People are living longer than ever before. I was lucky that what came my way did not change what I wrote. So far.
Peter Corris Mad Dog: William Cyril Moxley and the Moorebank Killings, NewSouth, 2011, 256pp, HB , $29.95
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