Crime Scene: MARTIN MCKENZIE-MURRAY A Murder Without Motive: The killing of Rebecca Ryle. Reviewed by Michael Jongen
A Murder Without Motive is an intriguing and compelling true crime with much to say about the Australian suburbs and the national psyche.
Martin McKenzie-Murray, the Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent, has written a gripping true crime story about a murder that touched him as a young man. Rebecca Ryle was a young woman murdered in his Perth suburb, Mindarie, in 2004 and 20-year-old James Duggan was convicted of strangling her in the grounds of a primary school after a chance meeting at a local bar.
They did not know the Ryle family, although the author’s brother had an antagonistic history with Duggan, but McKenzie-Murray and his parents attended the public funeral, which had galvanised the local community. Duggan had already been charged with the murder. The young Martin, although feeling underdressed, attended the funeral feeling ‘a macabre numbness, through which the community bore witness’.
As he explains in his Introduction, McKenzie-Murray, recently graduated, returned to the city, walked to a pub and sat down and wrote notes: ’Then came my lofty exegesis about the psychic bruising of the suburbs.’
The experience stayed with him. Eight years after the funeral, McKenzie-Murray contacted the Ryle family. Now a respected journalist for the Age, he had spent much time thinking about the Ryles, wondering about their recovery and why they had remained in Mindarie.
He describes his approach to the family and the many qualms he had in approaching them:
The night before I met the Ryles, I was in a bar in the city. I was anxious but the Ryles felt worse. They were at home, on the same couches from which they had farewelled their murdered daughter, debating the costs and benefits of confession.
The loss of Rebecca has been hard on the Ryles and has tragically impacted on their future. Frank and Marie Ryle are frank and honest in opening up about their pain and McKenzie-Murray writes sensitively about their suffering and their struggle to maintain a life in the house they had shared with their daughter, describing a family that is stoical, taking comfort from the many friends and strangers who offered them words of solace in their time of grief.
A Murder Without Motive also paints a very evocative picture of the northern suburbs of Perth and the aimless lives of its young and bored, who chug beer and pull bongs at home or at parties. Fighting is part of the culture. School is boring and meaningless in the context of the West Australian mining boom, when jobs are plentiful.
The book presents some fascinating statistics about Mindarie, which has the highest concentration of British immigrants in Australia. Both Rebecca Ryle and James Duggan had been born in England, although Duggan had been living longer in Australia. British tradies did well in the mining boom, colonising Perth’s northern suburbs, and McKenzie-Murray describes the rows of identical McMansions, with their English trappings, Foxtel for the Premier League and Coronation Street. He talks of a culture of new money ‘desperate for identity and meaningful expression but guileless in achieving it’.
Against this background, we learn more about both Rebecca Ryle and James Duggan. She is focused on completing her studies and wondering about returning to England. He is smoking marijuana and drinking beer in the local malls. Rebecca has a close loving family; James drifts from group to group, hanging out with whoever will put up with him.
As a police procedural this is a fascinating read. James Duggan’s journey is recorded in a variety of ways as he becomes a person of interest right from the discovery of Rebecca Ryle’s body. His movements have been tracked by CCTV and his involvement in a fracas at the local tavern, the Boat Inn, has been noted. He is seen leaving the bar with Rebecca Ryle that night. He attracts attention in a local service station as he waits for a taxi home and where he gives his real name. He spends her money on the taxi fare. The solid reporting of the police interviews is intriguing as we learn how the investigating detectives break Duggan down with their dogged persistence and questioning:
James Duggan had held out for two hours, buffeted by conscience and authority. He had made inarticulate and unlikely revisions of history. He had offered both detail and obfuscation. It was a shabby and desperate performance, his boyishness offset by his insistent deception.
James Duggan has never revealed exactly what happened that night, nor his motivation. The writer and the reader can only imagine, and feel for the Ryles, who have formed their own explanations and understanding but do not have a satisfactory insight into Duggan’s actions. Their pain is raw:
All of us make meaning, but we don’t work as hard at it as the Ryles do. Every day, they make decisions to keep from going under. It gets easier over time, but there are pitfalls. A part of this is symbolism – they understand its power and just as easily know its inadequacy.
True crime can be a salacious genre in the wrong hands. However, this is an intriguing and compelling read with much to say about the Australian suburbs and the national psyche. In writing this book McKenzie-Murray has honoured Rebecca Ryle and her family.
Martin McKenzie-Murray A Murder Without Motive: The killing of Rebecca Ryle Scribe 2016 PB 240pp $27.99
Michael Jongen is a librarian who tweets as @michael_jongen and microblogs at http://larrythelibrarian.tumblr.com
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