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Posted on 22 Sep 2016 in Non-Fiction |

BRENDAN MURRAY The Drowned Man. Reviewed by Peter Stanley

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drownedmanThe Drowned Man investigates a murder in the Australian Navy, mixing fact and imagination with varied results.

Books are sometimes like buses. You wait 20 years for a book dealing with the murder committed aboard HMAS Australia in March 1942, and then three come along at once.

Brendan Murray’s The Drowned Man appears at the same time as Judith Crosland’s self-published Murder on HMAS Australia and (at the other end of the publishing spectrum) Mike Carlton’s Flagship, his brilliantly readable 600-odd-page epic of HMAS Australia.

The Drowned Man is both literary non-fiction (or, less kindly, fictional history), and what I call ‘gonzo’ history (in homage to Hunter S Thomson). To explain: Murray incorporates into the story he tells the story of how he discovered the story. It opens with a throwaway remark by a former sailor he meets in a Queenscliff chip-shop, that a gay sailor had been ‘got rid of’ – murdered – by his shipmates. Murray seeks the truth behind the veteran’s dark hint, structuring his book around discoveries of documents and encounters with informants, alternating with chapters on the ship’s wartime service.

Murray is disingenuous, even manipulative. The murder of John Riley, almost certainly by two fellow stokers because he threatened to expose them as ‘bugger boys’, is well known in military and naval history circles, not least because legal complications following the men’s conviction at the court martial led to Australia belatedly ratifying the 1931 Statute of Westminster, enabling the matter to be handled within Australia and limiting the possibility of embarrassing appeals if it were tried in Britain. Murray makes a meal of the murder and the court martial (notable for not once mentioning homosexuality, though all involved knew it informed both the murder and the navy’s long-running witch-hunt against gays). He links the case to the persecution of gays, but evades the fact that Riley was murdered by men in a homosexual relationship: he was not himself gay. Mike Carlton’s account in Flagship is more cogent and convincing. Murray’s version is padded out by recounting Australia’s war, in the Coral Sea and in the liberation of the Philippines, when repeated attacks by Japanese kamikaze pilots traumatised its crew.

But what of the man who drowned? Murray hears that another of Australia’s crew died because he was gay. A man was thrown overboard by homophobic messmates, who perhaps hacked at his fingers even as he desperately clung to the ship’s rail. It is a terrible scene: but not, it eventually turns out, true, and there is no evidence that the man was gay. The report Murray had feared lost or suppressed (actually obligingly provided by helpful reference staff at the National Archives) tells an entirely different story. Robert Blackburn threw himself overboard in Durban harbour in November 1941.

It appears that Blackburn died in the grip of a psychotic episode, possible exacerbated by drinking. Homosexuality seems to have nothing to do with it. The navy certainly handled his arrest and incarceration ineptly but whether Blackburn was murdered at all, let alone because he was gay, seems, as they say in Scotland, at best ‘not proven’.

Murray writes affectionately of the old sailors he meets, men traumatised by combat. The Drowned Man exhibits a powerful empathy between its author and those whose trust he gained. Their accounts of naval combat – and indeed of their demanding, intense, lives within the hot steel shell in which they served – are the best aspects of Murray’s book. He interviewed and corresponded with old men, many of whom are now dead, or certainly soon will be, listening to them respectfully and attentively. Through them he takes us into a world, and an experience, that none of us can ever recapture except in an imaginative reconstruction such as this.

Still, the central tenet of Murray’s book, that Robert Blackburn (or anyone) was murdered because of his sexuality, remains unconvincing.

He criticises the official enquiry into Blackburn’s death as ‘a blend of fact and fiction’. This is heavily ironic, because as a devotee of ‘literary non-fiction’, Murray freely fills in details he could not possibly know 70 years on. (Did the Australia’s Master-at-Arms shake his head in disbelief when told that a man had been murdered? Did Commander Harrington’s jaw twitch as he interviewed a sailor about homosexuality in his ship? Did a crowd of women wave handkerchiefs as Australia arrived at Fremantle on 10 March 1941? I doubt it; wartime security prevented anyone knowing the ship’s movements.) Even worse, like Judith Crosland, he invents incidents and dialogue: ‘The captain stared out of the porthole … “Sodomy?”’ We cannot trust anything Murray writes: did a homosexual predator (‘the Phantom Dinger’) actually haunt Australia’s mess-decks or did Murray make that up too?

Self-indulgently long, sadly, Murray’s inventions neuter the truth of his worthy examination of wartime service and its legacies.

Brendan Murray The Drowned Man Echo Publishing 2016 PB 347pp $32.95

Peter Stanley is a professor at UNSW Canberra and one of Australia’s foremost military social historians. His most recent book is Armenia, Australia and the Great War (with Vicken Babkenian).

You can buy The Drowned Man from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.