On a warm evening in December 1949, two young people met by chance under the clocks at Flinders Street railway station. They decided to have a night on the town. The next morning, one of them, twenty-year-old typist Beth Williams, was found dead on Albert Park Beach. When police arrested the other, Australia was transfixed: twenty-four-year-old John Bryan Kerr was a son of the establishment, a suave and handsome commercial radio star educated at Scotch College, and Harold Holt's next-door neighbour in Toorak.
Police said he had confessed. Kerr denied it steadfastly. There were three dramatic trials attended by enormous crowds, a relentless public campaign proclaiming his innocence involving the first editorials against capital punishment in Australia. For more than a decade Kerr was a Pentridge celebrity, a poster boy for rehabilitation – a fame that burdened him the rest of his life. Then, shortly after his death, another man confessed to having murdered Williams. But could he be believed?
Certain Admissions is stranger than any crime fiction. It is real-life police procedural, courtroom drama, family saga, investigative journalism, social history, archival treasure hunt - a meditation, too, on how the past shapes the present, and the present the past.
Read Caroline Baum's Review
The trouble with a lot of True Crime writing is that while the story itself may be gripping it is often let down by mediocre prose that is banal, cliché ridden or sensationalist. Gideon Haigh is in another league altogether: his prose is measured, crisp, cool and elegant. The result elevates a murder case set in 1950s Melbourne into something far more interesting thanks to an approach that expands from a single case to a broader social history.
But first, the crime: one evening in December 1949, two young people met by chance at Flinders Street station and decided on a spontaneous night on the town. The next morning, twenty-year-old typist Beth Williams, was found dead on a city beach. When police arrested the man she had spent the evening with, Australians were transfixed. John Bryan Kerr was handsome, dapper and well educated, with a voice and a confidence that made him a natural radio star.
He was subjected to not one, not two, but three trials before being sentenced to hang, based on an unsigned confession. But his sentence was commuted to twenty years in prison during which he always maintained his innocence, in a campaign supported by his devoted parents.
To tell you what happens next would be to spoil the element of suspense in this masterly telling of a not especially lurid crime, yet one that gripped the public imagination because of the glamour of the prime suspect.
Haigh examines the case from every angle before broadening his focus to scrutinise the police and their methods at the time, and the role of the media in keeping the case alive in the public consciousness.
A very classy piece of work indeed.
About the Author
Gideon Haigh has been a journalist for more than thirty years, contributed to more than a hundred newspapers and magazines, written thirty books and edited seven others. His book On Warne won the British Sports Book Awards Best Cricket Book of the Year Award, the Cricket Society and MCC Book of the Year Award, the Jack Pollard Trophy, and the Waverley Library Nib Award; it was also shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards Biography of the Year, the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards, and the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature. The Office won the NSW Premier's Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction. Other recent titles include Uncertain Corridors: Writings on Modern Cricket, End of the Road? on Australia's automotive industry, and The Deserted Newsroom, about media in a digital age.
'The trial of John Bryan Kerr was the first murder trial that I read about in detail. Without my parents' knowing, I followed the account in the Argus as a boy of eleven. I longed, even then, to know the whole story. I had to wait for more than sixty years, but Gideon Haigh's book has made the wait worthwhile.' Gerald Murnane
Number Of Pages: 320
Published: 24th June 2015
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Country of Publication: AU
Dimensions (cm): 23.4 x 15.9 x 2.4
Weight (kg): 0.44