Some years ago I read Helen Garner’s extraordinary book Joe Cinque’s Consolation. In that book a middle class girl murders her boyfriend, Joe Cinque, in a Canberra flat by injecting him with heroin after sedating him with rohypnol. The book is an exploration of how the desire for self harm becomes transformed into an urge to harm others. At the core of the book is grief, especially the grief that overtakes the life of Joe Cinque’s mother. It is moving, and sometimes overwhelming in its descriptions of mental illness and the impact of a destructive social milieu.
What struck me most about Joe Cinque’s Consolation, however, were the descriptions of Canberra’s heroin culture: a dislocation so potent that druggy lounge room melodrama was transformed into stark action. These were living rooms filled with students, public servants, NGO employees and refugees from old landholding families unable, or unwilling, to put aside the last remains of a country life. It was a reminder of the stealthy means by which class is a determining factor in the actions of the classified.
There was no motive for Joe Cinque’s murder: no money, no revenge, no love lost, no tortured relationship requiring brutal relief. It was a grand experiment, toying with the body of another to see the result. There was no terror in his death, except for that of the murderess; it was a quiet surreptitious killing designed to produce, in a legal sense, an outcome of accidental death or suicide.
The murder was designed not to rock the boat, a design that reeks of bourgeois attention to appearances. Class determined that Joe Cinque died in by drug and by needle, a medicalised execution for the amusement of his audience of one. A scenario such as this would not have been possible but for education, money, and terrible self importance. I was reminded of these three aspects of the crime, and the role class plays in their acquisition, by reading an equally extraordinary book: Debi Marshall’s Killing for Pleasure.
Killing for Pleasure is anything but. It is a dark, anguished tale of horror, cruelty and barbarism in their most banal forms. Those with good memories may recall bodies in barrels in the small South Australian township of Snowtown during the late nineties. Twelve people were murdered by a small cohort of young men, the victims were not murdered in a quiet manner like Joe Cinque but rather were tortured (sometimes over a disturbingly long period), strangled or hung, usually dismembered and defleshed, and then put piece by piece into a series of forty four gallon drums for the process of putrefaction to dissolve what was left of their identities.
One of the more astonishing parts of the story is that the murders went on for just on ten years and no-one noticed people were missing, or at least no one thought they had been killed. The murders centre around one man, John Justin Bunting and the two households he based himself in. Those two households were centred around two extended families: a mother, her siblings, her children, and her siblings’ children in both cases. The mothers both fell for Bunting and each had only vague knowledge of the other. Bunting recruited accomplices from those extended families (Robert Wagner, Jamie Vlassakis and Mark Haydon) and the group preyed on the weaker members of those two extended family networks.
The killers allowed only one body to be found (a skeleton which was the last of the victims to be identified) and they arranged to withdraw the victims social security benefit from their bank accounts: maintaining a fiction that the victims weren’t dead just starting over somewhere else and leaving everything behind, something that only the most vulnerable do, only those with almost nothing to leave behind.