Excerpt from ‘A Murder Without Motive’, by Martin McKenzie-Murray


Photo by Anthony Hevron. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic Licence.

In 2013, as part of our special Perth-themed issue, we published an excerpt from Martin McKenzie-Murray’s in-progress debut book. That book, titled A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle, was published in its final form a couple of weeks ago. We’ve partnered with Scribe to excerpt some of the final text that emerged—in a radically different form—from the embryonic version that we published three years ago.

Not long before I contacted the Ryle family, I read Janet Malcolm’s book The Journalist and the Murderer. She opens with this famous excoriation:

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and ‘the public’s right to know’; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.

What was my justification?

I want to write an intelligent and respectful book. I want to tell a story that does your daughter justice

Dear Marie,

Allow me to introduce myself: my name’s Martin McKenzie-Murray and I’m a political columnist for the Age newspaper in Melbourne. Previously I worked as a speechwriter in Canberra. The reason I’m writing to you is that I’m working on a book on the death of your daughter, Rebecca. I’m from Perth originally, and my parents have lived in Mindarie for some years now. In fact, I attended the funeral of your daughter, though I did not have the pleasure of knowing her.

I would like to make clear that I’m a respected political columnist and writer – I am not a trashy tabloid hack, and I have no interest in writing a shallow or salacious story. Nor do I have any interest in cynically using what must still be a considerable pain for you and your family.

What I am interested in, and what the book’s real focus is, is how individuals and institutions make meaning of tragic and senseless acts. I’m interested in your thoughts on justice and psychology and I’m interested in how you have coped – and I’m interested in writing something which will suitably honour your loss.

I think it’s true to say that most of our crime reporting is slim and trashy with no interest in deeper stories. I want to write an intelligent and respectful book. I want to tell a story that does your daughter justice, drawing intricate profiles of the many people and institutions involved in such a tragedy as struck your family – and how each makes their own meaning with their own rules and philosophies.

I would be grateful for an interview with yourself and your family, Mrs. Ryle. I think it would be of great importance to the book. It would be a stronger book.

I understand this must be quite a surprise for you, and you will wish to think about it deeply.

I now live in Melbourne, but I am very happy to fly to Perth to meet you at a time and place that is convenient for you.

It would be a pleasure to meet with you. Kindest regards

As I waited for Marie’s response—unsure of what I’d started—I provided my own supporting evidence for Malcolm’s contempt: while I was concerned about what scabs my message may have scratched, I instinctively wondered at what point the book was doomed for lack of access. My sympathy was mixed with calculation. What happens if they don’t agree? Then I would admonish myself for the vulgarity of these instincts, and brood repentantly.

A month passed. I did not intend to inquire about the delay. After all, I had proposed to make their private grief public. They would have as long as they needed to think about it without interruption.

And then, an email arrived:

Hi Martin,

Sorry it has taken us so long to get back to you but as you can imagine it was a bit of a bolt out of the blue sort of thing. We have had a few long discussions about the book with family and friends and have come to the conclusion that we would like to talk to you although there are a couple of questions I would like to ask …

Why Rebecca? Of course they’d ask this.

I was exhilarated. I’d made contact. They had thought hard about their response, had sought counsel from their friends and family. They had anticipated the risks to their hearts and reputations, and had tried to divine my intentions. They had little to go on. Until we met, there was still a gulf between us, albeit one bridged by a mutual interest in telling Rebecca’s story. But what was that story? There was still so much mystery and irresolution. Among the people I anticipated speaking to, I couldn’t assume a consensus solution. There would likely be gaps and contradictions – stories that conflicted with the Ryles’.

But first there were Marie’s questions of me:

What made you chose Rebecca as your subject?

Why Rebecca? Of course they’d ask this. Why not the infamous murder of Melbourne woman Jill Meagher? Or the still-unresolved serial killings in Perth? Why, long after the police tape had been withdrawn and the children had gone back to school, was I interested now?

A few things, mostly personal. My parents live in Mindarie, and have done for some time. I grew up mostly in Sorrento, but my younger brothers and sisters lived in the area, so attending Mindarie College (though they did not know Rebecca). So, I know the area well and was appalled by the tragedy that befell your family. Like I wrote earlier, I think, I attended Rebecca’s funeral.

Second, my brother knew Duggan. They were social enemies, of a sort. They had mutual friends but also a mutual dislike for each other – my brother Cameron was often telling his friends that they shouldn’t trust him. In fact, the last time my brother ever saw him (many years ago) he had a physical confrontation with Duggan.

Third, I’m interested in how individuals and institutions of justice make meaning – that is, what they decide is important and what isn’t; how they make sense of the senseless; where the expectations of individuals affected by such a tragedy are similar to the expectations of justice, and where they diverge. Meaning is important to the story, and I was struck by the sentencing remarks (peppered by the words ‘mystery’ and ‘enigma’) which suggested a heartbreaking mystery. How do we determine the answer to ‘why’ and what happens when we can’t answer it satisfactorily? Naturally, you may have very firm answers to this, which would, of course, be reflected.

The second question was inevitable, and much harder to answer:

Will we have the option to proofread what you have written and amend if necessary?

A quick way to find the mainline of media ethics is to ask: whose story is it? But trace it and you don’t find the heart of the thing, but a spaghetti junction of claims. For the Ryles, the answer is obvious: it is their hell, and their story. Their suffering bestows a moral authority, invulnerable to the journalist’s sense of entitlement. The Ryles’ position is pure and self-evident: This is quintessentially ours, because we feel this pain and you merely think about it.

I was peripheral. And yet I was making a serious claim to be the person to write it.

I knew how skeletal my interest was, in contrast. The sum of it was: my brother knew the man charged with Rebecca’s murder, and the case had been a portal of periodic reflection on my adolescence. My interests were obtuse and indulgent. I was peripheral. And yet I was making a serious claim to be the person to write it. But if we fiercely patrol those borders—if we accept that only the people involved in acts themselves are permitted to write or authorise them—we would tell fewer stories, would have bookshelves filled exclusively with anointed and anodyne histories. I went ahead with my initial inquiries.

In the end, there is nothing pleasurable in explaining journalistic independence to a bereaved family. I replied:

A completely reasonable request, with a delicate answer: it’s important for writers and journalists to balance fairness, accuracy and thoughtfulness on one hand, while maintaining their independence on the other. However, I fully appreciate your apprehension at placing your faith in a stranger, and I would make sure that all transcripts of my interviews would be made available to you so you can check for accuracy, and add or remove anything as you feel necessary. I must stress that this isn’t a normal process for journos—independence is a core ethic of the job—but I’m happy to do this given your sense of vulnerability and the gravity of your pain. I’ll also be in Perth shortly, and for some time, so I’m happy to meet as frequently as possible (if you’d like) so you can develop an understanding of me, and the book. You can feel free to call me whenever, also. My mobile is: xxxx-xxx xxx.

I would become more flexible, but much came before I did.

Wednesday morning, 5 May 2004. It was four days after his 19th birthday, and James Duggan woke and lay in bed. It was 10am. He was in no hurry. James was an unemployed high-school dropout. Six months prior, he had worked in a bakery; before that, he’d pushed trolleys at Ocean Keys shopping centre. James had been rostered on one New Year’s Eve—a heavy day for trolley jockeys—but he never showed up. James’s partner—my brother Howard—cursed his absence as he desperately pushed the long, mischievous snakes around the asphalt alone. Duggan never returned.

Duggan was scrawny, with a face dusted with bum fluff. He had short brown hair, closely cropped on the sides, and dutifully wore the teen uniform: skate and surf T-shirts, jeans and sneakers. He was boyishly handsome, with fine features. He was English, too, born in Liverpool in 1985, from where he watched his parents’ divorce when he was young. James’s mother, Michaela, was remarried to a Paul Duggan before they moved to Australia in 1996, and James took his name and called him ‘Dad’. But in 2000 they split, too, and Paul found his own place just a few kilometres away to make the joint custody of James’s two half-brothers easier. They would continue to attend school at Mindarie Primary.

Mindarie’s dunes are thick with young masculine inarticulateness.

The divorce troubled James, but he wouldn’t—or couldn’t—verbalise it. Mindarie’s dunes are thick with young masculine inarticulateness. James was moody and taciturn, but he did try a reunion with his biological father in England. He flew 15,000 kilometres, but it didn’t go well. Within six months, James was flying back home, to live among the limestone and boredom. There was no girlfriend. Word was, James was weird around girls.

On this Wednesday, James woke in the house he shared with his mother and his friend Gareth. The three of them lived in Quinns Rocks, the suburb adjoining Mindarie to the north, in a compact two-storey. The house proper sat on the first storey above a double garage and Gareth’s room. Stairs led from the concrete driveway on the ground floor to the front door on the first. The house was set back from a quiet street and stood nakedly, unprotected by any fence or hedge. To the right of the long driveway stood a tall palm tree, rising from buffalo grass. The bricks were beige; the roller-doors, cream. It was a mildly depressing house, brutally stark, but just over the hill and down the road lay the Indian Ocean.

That morning, like most mornings, James had 27 View Terrace to himself. Both Michaela and Gareth were working. His mother was employed at the Director of Public Prosecutions as a receptionist; Gareth was out pouring slabs of concrete at construction sites. Gareth made his money like many up there: using struts, tiles, concrete, or render to claim the dunes for others. To flourish in the Perth idyll often meant physically building it for others. He didn’t see it that way, of course. It was just a job. He poured concrete. It meant early rises, early finishes, and more money than he had ever had in high school. With no rent to pay, there was plenty of cash for drinking.

Gareth had been kicked out of home, and Michaela agreed to accept him rent-free. He’d been living at View Terrace for about five months, and had known James for almost four years, from Clarkson High School. On weekends, Gareth played semi-professional soccer for Joondalup City. He worked hard, and played hard.

James used his freedom to channel surf, play Xbox, and watch a DVD – Kevin Smith’s 2001 film Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, a sort of Gen X re-boot of Cheech and Chong’s woozy adventures. In 1994, inspired by Richard Linklater’s cult classic Slackers, Smith shot a film for just $27,000, using the convenience and video stores he worked in as sets. He wrote, directed, and starred in it, and the film exploded. Clerks was Tarantino without any guns or plot. Enticingly articulate dropouts riffed pleasurably on pop culture and sex while taking a wry pride in their lack of ambition. The film was irreverent and profane, and introduced characters that had rarely been seen before. Its success no doubt had something to do with the sharpness of the dialogue, but also the brashness of the conceit: an assemblage of the nerdy and unemployable, aimlessly playing out their day. Smith had beatified stoners.

In 2001, Smith released a sequel of sorts, though this time the budget was millions of dollars. Hollywood stars were cast. Jay and Silent Bob must hitchhike, broke, across the country from New Jersey to Hollywood to sabotage a film being made about them. It is not so much a plot as an excuse for Smith to wheel his two characters into absurd situations.

Here was James Duggan, an unemployed pot smoker, watching drug-obsessed slackers journey farcically across the States. Was he laughing at them – or with them? In an adoring review in Rolling Stone, Peter Travers addressed the controversy generated by the film’s surfeit of gay jokes (“You eat the cock?”). Travers wrote: “Smith’s argument for such jokes is that he wants to ‘preach tolerance by hiding it with humour’. What’s sad is that Smith has to keep justifying his right to parody prejudice and skewer male adolescents.”

But it’s doubtful that most male adolescents know it. I’d wager that they see it as an endorsement, not a droll condemnation. James Duggan was laughing with them. Which is not to say the film or jokes shouldn’t be made, but how teenage boys interpret art and entertainment can deviate wildly from the maker’s intent.

For me, this music was the backdrop to groped girls, cracked skulls, flashed knives, and police sirens.

Growing up on this coastal strip, I saw this slippage all the time. The political passion behind some music became a mirror for the apolitical tumult within its teenage listener – the ordinary mess of hormones and an unfinished frontal cortex. Any nuanced ambition the artist might have for the song was engulfed by his listener’s narcissism. The progressive brimstone of Rage Against the Machine became anthems for thugs. A Metallica song about religious excess would be shorn of everything but its contempt, and become an endorsement of violence. Cypress Hill’s humour and winking mischief was ignored. For me, this music was the backdrop to groped girls, cracked skulls, flashed knives, and police sirens. Rage Against the Machine may have wanted revolution, but they were unwittingly sound-tracking destruction in suburbs all over the Western world.

James Duggan sat on his couch and laughed.


Martin McKenzie-Murray is the chief correspondent of The Saturday Paper. He is a former Canberra speechwriter, columnist for the Age, and adviser to the chief commissioner of Victoria Police. A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle is his first book.