‘Throwing Stones from Car Windows: A Review of Martin McKenzie-Murray’s “A Murder Without Motive”’, by Zoë Barron


I had a nightmare once about being lost in Balga, a neighbourhood a few suburbs south-east of Quinns Rocks, from where Rebecca Ryle’s killer hails. It was deep night, the formless suburbs stretching off in silver and black, and the dream was completely infected by dread. I remember a wayward shopping trolley, bits of rubbish in the gutters, but mostly all the flat spaces of those suburbs – beige, squat houses the same height, grass but no trees, concrete sprawling over sand and dead soil.

I remember a wayward shopping trolley

In real life, I’ve only been up to the northern suburbs of Perth a handful of times, mostly on Gumtree missions or for something work related. The suburb’s a 45-minute drive but I’m from Fremantle, south of the Swan, and the river (and the city) forms a boundary here. When friends move north, for example (usually only to inner-city suburbs like Mt Lawley or Bayswater rather than the twenty minutes further up the coast to places like Balga and Quinns Rocks), I feel like I lose them more comprehensively than when they move to the eastern states. Travelling north on the West Coast Highway is a journey through cultural, ideological and political shifts; after a little over half an hour, you’re in a very different Perth that no longer belongs to you.

A few of the suburbs up there carry dark reputations, the source of which McKenzie-Murray articulates exquisitely in A Murder Without Motive – of violence born of boredom and stupidity, of culturally ingrained misogyny and racism, of inertia and apathy. “Here were the badlands: a place not materially impoverished, but haunted by low expectations,” he writes in the introduction. “Homeowners may have been shocked by the killing, but my brother and I weren’t. Cameron [McKenzie-Murray’s brother] had been whipped by bike chains, nearly run over, and had seen his mate’s head scrambled with a baseball bat.”

Of course, it’s not all like that, and McKenzie-Murray wrestles with his prejudices throughout the book, laminating casual violence over ordered, comfortable suburbia. Head slightly south from Quinns Rocks, for example, and you arrive in Mindarie, an affluent, coastal neighbourhood perched at the northern point of Perth’s urban sprawl, where a large community of British expats have flocked to escape the drizzly Motherland. This is the suburb where Ryle was found in 2004, partially undressed and splayed out on a primary school oval, just a couple hundred metres from her front doorstep.

McKenzie-Murray’s book is true crime, but it’s no whodunnit.

McKenzie-Murray’s book is true crime, but it’s no whodunnit. James Duggan, the man charged with Ryle’s murder in 2004, was caught within twenty-four hours and confessed soon after. His trial was to determine how much jail time he would serve, rather than whether he was guilty, and this rested on the jury’s determination of the crime as wilful murder, murder or manslaughter. Instead, Ryle’s killing is worthy of literary attention because of its senselessness. Duggan never provided a clear reason for his actions. He denied undressing the body and holding any sexual motive, and while many close to the case remained incredulous about these parts of his testimony, the truth remains frustratingly obscure. In the end, there’s just a 19-year-old woman strangled to death at a primary school, a grieving family, and a perpetrator of the same age, vaguely remorseful but largely mute on the stand.

In A Murder Without Motive, McKenzie-Murray searches for some sort of explanation. Duggan is painted as a stupid, cowardly figure – a petty criminal, a thief and a graffiti artist. He can’t hold his booze, he struggles to fit in, he’s ridiculed as a virgin at nineteen. An unemployed high school dropout at the time of the murder, Duggan sits around at home playing Xbox, watching movies and wallowing in apathy. On the day of the murder, he watches Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back, which McKenzie-Murray analyses perhaps a little too desperately, scrambling to unpick some of the finer details of the demographic to which James belonged.

As McKenzie-Murray tells it, Duggan is, more than anything, an unthinking product of the violence ingrained in his culture, a topic the author explores in great depth. For me, the examination of those suburbs and that culture is the most fascinating part of the book. McKenzie-Murray describes the undercurrent of teenage violence, sex and sport that fuels those suburbs from the perspective of someone who grew up amongst it. His brother Howard pushed trollies with Duggan, Cameron belonged to the same social circles (but always hated the guy, as McKenzie-Murray is quick to point out). For McKenzie-Murray, the story is personal in many ways, and this gives us rare insight into the context of Duggan’s crime.

His description of normal suburban sprawl laced with cultural darkness visible only to the young and embedded is the perfect setting from which a seemingly motive-less strangling of a young girl could emerge. He describes how a man like Duggan could be born from this, and from there assembles some semblance of an explanation. McKenzie-Murray doesn’t attest to knowing any more than us about Duggan’s motives—he seems just as curious and baffled as the judge, the jury, the Ryle family, the police, and all the others involved—but he does construct a context that could make such an action plausible.

Contempt bleeds into his character assessment of Duggan and possibly contaminates it.

In many ways, this subjectivity obscures the view. In the introduction, McKenzie-Murray admits his contempt for the suburbs in which he grew up, and from which he escaped. “I was of these suburbs,” he writes, “but the very thing my parents desired for me—a university education—had transformed me into a relentless and obnoxious critic of them.” This contempt bleeds into his character assessment of Duggan and possibly contaminates it. As a result, the final picture of Ryle’s killer remains relatively one-sided, and our prejudices are invited to fill in the blanks.

As my nightmare attests, I share many of McKenzie-Murray’s opinions of those areas, though I’m not nearly as qualified to judge. His descriptions confirmed a bigoted, violent side of Perth I always feared existed, and fed my own obnoxious allegiance to the southern suburbs I love. His prejudices affirm my own. I’ve barely been to Balga, where my nightmare was set; the landscape of that dream was constructed from years of living in Fremantle and views from car windows.

McKenzie-Murray tells us who killed who and how in the introduction. What we don’t know is why, and that’s the kicker; that’s why we keep reading as McKenzie-Murray picks apart the culture that created Duggan. Even though the author is predictable in his sympathies and self-professed subjectivities, we’re given more than a murder trial and the grisly description of the night in question. The book gives us access to the otherwise inaccessible culture from which such a crime could spring. A Murder Without Motive offers no direct explanation, but if we let our prejudices do the rest of the work, it can be satisfying.

Zoë Barron is a writer, editor and student nurse who likes bicycles better than most things. She’s lived in Fremantle, WA, on and off since 2002 – she keeps trying to leave but always ends up coming back.