WELCOME TO THE NGAIO MARSH AWARDS BLOG TOUR 2017
There is an inevitable melange of fiction and reality that arises from piecing together ‘what happened’ in a crime: “a trial is always going to take on the literary form of an unreliable memoir”.
Steve Braunias’ The scene of the crime explores this theme using a number of high profile crime cases – and it has been shortlisted for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel: Best Non Fiction.
Braunias is a columnist and journalist and has written numerous non-fiction books on a wide range of topics. The cases he writes about in The scene of the crime are mostly New Zealand cases and mostly those that New Zealand readers will remember – Mark Lundy, Antonie Dixon, Clint Rickards. Braunias’ concerns with the Mark Lundy trial and re-trial thread through the book, and make for compelling and disturbing reading. I daresay many readers will have opinions on the guilt or otherwise of the accused, and many, like me, will have been swayed when forming those opinions by body language or thoughts of how people ‘should’ behave. Braunias exposes this as common, shallow and potentially damaging.
Just think of the immediate collapse into certainty a verdict delivers – newsreaders don’t have to say ‘alleged’ any more, those of us who ‘just knew’ feel our intuitions justified, a plethora of alternative versions of events evaporate. But life is often not that clear cut – and Braunias presents the disturbing possibility that the convictions of some people arise from jurors just accepting the one ‘story’ that most appeals, given their being part of a community that has already adopted a common opinion.
The book is generally quite critical of crime reporting for its role in the forming of this ‘common opinion’, but there is one captivating section devoted to his admiration for the writer of the Police notebook, a column in the Timaru Herald: “Every crime, a sentence; every sentence, a little masterpiece of brevity and accuracy, at once banal and surreal.” He was so taken with the entries he compiled some into a poem and sent it to Bill Manhire for his consideration!
Braunias’ writing draws mainly from the courtroom – as he sits and witnesses the “sheer ordinariness” of New Zealand criminal court proceedings – but it is also based on his research, and interviews with various parties to the different cases. It is an impartial telling but also very human: he sympathises, he criticises, he worries.
The book is awash with victims – inside and outside of the court and on both sides of the cases. Braunias speaks movingly about the families of those accused: “They are surplus to the court’s requirements. They are reduced to bystanders. They have nothing to hold on to, and they float away, like kites, always in sight, but always hovering just out of reach.” And he also talks of those, like himself, unrelated to the cases but who choose to attend court day after day to watch the system play out. Like Mary who commuted from Auckland to Wellington to attend the Lundy re-trial: “… because she couldn’t bear to miss a second. ‘I just find the whole thing,’ she said, ‘so deeply moving.’”
The scene of the crime is amusing at times but is a serious book, it is a book about how society deals with crime, how it attempts to tidy away the messiness of events into an understandable narrative, so people can feel safe and gain that figment: Closure. Braunias reminds us that the stories we choose are not just cautionary tales, not works to make a moral point, but stories that conceal real people, people who continue to grieve, to serve their sentences, to walk free … An exceptionally good read.