James Phelps, Australian Heist

HarperCollins Publishers, 351 pp., ISBN: 9781460756232, h/bk, AUS$39.99

New, from one of Australia’s most popular, and prolific, true crime writers James Phelps, is Australian Heist (2018).

Phelps tells the story of how a gang of bushrangers held up a gold escort at Eugowra, just east of Forbes in New South Wales on 15 June 1862. The daring, and highly profitable, heist saw notorious bushranger Frank Gardiner and his men share a loot of cash and a staggering 77 kilograms of gold. Phelps brings Gardiner and his associates to life. Ben Hall, one of Australia’s most recognised bushrangers after Ned Kelly, is an important figure in the gang; a group which also includes John O’Meally, Johnny Gilbert, Henry Manns, Alexander Fordyce, John Bow and Dan Charters. This is an exciting story. There is the planning of the most ambitious gold robbery in Australia’s history. There is the execution of the scheme and the escape of the robbers into rugged terrain. There is, too, the inevitable chase of the gang by a police force that is under increasing pressure from the public, and a press corps, demanding that bushranging be brought to an end across the colony.

Phelps has written this book from a combination of primary and secondary sources, including “court records, police reports, newspaper articles and eyewitness accounts” (p. viii). Most historians acknowledge gaps in the historical record, including Phelps. To maintain the rhythm of story however, Phelps lets readers know upfront that he has “taken a few liberties with the narrative—the places, people, dates and events are all accurate according to the resources available […]. Some details and scenes have, however, been re-imagined, with a deliberately modern spin” (pp. viii–ix). For example, “Sir Frederick Pottinger slammed his hand onto his desk, palm first and with fearsome force” (p. 103) and “The fire hissed and spat. Hall turned towards the flames, the heat hitting his face. The fire reminded him of what he was trying to forget […]. Eventually the night took him, the bushranger finally passing out. When he work, his horse was sniffing at his head. ‘Shoo,’ he said, swiping at it. ‘Get.’ The morning summer sun hit him like a sledgehammer. An then the birds started: crows, magpies and a lone kookaburra. The noise pounded his aching head” (pp. 238–39). So, it’s not a text book. Phelps, having set his course, pursues it relentlessly and he, to his credit, maintains a dramatised style of writing from beginning to end.

Some well-chosen images give important context to Phelps’ work. In a reflection of this work’s presentation as a thriller instead of a more traditional historical text, there is no index.

If you’re new to Australian bushranger narratives and you want to be ‘told’ a story and not ‘presented’ with a case study, then Australian Heist is a good place to start.

Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, March 2019

For a preview of the book or to purchase online, visit the publisher’s website here.

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