Ebury Press, 2016, 352 pp., ISBN: 9780857986825, p/bk, AUS$34.99
Award-winning writer Terry Smyth has taken on the extraordinary, and regularly overlooked, story of Edward Denny Day in Denny Day: The Life and Times of Australia’s Greatest Lawman, The Forgotten Hero of the Myall Creek Massacre (2016), from Ebury Press.
True crime tales are often criticised for being cheap and trashy, a quick way to make some money and unsettle the community with a few photographs of terror and violence. Domestic normalcy transformed, in a few moments of chaos, into a crime scene. This stereotype, of quick and dirty volumes, is becoming increasingly challenged by many writers, including Smyth. Indeed, Smyth’s writing style is perfect for telling a true crime story – a genre that is often a blend of biography, history and judgement of wrongdoers – in an age when such stories are becoming increasingly rigorous in their research and sophisticated in their narrative styling.
For true crime, though often criticised, is a difficult genre to ‘get right’. Too much detail and the author is glorifying evil while taking advantage of the victim. Too little detail and the author is charged with sanitising history, glossing over the brutal nature of some types of crimes. The use of language is crucial. The reader often comes to the text knowing the ending. We know the victim. We know the perpetrator. What we want to know is how and why. We want to understand the machinery that brought about justice and to feel reassured that the world order, grossly disrupted, has been restored. In this respect, Smyth delivers. The very first line – “Sydney sits cowering it its cove, its face turned seaward, lying back and thinking of England” – demonstrates Smyth’s capacity for irreverence and insightfulness. This level of scene-setting is critical for true crime, for crime is often the story of context: the events that converged to bring about tragedy.
This text tells a particularly difficult story for the villains are especially heinous: they are the men who perpetrated the Myall Creek Massacre in which 28 Aboriginal men, women and children were murdered in 1838. In this way, this book is one about murder, frontier violence and the traumas of colonisation. Day was the lawman who, with a small party of mounted police, tracked down and arrested eleven men. Seven of those men would hang in Sydney for their crimes. Yet, Day was not lauded as a hero instead he was, as Smyth notes, a man who was “scorned and shunned, fiercely attacked by the press, powerful landowners and the general public”. Today, he is largely forgotten, his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography typically short and his obituaries excluding reference to his greatest achievement.
Day is certainly not presented as perfect, for no man is and Smyth’s admiration is tempered by some realism. What is clear, and consistent, is that Day had a strong sense of justice which Smyth reveals with skill. Read this book as the true crime story of Denny Day and the men of the Myall Creek Massacre. Read it also, as an important story of New South Wales and of law and justice in colonial Australia.
Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, September 2017
For a preview of the book or to purchase online, visit the Penguin Books website here.