An Australian murder
Is it the uncertain weather or Melbourne's changing patterns that makes its people so impatient, wonders TIMERI N. MURARI as he runs through the murders that formed the highlight of his stay.
AUSTRALIA is a wonderful country, especially for murders. I believe a good murder unites the people of this vast, sparsely populated country more than any sport. They had a good one last year. A young English woman claimed that when she was travelling in the outback (you're lucky to meet another human being within a 500 mile radius) with her boyfriend they were stopped by a lone man. He tied her up; she wriggled free, ran and hid in the bush. Her boyfriend vanished, along with the man. Cops, with aborigine trackers and tracker dogs, scoured the area. They found no trace of the boy friend, the man or even her footprints in the bush. The mystery remains and most people cynically don't believe her tale. Then the famous "dingo/baby murder" became a Hollywood movie starring Meryl Streep.
I arrived in Melbourne on a fine autumn day, prepared for a good murder. In Australia, autumn is May, winter July, and this can sometimes confuse visitors down under. Even the sun keeps its distance, moving at a slanted angle across the sky so that it's never directly overhead. You always throw an angled shadow.
Melbourne lies against an inlet bay facing the Bass Strait, and beyond the Strait lurks the icy Antarctic Ocean. The city curves around the shores of the bay with some lovely stretches of white sand.
Melbourne's weather can be mercurial. On some days at uncertain hours, you could be walking along St. Kilda Road in warmth and within one step an icy wind from the Antarctic can rip through your T-shirt, nearly freezing your blood. It helps you understand that why sometimes a little craziness enters the Melbournite's life.
Or maybe a murder, which is to happen within a few days of my arrival, is due to the changing patterns of the city. On my first visit, many years ago, Melbourne was a city of decorum. It was a low-key town with few pretensions, reminding me of an English seaside town like Brighton or Scarborough. The tallest building on the skyline was about four floors and quaint trams rattled along tree-shaded roads, sharing the space with a few motor cars. The people were British in their manner, tea was had frequently and the evening meal was called tea, not dinner. Multiculturalism was a term awaiting invention.
Today from a distance, you can see the Melbourne skyline of high towers, it's become a muscular, glittering testosteronic city, not yet a Manhattan but with longings towards that island. It has a population of 3.5 millions and is the most popular destination for business, immigrants and other Australians. It's not only gone up but now sprawls like a Los Angeles. From a southern suburb to a northern suburb, it now takes an hour and a half along sweeping freeways, and I'm not talking any traffic jams. Melbournites have become an impatient people. If they have to wait for a traffic light to change twice, they consider it a major traffic jam. With such a bounty and the vast landscape, its no wonder that Australia has one of the highest traffic fatality rates in the world. Road rage: in a very quiet suburb one evening two cars approach a roundabout with absolutely no traffic anywhere else in sight. One car doesn't give way and the next thing I know both drivers are out of their cars fighting on the roundabout.
The city feels American. It's multi-cultural too with Vietnamese, Chinese, Koreans, Indians, Bosnians, Serbs, Poles, changing the mood of the city and the tempo. Melbourne is filling with tycoons, moguls, magnates, billionaires and mere millionaires. The newspapers keep a daily scorecard of rising property prices, on their front pages. The jumps are not in tens but hundreds of thousands, a million dollars will buy you a pad in a distant suburb today. It's IT money, biotech money, construction money, mining money, sheep and cow money.
What I admire about the Australians is that despite such bloated prices, they do preserve their heritage. Even in Melbourne's high priced districts like Camberwell or South Yarra the houses remain small, neat with that same look of wrought iron. It gives the city a continuity of style. They don't have a medieval or ancient past, a century is old, but the main streets in every town and village I passed through had preserved their buildings of wrought iron balconies, wood walls, covered sidewalks. Ballarat, an old mining town, has preserved its main street pretty as a picture postcard of the past. Every town and village has a tourist information booth, happy to burden you with what-to-see-do brochures.
My wait for a good murder also ended. I knew that Australia wouldn't fail me. The "society" murders hit the front pages and TV News screens a week after I arrived. It began as a "Missing Person" report. The children of an elderly couple, the Kings, reported them missing to the police. The Kings, in their 70s, weren't exactly "society". They played bridge (which could mean high society in Australia), but they were wealthy, in a middle class way. She was the multi-millionaire daughter of a trucking magnate (that word again), and Mr. King was her second husband. Two days back they'd had dinner at the Glen Iris house of their son Mark and his Spanish wife. They had left at around 9.30 p.m., and had never reached their home.
The newspapers and television were just panting for such a story and went to town. There were photographs of the missing couple, their four children along with spouses, grandkids, the dog, the car. The police launched a search and nearly every Victorian reported to have seen them shopping, staying in a motel, walking arm-in-arm down a high street. Theories flew in all directions they'd skipped the country, they'd been kidnapped, they'd committed suicide (Mr. King was an invalid). Then their $150,000 Mercedes was found parked by a building site two days later. It had been there since the night of their disappearance.
Ten days went by and it looked as if this would become another Australian mystery. And then, chance, good luck or bad luck, two forest rangers stumbled on what they thought was a Lyrebird's nest in a park reserve outside Melbourne. Lyrebirds make their nest in the earth and the nest was in the bush, a few yards away from a walking track. If was off one of these tracks that the rangers poked a stick into the Lyrebird's nest and found two bodies. The Kings lay one on another, wrapped neatly in plastic. As the police remarked: "they could have lain there a thousand years without being found". Before the police could put in a gag order, the press reported that Mrs. King still wore a $100,000 bracelet and there were iron weights also lying in the grave. The newspapers theorised that the murderer(s) had planned to tie the weights to the bodies and dump them in a nearby lake. Unfortunately, the gate was locked so he/they had hastily buried the bodies in the shallow grave.
Melbournites had a wonderful time speculating on this whodunit. At every dinner or cocktails, they talked and dissected. I learned through gossip that Mrs. King (Mr. King was her second husband) ruled her family with a rod of iron and she controlled the purse strings to her fortune.
Strangely, little was written about Mr. King. Mrs. King had the money, so she was given the closest attention. Even in death, the money mattered most. There was a grand funeral, well covered by the press, attended by the grieving children, relatives and friends. Two sisters were seen not to embrace one of the brother's, Mark, but only shook hands with him formally as if he were a stranger. They ignored his foreign wife.
The police were tightening their focus on the children, encircling them slowly in their noose. The family lawyer moved quickly to take over and run Mrs King's multi-million dollar trust. The children called a conclave to discuss the crisis, the press was barred, much to their chagrin, and the children left with "no comments".
I was asked for my opinion. I guessed it was Mark, the son, who had last seen his parents alive. The couple had been asphyxiated and there were no marks of a struggle on their bodies, according to the press. He had to have drugged them at the dinner and smothered them to death.
I had my bets on him and as my departure date grew nearer, the police were still investigating. But now the investigation was concentrated around Mark's home. They came with spades, picks and other paraphernalia, and even opened the manholes outside his house. A nearby garage belatedly reported that he'd hired a trailer the day after that fateful dinner with his parents. A neighbour reported that the morning after the dinner, he'd been hosing and washing his garage, something he'd never been seen doing before.
On the weekend before I left, Mark was arrested for the murders and his wife was arrested as an accessory after the fact. The greater tragedy was that Mrs. King had outwitted her murderous son. In her will, she had stipulated that the children didn't inherit any of her millions until they were 40. Mark was 34.
Australia's a beautiful country, and always lays on a good murder for entertainment.
Visit the author at: www.timerimurari.com
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