Kill Your Darlings’ First Book Club pick for November is Trace by Rachael Brown (Scribe), a mesmerising look at the investigation behind the hit true crime podcast – one that blew the dust off a 38-year-old cold case, and gave a voice to the forgotten and the abused.
Join us for a free in-conversation event at Hill of Content Books on 21 November, to hear author Rachael Brown discuss the book, the podcast and the case with First Book Club coordinator Ellen Cregan.
Editor’s note: This piece contains graphic content.
The 49-year-old version of Mark James sits beside me in his lounge-room, south-east of Melbourne. Each time he moves, the leather of the sofa creaks. The room’s bare, save for a photo beside the TV of his younger brother, Adam, and his late mother, and his voice bounces off the floorboards. Mark has painful memories of his childhood home. He tells me that during one of his visits back, in those early days, he saw something no kid should ever have to see.
‘There were a couple of times that I was let back into the house, and I was strictly told not to go into Mum’s bedroom. Well, telling a 13-year-old that is almost like an invitation, and I opened the bedroom door, and all of the furniture was gone but there were blood stains all over the carpet. That was very distressing.’
This bloodied image has never dulled. ‘Just about every day, Mum is on my mind. It’s painful that there’s no resolution. Our mum was taken away from us, and I think with a little extra effort we could get an answer as to who the murderer was.’
Mark has a round face with soft features and his mum’s brown eyes. He has a heavy-set stature and an ambling way about him – the way he moves, the way he speaks – but it’s loaded with graciousness. He adored his mother. She was the daughter of immigrants whose Italian roots were infused in her cooking and sometimes her temper. Mark smiles, remembering an incident when he was nearly knocked off his bike during his morning paper-round. The driver did the courtesy of ferrying Mark home, only to be ripped into so ferociously by Maria that he probably regretted his courtesy more than his poor driving. Mark says she’d have done anything for her boys. Her other love was Elvis. ‘I think “Kentucky Rain” was her favourite,’ Mark says. The mournful song tells of an anxious man’s search for his missing love. Kentucky rain keeps pouring down, and up ahead another town that I’ll go walking through.
‘Our mum was taken away from us, and I think with a little extra effort we could get an answer as to who the murderer was.’
As for their little town, Mark has warm memories of growing up in Thornbury, in Melbourne’s north. Before its wine bars and eateries appeared during the gentrification of the nineties, it was an unromantic working-class suburb – one full of battlers. But Maria had the safety net of the bookshop, which originally belonged to her parents-in-law. Mark says when his parents separated in 1978, his dad, John James, left the shop to Maria so it would provide an income for her and the boys. And Mark says he loved curling up with a book in there.
‘I used to read the Biggles books, which were about a flying ace, a pilot, that my dad had read as well and encouraged me to read. As well as those books, I loved the science-fiction books, particularly the very colourful pictures of spaceships on the front covers. Sometimes I would wander in at night times, and when Mum and Dad went out. And when my cousin would come over, we’d actually use the bookshop as a little play area.’
Mark looks sheepish for a second. ‘At the time, a lot of newsagents and bookstores started to have light, even heavy, pornographic magazines, and in order to compete, Mum put a box of these in the corner and covered every one in plastic so that they couldn’t be opened. So she had this porno box.’ Mark laughs at his 13-year-old self. ‘I used to, at two in the morning, sneak into the shop, and I couldn’t open the books up and have a look because they were all in plastic, but I could see the covers, and I was shocked enough.’ In a small way, this little bookshop showed Mark the world. ‘There would be customers coming in: sometimes they would talk to me, and I would see my mum interacting with them. That’s an opportunity I had because Mum had a bookshop. Without that, I would be a less interesting person.’
After that day in 1980, this home, his anchor, became a foreign world of fingerprint dust and police tape. Mark doesn’t think the detectives knew he’d snuck into his mum’s bedroom, but saying goodbye was important to him.
‘That was my home for 13 years. I needed to reconnect with the place before I could let it go. And I really wanted to take more of my possessions, more of my toys, the things that were in my bedroom.’
This is only the second time we’ve met. Earlier in the year I’d called Mark, asking for his blessing to do a journalistic deep-dive into the cold case of his mum. Because in 2014 a best mate and colleague, Kerri Ritchie, told me that a witness had made an explosive police statement. ‘You should keep in touch with Ron Iddles,’ she told me, as she headed off on maternity leave. ‘It could be big’. So I did. And nothing came of it. Ron Iddles was at the Police Association by then, so he was off the case that had frustrated him for all those years, and he was stumped as to why this witness’s statement had never seen the light of day. This also niggled at me – enough for the Iddles baton change that’s now landed me in Mark’s sparse lounge-room. I don’t know it yet, but it will become all-consuming. There’s the murder, and then things get dark.
I don’t know it yet, but it will become all-consuming. There’s the murder, and then things get dark.
I want to review his mum’s case through a podcast. I feel this intimate medium will allow for sensitive treatment. But some true-crime podcasts treat crime like a spectator sport. Maria James’s story should be both forensic and respectful, so my early caveat was getting Mark’s blessing. Had he said no, I wouldn’t have pursued the case. That was the line I drew. I’d imagined that, after all the news stories over all the years, Mark might be lugging around fatigued surrender. He’d most likely be wondering whether he’d be let down all over again. But he’s on board. So here we are.
‘Even though it’s been so many years – I mean, we’re talking about 36 years – given modern forensic techniques, including DNA, I’m certain that if enough resources are thrown behind it [the cold case], they could definitely find the killer,’ Mark says.
He’s confident that an ABC podcast could revive interest in dusty files about his mum, which sit in boxes in a police storage room alongside the unfinished stories about another 280 Victorians. Mark has a desperate hope about him, the sort of hope that either fuels people or breaks them. But, like Ron Iddles, he has an unwavering conviction that there’s someone in the community who holds the missing puzzle piece. It’s just a matter of finding them, and tugging on their conscience.
Mark James speaks so fondly of Ron, whom he met as a 13-year-old when he was getting under the heels of those detectives at his dining table, throwing questions at them.
‘I wasn’t upset that they were there. I was encouraged that something’s happening, they’re doing their job, and gee, wow, there’s a lot of police here, they’re taking it very seriously. I was probably a bit annoying to them sometimes, coming up and talking, [while] they were trying to do their job.’
[Mark] has an unwavering conviction that there’s someone in the community who holds the missing puzzle piece. It’s just a matter of finding them, and tugging on their conscience.
Ron’s been a constant in Mark’s lifetime of upheaval.
‘Ron stayed in touch, and how he kept in touch with me, I don’t know. I mean, I moved address and always would forget to tell Ron, but Ron would find me and stay in touch, and he would say, “We are still looking at certain suspects.” And he was the source of encouragement for me – I guess probably the only source of encouragement, that maybe one day there could be a solution.’
What a thing to carry from your teenage years. When I was a kid, I remember dressing up with my best mate, Sarah, for a school-costume day. Detectives Brown and Puttick we were, with trench coats and crudely made cardboard name-badges. We used to patrol the local neighbourhood for mysteries to solve. But when we saw a knife lying in someone’s garden one day, we decided the job might be over our heads. I think that’s about the time all the girls changed their career ambition to dolphin trainer. But here’s Mark, his trajectory severed so cleanly from mine with 68 flashes of a blade.
He revisits that day all the time. He’s just back from his daily paper-round for the local newsagent, Terry Gannon. His mum’s at the stove, cooking the boys scrambled eggs, their favourite breakfast. She turns from the stove and asks something strange.
‘She said to me in a very kind of solemn and unusual way, “If anything happens to me, make sure Adam is looked after.” She actually made me promise. And she was looking anxious and worried. And that was the second time. She’d said it to me on the weekend as well. It was something out of character. Mum cared about us very much, and she would never put that kind of burden on us.’
Now, in hindsight, her plea chimes ominously. ‘She would do anything for her children, and she was quite perceptive. If something was wrong with Adam or me, she would know about it before we even said anything.’ But at the time, Mark just thought she was being a bit weird. So he promised, scoffed his breakfast, and headed off for his weekly school excursion to the local bowling alley. His mum, as she did every day, walked his 11-year-old brother, Adam, to the bus stop. Because he had cerebral palsy and Tourette’s, he went to a special school. Maria put Adam on the bus and waved him goodbye.