Australian novelist Hooper (A Child’s Book of True Crime, 2002) investigates the 2004 death of an Aboriginal man and the subsequent trial of the police sergeant charged with his killing.
The author combines murder mystery with provocative social commentary in her deeply felt if occasionally overwrought account. Pursuing the story from ground level, Hooper traveled to remote Aboriginal townships to explore a culture rich in folklore and superstition and a population seemingly condemned to poverty, squalor and hopelessness. She was less successful in penetrating the stone-faced veneer of accused detective Chris Hurley, whose career included episodes of both brutality and kindness. Absent Hurley’s cooperation, Hooper was left to speculate on the mindset of this particular “tall man” and a police force highly adept at protecting its own. More revelatory was the author’s emotional journey into the lives of Australia’s indigenous people, crippled both by the effects of long-standing white domination and by their own self-destructive behavior. (Laudably, Hooper doesn’t scant either aspect in her text.) The victim, Cameron Doomadgee, was sadly typical of many young Aboriginal men living in the remote Queensland hamlet of Palm Island. Impoverished, unemployed and chronically drunk, he encountered Hurley after a morning of heavy imbibing. The Aboriginal shouted a slur, the cop arrested him, and things escalated from there. When Doomadgee punched the nearly 6’7” sergeant outside the police station, a scuffle ensued. Hurley claimed that he simply fell on top of his prisoner during the ruckus, but an autopsy revealed that the 36-year-old Aboriginal suffered severe trauma to his midsection that nearly ruptured his liver in half. An ambitious career officer with a record of good relations with Aborigines (he had even created a sports club for Aboriginal youths), Hurley soon became the first policeman in Australian history formally charged with the death of a prisoner in custody.
Alternately poignant, powerful and ponderous—a worthwhile glimpse into a battered culture.