Chloe Hooper’s debut novel A Child’s Book of True Crime is one of those books I bought enthusiastically years ago (the UK hardback had a nice cover), but never got around to reading. From True Crime she has turned to True Crime, and the garish cover will be fit in nicely among the other titles in that section of the bookstore. Still, not many true crime books earn praise from Philip Roth on the cover (“Chloe Hooper’s masterful book of reportage is a kind of moral thriller about power, wretchedness and violence”). But then, not many true crime authors studied creative writing under Roth at Columbia University.
Clearly, though, the aim here is something closer to Truman Capote or Gordon Burn than to, say, Nigel Cawthorne. In The Tall Man, inspired by an article she wrote for the Observer a few years ago, Hooper takes an account of a death in police custody in Queensland and weaves it into an exploration of white v black Australia.
It happened on Palm Island, an Aboriginal settlement and former segregated community. “Fifteen minutes from the mainland, they all lived in a different country.” It is a world that most southern Australian liberals – like Hooper – never encounter. There is little doubt where her sympathies lie: she embeds herself, after all, within the Aboriginal – or ‘Indigenous Australia’ – community, not with the police. But she does not present Palm Island as a paradise. Here and in other Aboriginal communities, alcoholism, domestic violence and child neglect are endemic (not to mention deafness and diabetes).
In the past six weeks, a man had stabbed and critically wounded his brother over a beer. A woman had bitten off another woman’s lip. A man had poured petrol over his partner and set her alight. The unemployment rate was 92 per cent. Half the men on Palm Island would die before the age of fifty. This place was a black hole into which people had fallen.
So police presence on the island is prominent, and one day in November 2004, local man Cameron Doomadgee fell foul of Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, was arrested for apparently shouting abuse at the police in the street, and an hour later was dead on the floor of a cell.
The title refers both to Hurley – six feet seven inches in height (“The tall man get out and arrest him,” says one woman. “I saw the tall man grab him by the arm”) – and the Tall Man, a malevolent spirit feared by the islanders, “the island’s combination of Big Foot and the bogey man.” The book follows the riots and legal procedures that arise from the death of Cameron Doomadgee, and also explores the irreconcilable differences in the white Australian and the Indigenous Australian worldview.
Blackfellas saw themselves as inseparable from the land. … Palm Island was settled with refugees … they lived cut off from the religion and culture of their traditional lands, and the despair that went with their removal was often fatal. Around the turn of the twentieth century, W.E. Roth heard old people on a mission singing a song: “This [country] made him die. The place he did not belong to. It was this [that made him] die.”
But there are elements which connect the communities. Both islanders and police are capable of frightening mob rule: the islanders when they riot following Doomadgee’s death (“Many of the officers believed they were going to die. They passed around a mobile phone and rang their families to say goodbye”); and the police when they have a rally to support Senior Sergeant Hurley, all fist salutes and unsuppressed rage.
The Tall Man effectively becomes a thriller (“I was hooked in and set upon a quest”), chasing the inquest into Doomadgee’s death and the subsequent legal developments (which it would be unfair even to outline, though the chapter headings are a pretty large-print spoiler). As a result, the book is such a page-turning delight that I felt I occasionally was pulled through it too quickly to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. Nonetheless Hooper has her tricks to slow down the reader and distract from the ‘plot’. As a novelist, she is alive to the language of the Palm Islanders, and its curious poetry both in vocabulary (an argument is a “tongue-bang”) and in speech, as when one is describing what he saw in the police cells before Cameron Doomadgee’s death:
Well, he tall, he tall, he tall, you know … just see the elbow going up and him down like that, you know, must have punched him pretty hard, didn’t he? Well, he was a sober man and he was a drunken man.
The Tall Man is a book which is both important and viscerally exciting to read. And how few of those we come across these days.