A study in toxic masculinity

By Christie-Anna Ozorio | 10 Aug 16

A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle
Martin McKenzie-Murray
Scribe Publications

True crime is exploding across our television sets and screaming at us from bookstands. The unrivalled success of recent series including Serial, Making a Murderer, American Crime Story and The Jinx has been at the forefront of what is fast becoming the most popular and most viral television genre phenomenon since reality television. What is more, this phenomenon is not limited to screen.

In the last year alone I have read countless true crime books – most recently One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway by Asne Seierstad, which I wholly recommend (great review here) – if only because it is impossible to avoid them if you frequent airports and because the genre dominates the Bestsellers List. Yet true crime is often disregarded in literary terms, despite being a style of writing which, when done well, weaves together a hauntingly beautiful story that is no longer solely the realm of popular or literary fiction. The diversity of the genre is one of its many strengths; a reader can closely follow a real-time hunt for a serial killer, or experience the aftermath that crimes so often leave in their wake, such as a legal trial.

Australia itself is home to fantastic true crime writers (my personal favourite is Helen Garner, whose true crime story This House of Grief is phenomenal), and it is books such as these that are garnering more critical attention as of late. A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle falls into the category of a post-crime exploration, without sacrificing the pace and the page-turning addictive quality that true crime is so famous for.

The tragically true tale concerns Rebecca Ryle, a young woman with a bright future, who is strangled to death in a northern suburb of Perth by James Duggan, a 19-year-old pot-smoking gamer and social outcast. But reading A Murder Without Motive solely as a “whodunnit” or a “why did he do it?” exercise would be to overlook what is beautifully rendered reflective writing and heartbreakingly portrayed interactions with the Ryle family, both in the immediate aftermath of their daughter and sister’s murder, but also in the years that follow.

Readers of The Saturday Paper may recognise author Martin McKenzie-Murray as the Paper’s chief correspondent. He is also the writer behind highly entertaining blog Feeding the Chooks. An upshot of his enormous writing talent, which is on full display in this book, is his ability to seamlessly create a work that is as much about the Ryle family as it is about McKenzie-Murray himself.

Hailing from the same northern suburbs of Perth where Rebecca lived and was murdered, McKenzie-Murray is all too aware of his own connection to the murder and the devastation it wrought on his community. My copy of A Murder Without Motive is full of dog-eared pages where his eloquent reflections and moments of clarity abound. His personal experiences, emotions and thoughts are inextricably linked to the Ryle’s – he grows incredibly close to them through the process of writing the book. Throughout the book, the reader is transported to the family’s living room, their dining room and their courtyard – listening to Rebecca’s parents drink wine while admitting that they dream about torturing their daughter’s killer.

McKenzie-Murray beautifully captures their suffering in moments of delicate, sensitive journalism.

“The what-if is a meat hook on which victims’ families almost always catch themselves. They can spend a lifetime trying to wiggle off it. For the rest of us, the alternate realities of a murder can be glibly discussed around the water cooler; for the families, it can become a toxic obsession.”

But McKenzie-Murray writes this book with exactly the opposite intention in mind; he seeks to faithfully portray a family who is bravely treading their tsunami of grief. Chapters are dedicated to Fran – Rebecca’s father – in particular, whose Navy background and working-class Mancunian work ethic is a foil for Duggan, the unemployed idler whose favourite movie is about drug-obsessed slackers who make homophobic jokes.

McKenzie-Murray frames Duggan as a boy who is tied inextricably to place, whose aggression is intertwined with the toxic teen culture that McKenzie-Murray describes as permeating the northern suburbs of Perth.

He observes that the fatalism, violence, thirst for risk, and medieval treatment of women by the young men in his home community formed a crucible, within which there was a fine line between “doing something stupid and doing something irreparable”.

He paints a picture of underage parties bursting with “livid visions of masculinity” in middle-class neighbourhoods, not slums or public housing as stereotypes and some criminologists would have us believe.

The violence that McKenzie-Murray depicts is staggering. In one instance, he describes a party that he himself attended in his teenage years, where another boy he knew had turned up, despite there being a price placed on his head by a gang of boys – only to be set upon viciously by said gang and a girl who stamped him with her stilettoed heel.

It’s hard to escape the pervading sense of determinism in Murray’s portrayal of Duggan; that this combination of Duggan’s low intelligence and social isolation coupled with the destructive pride, boredom and rotten aspirations of masculinity that existed in those suburbs may have created the criminal.

But McKenzie-Murray does not give in to a black and white story of “a criminal from bad neighbourhood”. He observes that the fatalism, violence, thirst for risk, and medieval treatment of women by the young men in his home community formed a crucible, within which there was a fine line between “doing something stupid and doing something irreparable”. He emphasises, however, that more often than not these ingredients created “dull men” – not murder. But such ingredients are “common and highly flammable”, he writes, and it’s always a “matter of time before chance lights the match”.

In his afterword, McKenzie-Murray concedes that he could not fathom a motive for Rebecca’s murder, although he does make a few points about what may constitute elements of motive.

But Duggan’s motive is not the point of this book. In McKenzie-Murray’s own words: “I’ve interviewed a few violent criminals, and in my experience, neither their stark inner lives nor their crimes are terribly interesting in themselves.”

A Murder Without Motive is beautiful in its difference. It is true crime but it is also so much more, and it deserves everyone’s attention.