- Published: 18 August 2020
- ISBN: 9781760897772
- Imprint: Viking
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 384
- RRP: $34.99
John’s hands gripped the wheel. Blood soaked his shirt. The man writhing next to him screamed and groaned through his ruined face.
This, thought John, is shaping up to be a really shit day.
He checked the dash. Not because he needed to glean anything from the speedometer or the fuel gauge, but to distract himself. His friend, he was certain, was going to die. He wasn’t ready to admit that just yet – best not to admit defeat, even when it’s nuzzling up your leg – but things weren’t looking good. The car was dancing below the speed limit, skirting the very edge of it, a warm hum pulsing as the engine threatened to overheat and gutter out entirely.
Another noise, this one more of a bloody burble, yanked John from his trance. Focus, he thought. Focus. You’re not far from the hospital. You can fix this. You can make this work. You can get the shit back into the horse, John. A confused, wet, garbled scream drew John’s eye. He looked over at his friend, doubled up, utterly soaked through with his own blood, clenched hands holding his face in place.
John flashed back, somewhat inappropriately, to himself as a child, holding stolen apples in his shirt and sneaking into his house round the back. Just as he was about to make it to his bedroom, the buttons popped and the shirt burst open, unable to bear the burden of his stolen goods. The apples tumbled forth. His dad yelled at him for an hour. Why am I remembering this? John thought in a daze, foot stamped down on the accelerator. Oh. He looks like he’s about to let go, too. He can’t carry any more.
They were, John realised, snapping back to the present, still a long way from the hospital. They were in the backstreets now, burning up and down long roads, coursing along winding avenues, and into the kind of dips and troughs you only really saw on the Northern Beaches of Sydney. We aren’t going to make it, John thought. He’s collapsing. I’m going into shock. I’m—
And with a rather pleasant FLOOMP, the car mounted the gutter at high speed.
And everything went dark.
COP TO IT
There’s blood everywhere. A murder has been carried out, and only I can solve it.
This, I think, is shaping up to be a really good book.
I’m eleven. I’m in a cavernous bookstore at Warringah Mall with my dad, John. He’s an ex-cop, and he’s over by the thriller section, but before he wandered off to busy himself, he guided me to a shelf, this shelf right here. Then he reached up and handed me a book.
The book is called Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey? and, much like me, it weighs almost nothing. I’m tall, and lean, and very bored. And I’m sad. I’m very sad, and I don’t know why. Maybe Dad knows. Maybe that’s why he’s brought me shopping.
The book isn’t a normal book, not like the one you’re holding. Huge, delirious letters proclaim that it’s a Choose Your Own Adventure story. The cover is a brazen late-seventies-style mishmash of tropes: the sinister gardener lurking in the corner, the big-chinned hero detective floating up near the title. It’s like a movie poster, I think to myself, turning it over in my hand. A movie poster on a book. What a world.
Dad is eyeing me from across the store. He’s wearing an expression one wears when hoping not to startle a deer. I open the book, that heady new-book smell reaching my nose almost instantly, and I’m worried that after years of completely bouncing off the written word, this book will offer me nothing.
I have ADHD, you see. My brain just sort of wanders off after a few pages whenever I try to read. I enjoy the first few pages, the promise the books hold, but then I fear that the ADHD will take control yet again. ADHD: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Ever tried to wrestle with ADHD? Imagine your brain, your focus, your drive, your attention, as a plume of smoke. Got it? Thick, cloying, sweet smoke, swirling churlishly around your head.
Now, imagine someone standing in front of you. They’re waving. You should probably wave back. There we go! Now you’re both waving.
And what’s that he’s holding? A big glass bottle. He’s handing it to you. He’s . . . right, he’s seen something shiny and run off after it. Just you and the bottle now, kid.
Now, do me a favour, would you? Try to get the smoke back into the bottle. No, I’m serious. That’s what having ADHD is like.
Eleven-year-old me – god, I’m adorable – looks up at Dad again. See how hopeful he is? He wants me to read the book, I can tell. He wants me to make an effort.
When I was a kid, my dad was a cop. He’s not a cop at this point, mind you, he’s a firefighter. And as I stand there in the bookstore, walls of great works towering around me, and my dad’s great works practically wafting off him like a highway mirage, I wonder what it must be like for a person like him to have a kid like me. Because it’s bizarre growing up with a larger-than-life father, let me tell you. Dad spent years in General Duties, which just means he was a regular beat cop, in uniform, patrolling the streets and relentlessly pursuing leads. Then he headed to Forensics. You know, all the really gory stuff: corpses, fingerprints, trace evidence. Digging up bodies. Autopsies. Snappy one-liners. A weird career path, to be sure, but Dad’s a weird guy.
He’s walked over now, trying to act casual. So I humour him, and begin to lazily peruse the book he handed me. And there, right there, on the second page, is . . . wait.
This book is going to let me choose. If my idiot brain wants to run away with itself and pursue leads, pursue what-ifs, run down forgotten alleyways, the book will actually encourage it. Unlike regular books – and real life – this story in my hands encourages do-overs. I look up at Dad, wonder in my eyes.
‘Is real police work like this?’ I ask, holding the tiny paperback aloft. Dad looks down at me, smiles – a smile which, upon reflection, is a little too sad to burden a kid with – and says, ‘No, mate. If I made a mistake when I was a policeman . . . I had to live with it.’
Dad takes the book from me and kind of tunes out for a moment, clearly thinking something over. I just sort of watch the guy, holding the book in his hands, thinking. He looks around the store, smiles at me, and heads to the counter. He pulls out a huge leather wallet, distended from a thousand compressed business cards crammed inside, draws out a crinkled note, smooths it, and hands it to the cashier. She rings up the purchase, and Dad hands me the book in a brown paper bag. Then we head home.
Because of the unique yet exhausting way my brain works, you’re going to have to keep up with my ricocheting between the present and the past. Now it’s twenty-six years later, and my folks live somewhere else. But it’s okay, we’re still home. Their home. We’re currently standing outside my parents’ cosy little apartment. They’ve lived here for a touch over a year, and it’s so immaculate, so carefully curated and stacked with artisanal, minimalist pieces of design and art that you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re standing in a film set.
Let’s head on in. You can leave your shoes on, just don’t drag any mud in. We’ll just head down these stairs and knock.
It’s okay. Don’t be nervous. Dad is lovely. Weird, but lovely. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive, at least not in my family. What we’re about to do, friends, is sit down with Dad and find out where I went astray, if indeed that’s what I did. Why wasn’t I capable of doing what he did? And why are we so different? He’s a man of focus, of drive, of grit. I’m the exact opposite, and that point of difference has been eating me up, as much as I hate to admit it. So I’m here for answers. I want to find out how Dad made the hard choices, and why I struggled to make even the simplest of choices. Was it the ADHD? Was it cowardice? And why did the apple fall so far from the tree?
Shh! Here he comes.
It’s actually Mum who opens the door. Mum, actual name Christine, beams at me and envelops me in a hug. She makes an elongated, delighted ‘ohhhh!’ sound, as if she’s surprised to see me, which is impossible because I called ahead. I think what I’m discovering as I get older is that Mum is perpetually stoked to see me, which is the kind of ambient affection that really keeps the emotional engine running on low days. She ushers me into the living room. ‘Your father is driving me insane, Paul.’
Dad looks up. Currently, the hero cop (ex–hero cop) is leaning over, refusing to bend his legs, combing the tassels on a lavish Persian rug . . . with a hairbrush. He looks up at me with an expression that says, I know you want me to look ashamed about this. But I’m not ashamed about this. These tassels were out of alignment, Paul.
‘This had better not go in the fucking book, mate,’ Dad says aloud.
‘Why would I put it in the book?’ I reply calmly, making a mental note to put it not just in the book, but right near the start of the book so it sticks in everyone’s memory.
Dad places the hairbrush on a sideboard, asks me if I want anything to drink, ignores me when I tell him I’d like a whiskey sour, then sits. He picks up a leather-bound Moleskine, carefully unwinding the elastic that binds the pages in place. I told Dad to take lots of notes on cases from his Forensics years, because they’re the years he never talked about. I knew it would take him months to dredge this stuff up. And if I’m honest, his notebook is practically creaking. The damn thing is fit to burst, and I realise he’s done to it what most men do to their wallets: overstuffed it to the point where storing it in his jeans pocket would give him a herniated disc.
It’s at this point that Dad notices the book I bought. It’s giftwrapped, carefully swaddled in coarse brown paper and crisscrossed with frayed twine. I hand it to him. He weighs the package, shaking it as if it were something other than a book.
‘Did you wrap this?’ he asks, eyeing the small rectangular parcel.
‘Yes,’ I lie. It was, in fact, wrapped by my wife, Tegan. She has the kind of dexterous hands that were born to pick locks; thank god she avoided committing larceny in the past, or her having ex-cops for parents-in-law would be a jot awkward.
Dad pulls the bow and the string cascades to either side with a soft shfffff. He then peels away the paper – just the top at first – and stops. Peering out from the opening is the edge of a small paperback. In a decidedly dated font, bold and hugged by a red bar, are the words CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE.
Dad pauses and smiles at me. ‘I think I know what this is,’ he says. ‘I’ll get to this tonight. I . . . Is this the crime one?’
‘Yes,’ I answer, returning his smile. ‘The crime one.’
He looks at it again, a grateful expression playing over his face. He then pops it down next to his notebook, picks the warped object up, and flicks to the first page. ‘Where do you want to start?’
‘Well,’ I reply, ‘I’m trying to figure you out, Dad. And I get why I didn’t end up in uniform – I’m a tremendous physical coward. But forensics is details. It’s Sherlock Holmes dusting for prints, analysing evidence. It’s granular. It’s . . . perfect for me. And yet, even forensics wasn’t something I felt the pull to do. I need to find out why I didn’t end up where you did, Dad. So let’s begin at the beginning. Forensics – it’s not car chases, sprinting after bad guys, arrests. It’s just . . . pretty basic, right?’
He looks like I just farted into his drink.
‘Buckle up, dear boy,’ he says, glowering smugly. ‘Buckle up.’
It’s an unusual feeling to be interviewed about your darkest secret, unusual but also freeing.
Adjectives such as ‘singular’ and ‘extraordinary’ tend to be overused by biographers to describe the lives of the people they’re writing about, not to mention the publicists who are paid to promote their books.
This is the chilling and definitive true story of one of the world’s most extraordinary serial killers, infamous in both Australian and American criminal history.
It was only three days after Colleen had gone missing that anybody told her mother, Muriel Craig, and the news made no sense to her.
I’m on the highway a few miles out of town when the noise starts: a scraping, grinding din that jackhammers my heart into my stomach.
The fifth and final day of Michael Atkins’ evidence opened in spectacular fashion.