The Crewe Murders profiled in the Readingroom newsletter


Steve Braunias has reviewed The Crewe Murders: Inside New Zealand’s most infamous cold case by Kirsty Johnston and James Hollings in the Readingroom newsletter, where it is also the giveaway. He says of the book:

‘The big news of the week in New Zealand literature was the publication of a new look at the most absorbing murder in the postcolonial history of these islands: The Crewe Murders by Kirsty Johnston & James Hollings (Massey University Press, $45).
It's subtitled a "cold case", which is correct by definition, but the term barely comes close to the deep resonance of the June 17, 1970 killings of Harvey and Jeanette Crewe. It's the classic New Zealand murder, the one that has burrowed in deepest in the New Zealand psyche and I think it's more than the fact it's unsolved: I think it's the setting, a farm in the Waikato, the bodies found in the Waikato River, the fact that Arthur Thomas's best attempt at an alibi was a cow (cow number 7, a sick creature that Thomas was caring for on the night of the murders). This is old New Zealand, the gothic version of life and death on isolated farms, dumb beasts farmed for milk and meat, the wind tearing at sheds and fences.

Johnston is a journalist and Hollings trains journalists. They have combined to good effect in this little enyclopedia of the Crewe killings: they can't write for toffee, but they set out the details and the theories with close attention to fact, and their reporting is forensic, patient, sober. No trace of sensationalism intrudes on the pages. There is a sensitivity at work – baby Rochelle, orphaned by the murders of her mum and dad, is still alive, with a keen vested interest in wanting justice – and the book reads like an exercise in responsible journalism.

But one of the central purposes of journalism is news, and there are no new mindblowing revelations to be had in The Crewe Murders. It makes the book kind of actually pointless but it operates very efficiently as a compendium of what we already know. It gathers everything together – it's thorough and comprehenive - and at least there are some fresh interviews.

Whodunnit? The question will always likely remain open. I went back to one of the great works of literature on the case, the 1980 Report of the Royal Commission, by Justice Taylor, which I think still contains the best sentence ever written on the Crewe killings, about the first time police were alerted to the events: they received a call from Owen Priest, "who told what must have seemed then, and still seems today, a bizarre story of a bloodstained house, empty but for a weeping infant."

Over 50 years later we are still on the doorstep of that bloodstained house, still wondering what happened.’