We have a blatant, public appetite for true crime stories. Netflix documentary Making a Murderer was watched by over 19 million people in the US in its first 35 days of release and, closer to home, the Underbelly series spawned numerous seasons due to popular demand. More recently, podcast series Phoebe’s Fall, which follows the investigation into the death of Phoebe Handsjuk, comes to mind.
It’s in this climate that Lee Hooper and Carly Godden have launched their Melbourne true crime podcast series Dead & Buried. The pair are the creators, researchers, writers and hosts of this podcast, and are more than well-placed to research a series showcasing underground history and true crime in and around Melbourne. Both have worked at the Public Record Office Victoria, and Carly studied history and law at the University of Melbourne, while Lee is the co-director at Born & Bred Historical Research. For them, Dead & Buried was a natural fit.
“People are fascinated by true crime because it’s so different to the normal day-to-day,” says Lee. And it’s certainly not a modern obsession. The third episode in Dead & Buried, ‘All Hallows’ Eve’, discusses the case of Mabel Ambrose, whose body was found in a boot box in the Yarra River in 1898. Thousands of people flocked to see the body, which the police put on display at the city morgue with the justification that doing so would help to identify the victim.
“People love nothing more than putting together a puzzle. If you can see that body, you might know who it is and you could solve the puzzle. Or maybe they just wanted to see a dead body,” Lee says.
“There’s definitely an element of voyeurism,” Carly agrees.
While some true crime series and other media (think some news ‘reporting’) indulge that voyeurism, dramatically revelling in every tiny sensationalised detail of a crime, Dead & Buried takes a more considered approach. The series incorporates strong themes of social justice by exploring stories relating to workers’ and Aboriginal rights, as well as queer history, and often looking for stories that haven’t been told before.
“I think we’re very aware not to be exploitative,” Lee explains.
“We get feedback. Because sometimes you get really close to it, you know? You write it, and then you think, am I doing this sensitively?” Carly says.
“It’s a lot to do with collaboration. You need to have at least three or four people to talk to, to ask ‘is this too bad?’” Lee says.
Sensitivity comes up not just in the telling of a true crime story but also in the research phase, when interviewing relatives of victims or perpetrators. While researching the first episode, ‘Fortune Killer’, the Dead & Buried team interviewed Warren Maloney, whose great, great grandfather, Frank Cartwright, was murdered following a dispute at a fortune-telling shop at the now-defunct Eastern Melbourne Market.
Frank Cartwright – courtesy Warren Maloney
“For us, it went well. Warren was so willing to talk about it because he had done all the family history and he is also an oral historian,” Lee explains. “But I did another story a little while ago about a man who had committed a double familicide – that is, killed two families of his own relatives. His great grandchildren contacted me after that article, and I asked them whether they’d like to be part of something like this. Basically, the answer was no.”
“It was interesting,” Carly says. “We asked Warren how he felt about his family member being murdered, and he actually seemed to have quite a lot of sympathy with the murderer. He was like ‘well, you could definitely see now that he had mental health issues’. I don’t think there was any bitterness there. But I think time could be a factor in that, too.”
“Time’s definitely a factor,” agrees Lee. “If you don’t know someone, say if it was my great grandfather, I’d be willing to talk about it with anyone unless it affected me directly. But I guess in the case of the double familicide, it might have affected the relatives more directly because their parents were the kids that survived. You just have to be considerate and also be willing to take no as an answer.”
Time is not just a factor in regards to sensitivity of family members; legally, it also determines what information is available for researching true crimes. Criminal trial briefs are closed for 75 years following a case. Privacy laws can make researching a recent crime more difficult than researching one that happened one or two hundred years ago.
Photography – Elly Freer
“People have told me about murders that happened in the seventies, but we can’t get those records because they’re still with the police,” Carly says. “So, I think if you were venturing into stories like that, you would get into the territory of relying on interviews a lot more.”
“But then it’s also a matter of fact-checking,” Lee says.
There are some fictional crime stories that are marketed as true – for instance, the Coen Brothers’ film Fargo, which claims to depict real events but which is not backed up by concrete sources. Adding the tag ‘based on a true story’ can give a tale the audience appeal of true crime without somebody having to spend hours digging out the facts.
Given the difficulties of researching true crime, it might be tempting to take that shortcut, or add some interesting (but false) embellishments when the true story doesn’t match up to the level of intrigue that a good writer could create.
“I don’t think it even crossed our minds to lie,” Lee claims. “As good as that could be. When it came to this, I don’t think we even thought about it.”
“Sometimes, we actually left some of the detail out,” Carly says. “I think the thing with historical writing is that it can be really bogged down in detail. So we had to do a lot of ‘killing of historical fact darlings’. Leaving little details out, even ones that were kind of interesting, so that the audience doesn’t get weighed down. You can have interesting historical facts, but what we want is a narrative, so that for people who aren’t really into history, who are there for the story, we can say ‘hey, here’s a bit of history under the backdoor.’”
Photography by the already Christmas-weary Elly Freer.