If you had to argue for the merits of one Australian book, one piece of writing, what would it be? Welcome to our occasional series in which our authors make the case for a work of their choosing. See the end of this article for information on how to get involved.
Ezra Pound, a poet with a publicist’s flair, once said that “literature is news that stays news”. His irreverent adage holds doubly true for John Bryson’s Evil Angels. The story it tells, of the prosecution of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain for the murder of their daughter Azaria, remained in the public memory, and Bryson’s account of it is memorable and convincing.
The beginning of the case made headlines around the world in 1980: a baby snatched from a tent by a dingo at Uluru; an unsuccessful search by her parents and other campers, Aboriginal trackers and police; a mounting swell of gossip and rumours; an inquest declaring she was killed by a dingo; a renewed police investigation; a second inquest in which Azaria’s parents were committed for trial; and a jury trial that became a media spectacle.
Lindy Chamberlain was convicted of the murder of her daughter, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Michael Chamberlain was found guilty of manslaughter as a necessary after the fact, and given a suspended sentence. Appeals to the Federal Court and the High Court, and petitions to the Northern Territory government, failed to overturn the result.
In 1986 a tourist climbing Uluru fell to his death. The search for his remains turned up a matinee jacket matching the one Azaria had been wearing on the day she died. This discovery confirmed evidence given by the Chamberlains, prompting a judicial inquiry into the case.
That inquiry found serious flaws in the evidence against them, particularly forensic evidence. It also concluded that the Chamberlains were credible witnesses. Their convictions were quashed, and, much later, the government paid them A$1.3 million in compensation.
In 2012 a dingo killed another child. A new inquest into Azaria’s death was opened. It found that a dingo was responsible for her death. A revised death certificate was issued immediately.
Yet this summary fails to capture the intense lived experience of the case, or the magnitude of the injustice. That is the achievement of John Bryson’s book.
Bryson has described Evil Angels as “a documentary in the form of a novel”. He interviewed participants, attended the legal proceedings and public meetings, researched the background, and analysed the reports of other journalists. He then recreated the story from the inside, presenting the events through the eyes of various people involved.
This method combines the immediacy of fiction with the careful marshalling and weighing of evidence idealised in the law. As a result, Evil Angels is a comprehensive and rigorous exploration of the case, and of the society in which it happened.
Evil Angels was published in 1985, after the unsuccessful appeal to the Federal Court. Bryson ends his narrative in the aftermath of that disappointment, with the Plea for Justice Committee setting up for another public meeting. The chapter is called A Quiet Place on Redemption Street.
This title reprises a theme sounded in the opening, for Bryson begins his story not with the family reaching Uluru, or even setting out for Central Australia, but in Pennsylvania in 1844, on a night when Seventh-Day Adventists had predicted the Second Coming of Christ would occur. The failure of that expectation brought forth what one of their leaders called “the exulting, sneering triumph of evil angels”.
That episode, known to Adventists as “the Great Disappointment”, sets a tone of melancholy for the Australian story of injustice that follows. Biblical quotations are sprinkled throughout the book, spoken by the members of the church, or used as images by Bryson. Faith tested by adverse circumstances in the first case; faith juxtaposed with skepticism in the second.
Evil Angels alludes to the Christian belief in redemption, the promise of deliverance from sin and bondage, but gives it a secular application, in the attempt to see justice done, and especially to obtain Lindy Chamberlain’s release from prison.
This thread of Biblical rhetoric is only one of several specialist languages that Bryson captures and explores in his book. The terminology of science, the techniques of the media and the language of the law are all shown in action.
By this means Evil Angels recreates the case from beginning to end, from the inside, using the perspectives of participants employing their professional knowledge and general understandings to make sense of what is happening around them. By attending to the voices and perceptions of a large cast of witnesses and storytellers, Bryson shows us what happened, and why.
Uniquely among the books published on this Australian “trial of the century”, Evil Angels encompasses the social factors as well as the individual actions that produced this miscarriage of justice. It is not content with simplistic speculations about the psychology of the defendants, or ill-informed assertions about their religion.
Bryson casts his net wide. He presents a complex account of the multiple causes, the large forces and the small actions, that fuelled the race to convict.
Chief among these forces are the “evil angels” of the title. While many Australians were quick to ascribe evil to the Chamberlains, the book is less interested in accusation than in accounting for the injustice. In Bryson’s hands the evil angels are a metaphor for the forces of malice and ignorance that swept through the nation during this case.
He registers the shadowy appearance of innuendo, bias, gossip and prejudicial beliefs concerning proper feminine demeanour, Azaria’s name, and Adventism. The proliferation of these irrational and hostile attitudes in modern Australia is a major insight of the book.
Bryson shows how they were taken up by the mass media, and influenced the conduct of police and forensic scientists. The danger that “the old rumours might steal in and out of the trial, just as they had in the press, beyond testimony, the beguiling creatures of bigotry,” was real.
Evil Angels shows how stories motivated by fear and prejudice overrode the law’s reliance on evidence and reasoned argument, and produced a monstrous injustice.
That experience is not unique to Australia and, not surprisingly, Bryson’s book was much translated and lauded in other countries. Yet it remains a deeply Australian story. It is connected to one of our archetypal images, the lost child. It is a reminder of the untamed quality of Australian nature. It reveals, more clearly than any other book, the conflict between secularism and religion.
A celebrated trial acts as a mirror of the society in which it takes place. A good writer offers readers a model of their world. Bryson, an experienced lawyer himself, was the ideal writer of this story. Evil Angels was written in the heat of the controversy, yet its account of the case was confirmed by the subsequent judicial inquiry.
Three decades later, it still has much to teach us.
Are you an academic or researcher? Is there an Australian book or piece of writing – fiction or non-fiction, contemporary or historical – you would like to make the case for? Contact the Arts + Culture editor with your idea.