A lovely big welcome to Rachael Brown today. Thank you for chatting to me. Your book is called Trace: who killed Maria James? Can you tell me a little about it and what inspired the novel?
The novel Trace; who killed Maria James? is the story behind my now two-and-a-half year investigation into a 1980 murder cold case. Maria James was stabbed to death at the back of her Melbourne bookshop, the very day she was set to confront her parish priest about the sexual abuse of her younger son, Adam. I learned a witness had seen this priest covered in blood on the day of her murder, and had given a statement to police, but nothing ever came of it. And then I learned exhibits and documents are missing.
So my deep-dive into Maria’s case was born out of two questions; Was the Catholic Church involved in her death? Has Victoria Police – either unwittingly or deliberately – been involved in its cover-up? I reported my investigation through the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s first true-crime podcast, Trace.
While I was convinced my investigation would be betterfirstserved as a podcast series – because its interactivity could help solve the case – the constraints of this medium left much unsaid. So Scribe’s book details the anatomy of my meticulous investigation. Through the dead-ends and discoveries, the tears and the triumphs, I show readers the gritty toll on all those caught up in, and consumed by, this case. And remarkably, despite the darkness, or maybe because of it, this book also says a lot about hope, and humanity’s warmth.
What’s your writing process like? Which part was the easiest, hardest and challenging to write?
I found the process excruciating, both because of the dark material and structural challenges. I fortunately had already completed a lot of the research and transcripts (for the podcast), so much of the heavy lifting was done in 2016. But how to fashion this monster of an investigation into a compelling and clear narrative for readers? I decided to leapfrog between timelines – between detective Ron Iddles’ investigation in 1980, and mine in 2016/17 – planting seeds in each timeline that would be fleshed out in the other. This was the best way to help this 38-year-old case career along, and to highlight its strengths and flaws.
I was a post-it fiend. Blue for Ron’s investigation, and pink for mine. When I looked at my initial structure, the pink was too dense in the middle. This section was a weighty series of accounts of sexual abuse, which I worried might be too depressing for readers. But these accounts needed to be in the book, to bare witness to history. So I introduced green post-it notes, representing the podcast episodes and subsequent audience engagement. This was a great way to bring some light into the darkness, and also, to allow readers a glimpse into the mechanics of the podcast medium.
These sections are also testament to my skilled production team, including Jesse Cox, the podcast’s series producer, who passed away in December. Jesse wanted to change the world, and he did, in helping bring people’s creative dreams to life, so these green post-its allowed such personal tributes to be interwoven. Also, I’m told Traceis the first Australian podcast to be turned into a book, of which I’m also incredibly proud.