Review: The Schoolgirl Strangler by Katherine Kovacic

Cover of The Schoolgirl Strangler

Katherine Kovacic has proven herself an excellent crime writer, beginning with her debut, The Portrait of Molly Dean (a fictionalised take on the real 1930 Melbourne murder of 25-year-old Dean) and its sequel, the wholly fictional Painting in the Shadows (featuring the same art historian dealer/sleuth Alex Clayton).

With The Schoolgirl Strangler, Kovacic takes on true crime, detailing the Melbourne murders of four schoolgirls between 1930 and 1935. The deaths were the work of a serial killer before the word was invented, and Kovacic explores each killing and case in chronological order before coming to the arrest and trial of the man responsible.

It can be tricky to write true crime of this nature without giving undue attention to a man who murdered children and was, unlike cinematic serial killers, was lucky rather than clever in evading capture, particularly when it came to the police investigations, which time after time arrested and even tried the wrong people.

By focusing on the lives of these girls and the investigation of their deaths, Kovacic keeps paints a more involved picture of the impact of the crime on the girls, their families, the wrongly accused and the society in which they lived. Her respect for the girls and their families includes the simple facts of their deaths without prurient detail.

Kovacic has a clear, concise style that engages from the beginning, particularly in describing the lives of 12-year-old Mena Griffiths, 16-year-old Hazel Williams, 12-year-old Ethel Belshaw and 6-year-old June Rushmer. The consequences for the people in their lives, and those who were wrongly accused, are laid out with compassion and restraint.

The Schoolgirl Strangler is paced like a thriller, so if you’re not already aware of the history, the perpetrator’s name isn’t shared until his arrest afterJune Rushmer’s murder in 1935. (In deference to this deliberate choice, I won’t name him here either.)

The account of the killer’s trial, including transcripts of evidence, counsel’s comments and the judge’s questions and directions to the jury, a little drier, but Kovacic manages to keep a light touch and the pace moving well.

It’s not until after the killer’s conviction and the several appeals before his execution that Kovacic inserts more significant analysis, as she explores some of the evidence provided at the trial about the killer’s state of mind. She does an excellent job of looking back with a modern perspective on mental health and psychopathy and dissecting claims that the killer was criminally insane at the time he committed the murders. It’s a satisfying round-up of some of the questions raised and insufficiently answered according to the best knowledge of the 1930s.

In that round-up, Kovacic also notes a potential but minor link with the still unsolved murder of Molly Dean.

The Schoolgirl Strangler is a well told (or perhaps retold) story of these shocking murders, hitting just the right tone of respect for those lost girls and the families that had to go on afterwards and the examination of the mind of a perpetrator.

Buy The Schoolgirl Strangler

Other books by Katherine Kovacic