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Certain Admissions: A Beach, A Body and a Lifetime of Secrets by Gideon Haigh (Penguin, 2015)

Certain Admissions is a gripping narrative of the murder of Beth Williams, her body found on a Melbourne beach in December 1949, and its aftermath. It becomes a biography of John Bryan Kerr, the young man convicted of the crime on the basis of a disputed confession, as well as an account of Haigh’s archival quest and an investigation of the many byways related to the case. It was the highest profile case of its time, perhaps due to Kerr’s charm and the salacious details of the crime.

“The public would never learn much about Elizabeth Maureen Williams – murder victims are seldom other than the pegs on which to hang the stories of their killers.” (71) Particularly in the opening chapters, Haigh writes beautifully and insightfully. My perception that his prose slips towards the end might be the circumstances in which I was reading the book, often between night-feeds for the new baby in our house.

One of the book’s achievements is to perfectly integrate the author’s archival quest so that it doesn’t intrude or overwhelm the story but enhance it, opening our eyes as readers to the ambiguity of the evidence and the intriguing stories behind the story. Haigh’s reflections on his quest and the archives fascinated me.

And one aspect of archives, I reflected, was always worth recalling: the materials are not originated for posterity’s gaze, like one of those time capsules sealed in the cornerstones of great buildings containing a Bible, a Collected Shakespeare and copies of the newspapers of the day. To begin with, what become archival documents are prepared by the creators for their own use; their preservation just happens to be provided for out of caution, or custom, or statutory fiat. And separated from the understandings of their creators, they begin, subtly, to degrade. (loc 375-379)

It is Kerr who is the book’s main shortcoming for me: he seems a tiresome, arrogant man with an anger problem who isn’t worth knowing, difficult but not complex. There’s not much Haigh can do about that. It’s a problem biographers often face, although to the extent that true crime is a form of biography, the expectations of the subject are different. A reader can hardly complain about a murderer being an unpleasant person – although they might complain about he or she being boring. Thankfully, Haigh is never boring himself and nor is the sprawling story with its endless twists and ambiguities. He ends with some of that ambiguity, so appropriate to this story:

By now I was running out of time, for while stories can ramify indefinitely, books must be contained, ruled off, set down. Perhaps inconclusion had always been this one’s fate, the events being so long ago, the key survivors so few, the doubts so appreciable. (loc 4147-4149)

Certain Admissions is a significant achievement in creative non-fiction, a compelling narrative which has much to say about society and its shifts, succeeds as a biography of a criminal (or a man wrongly convicted), and as an archival quest.