Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island, by Chloe Hooper

2008; Penguin Books

278 pages; $24.95

I read The Tall Man for the ‘true crime’ genre in the Literary Exploration reading challenge. I don’t read much crime, true or otherwise, and wasn’t sure what to expect. I was blown away.

Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man has won countless awards since its publication in 2008, but I would take that further and say that it should be required reading for every Australian. I knew embarrassingly little about the case before I read this book.

The 2004 death of Cameron Doomadgee, in custody on Palm Island, the subsequent riot on the island, and the inquest into his death – allegedly at the hands of Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley – are explored by Hooper, who followed the case for nearly three years. She interviewed many of the major players on the island, and even traveled to the remote Queensland outback to speak to Doomadgee’s family. 

The book drew inevitable comparisons to Truman Capote’s true-crime masterpiece In Cold Blood, though the approaches are quite different. The Tall Man is gritty and rather depressing, but has a more journalistic voice than Capote’s. The text is spotted with evocative, and at times beautiful, turns of phrase, however. Of the accused, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, and his history of requesting remote posts: ‘Perhaps these communities drew him with their power – the proximity to sex and death and beauty and horror; to songlines that are badly frayed but still give off some charge; to what is ancient, our deepest fear that good and evil spirits make sport with us.

Systematic racism in the Queensland police force is something that almost every Queenslander is aware of to some degree. Even more so is the novel’s setting – the scene of the crime. Mention the name ‘Palm Island’ to anyone over the age of twenty-four and you’ll get knowing, but perhaps dismissive, nods. The inquest into Doomadgee’s death was marred by racism, corruption, and a general lack of interest from the rest of the country. From Hooper’s account, it’s clear – despite the inquest’s findings – that Cameron Doomadgee was killed by Chris Hurley.

The triumph of The Tall Man is not in the suspense of waiting to see what happens – the reality of the story can be found in the news or Wikipedia articles. What draws you in here, and what holds you there, is the weaving of the myriad threads – most of them frustratingly unresolved – into a cohesive whole. Particularly affecting is the story of the local evil spirits – the Tall Man – who ‘will bash you, but they won’t kill you. That’s all they do to you.‘ The reference to Chris Hurley – who is two meters tall – is clear. Hurley may not have meant to kill anybody – but he did.

This is an engrossing and affecting read. The story is almost ten years old, but sadly remains as timely as when it was published. It would be suitable for anyone with an interest in Queensland politics, police racism, or general true crime.

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