Saturday, November 18, 2017


THE MANY DEATHS OF MARY DOBIE by David Hastings (AUP, 2015)

Reviewed by Kate Jackson

Dreadful murder at Opunake’, said the Taranaki Herald, ‘Shocking outrage’, cried the Evening Post in Wellington when they learned in November 1880 that a young woman called Mary Dobie had been found lying under a flax bush near Opunake on the Taranaki coast with her throat cut so deep her head was almost severed. 

In the midst of tensions between Maori and Pakeha in 1880, the murder ignited questions: Pakeha feared it was an act of political terrorism in response to the state’s determination to take the land of the tribes in the region. Maori thought it would be the cue for the state to use force against them, especially the pacifist settlement at Parihaka. Was it rape or robbery, was the killer Maori or Pakeha?

In this book, David Hastings takes us back to that lonely road on the Taranaki coast in nineteenth-century New Zealand to unravels the many deaths of Mary Dobie – the murder, the social tensions in Taranaki, the hunt for the killer and the lessons that Maori and Pakeha learnt about the murder and about themselves.

This is the first true crime book I have reviewed online. True crime is not a subgenre I dabble in much. I’m not into grisly books on Jack the Ripper, and I really didn’t enjoy Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008). It tried to be dramatic fictionalisation as well as a non-fiction text detailing the historical/social/cultural data and for me it failed on both counts. Not sure I even finished it, which is certainly a rarity for me.Therefore, to be honest, I was a little worried about trying another true crime book. However, fortunately for me, my fears were unfounded and Hastings' book is a successful book, which importantly for me delivered a writing style which was consistent, engaging, well-paced, and entertainingly informative.

The story Hastings’ book relates is of the murder of the artist Mary Dobie in 1880 in New Zealand. She, with her mother and sister, had been visiting New Zealand for three years, with her sister having married someone over there. Mary and her mother were due to soon leave for the return trip to England. Yet this was not to be for Mary, as one day when she went for a walk, she did not return and as darkness was falling she is discovered, her throat cut so deeply that she is nearly decapitated.

After an introductory chapter setting up the crime in its basic details, hinting at the role the newspapers would go on to play in the investigation of the murder, Hastings then turns back the clock a couple of years to look at Mary Dobie, her family, and their stay in New Zealand before the fateful day. In doing so Hastings deftly explores the wider context of the crime and how it coloured perceptions of the suspects involved.

The political and social context particularly intrigued me as before, during, and after the crime there was a lot of tension between the native inhabitants and the settler communities, whose government was trying to reallocate their land. Into this powder keg of tensions and barely restrained violence, Mary’s murder can be seen as a lighted match and it was especially fascinating to see how this situation affected everyone’s earnest need to know why the murder was committed and also how in turn the murder and the subsequent trial affected the land dispute.

Mary Dobie is an interesting person to read about, having not been a very conventional woman in many respects. Hastings does not romanticise her, nor whitewash her. She is not a wholly likeable woman, suffering from class snobbery in part and an imperialist outlook not every modern day reader will get along with. Nevertheless she was still a remarkable and talented woman, recording her trips around New Zealand in sketches and paintings, going to far-flung places and experiencing the out of the ordinary. One contemporary newspaper wrote that: "It is of women like her that the heroines of history are made". Hastings’ handling of her is skilled, providing a balanced picture and where her outlook on native New Zealanders is myopic, he is able to fill in the gaps. For instance in a community where Mary saw happy and healthy Maori inhabitants, Hastings counters this was a government official’s findings of a settlement riddled with tuberculosis.

Hastings does a good job of providing insightful little details into the case and its aftermath, without overloading the reader with too much data. He takes you on a journey as the case twists and turns, making you wonder how it will all end. The section on the surprises at the inquest and the subsequent trial were very interesting. In particular I enjoyed reading about the legal processes and the problems this case had with following them. Reader sympathy is not centred wholly on the victim, as Hastings brings to the readers’ attention the much wider scope of victims this crime has. Looking at the confessional evidence, Hastings pulls out of it a poignant and sad story of cultural misunderstanding and fear, which ended in violent death.

So unsurprisingly I give this book a big thumbs up. Not only was it a brilliant read, but it encouraged me to give the true crime subgenre another go. The case Hastings explores is compellingly written and you can’t help but be drawn in to the individuals and the society they were living in. The only slight niggle I had was that throughout the book photographs are referenced in text, yet they are not displayed in text nor in a middle section. Instead they are clumped together at the back. Personally I would have preferred to have had the pictures closer to the in text references, as I found it hard afterwards to connect them to what I had read. However, this is only a slight issue as I say and shouldn’t put anyone off from giving this book a go.

Kate Jackson is a teacher and mystery lover from the north of England who blogs at CrossExaminingCrime. This review was originally published on her website as part of the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Awards blog tour, celebrating this year's finalists across three categories, and is reprinted here with her kind permission.  You can follow Kate on Twitter @armchairsleuth 

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