A Child's Book of True Crime, A Very Adult Debut

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Make no mistake, notwithstanding its witty title, A Child’s Book of True Crime by Chloe Hooper (Scribner) is definitely not a tale for little ones. This Book Sense 76 March/April selection is a story that mingles animal characters from children’s books with true crime elements -- a gruesome murder, an unexplained disappearance -- and perpetual human dramas -- the search for truth and the loss of innocence.

Kate Byrne is a young teacher who is isolated and lonely in the small, Australian town where she has her first job. She is, however, captivated by her fourth-grade students, particularly the precocious Lucien Marne. Kate is having an affair with Lucien’s father, Thomas. Lucien is given to making profound observations and drawing graphic pictures of unimaginable violence. Are Lucien’s drawings related to the bad adult behavior that surrounds him, or that Lucien’s mother Veronica has just written a sensational book about a local, unsolved murder?

Kate starts to see terrifying parallels between herself and the victim of that murder, Ellie Siddell, who was butchered 12 years earlier. Like Kate, Ellie was an adulterer and most people think Ellie was murdered by her lover’s wife. Kate’s obsession with the crime and her refusal to let go of her own childhood express themselves in the form of a macabre children’s story that is interspersed with the events of the novel.

The English Guardian called A Child’s Book of True Crime "a strange novel, gripping, eerie, and occasionally fey." Kate Byrne is an intriguing, difficult protagonist. Her perceptions and motivations become increasingly murky as A Child’s Book of True Crime advances. She straddles the imaginative world of children and the carnal world of adults, seeming a bit of an interloper and impostor in each realm.

This is Hooper’s first novel and it has received serious attention and praise. A Child’s Book of True Crime was just short-listed for the Orange Prize, which is open to any woman writing in English and, at £30,000, is Britain’s largest literary award. In this country, Kirkus Reviews described the novel as "an affecting thriller that mixes just the right gothic chills with erotically charged suspense" and Publisher’s Weekly said, "Hooper's wicked, sexy tale … proves she is a writer of great promise."

Chloe Hooper will be in the United States to promote A Child’s Book of True Crime in April. BTW interviewed her in Australia by e-mail at the end of March.

BTW: Kate Byrne is having an affair with Thomas Marne, the married father of her cherished student Lucien, and her sense of her own transgression seems reflected in her preoccupation with crime and sin. Her fascination with the notorious local murder of a girl whose situation resembles her own seems to mushroom into her obsession -- and the book's obsession -- with Australia's origins as a penal colony. Everyone seems tangled up in bloodlines and histories of murder, misdeeds, and punishment. On a class trip to the site of a formidable 19th century penitentiary where her fourth-graders cavort in mini-convict costumes, Kate observes, "Our local history is the Ur-true-crime story, and in volume after volume the bodies pile up." Is A Child's Book of True Crime then, a primer on the Australian psyche and culture? Is Kate the adulterer tracing a genealogy of criminality that is written into her DNA?

CH: Billing A Child’s Book of True Crime as "a primer on the Australian psyche and culture" would be a great compliment. The novel’s narrator, Kate, is certainly obsessive about her cultural inheritance, and it seems she confronts the darker side of her family history while setting out -- sometimes doggedly -- to rack up her own set of indiscretions.

When I started writing, it occurred to me that a lot of Australian literature dealing with our convict past is in the form of historical fiction. I wanted to address what it might be like for a young person, now, to look at the consequences of their local history. "Here just 150 years ago you would be sentenced to death for stealing a sheep," Kate muses, noting that her great-grandparents might well have been in the crowd watching the man being hanged. How does one reconcile such a gruesome legacy with the Australia of today? "Some of my friends at University got paid to welcome international visitors to the airport wearing convict costumes," Kate claims. "We thought the joke was on the tourists."

BTW: Kate's dealings with adults all hinge on sex, danger, or violence, but she makes her classroom a refuge where her fourth-grade students, especially Lucien, philosophize and invent themselves -- and so does she. Ultimately, Lucien, the Marnes' little boy, ties Kate more profoundly to the family than anything else. Why is this so?

CH: The children in this book could be the most urbane characters. While the adults lie, and sleep around, and sharpen their knives, the nine-year-olds continue their Socratic dialogues, contemplating the existence of God, the nature of truth, and whether we are all really just dreaming. Kate, who is very childish herself, is most comfortable in her fourth-graders’ presence. And Lucien, a brilliant but socially awkward child, is her favorite pupil. Kate identifies with Lucien most profoundly because he is a misfit in the classroom, as she is in their small town.

BTW: Murder at Black Swan Point is the "child's" book-within-the-book that features childish drawings and characters like Kitty Koala and Terence Tiger trying to solve the gruesome murder that preoccupies Kate and is the subject of Veronica Marne's book (also called Murder at Swan Point). What made you decide to intersperse this lurid, faux bedtime story with Kate's narrative?

CH: Initially, I conceived of Murder at Black Swan Point -- the book-within-the-book -- as being a satire of true crime novels. I’d been struck by the way mainstream true crime, typically, strives to satisfy the reader’s more ghoulish instincts, whilst maintaining a tone of moral authority. Writing this as straight black comedy, however, immediately cancelled out whatever pathos the central crime of passion might have had. It wasn’t until I reframed the Murder at Black Swan Point sections as children’s book episodes that I was able to both itch away at some of the true crime genre’s perversities, and also retain the stuff which made this story poignant. Using the "faux bedtime stories" was a way of zeroing in on the twilight space Kate inhabits between childhood and adulthood.

There is a long tradition in Australian children’s literature of anthropomorphizing animals. Obviously, Kitty Koala and Terence Tiger, two animals from the novel’s chorus, lead a fairly dark existence, although if you look to the Brothers Grimm or Poe, there is a strand of children’s literature that’s very macabre.

BTW: Why do so many of us want to read about true crime? Are we all bound to identify or affiliate ourselves with either the victim or murderer when we read about an act of violence -- as Kate and Veronica seem to do?

CH: True crime’s popularity is fascinating. It really doesn’t offer any of the narrative pleasures crime fiction affords. You often don’t even find out if the butler did it, so to speak. Instead, these stories beguile, and horrify, and possibly haunt us because they really happened. Due to their veracity, we grant them special status. It seems that even the most ridiculous crime -- a mother hiring a hit man to kill off her cheerleading daughter’s rival -- cannot be entirely dismissed. In A Child’s Book of True Crime, Kate makes the claim, "we read true crime books to learn about ourselves." Certainly crimes of passion give glimpses of people’s ambitions, and desires, and pathologies at their most extreme.

You ask whether readers are all bound to identify with either the murderer or the victim, which is obviously a dangerous question to answer. Perhaps people are attracted to true crime because it can give the chance to live out one’s worst fantasies. That fantasy might involve being the murderer, like Veronica, or being murdered like Kate. "Instill oblivion in every fornication; make me like a missing person in your secret way, only promise to bring it all back after so many minutes."

BTW: Is there a film of A Child's Book of True Crime in the works?

CH: I’m not really deputized to talk about this, but there are discussions underway about the possibility of A Child’s Book of True Crime being adapted for the screen.

BTW: What marks a writer as Australian? It's striking that both your novel and another recently acclaimed Australian book, Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang, share a focus on "truth" and criminal history. Is there a recognizable Australian tradition akin to say that of the United States’ Southern writers?

CH: I happened to run into Peter Carey before True History of the Kelly Gang was published, and we noted the fact we’d both included "true" in our titles. It is not surprising that an Australian writer might be obsessed by ideas of criminality. In a way, it’s impossible to conceive of this country’s history and development without taking into account its symbiotic relationship to crime. (Women, in the 1820s, would apparently walk down Sydney’s main street, and see in shop windows the jewelry they’d had stolen from them in London.) It is also not surprising that an Australian writer might be preoccupied with notions of truth. Only in the last few decades have Australians been taught their history -- the Ur-true-crime story -- in high schools and universities. I think it’s worth noting that in True History of the Kelly Gang, as in A Child’s Book of True Crime, the "true" in the title -- despite all the promise the word can contain -- becomes ironical and slippery.

BTW: A Child's Book of True Crime has now been published in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. Has the book been received differently in each English-speaking country?

CH: Obviously the response was always going to be different in Australia, where people recognize the place-names, and cultural references, and are used to talking animal detectives! But I don’t necessarily paint the same picture as the Australian Tourism Board, so certainly a contingent of readers has been challenged, shall we say. Overseas, the book was first published in the U.K. in mid-February, and the critical response has been very positive. To some extent, it’s too early to make any judgments about an American reaction, but I arrive next week for the U.S. book tour, and I’ll let you know how I get on!

BTW: There seems to be a real vogue for young writers and first novels now. Your novel has had serious attention with much focus on the fact of your youth and that this sophisticated book is your debut. What do you think of this phenomenon?

CH: There have been some high profile debut novels recently, but I doubt that at 28 I’m still in the running for wunderkind status. If there has been focus on my relative youth, it could, in part, be due to the fact that youth is very much one of the book’s great subjects. -- Molly Sackler