What is this about?: Trace is based on a podcast of the same name and is an investigation into the death of Maria James, a mother and bookstore owner who was murdered in her store in 1980 in Melbourne.
What else is this about?: Rachael Brown is a journalist, and in this book she takes us into her investigation while maintaining a fine line between a journalist’s objective POV and that of an investigator who desperately wants to solve this and give Maria’s sons some closure.
The riveting inside story of a journalist’s cold-case investigation of a shocking murder.
Every cop has a case that dug its claws in and would not let go. For veteran detective Ron Iddles, it was his very first homicide case — the 1980 murder of single mother Maria James in the back of her Melbourne bookshop. He never managed to solve it, and it still grates like hell.
Maria’s two sons, Mark and Adam, have lived in a holding pattern longer than Rachael Brown has been alive. When the investigative journalist learned that a crucial witness’s evidence had never seen daylight, the case would start to consume her — just as it had the detective nearly four decades prior — so she asked for his blessing, and that of the James brothers, to review Maria’s case.
In her exhaustive and exhausting 16-month investigation for the ABC podcast Trace, Rachael reviewed initial suspects, found one of her own, and uncovered devastating revelations about a forensic bungle and possible conspiracies that have inspired the coroner to consider holding a new inquest.
This is a mesmerising account, as Rachael traces back through her investigation — one that blew the dust off a 38-year-old cold case, gave a voice to the forgotten and the abused, and could have serious implications for two of the state’s most powerful institutions.
True crime is a new genre for me, or rather for the first time it’s a genre I am actively growing more interested in. I’ve talked about listening to the podcast last week and a little bit about Trace but I never quite expected the book.
Who was Maria James?
She was a mother to two boys, and a bookstore owner. She loved them dearly, and they her, and she did her best to make sure they grew up to be good men, who looked after one another. She and their father had divorced, but they had remained on good terms.
And then she was murdered, and her case was never solved.
In 2016, Rachael Brown took up her case, with an idea for Trace, a podcast of the investigation into Maria’s death. I listened to it before reading the book, but there was a certain level of distance between the revelations in there and me listening to them when compared to reading the book. The book though draws readers in, gives them the details and the time to become emotionally wrapped up in Maria and her sons, and want some justice for them.
True Crime and Trace
I don’t quite know exactly how to review a true crime book of this nature, because Rachael takes us right into her investigation, into her interviews with the cop who headed up the investigation, and never forgot Maria. Like Ron, the cop, Rachael has her fair share of red herrings and searching for information that goes nowhere. She shares how frustrating it is, how bad she feels for the clues that don’t work out and the hope that she still harbours — and Maria’s sons, Mark and Adam, still harbour — to find their mother’s killer.
These boys — now these men, goodness. As the book progresses, it’s Adam that offers the biggest and newest revelations about Maria’s death, and a priest in their parish, who turns out to be the most viable suspect.
Maria trusted Father Bongiorno and the Church, but both betrayed her and Adam — and I am sure you can figure out where this is going. Adam’s revelation about his abuse, leads to more revelations about the Church and priests in Melbourne and the various boys and families who trusted both.
And in terms of Maria’s death, gave the Trace team their most viable suspect — Father Bongiorno
It’s hard to read, and yes, it’s even compelling too because these men who come forward and speak their truth for the podcast and the book are so so brave. They have been shouting it for years, through depression and PTSD and now through the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse .
I digressed a wee bit didn’t I?
Readers will follow Rachael and her team as they investigate the Father, and his colleague and chase down DNA that they are sure will prove their case, and hit roadblock after roadblock. The book takes you through the most important parts of their 16 month investigation and their highs and lows, and Rachael lets readers see the toll it begins to take on the team and the boys.
There are two timelines here — that of the present one as the team investigates, and the past, letting readers in to what must have happened back then. It offers a more complex picture of the case and the investigation.
There are uncomfortable questions to be asked of the police of revelations in the book of how evidence was treated, but as much as you may wonder about the cops who messed up, there’s Ron who has never let this case go, and still stays in contact with Maria’s sons.
When the book began, I felt like Rachael Brown and her team had some distance between the case she and they were investigating, but slowly and surely their emotional investment begins to shine through. It’s there, but it never overtakes their investigation and their desire for the truth, which makes this all the more powerful a story. I think perhaps that’s how I might like to describe this genre: true crime will take you into the investigation, it will break your heart and doesn’t pretend the investigators aren’t affected, but it always maintains the line between personal and investigative.
Trace left me astonished at what happened to Maria and her sons, and the way the case was messed up all those years ago. I cheered Rachael and her team as the sought out the truth, and was frustrated for them when they hit wall after wall. I got so wrapped up in it, moreso than I thought I would and it feels ridiculous to say, because this is a family’s life, but I am a fan of Trace.