HOW TRUE CRIME INSPIRES
by Sara Foster
During the research for You Don’t Know Me I became aware of the different ways inquests can help solve cold-case crimes. In early 2018 I watched the Sixty Minutes program about Daniel Morcambe’s case, which revealed how, when the trail went cold, the family of the missing boy had pressed for an inquest, which eventually began seven years after Daniel disappeared. While Daniel’s killer, Brett Peter Cowan, didn’t confess in court, police used the opportunity to mount an undercover operation to gain his trust, until he unwittingly confessed on tape to Daniel’s murder.
I began looking at other inquests instigated by police and/or victims’ families. I found a podcast called Searching for Rachel Antonio, about a sixteen-year-old girl who went missing from Bowen in North Queensland in 1998. Police subsequently found she’d kept a secret diary, in which she detailed an affair with an older local man, Robert Hytch, who remains the prime suspect. He was tried and found guilty of manslaughter in 1999, but then acquitted at a retrial.
Years later, the Antonio family – still desperate for a breakthrough – got in touch with David Murray, an investigative journalist at The Courier-Mail. Murray developed the podcast and reignited the case, interviewing family, witnesses and suspects. It was confronting listening to Rachel’s parents’ torment, and it underscored one of themes at the heart of my novel: that those closest to these terrible events remain trapped in time, left covering the same ground again and again in their search for answers. A 2016 inquest concluded that Hytch had likely killed Rachel and secreted her body somewhere, and Hytch appealed again, but a Supreme Court upheld the decision in 2018.
In the final stages of writing You Don’t Know Me, I attended the high-profile WA inquest into the murder of Shirley Finn. Finn, a brothel keeper and nightclub operator, was killed in June 1975, and her murder has long been linked to a police cover-up. I went to the inquest primarily to confirm practical details of the proceedings; however, I couldn’t help but notice the way disparate groups were forced together. Police officers sat on the tight row of chairs directly in front of Shirley’s daughter. Near them were a row of journalists, scribbling details, playing on their devices, and jumping up to phone in reports during the breaks. Witnesses who hadn’t seen each other for 30 years got loudly reacquainted in the line for the bathroom. And I felt like I was temporarily living in the pages of my novel.
You Don’t Know Me is fiction, but the more I researched, the more my story became embedded in the true-life stories I discovered. My novel explores the long-lasting repercussions of a traumatic event, and how agonizing it can be when the details of what happened remain unknown. It looks at how families cope with traumatic, shameful secrets, and asks where – even in the darkest of circumstances – there might be possibilities for hope and resolution.
About the author:
Sara Foster was born and raised in England, and moved to Australia in 2004. She has published four other novels: Come Back to Me, Beneath the Shadows, Shallow Breath and All That is Lost Between Us. She lives near Perth with her husband and two young daughters, and is currently a doctoral candidate with Curtin University.