Where's Peter? Unravelling the Peter Falconio Mystery

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 March, 2006, 12:00am

Where's Peter? Unravelling the Peter Falconio Mystery

by Roger Maynard

HarperCollins, $195

Foreign correspondents posted to Australia have a tough job. Outside sport, they usually have only bad sunburn to report at the end of the day. Little of international significance happens in the wide, brown land of 20 million people. That's a plus for residents, but a test for foreign press left making the most of quirky fillers on shark and croc attacks.

When news flared in July 2001 about the disappearance of British backpacker Peter Falconio, the hacks had a feeding frenzy. The yarn taps into our fears with the precision of a Hollywood horror flick. Being true, it also has the loose ends to keep it ticking in the public mind around the world.

Falconio and his girlfriend, Joanne Lees (above), were backpackers dossing in Bondi long enough to buy a Kombi and a marijuana stash for a trip around Australia.

While driving at night on the Stuart Highway in the Northern Territory, a 4WD vehicle pulled alongside, the driver urging them to pull over. When Falconio and the driver walked to the back of the Kombi, Lees heard the stranger explain that sparks had been flying from the van. Falconio asked Lees to rev the engine. She heard a sound similar to a car backfiring before the man appeared at the window pointing a gun at her head.

He tied her wrists with homemade hand-cuffs of cable ties and tape, put a hood over her head and threw her into the 4WD. After hearing the scraping sound of something being dragged, Lees escaped and ran into the scrub.

She hid under a bush as the man searched for her with a torch before fleeing. Lees waited in the scrub for five hours until she saw the lights of a road train and flagged down the driver. She never saw Falconio again.

Maynard had his book in stores in Australia and Britain within days of the December 13 verdict that found Bradley Murdoch guilty of murdering Falconio and abducting and assaulting Lees. He was jailed for life. A month later, four books about the case were on the shelves. More are expected.

Maynard, who writes for the South China Morning Post, US television station CNBC and The Times in London, has the scoop on the basics of the story. He relies on accounts that came out of the trial, as well as a little fact-checking with police and witnesses. His rivals have been forced to top him by wooing exclusive interviews from the major players.

Maynard's haste allows the reader to excuse clumsiness of his story. The Falconio case still has too many holes for one hack to nail it, and Maynard exploits the unknowns with pot-boiling prose.

He writes of the killer: 'Like his cowboy-style gun with its scroll-like markings, he had the hint of a callous character from a Hollywood western about him. He was a hard man who went about his sordid business with not so much as a flicker of emotion, a cruel giant of a figure.'

He plays up the fact that the case against Murdoch - a loner who made a living running amphetamines and marijuana from one end of the continent to the other while consuming his share of the haul - was circumstantial.

Falconio's body has yet to be found, so Maynard makes the most of reported sightings of the missing man around Australia.

Then there are the inconsistencies in Lees' account. For example, even considering the terror she experienced at the time, why didn't she get the description of Murdoch's dog right?

Maynard has fun with an affair Lees had while working at a Dymocks book store in Sydney before the road trip with Falconio.

He also gets his revenge on Lees for her refusal to talk to the media. This reticence resulted in Lees falling into the same trap as the accused in another famous Northern Territory murder case. In 1980, a baby was taken and killed by a dingo near Ayers Rock in Central Australia. When her mother, Lindy Chamberlain, refused to talk about the ordeal, she was written off as cold by many, and wrongly convicted of murder after a bungled investigation by Northern Territory police.

Lees was also depicted as aloof and odd, amid conjecture that she was a suspect.

Some of the police involved in the Chamberlain investigation worked on the Falconio case, and similar doubts emerged about the handling of the crime scene and DNA evidence.

Maynard eventually runs out of bombshells to detonate and ways to describe the 'surreal' or 'palpable' tension in the courtroom. After mulling over the state of mind of all the players, he seems to lose the will to keep guessing: 'It's hard to say how the defendant felt as he stood to hear the charges against him ...'

But his readers will already know the ending - a vice and a virtue of this book.