A few months ago I stood in Judith Furlong's lounge and held up a tiny black cotton dress once belonging to her daughter Jane to my own figure. It was a small black number I expect would have fitted me as a teenager, such was the necessity of the wearer having tiny hips. Judith had pulled the dress from a box while going through newspaper articles and photos. Less than a metre away, Jane's ashes sat in a carved box, taking pride of place on a table in the small living area.
It was the day my editors, Mary Varnham and Jane Parkin, finished polishing the manuscript of a book I'd written about Judith's daughter's life and death and were preparing to send it to the publishers. Wracked with nerves, I had gone to Judith's to check some finer details and for reasons I still can't remember, she pulled the clothing out. For a minute, while I held the tiny dress up to my body, my stress evaporated.
Since that day, contact between Judith and I has become more infrequent but we still stay in touch. Sometimes she sends me cheery emails requesting help with something, or complaining about another thing. I was chuffed to get a text at Christmas. I've become fond of her and, I like to think, she of me. Although Judith has no shortage of stories about Jane, even letting me read her diaries, holding Jane's clothing in my hands that day felt oddly special.
I've lurched too far forward in this story. Cast your mind back to 1993. Judith's only daughter Jane Furlong was 17 when she disappeared from Auckland's Karangahape Rd in May that year. She had been a sex worker on that street for a couple of years by the time she disappeared and was a new mother to a much-loved baby boy. She wasn't seen again for nearly 20 years when, by chance, a dog walker at Sunset Beach, Port Waikato, found her skeleton buried in sand dunes in 2012.
Nobody has been arrested for her murder and many of the details of the case remain secret. Tight-lipped police officers don't want to jeopardise their investigation or any potential prosecution. The public doesn't know, for example, how Jane died. After her body was found, a funeral was finally held and the case began being actively investigated again, gaining momentum for a time. Now, much of the publicity has died away, although the case remains open.
In 2015 I met Judith through my work as a court reporter. But rather than being assigned to cover a new strand in the long-running mystery of who killed Jane, I recognised Judith in the public gallery of a High Court murder trial I was reporting. I introduced myself and during a coffee a week or two later she made a throwaway remark about wishing someone would write a book about the twists and turns of Jane's case. The opportunity to put my hand up was too good to pass up. Jane's story was unique and fascinating for so many reasons, and I found Judith equally interesting.
Although Judith describes herself as preferring to "shy away from the limelight" she has kept a good rapport with a number of journalists over the past two decades. I had much less experience than many of them and I expected a sharp "no" when I asked Judith for her blessing to delve in. I've never asked Judith why she gave her approval but I do know she thinks it's important to highlight the injustices in Jane's short life. A book could help bring it all to the fore again.
Pretty soon I was announcing to everybody I was writing a book. Although the police investigation was an important focus of my research, however, I knew Jane's story was about something much bigger than why the police hadn't solved her murder.
To me it was also about the people she left behind. The ones who spent most of their own lives seeking the truth about what happened to her. Not just Judith but her best friends Sharon Ludlow and Amanda Wolfe, boyfriend Dani Norsworthy, and her reliable taxi driver Chris Good, who was one of the last people to see her after dropping her off at the spot she would vanish from on Karangahape Rd. Chris was so affected by Jane's disappearance he dropped flowers at Judith's doorstep on anniversaries for many years afterward, and attended Jane's funeral.
All these people were profoundly affected by her disappearance. For the past two years I have got to know them as best as I can.
It could have been tricky, pitching a project like this to people you've never met. I often try to play in my own mind how I would feel if a person close to me died and a stranger was bent on immortalising them. I like to think that if I trusted the journalist, and they pledged to do a good job, I'd invite them into my life. Fortunately, that's what happened.
Although Jane's death has attracted a huge amount of publicity in the past, her friends consistently said they felt Jane's true spirit hadn't been captured. She was a sex worker when it was illegal and her friends felt that wrote her off in the public mind. So her friends quickly welcomed me into Jane's, and their own, lives.
I was invited to read her diaries and letters to her friends and was told story after story — my favourite was of her nicking plants to liven up their dilapidated flats. But it was also important to me to know and understand the people in Jane's world. How did Jane meet these people and why were they drawn to her?
It was after many months that Amanda introduced me to Dani Norsworthy, Jane's boyfriend when she disappeared. He had been fingered as a suspect in her disappearance in the past and hadn't given any media interviews. I can only assume he began to trust me when our discussions didn't wind up in the papers.
After receiving responses to my pitches from large publishing houses — who queried the point of retelling the story — I had a promising email from editor Mary Varnham at Awa Press, a small, non-fiction publisher based in Wellington. Mary was the first person who really understood the story, and had her own ideas about what would make a good read. She suggested I write my investigation into the book; detailing my trials and tribulations.
Journalists inserting themselves into their own stories is not new, but it's long been debated. Critics argue a journalist's presence in the subject they're writing about smacks of vanity and only confuses the issue for the reader. Proponents say it can liven your writing and take your reader on a richer journey. But suddenly I had my answer to the reason I was writing, and the reason people would care about Jane — they would care because I cared.
A former colleague, brilliant writer and author Adam Dudding, once told me some iteration of the following: If you're throwing your interviewees or characters under the bus, it's only fair you throw yourself under too. (I suspect he would say I have this wrong but, regardless, that's what I took away from it.)
So that's what I did. Readers won't just learn about the transient lives of a group of teenagers in the 1990s, they'll learn the intricacies of my relationships with Amanda, Dani, and Judith. Mostly they will learn how fond of them I became, rightly or wrongly.
In many respects, the final product is a far cry from what I had set out to do — to unravel the police investigation and potentially out a murderer. Although I believe I have eliminated people from the inquiry, satisfied myself that Dani wasn't involved with Jane's disappearance, and cleared up long-held rumours about the case, I have come no closer to solving the crime. I've come away emphathising with police for the challenges they faced in the investigation — from dealing with transient folk with strong allegiances, to the passing of time that would have destroyed vital evidence.
Instead, I got wrapped up with Jane's nearest and dearest. Their lives are so far removed from anything I, and I suspect many others, have ever known. Perhaps readers will feel betrayed that I didn't dig deeper into the mystery. I hope, however, that by the time readers get to the final chapters — where I take Dani on a pilgrimage to where Jane's body was found at Port Waikato — I will be forgiven.
Holding Jane's dress in my hands at her mother's that day I was reminded that although I may not have solved the mystery of who killed her, I had completed at least one job — reminding the public that Jane was a real person, who didn't deserve what happened to her. She had a family and friends, and for her sad death they will continue to grieve long after the last page is turned.
The Short Life and Mysterious Death of Jane Furlong, by Kelly Dennett, is published by Awa Press, $42, on March 5.