I spent my family holiday immersed in child murder.
I didn't mean for it to be that way - it just sort of happened. First, I read: Helen Garner's This House of Grief, a harrowing account of the trial of a man who drowned his sons, and true crime legend Ann Rule's Small Sacrifices, about the astounding Arizona lunatic Diane Downs.
Next I watched: Paradise Lost and West of Memphis, the flawed yet riveting documentaries covering the satanic panic surrounding the West Memphis Three. The latter featured rather more of Peter Jackson in a partially-buttoned shirt than I anticipated, but was still satisfying.
Finally I listened: to Bowraville, an audio podcast from The Australian newspaper, the most recently created artefact (it just finished its brief five-episode run) and comfortably the best.
It's been dubbed the Australian Serial, and it does resemble that record-breaking American podcast in its focus on a long-dormant murder case. Though I loved Serial for its slicing open of the reporting's guts, it was overlong, treading the same path too many times. Bowraville, by comparison, is precisely as long as it needs to be: the episodes run for 20 to 30 minutes, so the whole thing can be consumed in the length of an average movie - like the classic six-part English comedy or drama, it feels taut and crafted.
The podcast reinvestigates the unsolved serial murder of three children in the New South Wales hinterland in the early 90s - an impossibly grave crime which is (or was until Bowraville debuted) barely known to most Australians. The reason, Box drily notes, is that the three children were all Aboriginal, and as everything from the police's risible investigation to the parliamentary indifference shows, indigenous Australians remain vulnerable and unloved within the Lucky Country.
Worse than the lack of a resolution is the fact a prime suspect is immediately introduced. Two of the children lived metres apart on the same street - again, can you imagine such a crime going unknown and unsolved in Sydney's leafy suburbs? - and Jay Hart was seen at all the crime scenes.
Hart though, is white - the whole show, like modern Australia itself, can only be understood through the prism of race. A combination of extraordinary, infuriating police indifference and the ruinous racial politics of rural Australia meant the crimes were barely investigated until the trail was nearly cold. The parents and relatives were simply told their kids had "gone walkabout". One of them was just 4 years old.
Box heads to Bowraville to interview the families, who tell their stories in a way which makes it clear that, two decades on, the official indifference to their plight remains raw and seething. Police officers duck and dodge, while white inhabitants of Bowraville, for the most part, come off as callous in the extreme. The town remains divided by race, and deeply racist: a shopkeeper serves whites ahead of Aborigines and local government barely registers the ongoing grief of the victims' families.
The lean, momentous audio pounds forward until Box finally tracks down Hart, living free elsewhere, for interactions so tense you can barely breathe while they play out.
It is a tremendous and important piece of reporting, the best thing I consumed during my week of young murder. And it shows that, while we live in an era of brilliant crime television - from Happy Valley to One's Sunday Theatre series of last year - the most affecting stories remain which that are true, and twist forever in the nation's gut.
Here's hoping someone options the TV rights.
What I'm watching
The dramatic rendering of the Russian spies lurking in 80s American suburbia has once again excelled this season: it works superbly as a family drama, a cold war thriller and oddball romance.
Why am I? TV One, Tuesdays at 9.30pm or binge it all at TVNZ OnDemand.
The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study might be the most extraordinary thing New Zealand has ever accomplished. I have nothing to base that claim on, but the fact Why Am I?, which details its findings in vivid style, leaves you thinking as much is testimony to the show's greatness.
The Nation Saturdays 9.30am
I once had a mean-spirited twitter exchange with the producer of The Nation after I suggested that TV3 had abandoned investigative reporting when it cancelled 3D and Campbell Live. He suggested I was wrong, because they did a bunch of that at The Nation. He was right too, and it's been in peerless agenda-setting form this year, thanks to Mike Wesley-Smith's reporting and Lisa Owen's blunt interviewing style.