Steve Braunias: The book of David Bain

Strange that Hon Ian Callinan's epic report into the David Bain compensation claim should be published on the same day that applications open for the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Is there a willing publisher? All you'd have to do is stick a cover on it, give it a nifty title (I can think of one, but you'll have to get to the end of this story), and watch as it got longlisted, then shortlisted, then crowned at next year's ceremony. It's a brilliant piece of writing.

It's a good subject. The report may well be the last or at least longest word on l'affair paper boy: the killing of the Bain family has become one of the central stories of New Zealand life these past 22 years, and it deserves to be told as powerful literature. Callinan rises to the challenge.

After stating the basic facts of the killings, and setting out the terms of his own task, he writes, "The slaying and their prolonged aftermaths are as puzzling and extraordinary as they were cruel and remorseless."

READ MORE: No compensation for David Bain; $925,000 ex gratia payment

Justice Minister Amy Adams announcing the government will not pay compensation to David Bain. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Justice Minister Amy Adams announcing the government will not pay compensation to David Bain. Photo / Mark Mitchell

And so he takes the reader into the Bain household, that pigsty ("the kitchen was in an unspeakably dirty state"), with a definite, very specific mission. It's not to determine what happened or even to determine whether Bain did it. It's not to deliver verdicts of guilt or not guilty. The head of the very sharp pin he dances upon in his report is the matter of Bain's innocence.

"I have to say," he writes, almost archly, "that I have had the impression from time to time that [Bain and his] representatives may not have fully appreciated that they did not establish his innocence merely by raising a number of doubts."

He kicks that chair out from under them again and again and again. Doubts? There's a few, Callinan yawns, but then again, too few to mention.

The gold standard in judicial literature in New Zealand is Justice Mahon's Erebus inquiry. Yes, yes, that old "orchestrated litany of lies", but there was so much more in Mahon's lyrical, fulminating report. "The ultimate key to the tragedy," he wrote of the 1979 air disaster, "lay in the white silence of Lewis Bay."

"The white silence"! What a beautiful phrase; but it's not Callinan's style. The author of Bain's compensation report is more like a literary critic.

Hon Ian Callinan AC QC, a former Justice of the High Court of Australia, was appointed to conduct a fresh inquiry into Mr Bain's claim for compensation. Photo / File
Hon Ian Callinan AC QC, a former Justice of the High Court of Australia, was appointed to conduct a fresh inquiry into Mr Bain's claim for compensation. Photo / File

"What is motive?", he muses. "It seems to me that it is an idea, a belief, a feeling, an impulse, a delusion even, or a reason, an explanation, for an act."

Very well, he continues, and sees more compelling evidence for it pointing to David Bain than to Robin Bain.

At one point Callinan virtually stands and applauds Bain's advocate, Joe Karam, for his amazing campaign. Bain himself is treated coldly, and cast as a kind of seething loser. "Virtually penniless ... largely unemployed ...There is also this: why did he 'deserve to stay?' It was not as if he had been an achiever."

Callinan goes through all the old tropes of the Bain murders. For several paragraphs his report becomes the case of the bloodless sock. There are Bain's "black hands", there is his crazy mother and her "unnatural reliance upon symbols and omens, and the movement of pendulums". There is the position of Robin Bain's rifle, there is the lacerations on David Bain's knee.

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All trials become matters of contesting stories - who tells the most believable tale, the strongest narrative? A courtroom becomes a testing ground for literature. As such, lawyers always jump on any evidence to do with actual books. They love drawing parallels with the contents.

Callinan shakes his head at the instances in Bain's trial, when his defence pointed to Robin Bain's copies of detective novels by Agatha Christie and Ngai Marsh, and drew "a sinister connexion". Callinan again refers to the crime novels at the end. "In the fictional murder mysteries that Robin Bain was reading before his death, all the ends are tied, and the crimes elegantly solved."

Impossible in real life, he sighs. In fact his report very elegantly wraps up the epic saga of the Bain family killings, and the title screams out: NOT INNOCENT.

- NZ Herald

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