Killing For Pleasure, Debi Marshall

Cover of Killing For PleasureThis is probably the most comprehensive book about the bodies in the barrels murders. It won the Ned Kelly Award for True Crime in 2007, and rightly so. Marshall is a crime writer who has published other books and writes long-form pieces for national magazines as well. Here she digs into the possible causes of one of the worst, and definitely the strangest, serial killings in Australia.

She begins with Bunting’s ex-wife, getting a perspective often overlooked. She also contacts several other people who knew Bunting before he moved to the outer suburbs of Adelaide. It’s sort of revealing but Marshall makes sure we don’t lose track of the fact that Bunting lied easily and frequently. Even when people from his early years are being honest we can’t trust anything he told them. It’s probable that Bunting was raped as a child, but we will never know for sure. Based on her details, I find it hard to believe that Bunting could have ever become an upstanding member of society even if he hadn’t been traumatised. He truly seems like someone born to psychopathy.

She gradually introduces us to the other perpetrators and shares as much as she’s been able to find out about their past. They all have horrific abuse from their early years, which can be verified and other people knew of before they became Bunting’s accomplices.

Not that Marshall offers this as an excuse for their behaviour. She goes to a lot of trouble to show that other people involved, and many of the victims, also had traumatic pasts. They might not have been kind to each other, they might have been struggling to live better lives… but they didn’t do any of the disgusting things that Bunting’s crew did. We all react differently to trauma. Bunting deliberately picked the people most vulnerable to manipulation or brutalisation. He gradually tested their boundaries and pushed them further and further until they thought his actions were normal. Anyone who didn’t like his ranting was ruled out of his plans and excluded from his company.

Marshall got access to interviews of Christine Johnson (Vlassakis’ mum and Bunting’s sometime partner) before she died in 2001. The original interviewer didn’t want to write the story, and I can understand why as it’s particularly harrowing. I like that Marshall also interviews the friends or loved ones of the victims whenever possible – it’s a very harsh story so it benefits from some love and care, even if it’s paired with grief.

Finally Marshall traces how the police and courts dealt with this extraordinary case, having sat in on large parts of the trial. This is covered in other books but hearing how the jury and judge coped, and how Vlassakis turned state’s witness, is interesting.

It’s hard to escape the grim background to this story – it’s never far from the surface. Marshall speculates a bit on the social, economic and political factors that came together to make this depressing landscape, and asks how it could be prevented. Because the murders weren’t the only crimes: child abuse, rape, domestic violence and petty crimes are part of many lives here. Mental illness and physical disability are common, and only get the bare minimum of treatment. More people are unemployed than working. The outer suburbs of Adelaide were (are?) treated like a dumping ground for all the people it’s too hard for society to deal with, and Marshall wants us to confront that reality.

For that reason, Killing for Pleasure is one of the most draining true crime books I’ve ever read. I think it’s excellent, filled with detail and compassion and answering the questions any reader would have. But it’s difficult to recommend it to anyone without warning that it’ll leave them feeling pretty raw.