A messy world: inside the zany comic mind of Tom Ballard (@TomCBallard)

tom-ballard-1-copy-e1403330225340The joke that sticks doggedly in my mind from stand-up comic Tom Ballard’s Saturday Night gig, ‘The World Keeps Happening’ is the one he made about 9/11.

Ballard, young, blonde, dressed in a t-shirt and black jeans asks: “Would 9/11 have been so bad… if they’d flown into the Trump Towers instead?”

(Queue: a low rumble of shock across the packed old theatre).

He qualifies this by saying the planes would be empty and so would be the Manhattan tower, except for Donald Trump, now president-elect Trump “alone, on the toilet, masturbating over a picture of his daughter.”

(Queue even more shock. But Ballard loves it). “Ooh a few Trump fans in tonight,” he muses.

Later, as his high-octane 90 minute set, which left no taboo unturned, drew to its close, he asked cheekily of his audience: ‘Have I managed to lose you all of you tonight?’

He hadn’t of course: almost everyone cheered loudly at the end including me. Perhaps they would have lynched him in Queensland or Ohio.

A night with Tom Ballard, as I found out, is not for the faint-hearted or easily offended. Certainly his stand-up material would set the right-wing old fogges in Western Sydney into a frenzy were he to perform it on the ABC, where he first cut his teeth as a Radio host on Triple J.

Ballard’s act swerves from embarrasing personal experiences mostly of a sexual nature (like the time an ex-lover texted him to say he had “gonorrhoea of the mouth and anus” and he replied to say he was all fine now after getting treatment, instead he replied to a youth worker with the same name, instead) to discussing how technology is ruining our lives (“I’m addicted to my iPhone, I even auto-correct myself when I speak”) to ticking off on racism, sexism and homophobia. (Ballard has hosted two episodes of popular ABC political talk show Q&A).

“No one assassinates politicians in Australia,” he says. “I’m not saying we should be doing that, but a bit of passion would be nice.”

He goes on to relate the disappearance of Harold Holt, the only Australian leader to die in office who disappeared while out for an ocean swim.

“We looked for him a bit and then said, uh, he’s gone. And that was that,” Ballard says with a playful shrug.

Back to the cringeworthy, Ballard related the story of a friend, who for some unknown, unfathomable reason thought it a good idea to eat two 24-slice packets of cheese in one sitting. The result: “He felt a bit unwell and had to go to the doctor”.

Here his friend was told that all the cheese had congealed into a solid mass – “He had a cheese baby” Ballard declares with unbridled joy at the audience’s revulsion,  “and he would have it removed by caesarian.”

I confess I knew very little about Tom Ballard before the show though I recognised the face and name. (We – my wife and I – were lucky to pick up two complimentary tickets).

I quick read of his Wikipedia profile reveals that he grew up in Warnambool in country Victoria, is extremely smart (named Dux of the South West Region) and is passionate about a number of issues: vegetarianism, homophobia and cyber-bulling. He also once dated another of the country’s top comics, Josh Thomas the star of sitcom Please Like Me.

As with all really good stand-up comics he both mines his own personal experiences for comic material and uses comedy to make a point about the issues he cares about. (Not just that, he organised for volunteers from Refugee Legal to stand outside after the show with buckets to collect donations to support the work the centre does for refugees).

On inequality, he tells the story about a visit to Grill’d, the burger joint which allows customers to donate money to local charities through tokens they receive after ordering meals.

In this instance, he was in Warringah, on Sydney’s upper crust Northern Beaches where onion eating ex-PM Tony Abbott is the local federal member.

One of the ridiculous charity choices was to donate to the local school’s rowing club so that they could buy new kit.

“Sorry starving people of Africa…” Ballard bursts out with indignation, “the rowing club needs a hand” followed by an impersonation of spoilt, rich parents and their “desperate” kids.

“People rowing boats, these are the boats we should be turning back!” Ballard retorts with maniacal glee, delivering a scathing rebuke of the government’s tough approach to asylum seekers who come by boat.

His other suggestion, which I really liked was that we should ban all drugs, except for one day every four years – preferably on election day – when it should be a free-for-all.

“When I am on ecstacy, I just want to hug everyone,” he says.

His point being of course that we’re making some pretty bad choices sober, so why not try the other way.

Not a bad idea.

(A quick note: the show was recorded and will appear on streaming video service Stan at some point as part of its “One Stan Series”. So look out for it.)

 

 

Inconvenience: honouring a self-imposed 7-Eleven ban

seven-elevenWhen the Four Corners/Fairfax Media story broke in August last year that franchisees of convenience store giant 7-Eleven were underpaying their workers – mostly young migrants and students – on a massive scale amid a head office cover up, I vowed to boycott the chain in a show of solidarity with those caught out.

Not only was I angry at the treatment of vulnerable people at the bottom of the social ladder, but I also knew a fair bit about the owners of the Australian business: Russell Withers and his sister Beverley Barlow, who had become billionaires on the back of a business model “built on something not much different from slavery” according to one insider interviewed by Four Corners.

Of course, by its very nature, boycotting the country’s biggest convenience store chain with more than 600 stores is incredibly hard to do: their stores are literally everywhere and…convenient.

On my way to catch the tram every morning, there’s a 7-Eleven across the road which sells myki tickets (very handy when my monthly pass runs out) and another at the train station for doughnuts if I come home late from a night out. In town there’s a 7-Eleven across the road from work with a Bankwest cash machine (my bank), cheap coffee and snacks.

So I have continued to patronise these 7-Elevens even as I wonder what kind of wage the man serving me behind the counter is earning or the guy who fills the coffee machine with beans.

But, I also thought I would give the company the opportunity to turn itself around and become a respectable and fair employer.

But now I am taking a firm stand. I won’t patronise a 7-Eleven store again: the latest evidence suggests that not much has changed at the beleaguered and yet incredibly arrogant company.

In May, 7-Eleven sacked the respected former Competition Commissioner Allan Fels who was heading up its wages panel. Fels told the ABC his sacking was part of plans to minimise the payout to underpaid workers.

More recently, covert footage obtained by the ABC showed an employee being forced to pay back part of their wage to a franchise owner at a Brisbane 7-Eleven.

To top it all off I have had my own minor dealings with 7-Eleven following a story I wrote in the Australian Financial Review in August about the sale of two 7-Eleven service stations to Chinese investors.

I wrote, in a short article, that despite the wages scandal at 7-Eleven, this did not discourage the buyers who paid record prices for the two stores.

A couple of days later, a letter sent to the paper’s editor from the chairman of 7-Eleven, Michael Smith claimed that the following statement in my story was “untrue”:

Last year a joint Fairfax Media and ABC Four Corners investigation unveiled a massive wages scandal at 7-Eleven stores, involving systematic underpayment of staff by franchisees and a cover up by its corporate head office.

Mr Smith demanded that the statement made by Fairfax in this context “be rectified and withdrawn” – a request I am happy to say the AFR did not oblige. In the context of all the in-depth coverage about the wages scandal at 7-Eleven (in all the major newspapers and on the ABC) amid a huge public outcry, it was a most ridiculous request.

7-Eleven is not the only retail company found to have underpaid its workers. Supermarket giant Coles was recently found to have underpaid its employees and cut penalty rates in a union deal that cost low paid workers as much as $70 million a year, while petrol giant United Petroleum also underpaid some of its workers, an audit in August found.

In short, the exploitation of lowly workers in the retail sector appears to be a common practice.

The only way to stop is to shop with your feet, even if its highly inconvenient.

Meeting Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse

dexter_-_the_wench_is_deadIt’s impossible for me to think of Inspector Morse, Colin Dexter‘s fictional middle-aged Oxford detective, with a penchant for booze, attractive but dangerous women and classical music, and not think of the late, great John Thaw, who played him so brilliantly in the acclaimed BBC television series.

And so it was John Thaw’s face – penetrating stare, roman nose and white mop of hair – that became Morse in my head as I sat down to read The Wench is Dead.

It’s an unusual introduction to the literary  Morse – nearly all of the detective action takes place from Morse’s hospital bed, where he lies recuperating from a burst ulcer.

The case too is unusual, to say the least, involving the murder in 1859 of a married woman called Joanna Franks who is found drowned in the Oxford Canal whilst travelling to meet her husband in London. Two of the drunken and lustful boatmen are found guilt of killing her and executed, while a third is shipped off to Australia following a last-minute pardon.

But something does not gel for Morse, who reads about the case in a small booklet given to him in hospital. Bored and harassed by the nursing staff, he sets his great mind to work to solve the ancient crime, aided by his dutiful sidekick, Detective Lewis.

It’s wonderful writing full of Morse’s wit, humour and great intellect with Dexter skillfully shifting the story between the murky waters of the Oxford Canal in 1859, as the boat carrying Joanna Frank takes her to her doom and Morse propped up in his hospital bed pondering the possibilities:

The thought of drink had begun to concentrate Morse’s mind powerfully, and with great circumspection and care, Morse poured a finger of Scotch into his bedside glass, with the same amount of plain water. Wonderful!. Pity that no one would ever believe his protestations that Scotch was a necessary stimulant to his brain cells! For after a few minutes his mind was flooding with ideas – exciting ideas! – and furthermore he realised that he could begin to test one or two of his hypotheses that very evening.

The Wench is Dead, published in 1986 was the eighth out of 13 Inspector Morse books that Colin Dexter, a former grammar school teacher, wrote over a period of more than 25 years.

john-thaw

The late John Thaw as Inspector Morse

Dexter came up with idea of Morse in 1972 while sitting at the kitchen one rainy day on a family holiday in Wales with nothing to do. He recounted this is in an interview with strandmag.com:

I went in the kitchen and locked the door and I started writing. There’d been two crime books in the guest house and I’d read one of them; I can’t remember what it was. I didn’t think I could do any better but I thought I could do almost as well. I don’t know if it was the first page or the first paragraph, but gradually a few ideas materialized.

Later on, in the same interview he talks about the traits he shared with Inspector Morse, these being: a love of classical music, especially Wagner, sensitivity to the arts, music and literature, the enjoyment of alcohol, particularly single malt Scotch and real ale, “a bit too much” and a confession to being a bit of pessimist “with not much faith in the future of the planet”.

Of those traits Dexter says he did not share with Morse were Morse’s incredible mental capacity for crime solving, Morse’s fondness for attractive but deadly women and his perennial bachelor status  (Dexter was married and had children) and Morse’s meanness with money.

All of these traits make up the wonderfully complex character of Inspector Morse, who is surely one of the finest fictional detectives in modern literature ranking right up their with Sherlock Holmes, Jane Tennyson and modern greats like Luther.

Morse’s great powers of problem solving are in full display in the The Wench is Dead, a brilliant ‘whoddunnit’ cold case  that is short enough to be enjoyed on a rainy afternoon, perhaps with a decent glass of Scotch and classical music – possibly Wagner – playing in the background.

The utter stupidity of a Muslim migration ban

Turkey SyriaIt is hard to believe that almost one in two Australians support a total ban on Muslim migration.

Yet that is the finding of an apparently credible new Essential Media Poll.

As nauseating as that statistic is, it does though provide some clues as to where the likes of One Nation’s Pauline Hanson draws her small support base from. 

And if you extrapolate these findings to other first world countries, it explains the popularity of Donald Trump, the likely next US President, who wants an American ban on Muslim migration and travel.

I wonder how moderate, tolerant Australians feel about this.

I fear for the future of Australia’s enviable multi-cultural society.

I worry about the personal safety of the many traditionally dressed Muslims I see on the train every single day in my commute into work, who may become the target of violence.

And I wonder what prominent Australian muslims like journalist and broadcaster Waleed Aly, Labor MP Ed Husic, Australia Post CEO Ahmed Fahour and many others make of their native homeland and the attitudes of their fellow Australians.

essential-poll

The Essential Poll findings

Might those who want a blanket ban also realise that boxer Anthony Mundine, rugby league star Corey Paterson, cricket star Usman Khawaja and former Demons star Adem Yze are all Muslims? Would they like their family members banned from coming here?

Setting aside the humane argument against such a terrible idea, when you consider the wider ramifications of a ban on Muslim migration, you realise the economic impacts on Australia would be severe.

Economic disaster

By imposing such a ban, Australia would be denied many highly-skilled immigrants who could add greatly to the collective intellectual and cultural wealth of the country.

As it would be logical to assume that a ban on Muslim migration would also include a ban on Muslim visitors (for holiday, family or business) there would be huge negative impacts on foreign investment, tourism, retailing and many other sector of the economy.

Just ponder this: What would a ban mean for airlines from Muslim countries like Emirates, Qatar Airlines, Etihad? Would they stop flying into our airports and out of them? That would seem logical given most of their passengers won’t be able to get visas to come here in the first place.

Think of the massive impacts on trade and investment – Malaysia and Indonesia are Australia’s 10th and 12th biggest trading partners.

Governments and businesses from rich Middle Eastern countries like Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait invest billions in new Australian hotels, in agriculture, in property development, in shopping malls and in housing. They buy our beef and lamb and fruit and veg as we buy products and services from them

These are some of the world’s richest countries with vasts amount of money. How will they continue to operate in Australia if we tell the world we don’t want their citizens as part of our society? Do you think they will continue to invest or might they simply deploy their funds elsewhere?

Might it also be unreasonable to expect Muslim countries to ban Australians from visiting their shores in response to us denying them access to our?. (Perhaps my South African passport will finally come in handy!).

Will Australians still be able to travel to  exotic and wonderful places like Turkey, Morocco and parts of India or even just make a busines trip to Indonesia or have a beach holiday in Bali?

And what about sport, one of the nation’s greatest attributes?  Where would we play our World Cup soccer qualifying matches against teams like Iraq and Iran and the UAE? And how would we play home cricket matches against Pakistan or Bangladesh or Afghanistan? And would our teams travel to these countries in return?

(I could go on and on)

So I ask, has anyone who wants a blanket ban on Muslims coming to Australia (or the USA for that matter) stopped for just a minute, paused and thought it through?

If they did, they might see the utter stupidity of it more clearly – even if they refuse to accept its blatant bigotry and inhumanity.

Ted Bundy and I: Reviewing Ann Rule’s true crime classic, “The Stranger Beside me”

stranger beside meAmong the best books ever written about true crime and serial murder must surely be Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me, about the serial killer Ted Bundy.

A former Seattle police officer and then regular contributor to true crime magazines as she struggled to raise four kids, Rule was commissioned to write the book that became The Stranger Beside Me  as the spate of murders of young, attractive girls grew longer and more baffling.

Paid a small advance, Rule was told her book would only be published if the murderer was caught.

No one at first believed that Ted Bundy, the charming, intelligent, good-looking young law student was capable of such horrendous crimes.

This included Ann Rule herself, who by the most incredible of coincidences had worked night shifts with Ted Bundy at a crisis centre in Seattle in the early 1970s.

But by the time Ted Bundy was founded guilty and sentenced to death in a Florida court, she had come to the awful realisation that the man who sat in the cubicle beside her night after night in Seattle,  saving the lives of those contemplating suicide, was also a monster.

If, as many people believe today, Ted Bundy took lives, he also saved lives. I know he did, because I was there when he did it.

Apart from telling the story of Ted Bundy  and his awful crimes, The Stranger Beside Me, also narrates Ann Rules own personal journey into the ‘Heart of Darkness’.

ted bundy mugshot

Ted Bundy mugshot

The truth, as Rule found out, was that Ted Bundy, driven by a uncontrolable and never quite explained rage had used his facade of good looks and charm to bludgeon, rape and mutilate dozens perhaps over a hundred young women across America in the 1970s.

Many victims were attacked as they slept in their beds on college campuses, others were lured into Ted Bundy’s infamous beige VW Beetle as he masqueraded as someone with his arm or leg in a cast, struggling to carry his possessions.

Just before his execution in Florida in 1989, Bundy confessed to 30 murders committed  between 1974 and 1980 But many believe, and Bundy hinted himself, that the true total was much higher, perhaps over 100.

Before that, despite a mountain of evidence linking him to many murders (though much of it circumstanstial) he claimed he was innocent of any of the crimes. Often defending himself at his televised  Florida trial, he was seen by many as charismatic, brilliant and charming, which only added to the myth of his innocence.

In the end Rule, who maintained a sporadic correspondence with Ted Bundy through phone calls and letters from the time he was first arrested in Utah until his conviction and death sentencing in Florida, came to see through the facade, to see that she, like so many others, had been conned.

ann rule

Ann Rule

No one, except perhaps his long-standing girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall (called Meg Anders in the book) had a more personal insight into Ted Bundy and in the annals of crime writing there are few who has painted such a three-dimensional portrait of serial killer as Ann Rule.

For she knew both Teds: the kind, sensitive, caring charmer and the psycopathic manipulator.

She describes Ted as “brilliant, a student of distinction, witty, glib and persuasive” who loved “French cuisine, good white wine and gourmet cooking. He loved Mozart and obscure foreign films” and who “knew exactly when to send flowers and sentimental cards” and whose “poems of love were tender and romantic”.

And yet Ted “loved things more than he loved people” who could feel more compassion for inanimate objects than he could ever feel for another human being.

On the surface Ted Bundy was the very epitome of a successful man. Inside, it was all ashes. For Ted had gone through life terribly crippled, like a man who is deaf, or blind or paralyzed. Ted has no conscience.

There’s a video you can watch on YouTube of Ted Bundy’s final interview with Dr James Dobson,  given the evening before he was executed in January in 1980, when his appeals and luck finally ran out.

In it he tries to explain the reasons for his crimes as being due to the combined influences of pornography, alcohol and violence in true crime detective magazines.

This video and shorter versions of it has been watched millions of times of YouTube, which says something about the public’s fascination with Ted Bundy, who  remains in the news, 36 years after his death at the electric chair. (An article appeared as recently as June 30 about a new  book “I Survived Ted Bundy” published recently on Amazon.com).

Rule says of this final interview that Ted was lying and manipulating to the very end, remembering a letter that he wrote her where he dismissed True Crime magazines as trash:  “Who in the world reads these publications?” he asked her.

“The blunt fact is that Ted Bundy was a liar. He lied most of his life, and I think he lied at the end,” Rule wrote. But, she said, Ted’s final performance accomplished one thing that troubled her:

Sensitive, intelligent, kind young women wrote or called me to say that they were deeply depressed because Ted was dead. One college student had watched the Dobson tape on television and felt moved to send flowers to the funeral parlour where Ted’s body had been taken. “He wouldn’t have hurt me,” she said. “All he needed was some kindness. I know he wouldn’t have hurt me…”

ted bundy trial

The ‘other Ted’: The famous enraged photo  of Ted Bundy at his Florida trial

There is nothing in ‘The Stranger Beside Me that glamourises Ted Bundy or turns him into the folk hero others made him out to be, especially after his daring escape from a Colorado jail in 1977, while facing kidnapping charges.

Rule stresses time and time again that whatever the tragedy of Ted Bundy’s life – who he might have been, what he become in the end – the real tragedy were all his innocent victims whose lives he ended. Indeed, she tells with great compassion the story of each of his many victims, of who they were and who they might have been.

And yet, she could never quite shake the memory of the Ted she knew before he became the serial killer ‘Ted Bundy’ something which became impossible following the publication and huge success of The Stranger Beside Me in 1980.

Ann Rule passed away on July 26 last year, aged 83 taking with her the title of America’s queen of true crime.

She publishing three dozen crime books after The Stranger Beside Me, but it remained her signature work with fans writing to her about it and asking questions about her and Ted Bundy decades later.

In an update to the book published in 2000 (I suggest downloading the Kindle version which has all the numerous updates since 1980), Rule writes:

It has been a quarter of a century since the day Ted Bundy called to ask for my help and to tell me that he was a suspect in the disappearance of more than a dozen young women…time and time again, I have naively believed the fascination with Ted would diminish and that I would never have to think about him again. I have long since accepted that I will be answering questions about him until the end of my days.

 

 

 

One Nation, many cultures: why we should be proud of our multiculturalism and embarrassed by Pauline Hanson

img-7292-2An unremarkable thing occurred on the train last week. A young Asian lady nearly fainted in the crowded, airless rush hour carriage.

Her face had turned pale and it was obvious her legs would give way at any moment.

Immediately, people sprung into action.

The young Australian man standing opposite her offered her his arm to steady herself and calls went out for someone to offer up their seat. An Indian man obliged.

Then, as the train pulled into Kensington station everyone in the train carriage – all of us strangers – seemed to agree that it was best if the young lady get off the train and get some fresh air.

An older man, perhaps in his sixties or seventies, carrying a bag of groceries, said he was getting off at the station and volunteered to help her off the train. We all looked on with relief as she made her way out the train, resting her hand on the old man’s arm, to sit on a bench on the station platform and regain her strength.

As the train doors closed, I suddenly felt this immense sense of community with those people around me, people of as diverse backgrounds as it seemed possible in such a small, confined space. Pride in my fellow Melburnians, my fellow Australians, this multi-cultural fledgling nation.

I say it was unremarkable incident because these sorts of things, these acts of basic decency and kindness by complete strangers happen all the time in Melbourne as they do in Sydney and Brisbane, and as I recall them happening in London and in Johannesburg.

We should be incredibly proud of our multi-cultural nation. It is far from perfect, but it still a community and most of the time we do more than just get along.

All of which means we should be even more vigilant as we face the unfortunate prospective of a divisive figure like Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party, given a voice in the Australian Senate.

The “Australian values” which Ms Hanson and One Nation claim to represent are none that any decent Australian believes in or aspires to make part of their belief system; they are the views of someone who has probably never known a person of colour, or spoken to a Muslim or spend time with a refugee.

These are views derived from fear and ignorance, passed down from others or just lifted piece-meal and selectively from the internet.

We can laugh Ms Hanson off as a pantomime villain – as most South Africans did when the White Supremist Eugene Terreblanche rode into town on his horse, and then promptly fell off it – or we can pity someone so ignorant, but we should certainly be vigilant.

As American society fractures into a broken mess – where police offices shoot people of colour on a daily basis in a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ approach – as Britain abandons Europe to the sheer horror of its young folk,  we should be ever vigilant of forces like One Nation, the Australian Liberty Alliance and other ironically titled organisations, who seek to divide Australia into an ‘Us’ vs ‘Them’.

We are not strangers on a train, suspicious of our fellow travellers because they don’t look just like us. We are a proud, successful society of many races, creeds and colours. We are a great and glorious, yet imperfect melting pot.

Let’s not break it.

For more on our great nation of many cultures, read these:

Australia’s cultural diversity: www.racismnoway.com.au/about-racism/population/

Our people: www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/our-country/our-people

One Nation, Many Cultures: www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/one-nation-many-cultures-20090317-911y.html

In the Boston Strangler’s shadow: Reading Sebastian Junger’s ‘A Death in Belmont’

death in belmontThe front cover of my edition of Sebastian Junger‘s intriguing  true crime book,  A Death in Belmont features a grainy black and white photo of the author as a small child sitting on the lap of his mother, who looks down at him affectionately.

Behind them is a kindly looking elder gentleman called Floyd Wiggins, and next to him, looking directly at the camera is a powerfully-built stocky man in a white shirt, his hair greased up in a pompadour, called Albert DeSalvo.

The photo was taken in mid-March 1963 when Wiggins, DeSalvo and another man Russ Blomerth (who took the photo) built an artist’s studio in the backyard of Sebastian Junger’s Belmont home.

A year later, the same man, Albert DeSalvo,  would confess to being the notorious Boston Strangler, one of the most infamous and violent serial killers and rapists in American history.

Knowing this, turns the photo into something utterly chilling: a young child and his mother with a monster smiling serenely behind them.

This then is the springboard –  a very personal one – for Junger’s engrossing book about the Boston stranglings that terrified residents in the early 1960s.

Of course DeSalvo, who confessed to being the strangler after being arrested for a string of other violent crimes, is a big part of the book, but he is not the central character.

roy-smith

A mug shot of Roy Smith

Instead Junger focuses on a black man, named Roy Smith and one particular murder that occurred near his childhood home in Belmont, which also gives the book its title: A Death in Belmont.

The day before the photo was taken a woman in her sixties, Bessie Golderg had been raped and strangled in her home, just a mile away.

The brutal attack, perpetrated in the middle of the day and by someone who Bessie Goldberg let into her home, occurred during a spate of 13 similar stranglings that started in June 1962 and ended in January 1964.

But this murder was pinned not Albert DeSalvo (who also never confessed to it in jail), but on Roy Smith had been sent by his employment agency to clean the Goldberg house on the same afternoon that Bessie Goldberg was raped and strangled.

He was there in the hours just before her death – shopkeepers and neighbourhood kids saw him walking in Belmont that afternoon – and so he became the prime suspect.

Being a black man in a white neighbourhood also did not help, nor did his criminal history or his penchant for alcohol.

Despite this, the evidence was only circumstantial , Smith had little motive apart from robbery and there was nothing in his past to suggest he was a sexual predator. But, a court found him guilty and he was given a life sentence, only narrowly missing the death penalty.

He spent the rest of his life in jail, but steadfastly maintained his innocence during his 13 years locked up, right up until his death, from lung cancer. Tragically – if he was indeed an innocent man – he was paroled on his death-bed. Junger writes poignantly:

“If Roy Smith had not been working at the Goldberg’s residence the day she was killed, the murder would quickly have been added to the list of other Boston Stranglings. It was so similar to the previous eight killings that the police initially thought they had arrested the man responsible for all of them. They hadn’t.”

Junger’s brilliant book, investigates in great detail the lives of both Roy Smith and Albert DeSalvo, the likeable man who built his mother’s studio in their Belmont backyard, but who had another dimension to his personality: a viscious and cruel man who combined an insatiable sexual appetite with sadistic violence.

While Junger does not proclaim Roy Smith innocent, he hints very strongly at the possibility  that he was an innocent man, who tragically found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Albert DeSalvo just after his capture in Boston on February 25, 1967.

Albert DeSalvo, at the time of his arrest in 1967

It’s a highly convincing argument and I finished reading the book almost certain that Roy Smith did not kill Bessie Goldberg and that more than likely, DeSalvo had raped and strangled her  while on his way to Sebastian Junger’s house to complete his mother’s artist studio. Indeed two further stranglings that DeSalvo confessed to occurred during the time he worked in Belmont.

Junger returns time and time again to his mother’s memories of DeSalvo. Most chilling is her memory of a time Albert DeSalvo asked her to come down into the basement of the house to show her a problem with the boiler. She hesistated, noticing a strange look in his eyes. Ellen Junger made an excuse not to go down into the basement, a decision which might have saved her life.  Junger writes:

“Four months earlier (before Bessie Goldberg died)  Al had stood at the bottom of the cellar stairs and called up to my mother with an odd look in his eyes. For a moment at least, our basement was a place where the very worst things imaginable could happen.”

DeSalvo died in prison, stabbed to death by a black inmate, taking many of his secrets to the grave. So there is no easy solution to the mystery of who killed Bessie Goldberg.

There are also many, including Junger, who question whether DeSalvo was in fact the Boston Strangler, or just someone who craved the spotlight. Until recently, there was little physical evidence to connect him to any of the crimes, while DeSalvo’s own confessions were full of errors.

But in 2013 – seven years after his book was published, a DNA match was found linking DeSalvo to the rape and murder of 19-year-old Mary Sullivan providing proof he was guilty of at least one of the  13 murders he confessed to, though this list did not include Bessie Goldberg.

In the end, there can be no definite answers, only likelihoods and possibilities. Junger himself has come under fire suggested Roy Smith may be innocent with the Goldberg family angrily denying his hypothesis that their mother might have been killed by someone other than Roy Smith.

In 2006, when A Death in Belmont was published, Bessie Goldberg’s daughter, Leah Goldberg Scheuerman told the New York Times it was “full of lies and omissions” including that a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court also upheld Roy Smith’s conviction on appeal.

It’s not the first time Sebastian Junger has been accused of getting things wrong. His bestselling and most famous book, The Perfect Storm (made into a Hollywood blockbuster with George Clooney) was hit by accusations of many inaccuracies.

21 cedar

21 Cedar Rd, Belmont – were Albert DeSalvo built a studio for Ellen Junger in 1963

But, reading a A Death in Belmont, which Junger spent three years painstakingly researching, you do not get the impression that you are being manipulated: the stories of Roy Smith and Albert DeSalvo are carefully constructed by Junger who also masterfully recreates Boston of the 1960s with its immigrant communities, rough neighbourhoods, drinking dens and quiet suburbs.

When as a reader, you weight up all the evidence, it seems hard to believe that Roy Smith, who had no history of sexual violence would have raped and murdered a sixty-year-old woman whose house he was cleaning. If he did, he never admitted it, thus ending any chance of a life outside of prison. What guilty man would do that?