Restraint is a quality seldom lauded except in its absence. Several of the protagonists in Chloe Hooper's compelling second book clearly lack it. The author, by contrast, has it in spades. Hooper's account of the real-life events surrounding the death in custody of an Aboriginal man nearly four years ago is the more powerful for her not making explicit all of her conclusions about the case. Without these in the way, the reader's own feelings have room to grow. Anger and sadness coalesce into something like despair: in 21st century Australia, how could this story have played out as it did?
The Tall Man (Penguin; 276 pages) Hooper's follow-up to the successful novel A Child's Book of True Crime begins with the death of 36-year-old Cameron Doomadgee, a member of the 2,500-strong Aboriginal community on Queensland's Palm Island. On Nov. 19, 2004, Doomadgee was arrested for allegedly swearing at police officers. Some 40 minutes later, he lay dead in a cell with a black eye, bruising to his head, body and hands, four broken ribs, a ruptured portal vein and a split liver. The only suspect was Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, whom Queensland's Deputy State Coroner found responsible for the death but who was acquitted of manslaughter at trial. Melbourne-based Hooper, 34, takes us through every stage in an observant, acute and compassionate narration.
It would have been easy for Hooper to make The Tall Man a simple story of apparent injustice, to portray Doomadgee with whose lawyers and family she spent a great deal of time as a wholly likable victim and Hurley as a thug. Always, however, she favors nuance over cliché, context over judgment. The book's title is partly a reference to Hurley, a 2-m-tall career cop who had been decorated for bravery and eschewed comfortable postings for trouble spots like Palm Island, a former open-air Aboriginal jail where "the heat attacks like a swarm of insects," writes Hooper, and "booze and loathing" fill the stifling air. Hurley, she acknowledges, was impressive on the stand: "He seemed grave. He seemed sincere. He really could have been an old screen idol. A man from a time when men had grit, and did not go to a gymnasium to get it."
Hurley's version of events was untidy. He and the drunken Doomadgee had wrestled as they approached the police station and fallen as they entered it. Hurley initially denied landing on top of Doomadgee, but later testified that he must have this could be the only explanation for the Aborigine's fatal wounds. A drunken detainee in the station at the time, Roy Bramwell, told investigators he'd later had a partial view of Hurley pummeling Doomadgee. In his summing up at the trial in Townsville, prosecutor Peter Davis scoffed at the idea that a man could land on another with sufficient force to "cleave his liver in two almost across his spine" and not have the faintest idea that he'd caused any damage.
While absorbed in the black and white of guilt or innocence, Hooper is also drawn to the gray. Conscious of being a middle-class author residing in a cosmopolitan city, she doesn't pretend to know much about the realities of law enforcement on an eerie powder keg like Palm Island. Must notions of good and evil, she wonders, necessarily blur in such a dysfunctional, desperate place? In a community of extreme violence, are those charged with keeping order forced to be violent, too?
Though Hooper does her best to empathize with the police, hers is not a book cops are likely to give as a present. For many readers, it will be hard to construct a prism through which police conduct in this story appears anything but deplorable. Two of the men dispatched to investigate Hurley were friends of his and dined with him the night after he was interviewed. Through their union, police exhibited little interest in the pursuit of truth, more a blind and vociferous loyalty to a colleague in strife. Between the inquest and the trial, Hooper observed their righteous fury at a Brisbane meeting whose purpose, she writes, "was to establish that the police were the victims. This was real-life über-Australia up against insipid, politically correct, bullshit Australia. It was the cops, huddled close together, against those besieging them."
Hooper reports that the prosecutor's summing-up rattled Hurley and his defense team. But it did not sway the jury, which took just three hours (including lunch) to acquit him. Racism sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle casts its shadow over every corner of this tragic tale. Grappling with the verdict and the celebrations it triggered, Hooper writes that it was as if Hurley had been "not so much acquitted as forgiven. And in forgiving him, people forgave themselves." For many who read The Tall Man, all that forgiveness may be hard to understand.