Steve Braunias’ Missing Persons: legal lampoons, flimsy forensics and distressing disappearances

I don't usually read murder books, especially true ones, but I'm becoming drawn to mysteries as I read more and more Ngaio Marsh award nominees.

Missing Persons

In Missing PersonsSteve Braunias revisits some of the scenes in his book, The Scene of the Crime; throwing a spotlight on some of New Zealand's most famous murders and mysteries and invoking settings most readers will not look at the same way again.

Certainly, the horrifying image of Grace Millane in a suitcase is something that has stayed with me.

Braunias isn't a sensationalist; he writes scathingly of the perpetrators of these crimes and disappearances, treating a distasteful subject with well-informed respect.

As a court reporter, Braunias spent a lot of time attending some of New Zealand's most famous trials, covering them for the media. His knowledge of our lauded judges and legal representatives is familiar, born from years of attending in their courts; even humorous as he lambasts their quirks and predilections for operatic speeches.

The stories of Mark Lundy and David Bain are close to the bone and leave a nasty aftertaste - the feeling of a hair in the back of your throat. There has always been something about these cases that's not quite right; something unresolved. It was interesting to read the facts as Steve records them; the intricacies of the law that can turn on a pin-head.

Braunias waxes evangelically on Malcom Rewa's murder trial:

"Rewa listened and held onto his walking stick. He held onto it tighter and tighter as the agreed facts of his past crimes were read out. He throttled it, he twisted it in his hands; I kept looking at the stick, expecting it to splinter and snap. But it was Rewa who was splintering. His lies were smashed apart..." (p.119)

Braunias writes of his home suburb of Te Atatatu: a hot-bed of writing fodder, despite its lack of bookcases - murders and missing persons are on a par with its many laundromats.

No stone is left unturned: Braunias even writes up the famous 'Pamper Party Murder,' and interviews Simonne Butler: the survivor (I hesitate to call her a victim: if you read on, you will see why) of the Samurai machete attack:

"I've been to Hell and I know the way out. So take my hand and come with me." (p.121)

Braunias mentions Hell a lot. To commit crimes like these, says Braunias, is akin to darkness.

On the flip-side of that coin, he also asserts that,

"Murderers and rapists become murderers and rapists through their actions, but no one is any one thing; even the evil are unable to sustain being evil every minute of the day."

The story of Socksay Chansy is a sad conundrum: how could he just disappear?

I admit I had to skip the intro as there was a lot about Steve's current state of mind, which at times I felt got mixed up with the subject matter and at times through the book there were parts of dialogue where I wasn't sure if it was Steve speaking or an interviewee. 

Yet Missing Persons is a riveting book: a well-written and informed treatment of some awful and sad ends. It ends on an upbeat note: closure for Grace Millane, and justice seen to be done.

More reading