By John ByronUnpublished Manuscript

Wedding Cake Island

Judges' comments

In Wedding Cake Island, a methodical serial killer, bent on re-creating an ancient anatomy text, may not even be the darkest player in this story. With richly imagined characters evenly portrayed without a lead protagonist, Byron’s novel is a subversive take on modern masculinity and misogyny told through the lens of an engrossing crime narrative.

Meticulously researched with an ambitious vision, Wedding Cake Island is dark and unpredictable, weaving a tapestry of narrative threads drawn together to a satisfying conclusion.

Portrait of John Byron

John Byron

John Byron grew up in Sydney and studied medicine there before switching to the humanities, in the interest of the public’s safety. He earned degrees in English from the Universities of Adelaide and Sydney, and has worked since in higher education and research policy, including as a federal ministerial adviser and executive director of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

His writing has appeared in Meanjin, the Australian Book Review, the Conversation and the Australian. He lives in Melbourne, not far from Julienne van Loon’s place.

Extract

Detective Senior Sergeant David Murphy turned off Parramatta Road and drove up Glebe Point Road, past the old Valhalla cinema and all the hipster cafes, until the road climbed onto the bluff of hardened sandstone that loomed above the surrounding lowlands. He took a left into a dignified residential street that ended at a cliff overlooking what the developers had done to Harold Park. He pulled up in front of a row of terraces near the end of the street, and sat for a moment composing himself.

About thirty metres directly beneath him was the site of his first ever homicide, way back in the mid-’nineties when he was fresh in uniform: the old metropolitan goods railway tunnel, now back in service for light rail, but disused at the time. Disused by the government, that is, but occupied all the same. The people who lived down there in the perpetual darkness didn’t much like talking to cops, especially jittery young police wet behind the ears and well out of their depth. You’d be lucky to get a mumble out of them. Never saw nothin’, cunt. Stabul.

Murphy had seen a lot of dead bodies since then, some in much worse condition, but you never forget your first one. He couldn’t even drive over the Anzac Bridge without glancing across Blackwattle Bay and thinking of poor bloody Tom Degraves. The Vietnam vet had undergone the classic ex-serviceman’s disintegration, living proof of the callous disdain of an ungrateful nation. Perpetually pissed and drug-fucked, Tommy had been in and out of the watch-house for years, and had been sent up a few times for petty theft or drunk and disorderly. He’d spent his last decade badly, scrounging food out of bins and sleeping rough, well past the age when his body could handle it. Finally he’d been killed down there with a broken kitchen knife, defending a shopping trolley with four good wheels. His death wasn’t reported until his corpse had ripened enough to make the residents endure the disruption. There was never any doubt what’d happened to him, but nobody was ever charged.

It wasn’t Tom’s bloated maggot-ridden corpse that got to Murphy – even back then it was just one more lurid aspect of the job, and at least a corpse didn’t take a swing at you. And he’d seen misery piled upon misery in the intervening years, to the point he was now inured. What got to Murphy, whenever he came around this way, was that he couldn’t help recalibrating: measuring the gap between his own life and the kind of fucked-up trajectory Degraves had ridden. Sometimes Murphy didn’t much care for what he came up with. That distance wasn’t as far as it probably looked from the outside. You could slip off the rails and end up like Tommy, easy as. Anybody could.

So Murphy tended to avoid this end of Glebe.

Up top today, though, it was your perfect bright, crisp autumn day, a clear blue sky and the leaves just beginning to turn. The kind of weather that made you grateful. Murphy pulled himself together, got out of his car and crossed the road to his crime scene. The gate out front bore a large sign:

 

– DANGER –

CONSTRUCTION SITE

 – KEEP OUT! –

 

Murphy paused inside the front door of the terrace house to get his bearings while slipping on a pair of disposable nitrile gloves. He was standing in an open front room, its inner walls completely stripped back to studwork and brick, its floorboards exposed and recently sanded. A large clear sheet of heavy plastic hung down from ceiling to floor at the back of the room, the light from behind showing the skeleton of the room’s former back wall. Straight ahead, a steep, narrow flight of stairs hugged the right hand wall, its balustrade and a couple of steps missing.

Fucken home renovation: the latest great Australian obsession. Apart from cooking like an English wanker, that is. People watched too much crap on television these days. What was wrong with footy?

Murphy heard clomping from above as well as beyond: the crime scene investigators were all on deck. ‘Homicide!’ he yelled.

‘Come through, Spud,’ he heard from beyond the thick plastic curtain. The voice belonged to Dr Lachlan Kenworth, probably the most experienced Scenes of Crime Officer in the state. He was a medically-trained civilian attached to Forensic Services, working out of Police HQ at Parramatta. Naturally, everybody called him Mack.

A white shape approached the thick plastic veil from behind, which proved to be another SOCO in a paper crime scene suit. ‘Morning, Detective,’ she said, holding the curtain open for him.

‘Morning, Sarah. I hear it’s a beauty.’

‘This one you’ve got to see for yourself. Unbelievable.’

Murphy raised his eyebrows: SOCOs rarely talked like that, and Sarah had seen a fair bit. He crossed the former dining room, empty apart from a bar fridge with a kettle on top, through to a clapped-out kitchen behind. The room looked like it had been bolted on to the back of the two-storey terrace back in the ’fifties, and had been last updated in the ’seventies. This time the owner was not mucking around. An internal door at the far end revealed a sparkly bathroom all tricked out in the latest gear. The kitchen itself was still a mess, but it was a mess with intent. Most of the old cupboards had been ripped out and work was underway on schmick new cabinetry. Murphy shook his head. Fucken madness.

‘G’day, Mack. What have you got?’

The forensic examiner was standing at the sink, holding something organic up to the light of the kitchen window. He lowered his hands and lifted his gaze over his glasses to meet the detective’s eyes.

‘Afternoon, Spud.’ It being 10:47 a.m., this was Mack’s way of giving Murphy shit for being late. Since Mack was almost always at a crime scene before him, it was a familiar sledge. ‘Anthony Hugo Williams, male, whitish, forty-odd, in good shape until the weekend. Most of him is upstairs in the back room,’ indicating the mottled ceiling directly above them, ‘but we found a few bits and pieces down here.’ He lifted the specimen in his hands towards the detective.

‘You didn’t you do that, did you?’ asked Murphy.

‘Course not. Came like that in the wrapper.’

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist