While I’m not usually a big reader of historical non-fiction, Jim Haynes’ Great Australian Rascals, Rogues and Ratbags definitely swayed my opinion of this genre. And it’s fair to say that Jim, who has written 12 previous books, certainly knows how to pull together a collection of ripping good yarns.
I use the term ‘yarns’ loosely as Jim is careful to point out to readers that his recounts of the colourful characters in this book are based on historical facts rather than hearsay, myth and rumour. Hence his research was extensive which adds to making this book extremely interesting.
In Great Australian Rascals, Rogues and Ratbags Jim profiles 15 fascinating felons that came to prominence during a variety of eras – from the early convict days through to more recent times.
The story of George Barrington, ‘the celebrity convict’ (who was also often referred to as the ‘gentleman thief’} was one character I found particularly interesting. George was at his thieving peak in London in the 1770s and ‘80s and spent many stints in the lock up for his brazen pickpocketing of items from members of high society. It was surprising to learn that when George was later transported to Botany Bay, Governor Philip decided to make him a policeman. A few years later he was even given a pardon and appointed as Chief Constable of the Parramatta settlement.
Another criminal that piqued my interest was the infamous Kate Leigh who established an illegal ‘Sly Grog Empire’ back in the early 1920s when the 6pm closing time for pubs was in place. Kate later became known as the “Snow Queen” – a title she held for several decades – due to her being one of the two biggest cocaine dealers in Sydney. Kate was a hard core criminal who clocked up 107 convictions and 13 prison sentences during her colourful life of crime.
There’s also a chapter on James Hardy Vaux who was sent to Australia no less than three times and another on the madman Henry James O’Farrell who attempted to murder Prince Alfred in Sydney in 1868.
Of course no book on Australian criminals would be complete without including the gang of five “hilariously incompetent villains” behind the 1984 horseracing scam that became known as the ‘Fine Cotton Affair’. The bumbling antics of the men involved will definitely have you shaking your head in disbelief at the sheer stupidity of their plan.
There are many other smatterings of humour in the book which works to balance some of the despicable deeds these rascals, rogues and ratbags inflicted on their victims and society in general.
But what I also loved about this book was how it painted a picture of life at the time when these various criminals were active. Jim adds information about the laws of the day, government, and social norms to give context to the dastardly deeds of his cast of criminals.
There’s no doubt this book will delight fans of true crime. True stories of true criminals from Australia’s past have definitely resulted in a book that’s one heck of a darn good read.
Author: Jim Haynes
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 9 781761 067907
Recommended Retail Price: $32.99
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This book review is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.