The Port Fairy Murders

Robert Gott


George Starling hated Jews, women, queers, coppers, rich people, and his father. He loved Adolf Hitler and Ptolemy Jones. Hitler was in Berlin, a long way from Victoria, and Jones was dead. He knew Jones was dead because he’d stood in the shadows and watched the coppers bring his body out of a house in Belgrave. One of those coppers had been a Jew named Joe Sable, and that meant one thing, and one thing only — Joe Sable’s days were numbered.

Detective Joe Sable knew he’d returned to work too soon. He sat, bruised and miserable, at his desk in the Homicide division of the Victoria Police in Russell Street, Melbourne. Detective Inspector Titus Lambert and Constable Helen Lord were out, but he wasn’t alone in the office. Sergeant David Reilly sat on the opposite side of the room. Reilly was a recent acquisition, and Joe had yet to make up his mind about him. He knew Helen Lord resented Reilly, but her resentment was based less on his abilities and more on the fact that he threatened her position in the squad. She was there by the grace and favour of Inspector Lambert, who’d snaffled her by arguing chronic manpower shortages to his superiors. Under normal circumstances, a female constable could expect to languish unacknowledged for the duration of her career. Helen Lord was only too aware that Katherine Mackay, a woman she admired, had waited 13 years to be elevated to the dizzy heights of senior constable, and that was as far she would be suffered to rise.

The war had created unexpected opportunities, so that in mid-January 1944 Helen Lord remained seconded to Homicide — a fact that got up the noses of many in the force. Reilly, and any further additions to the squad, might end that secondment. Consequently, her relations with most of the male members of Homicide — who were destined to always outrank her, no matter how incompetent they might be — were fraught. She felt every sidelong glance, every raised eyebrow, every small sneer, with the force of an explicit verbal correction to her being there. She admired Inspector Lambert, and was grateful for his belief that her sex was irrelevant. Nevertheless, an ember of resentment that she was beholden to him could still be fanned by circumstances into something hot and restive. And then there was Sergeant Joe Sable. She needed to discipline wariness into her dealings with him. She was a much better detective than Joe — more instinctive, smarter, more observant — and yet she was acutely aware that her attraction to him might lead her into a deference she would otherwise abhor. She was, however, so easily lacerated by a careless remark, even by him, that she hadn’t so far fallen victim to obsequious agreement. Her return to the office, alone — Inspector Lambert was lunching with the assistant commissioner of police — interrupted Joe Sable’s morose self- absorption. It was David Reilly who spoke first.

‘Anything interesting?’

His tone was carefully, studiedly neutral. He was aware that he’d earned Constable Lord’s displeasure without even trying. This would normally not have bothered him, but his position in Homicide mattered to him, and Constable Lord mattered to Inspector Lambert. Ipso facto, as he’d said to his wife, Constable Lord needed to be kept on side. Barbara Reilly thought that the idea of a woman willingly exposing herself to the kind of horrors that her husband spoke of was unnatural.

‘She must be a bit mannish,’ she’d said.

‘She’s plain,’ David Reilly had said, and that had elicited a smug and knowing ‘Ah’ from Barbara.

Constable Lord sat down at a desk that had been pushed into a corner for her.

‘Depends what you mean by interesting,’ she said.

‘Anything other than what I’m doing would qualify,’ Joe said.

‘We all have to do paperwork, Sergeant,’ she said, ‘and you know you look like you’ve gone 14 rounds with Jack Dempsey. You can’t interview people. You’d frighten them.’

She smiled at him, but caught herself before it reached the arc of a grin. She was suddenly conscious of the jokey intimacy in her tone, and of David Reilly’s eyes on her. She turned to him.

‘Nothing interesting,’ she said, and began ostentatiously transcribing notes. Reilly caught Joe’s eye and raised his eyebrows. Joe gave the slightest of shrugs in return, but Helen Lord noticed it peripherally, and her mood darkened.

There were two men in the bar of the Caledonian Hotel in Port Fairy, a small town a good five hours’ drive from Melbourne. One of the men was the bartender — a portly, wheezy, unshaven, easily rankled man named Stafford Giles. The other man, seated away from the bar near a window through which he watched a dust shower sweep down Bank Street, was George Starling. There was no one out and about, but an empty street was preferable to the view inside the hotel, which included the sight of Stafford Giles. Starling was repulsed by him, by his heft. Starling believed that fat people were lazy, complacent individuals who ate and drank more than their fair share. You couldn’t rely on a fat person: he’d be driven by self-interest, and he’d be a stranger to self-discipline.

Starling was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, although its sleeves were rolled up. He was conscious of the smell of fish that clung to him, trapped in the shirt’s cotton and in the thick hair of his arms. He liked the look of his arms; they were sinewy and masculine, and they intimidated people. They smelled of fish because he regularly scaled and gutted the catch brought in by a local fisherman. This man, Peter Hurley, whose red hair and fair skin should have confined him to sunless indoors, had dropped nets and lines in the Southern Ocean for close to thirty years, and his face was the creased, blotched, and blasted testament to every hour he’d spent at sea. He was fifty, and could easily have passed for a ravaged seventy. Starling didn’t like Hurley, although he didn’t despise him, which amounted to a kind of approbation. Hurley paid in cash, and made no inquiries about Starling’s private life. Starling offered Hurley the same incuriosity. This suited them both. Each had reason to preserve the lack of intimacy — Hurley because his catch was largely illegal, and illegally disposed of, and Starling because he was a person of interest to the police.

George Starling left the Caledonian Hotel and headed to the room he rented in Princes Street. The heat didn’t bother him, and neither did the smell of wrack and fish-rot, mixed with an aromatic hint of eucalypt forests smouldering after fires, that drifted through the town. When he reached his room he stretched out on the sour-smelling bed and added up the number of people he wanted to, needed to, kill. He’d start with Joe Sable, but he wouldn’t stop there. 

The Port Fairy Murders Robert Gott