The Husband Poisoner, by Tanya Bretherton, is a fascinating social history of post-war Sydney, in all its depraved glory

Cover illustration for The Husband Poisoner.

Cover illustration for The Husband Poisoner.

  • The Husband Poisoner, by Tanya Bretherton. Hachette, $32.99.

Many readers would know that true crime is a category of writing beloved of publishers and television companies. It attracts readers and viewers in droves, often illustrating the depth of human depravity and evil. Readers wonder at the motivation for atrocious crimes and thrill to the chase and the court appearances when perpetrators face up to what they have done.

Quoting with approval a retired New South Wales senior police officer that "one thing seems to unite all murderers...'my life would be better off without you in it'", Tanya Bretherton concentrates largely on two female murderers.

The first, Yvonne Butler, killed two husbands. The second, Caroline Grills, probably accounted for four murders and three attempted murders of family members.

There is little doubt that Yvonne Butler/Fletcher's life would have been better without Bertram Fletcher in it. Marrying shortly after meeting him, soon after the death of her first husband, Desmond Butler, "Bertie" soon revealed himself as a vicious wife-beater, a drunkard and a womaniser.

Yvonne's weapon of choice, as it was for all the poisoners to appear in the pages of this book, was thallium, a rat poison easily and cheaply purchased. Beginning her crime career in 1947 by popping thallium into "Dessie's" nightly cup of Bonox, Yvonne knew the poison could be rendered colourless; it was tasteless and odourless. The perfect choice.

Readers are treated to a close examination of the effects of the poison on a once fit young man, not yet 30. The pain in his legs, particularly, is excruciating, he vomits violently, his hair falls out and his mind disintegrates. Doctors are unable to explain or understand his sufferings - a long theme in this book - and eventually decide he needs incarceration at Callan Park, a mental diseases institution.

Returned home, Dessie finds that Yvonne does not want him there and virtually abandons him to his suffering and his fate. Neighbours attempt to step up for they are good, kindly people, in a caring community, but too soon Desmond Butler will die. The coroner finds he died of natural causes.

After the death of the second husband, with the same symptoms, doctors have become suspicious. The police are called in. Now we meet two of the other main characters in this book, Donald George Fergusson and Frederick Claude Krahe. Their painstaking police work is described in great detail, in itself inherently interesting. Both men are young, intelligent and hugely ambitious.

They make an early and momentous decision to call for the assistance of the Office of the Government Analyst. Now another theme enters the book - the extraordinary detailed and skilled scientific investigation of thallium, a poison that had flown well below the radar of doctors and scientists to this point.

The lead scientist begins to understand just what a vile poison this is and how easily it can be administered.

Exhumations of victims take place and evidence, scientific and otherwise, is accumulated inexorably. Fergusson and Krahe secure the convictions of both lead women, and both are sent to prison. Carrie Grills dies in prison, Yvonne Butler is released, contracts a third unhappy marriage, and passes from public gaze.

But there is a final theme which some well-read students of the history of the New South Wales police force may have seen coming. Fergusson and Krahe are utterly corrupt, taking a cut from just about every major criminal activity in Sydney.

Illegal casinos, major robberies, abortion payments, are all part of their network. It is even likely that Krahe eventually murdered Fergusson.

By the end of the book the reader is left gasping at the evil men and women do. But there is more to this book than that. Tanya Bretherton is a scholar with solid academic achievements. Her purpose is not to titillate the reader or merely to shock. She is writing sophisticated social history.

Readers will come from this book knowing much more of the life of the poor workers and their families in Sydney's inner suburbs, particularly Newtown.

They will meet doctors without imagination or much diagnostic skill, but they will also meet scientists of enormous skill and dedication.

They will learn a great deal about police procedures and the operation of the law. They will learn much about police corruption and of the role of malicious greed on the part of people with little or nothing.

The Husband Poisoner is a social history of Sydney from 1947 to the mid-1960s. It will give the reader a detailed understanding of the state of Sydney society at the end of the Second World War.

Some readers may wonder if greed and cruelty was such a strong motivator for the people of that time. Tanya Bretherton invites us not to close our eyes to this possibility.

This story Depravity rife in post-war Sydney first appeared on The Canberra Times.