Book review: The Cruel City: Is Adelaide the murder capital of Australia? – Stephen Orr

The Cruel City – Stephen Orr

The statistics suggest not. South Australia has a homicide rate on par with the rest of Australia except, of course, the Northern Territory, with its particular issues of abuse within indigenous communities affected by alcohol, drugs, lack of employment and suitable housing. Still, South Australia, and the city of Adelaide in particular, has often been cast (mostly by a media in search of a quick headline) as some sort of macabre killing field, with deranged, inbred perverts filling their days dismembering innocent children and depsiting the their limbs in barrels.

Adelaide has been called the city of corpses, labelled by Salman Rushdie as the ‘perfect setting for a Stephen King novel or horror film’. Locals have become defensive about this perceived reputation, quoting crime figures to dispel the myths, assuming it’s more of the usual Sydney-Melbourne arrogance. At the same time though, there’s a faint sense of pride in this slightly Gothic reputation, an inkling perhaps that when the gene pool starts to dry up the bodies float to the surface.

The Cruel City – Stephen Orr

The Cruel City: Is Adelaide the murder capital of Australia? – 2 out of 5 stars

This book entertained, horrified, and ultimately… disappointed.

As far as a listed summary of the many creepy and horrible murders that have taken place in Adelaide, this book is fine but it left me wanting. The writing is clear and engaging with lots of appropriately terrible details, but real insight is thin with amounts text seeming like aimless conjecture standing as filler. Some of the latter cases looked a lot like they were tacked on to increase page numbers.

That said, given this book details abuse, kidnappings and murders that have taken place right here in my home town… I found it a bit terrifying, but I suspect that is due more to my imagination now having fuel to populate the dark shadows with monsters, than with this being a good book.

Review – a catalog of connected crimes

I wont bother attempting a synopsis, as this is a non-fiction book that does not follow a story-line. Instead it is a catalog of connected crimes, all occurring in Adelaide, South Australia.

Where I live.

Where I used to feel safe.

Orr has dredged up a series of some of the most heinous, and some of the most mysterious crimes to have occurred in Adelaide. Placed side by side, it’s actually an effective argument to his proposition – that there is something uniquely ‘cruel’ about Adelaide – in the torturous nature of crimes that are committed, and the displaced pride we seem to have in its reputation. The book itself touches on the colonial settling of Adelaide, before moving forward to kick off in 1948 to crimes that I (and I suspect many other Australian’s) had actually heard of.

It provides details on the following:

  • the disappearance of the three Beaumont children (unsolved) and the the Adelaide Oval kidnapping (more children, also unsolved)
  • the Hope Forest massacre (a farmer shot and kills his wife and eight children)
  • the drowning of George Duncan (I learnt about this in law school – a hate crime against a homosexual where members of the police force were suspected)
  • Bevan Spencer von Einem and the Family Murders (rape and murder of an unknown number of men and suggested links to a wider and influential conspiracy)
  • the Truro murders (rape and murder of seven women)
  • Snowtown (the bodies in barrels case)
  • and a good number of others…

The book does an effective job of presenting Adelaide as a chilling magnet for sadists and psychopaths (towards the end Orr starts referring to Adelaide as ‘the Cruel City’) despite the author’s occasional protestations that ‘really its no different to other Australian cities… or is it?’. (Hint: No, its not different). I also learnt a lot about these crimes I had no idea about (the details of which might keep me up at night). Hate crimes, torture, and victimising the vulnerable all feature heavily here – the Family Murders and Snowtown particularly had me uncomfortable, as whilst I was aware of the murders, the torture before hand was news to me.

But at the end, I felt the book was just… empty. Nothing appeared to be new content or additional insight, rather it was a blow-by-blow walk-through of a shopping list of horrific events with an occasional aside asking “Why did he do it? Will we ever know?” (Hint: probably not). I collected up a few Wikipedia links to create a list of my own when writing this review, and I think in many instances, the core facts are all right there in these articles.

Basically whilst I don’t feel it was a waste of time, I also don’t really think I can recommend this book. If you are from Adelaide you might find it interesting.


This book fills the ‘microhistory’ requirement of my BookRiot Read Harder challenge, and is the 36th book I’ve read so far this year. Is it actually a microhistory? Well I think it fits under the exceptionally loose guidelines presented by BookRiot:

Historians define a microhistory as a detailed history of a short period of time, event, community, or person. The term is also used outside of academic circles to reference histories of very specific objects/items/etc (see the list below). Use whatever definition makes your flag fly!

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