I wasn’t familiar with Maria James or her 38-year-old murder cold case. The single mother from Thornbury, Melbourne, was stabbed 68 times in her bedroom one weekday morning by a person or persons never definitively identified. Coincidentally or otherwise, she was killed the morning she was going to confront the local priest about molesting her young, disabled son Adam.
What I refer to as ‘Trace times two’ are the astonishingly good podcast and book by the same name about James’ unsolved murder and the people tangentially affected by it—first, and foremost, her patient, polite, generous, trusting sons.
Brought to us by the team at the ABC, led by ABC journalist Rachael Brown, Trace features Ron Iddles—whose name literally condenses to ‘Riddles’—the kind of detective you’d definitely want investigating your or your loved ones’ untimely deaths, should they occur. James’ murder is the first case Iddles encountered as a fresh-faced 25-year-old homicide squad inductee and it’s the one case he hasn’t yet successfully solved.
For Iddles and the many people affected by James’ death and the events that occurred around the time of her death, re-opening investigations into the case is painful and an enormous responsibility—something Brown struggles with: ‘… we’ve been lost down countless rabbit holes. We’ve asked people to relive their nightmares and brought on tears, many of them our own.’ She also writes: ‘… interviewees unwittingly place a great amount faith in us, complete strangers, in handing over their story. It’s like a blind date with potentially far more damaging consequences.’
It’s also a blind date that almost came to nought, with Brown having first to fight to get the podcast picked up and second to ensure it got to see the light of day: ‘This is a story that’s crawled under my skin, stayed there, and is screaming to be told,’ she wrote to her bosses. ‘I set out to find if a priest murdered Maria. If one did, it’ll be a first for Australia’s modern history. Given the current climate of the Royal Commission, it’s a question that must be asked.’
Indeed, the tale is incredibly timely.
While it would be easy to dismiss the podcast and book as just another dip into the true crime wave (there are, admittedly, a lot of true crime podcasts finding their way to iTunes), this one is top-tier quality. Apart from stellar investigative journalism and storytelling, Trace times two breaks new ground of the ilk that Serial and Dirty John have before them, leveraging all available skills and platforms and giving a sense of what could be possible. As Brown writes:
‘It’s an odd synergy, this podcast’s reliance on old-school journalism techniques (federal roll checks, microfiche searches, handwritten letters), alongside the innovative element of interactivity, but that’s where I think its beauty lies …’
Trace the book is a handy companion piece to the podcast (and also works as a standalone text). I’d highly recommend reading it alongside or after listening to the podcast to enrich the podcast-listening experience. Here’s hoping Brown is able to help James’ sons and dogged detective Iddles find the answers they’ve been searching for for almost four decades.