Three white crosses

Robert Farquharson drives his three young sons back to their mother, he lives separately from his wife. Halfway there, he drives off the road and the car crashes into a quarry pond. The children drown, the father subsequently states that he had a coughing fit and passed out behind the wheel. The evidence, however, points against him, he is accused of murder and, thanks to a sydney criminal lawyer, comes to court. The case keeps Australia in suspense. Trials and appeals last a total of seven years. In the end, Farquharson is found guilty.

The Australian author and journalist Helen Garner herself comes from the area around the small town of Geelong, where the accident occurred, and drove past the three small white crosses that mark the spot. She attended the trial and has recorded her observations in “Three Sons. A Murder Trial.” Her account is a literary documentation, reportage and family portrait all at once. She oscillates between very factual descriptions of the processing of the evidence and her very detailed personal observations of the events and all those involved.

Garner has consistently chosen the first-person perspective, which makes this pendulum movement comprehensible, shows the contradiction between the desire to remain objective and one’s own feelings about the case, and, beyond the legal level, asks about the mechanisms and effects of the murder trial. She takes a lot of time to portray the people involved in the trial. One almost wants to call them characters, for Garner arranges them as in a courtroom thriller: the defendant protesting his innocence, the ex-wife collapsing in on herself, the determined prosecutors and the feisty defense attorney, the judge presiding over everything, the aloof jury.

Then, as the case is tried over what information can be withheld from the jury to protect Farquharson, Garner becomes aware of the staging tricks that define such a trial. Questions arise about the relevance of much of the evidence and circumstantial evidence, and doubts arise. It becomes clear how protracted the trial is behind the surface reminiscent of a film choreography, how grueling, for example, the meticulous thinking through of the smallest technical details can be. Alongside the atmospheric images from the courtroom, Garner thus reflects on the legal system and asks how jurors are supposed to deal with such a flood of specialized knowledge and conscientiously reach an appropriate verdict.

The reader is close to Garner’s emotional absorption in the case, her difficulty in blocking out the gruesome deaths of the three children, especially in the face of her own grandchildren. Even shortly before the verdict is announced on appeal, she is torn between the overwhelming evidence and the irrational hope that an acquittal could undo the entire case and bring the boys back to life.