Announcing the arrival of Inside the Law, the latest book by Vikki Petraitis – a true crime memoir about her quarter of a century of researching and writing about real life crime.
Vikki Petraitis had no idea that writing a book about a strange murder on Phillip Island would give her a second career alongside her chosen profession as a school teacher.
Since 1993 she has spent thousands of hours with experts, survivors, victims and families, to tell the true stories of “real people, real grief, real loss, real horror”.
Vikki accompanied police and crime scene professionals on active duty and her research has produced 14 books with topics as diverse as cops, serial killers, forensics, paedophiles, and police dogs.
Inside the Law: 25 Years of Crime Writing is a collection of her most memorable true crime stories, with a fresh narrative thread of the why, when and how she came to write them.
“Some true crime writers include themselves in the story, but I never have. I never felt the story was about me. The stories I’ve written for 25 years are about other people, their suffering, their triumph. I was just the storyteller. But a funny thing happens with storytellers. We spend time with people who have been through the worst life has to offer and we absorb their wisdom,” Vikki says.
“I’m not sure why I’ve kept in the background. With some books I’ve written, I’ve even left most of the publicity to the subject of the story, figuring it was their story to tell. But over the years, I’ve realised that my writing has changed people. Not just the story, but my writing, my lens.
“Increasingly, when I do talks, people come up to me and tell me that after reading my books, they decided to be an investigator or join the police force or become a criminal psychologist. To hear that my books have changed people’s lives, is a feeling that defies description.”After 25 years of looking into the heart of darkness, Vikki could be forgiven if she’d developed a cynical and hardened view of the world. The opposite is true.
“At the heart of every true crime story is resilience – how people survive despite suffering the worst, their daughter being killed by a serial killer or they themselves being raped by a priest or Salvation Army officer,” she said.
“I am blessed with the ability to confront these horror stories without ill-effect. Perhaps writing about them is my way of processing. I take people at face value. I live a cheerful life. I see humour everywhere.” Vikki has an unlikely background as a true crime author. She got married at 20, had a baby at 22, a Diploma of Teaching at 23, and a fulltime teaching job in the Catholic system at 24.
“Writing time was carved out in between all my other commitments. Was it hard to write and teach? I don’t remember it being hard. Writing was something I prioritised. Like all working mothers, I juggled to fit it in. I co-wrote my first book, The Phillip Island Murder [with Paul Dale] at a desk in my kitchen.
“I came to understand that I always needed something extra, something other than family and a regular job. Writing was my extra. Something I did just for me – though spending the night in a police helicopter and then fronting primary school students the next day took some getting used to.”
Vikki grew up on a diet of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five but, as a teenager, was transfixed by the Azaria Chamberlain case.
“I ditched any notion of writing fiction because true crime was so raw. Suddenly, the body-in-the-library fiction paled in comparison to the truth,” she says. The strange Phillip Island murder and disappearance – that is the subject of her first book– remains a mystery to this day, Vikki says. It is also a case which now has engaged huge international interest following her podcasts last year on Australian True Crime Podcast and Casefile podcast.
Podcasts have had a huge effect on true crime writing. “True crime writers used to be the weird cousins at literary festivals – now we’re being featured,” Petraitis says. “And podcasts are also encouraging people to read books, not just talk online.” The other case that continues is resonate is the Frankston serial killer, Paul Denyer, jailed for the murders of three young women. Petraitis was doing a ride-along with Frankston police late on Friday July 30, 1993 when word came through that the body of missing Year 12 student, Natalie Russell, had had been found. Petraitis, who remained in the car while the scene was examined, was warned she was not to talk to the media.
Petraitis had no intention of racing off to the nearest newspaper with the story: “I was a true crime author, and if this case was to be written, it would need more than just headline-grabbing prose. It would need to be measured and tell a bigger story. It would need to talk about not only what the serial killer did, but about what he took from us. It would need to explore the aftermath of such a killing spree on the families and the community.”
The result was the best-selling, The Frankston Murders, which was republished by Clan Destine Press in 2018 in a revised edition to mark the 25th anniversary of Paul Denyer’s seven-week killing spree.
Vikki remains close to Carmel and Brian Russell, the parents of Natalie, and they are all leading a campaign to ensure the ongoing incarceration of Denyer, who will be eligible to apply for parole in 2023.Vikki says that a student journalist once asked her how she remained unbiased in my stories. “I laughed. Not for one minute am I unbiased. Every word, every sentence I write, takes the reader on the journey I planned for them. If my writing looks unbiased, don’t be fooled,” she says.