Books & Literature

Book Review: The Death of Dr Duncan, by Tim Reeves

NON-FICTION: This meticulously researched and tautly written book tells a story that is disturbing yet captivating, distressing yet ultimately uplifting.

From a dark moment in South Australia’s past, a positive light came forth to shine.

*CW: mention of homophobia and murder.

On May 10, 1972, an attack occurred on two men on the banks of South Australia’s River Torrens, resulting in both men being forcibly thrown into the river by several formally unidentified assailants. One of those men, Dr George Ian Ogilvie Duncan, drowned—his death would be the catalyst for both State-wide and, over the ensuing 25 years, Nation-wide change in the legal recognition of same-sex attracted individuals.

Tim Reeves’ book, The Death of Dr Duncan, has been written and released to coincide with the 50th Anniversary and comes alongside the Adelaide Festival production, Watershed, an oratorio which also uses the incident as the basis for its content. The book is a finely crafted piece that comes from a man who has researched and reviewed the life and death of Dr Duncan since his decision to write his Honours Thesis on the impact this moment had on gay law reform in South Australia.

The Death of Dr Duncan is set out over three parts: Setting the Scene, The Duncan Case and Gay Law Reform.

Setting the Scene looks at the state of play for same-sex attracted men in the early 1970s—a time when any homosexual activity (private or public) could result in arrest, imprisonment and public exposure. This would ultimately end familial relationships and employment and resulted in several men taking their own lives. This is followed by a personal portrayal of the man who very few people knew much about, prior to his untimely passing. Reeves has researched Duncan’s life in intricate detail, which truly delivers a touching insight into his brief lifespan. Finally, he summarises the events preceding and following the now infamous incident—the callous act of pushing two men into the River Torrens, resulting in one man not coming out.

The Duncan Case explores, in intricate detail, the years of investigations, trials and the ultimate failure on the part of the justice system, to conclusively identify and prosecute the perpetrators of this heinous, callous, and unprovoked killing. Reeves makes no bones of pointing the finger of blame squarely at South Australia’s Vice Squad, who were tasked with the handling of patrols along the river.

Despite numerous investigations, calls for public support (which was not forthcoming, due to potential reprisals), increasing offers of reward and the resourcing of New Scotland Yard, the trials of the identified officers would result in no formal outcome indicting them for Duncan’s death. His analysis of the handling of the case highlights the closed ranks and ineptitude which resulted in no guilty parties. The emergent positive from this malicious act would be the energies put into Gay Law Reform.

Gay Law Reform catalogues the circuitous route that was taken on both sides of politics and across the highest levels of South Australia’s legal and religious spheres, to change the way gay men were treated under the law. It brought to the fore both support and condemnation, sometimes in the same statement, but ultimately resulted in the first steps that would provide much-needed protection for gay men.

Reeves’ book closes with a 50-year pictorial record, a timeline and glossary. This is an emotive, at times, and cerebral showcase of the devotion and attention to detail that began for Reeves as a university student, over 30 years ago, when he decided to explore Dr Duncan’s death and its ripple effect.

The Death of Dr Duncan outlines how much changed, as the result of one death. Though, Reeves asks, would it have if the victim had not had the social standing he held? It also confronts us with how much still needs to change, particularly regarding any form of institutionalised protection of perpetrators. Ultimately, it is a further surety that Dr Duncan will never be forgotten.

Reviewed by Glen Christie

This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not Glam Adelaide.

Distributed by: Wakefield Press
Released: March 2022
RRP: $32.95

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