Books & Literature

Book Review: The Kelly Hunters, by Grantlee Kieza

HISTORY: By the author of the critically acclaimed Mrs Kelly, as well as other bestsellers such as Banks, Monash and Banjo, The Kelly Hunters is a fascinating and compelling account of the other side of the legendary Kelly story.

A thoroughly engaging biography of not just Ned Kelly but the men who pursued him relentlessly for nearly two years.

Grantlee Kieza has written a number of best-selling biographies of Australian legends such as Henry Lawson, Banjo Patterson, and Lachlan Macquarie. Now he presents a Ned Kelly biography with a twist—focusing on the men who hunted him for 20 months following the murder of three police officers. It follows on from his biography of Ned’s equally famous mother who was in prison during Ned’s crime spree of the late 1870s.

Of course, Kieza doesn’t shy away from telling us the gory details about Kelly himself and his crimes, which begin with horse thieving before moving on to murder and violence. In the course of the brisk 280-page book, Kieza peels away the layers of myth surrounding our most infamous criminal.

As with his previous volumes, there is meticulous research (over 30 pages of footnotes and appendices follow the main body of the book) coupled with some of the most engaging prose you are likely to find in the non-fiction shelves. The characters presented are as real and vivid as you could possibly hope for, from Kelly himself and his brother Dan to the other members of the infamous “Kelly gang” Joe Byrne and Steve Hart.

But the title of the book tells us where the real fascination in this text is. At the time of Kelly’s crimes, the police force of Victoria was mired in corruption claims and very much out of favour with the general public. This is why many people sympathised with Kelly when he murdered police officers Thomas Lonigan, Michael Kennedy and Michael Scanlon in cold blood following an arrest attempt. What followed is 20 months of incompetence from a force too busy bickering with itself to knuckle down and capture Kelly. There is no doubt that Ned was a smart man, and of course hindsight is always crystal clear, but there were so many missed opportunities that it makes you scratch your head in amazement that they caught him at all.

Along the way, Kieza also shares details of policemen with shady pasts and is not afraid to describe the horrid treatment of the Indigenous people (with one particular tracker given an insensitive nickname which I shall not repeat here) by the authorities.

The final shootout in Glenrowan (where Kelly donned his famous iron armour) is described in excruciating detail and the reader is dragged right into the thick of the battle. The subsequent court appearances and Kelly’s final moments are also well represented here.

The final chapter is a lengthy epilogue that describes what happened in the subsequent years following Kelly’s death by hanging. Kieza tells of fates of the major players in the Kelly story as well as how the 8000-pound reward was distributed. 

This is a rip-roaring and fascinating look at a dark period in our history and some will find aspects of this book uncomfortable to read but if Kieza’s purpose in writing this volume is to shed an uncomfortable spotlight on our past through the lens of our most infamous personality then he succeeded many times over.

Reviewed by Rodney Hrvatin
Twitter: @Wagnerfan74

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

Published by: Harper Collins
Released: March 2022
Approx RRP: $34.99

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