Larrimah: A missing man, an eyeless croc and an outback town of 11 people who mostly hate each other
You have to hand it to Caroline Graham and Kylie Stevenson, that is one hell of a book title and one that would be perfectly suited to a piece of absurdist Australian fiction. But while absolutely absurd, the story told in Larrimah isn’t fictional at all, but rather true crime.
This book is a follow up to the podcast ‘Lost in Larrimah’, which won both Graham and Stevenson a Walkley Award back in 2018. At the heart of the mystery is Paddy Moriarty, an Irish/Australian man in his 70’s who, along with his dog Kellie, vanished without a trace in December 2017. What makes Paddy’s disappearance bewildering is that the town he disappeared from—Larrimah—only had a population of a dozen people.
Questioning the town’s remaining 11 inhabitants shed no light on the matter. And while an old man who had left everything from his medication to his hat at home could have easily gotten lost in the vastness that is the Australian Outback, extensive police searches of both the town and it’s surrounds uncovered no signs of human remains. Critically, there have also been no sightings—dead or alive—of his beloved Kellie either.
The odds of Paddy just absconding and setting up shop in another town seem rather outlandish as well. It’s not like Paddy would have been able to just jump on a bus and vanish into the ether; situated in the middle of the Outback, there is really only one route out of town Larrimah and that’s the highway between Alice Springs and Katherine. This is not a high traffic area; surely someone would have remembered an odd car or an Irish accented hitch-hiker?
That hasn’t stopped theories pertaining to Paddy’s fate sprouting up left right and centre however, and Graham and Stevenson do their best to follow them, no matter how outlandish they are. Paddy was not always an easy man to get along with, and the possibility that another one of Larrimah’s dozen residents got so sick of the man they decided to off him is continuously being brought up. One of the most persistent theories is that Paddy’s neighbour, Fran Hodges, was the one to pull it off. Part of this is due to the acrimonious relationship the two shared when Paddy was in town—there had been a long-running drama with a roadkill kangaroo, among other things. But another reason that this particular rumour sprouted legs is that Fran owns the town’s only tea shop, and the harebrained idea that she pulled a Sweeny Todd was just a little too delicious for some people to let go of.
People had already accused her of murdering and baking up someones’ pet buffalo anyhow, so was it really a stretch?
But Fran is not the only person in Larrimah who shares difficult relationship with their neighbours. (This might be described as a charming understatement at best.) Nearly everyone in this tiny town has a beef with everyone else. Cookie, another older eccentric who was perhaps uncharitably described as a hermit by the local news, was also a neighbour of Paddy’s. He has cheerfully admitted that he didn’t get along with the man and even wanted to punch Paddy in the head a few times, but he maintains he wouldn’t have killed him. He has also been accused of stealing Mars Bars from the Pink Panther—the local pub—and was banned as a result. Which is a bigger deal than you think when there are less than four businesses in the entire town.
Another nasty town feud lead to the implosion of the Larrimah Progress Association. While this wouldn’t be such a big deal in more densely populated regions, Larrimah didn’t have many people to spare, and the aftermath of this drama cost the town several residents, with one family driven out completely. And until Fran’s hippy, alternative minded grandson moved to town to help his Nan, there were no young people left in Larrimah. Larrimah was important once—especially in World War Two—but unless something monumentous happens, the town may be in it’s death throes.
Graham and Stevenson spend much of the first part of the book detailing the lives and dramas of Larrimah’s residents, and while their main purpose was to investigate Paddy’s disappearance, they admit too falling in love with the small town, it’s eccentric residents, and the old ‘bushy’ culture that they represent. It is a strange thing to admit to growing affections for these old folks when one of them may be a murderer. But it’s also hard not to become enamoured with a small town whose defining features are a bright pink pub, the local menagerie, and a blind pet crocodile named Sneaky Sam.
The latter part of the book focuses on Paddy Moriarty’s history, and this is where things take another strange turn. Not to give too much away, but Paddy’s backstory is so murky, it’s hard to tell who he really is; how he really got to Australia; the truth of his work records and even if he had any children. If people thought some of the weird rumours of Paddy’s fate—involving foreign spies, the IRA and drug dealers—were too outlandish originally, the dearth of verifiable information about the man seems to, unfortunately, add fuel to the flames that power the rumour mill.
Larrimah treads a little bit of a wobbly line, to be honest; uncertain as to whether it wants to be more of a true-crime story or an ode to a dying town. In fact, in the first half of the book, you would be forgiven for thinking that Paddy was an accidental focus point in a story about a interpersonal feuds. But on the positive side, I think the affection that the authors have for the town and its inhabitants is very, very real, and it prevents the book from giving off the slightly grubby, exploitative air that many true crime stories carry; where the people impacted by the events described are just treated as props for the narrative. While Larrimah often carries a jovial and whimsical tone, there’s still deep respect for both people and place.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the story of Paddy’s does not end up being resolved: The Northern Territory Coroner re-opened the inquest into his disappearance just last month. But what you will get from this book is a picture of small-town Australiana: the colourful characters, the tall tales, the history that shaped them, and the forces that have to lead to them becoming a dying breed.
“Places like the Pink Panther are an endangered species. Australia might have a collective nostalgia for a remote pub on the edge of nowhere, but the idea of a far-flung beer is often nicer than the long drive through the nothingness to get it. It’s the paradox of distance: remoteness is both the appeal and the problem.”