Smoke and mirrors

Truth can be stranger than fiction and nowhere is this more apparent than in the eerily addictive Smoke and Mirrors by veteran true crime writer Robin Bowles.

Smoke and Mirrors details how two lads from humble rural origins met and formed a formidable partnership, in life, love and business. For 16 years, interior designer Stuart Rattle and his partner Michael O’Neill led a seemingly charmed life, travelling internationally, entertaining lavishly and labouring ceaselessly to create their “country squire” style retreat at Musk Farm, replete with lush gardens and rare breeds of poultry and cattle.

But there were cracks in this perfect façade and Bowles lays them bare, methodically parting the curtains and shining light into the nooks and crannies of the couple’s life. For this was a relationship marred by emotional abuse and mired in worsening debt, all in the service of an impossible “Folly de Grandeur”.

These mounting pressures culminated in an inferno at the Melbourne premises of Stuart Rattle Interior Design late one evening in December 2013. O’Neill and the couple’s three fox terriers escaped, but firefighters later recovered Rattle’s charred body from the upstairs bedroom.

Those on the scene immediately believed the fire to be deliberately lit. However, it wasn’t until an autopsy revealed a depressed fracture to the side of Rattle’s head, and a fracture in his hyoid bone consistent with strangling, that the full force of suspicion turned on O’Neill.

O’Neill had murdered Rattle him five days before the fire. With great restraint, Bowles details how O’Neill poured his dead partner glasses of wine, brought him cups of tea, prepared him dinner, sat next to him to watch television, and told those who inquired that Rattle was “resting”.

Smoke and Mirrors details the police investigation which punctured O’Neill’s deception. It also devotes intriguing chapters to the interviews which precipitated his unravelling. Told through court proceedings, and accounts from friends and family, the reader gains a window into O’Neill’s state of mind, both during and after the commission of the offence. It is testament to Bowles’ skill and sensitivity that O’Neill, despite his actions, emerges as a sympathetic figure.

For me, the most gut-wrenching part of the book was the account of the auction of Musk Farm and all its contents. “That afternoon, Michael and Stuart’s dream was entirely dismantled, painting by romantic painting, mirror by gold-framed bevelled mirror, chair by pink floral chair,” Bowles writes. “The care put into assembling the image and the mise en scène of Musk Farm was bumped out like a stage setting when the curtain has descended for the last time.”

This review appeared in the September 2016 issue of the Australian Police Journal.