Joe Cinque’s Consolation, written by critically acclaimed Australian author and journalist, Helen Garner, is a murder case that delves into whether it’s more important to follow the law, or live by ethical morals.

On the 26th of October 1997, in Canberra, Australia, Anu Singh purposely killed her boyfriend, Joe Cinque, through a lethal dose of heroin.  Leading up to the murder, numerous acquaintances and friends of Singh knew that she was planning on killing both herself and Cinque, and  that she had even planned celebratory dinners in honour of the event.

Although there was never any doubt that Singh administrated the overdose of heroin, her defence was that she was mentally unstable, suffered delusions and that she wasn’t in any right state of mind when she performed the act.  As a result, she was found guilty of manslaughter and was out of jail within a few years.  Despite the fact that, as Helen Garner writes numerous times, Joe Cinque is dead, and he’s never coming back.

Joe Cinque’s Consolation takes a deeper look into the Australian justice system and the ethical questions that it brings up.  While we may think that murder is black and white, and that the guilty ought to ‘rot in jail’, circumstances differ from case to case, some more complicated than others.

After all, what happens when someone is legally insane?  If they have no bearing on the outside world or their actions, do they deserve to be punished in the same way that a cold-blooded murderer would be?  Or does every person deserve to be treated the same way as each other; if you commit a crime, you have to serve the sentence, no matter the extenuating circumstances.

This, I think, was a particularly pressing point considering both the nature of Singh and the circumstances surrounding it.  Not only did she suffer from both narcissism and an eating disorder, but she was also a heavy drug-user, which may have explained why she was having delusions, mental issues and paranoia.  So should Singh have taken more responsibility for her mental instability because she partially bought it on herself?  Or does this still not count; regardless of whether it was because of her own actions?

Furthermore, Singh planned on killing Cinque for a relatively long period of time, to the point that she was organising dinner parties in anticipation for it, as well as bragging to friends what she was going to do.  Is this an example of a narcissistic individual who doesn’t have a proper grip on life, or a premeditated murderer that was able to convince the judge they were someone else entirely?

The other ethical dilemma that Garner investigates is that of ‘duty of care’.  In short, because others knew of Singh’s plans to kill Cinque, was it their responsibility to intervene, and are they guilty for not doing anything?

Unfortunately, in the case of Madhavi Rao, the best friend of Singh who both knew and helped Singh, the ethics and legality of duty of care were wildly different, and although almost anyone would agree that what she did was morally wrong, she was still acquitted of all charges.  Basically, even though she knew that Singh was going to administer an overdose to Cinque, because she wasn’t present at the time, and because Cinque was not technically her responsibility, she wasn’t guilty.

One aspect of this case that I found utterly bizarre was the involvement of friends, and their complete lack of care towards the fact that not only was murder potentially going to happen, but one of their friends were planning on killing herself.  While most later stated under questioning that Anu was just a drama queen and they didn’t take her seriously, I was still appalled that absolutely no one did anything.  Wouldn’t anyone try and take the steps necessary to stop a friend that wanted to suicide, even if they did think it could only be a joke?

Considering the complexities of the case, both moral and legal, Garner was able to write in a way that was clear and concise, but also still gripping.  At times the story could have been dry or dull, or even melodramatic, but Garner was able to find the right angle to cover any aspect of the case, while also evoking strong emotions in the reader.

Have you read Joe Cinque’s Consolation or do you remember the court case?  Do you think that a moral code should interfere with the law, or are the two meant to stay separated?  Let me know!

joe cinque's consolation by helen garner

Joe Cinque’s Consolation – (image taken from http://www.wikimedia.org)

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