Review: Last Bets by Michaela McGuire

[First published in The Australian, July 19 2014]

In July 2011, 40-year-old Anthony Dunning was enjoying a night out at Melbourne’s Crown casino when he became involved in an altercation with bouncers. The situation escalated quickly: Dunning was pinned to the floor and lost consciousness. Paramedics were called but he died in hospital. Police were notified about the standoff only by two of Dunning’s friends who also had a run-in with the bouncers the same evening.

“I’m overseas when I first read a report about the incident,” Melbourne writer Michaela McGuire notes in the prologue to Last Bets, her third book and longest piece of investigative journalism to date. “I haven’t written anything substantial in almost two years,” she adds, and claims to feel miserable as a result.

But McGuire’s fascination with the Dunning story runs deeper than seeing an opportunity to break her writer’s block. She had earlier had an email from her uncle in which he confessed to a gambling addiction. This dredged up uncomfortable feelings she had about casinos, which started with her short-lived career waitressing on a Brisbane gaming floor (documented in her 2009 debut, the blackly humorous essay collection Apply Within: Stories of Career Sabotage).

McGuire decides to tackle her unease head on and follow the manslaughter trial that results from Dunning’s death, and later, but in lesser detail, the assault charges brought against Crown bouncers by Dunning’s friends. In the manslaughter trial the bouncers were found not guilty; in the assault case two bouncers were found guilty.

During the past decade, Australian writers have produced expertly researched and morally complex novel-length works of true crime set in the courtroom: Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man and Anna Krien’s Night Games, to name three standout examples. Last Bets, dealing as it does with the fraught nexus between ethics and the law, is a worthy addition to this list.

The ace up McGuire’s sleeve is her sound knowledge of the law, gained from her day job as a legal secretary. It allows her to pick apart the proceedings in a nuanced way, and turn even the most mundane administrative developments into a gripping look at what she labels the “non-perfect world” of the courtroom.

“If lawyers aren’t able to adequately negotiate that tricky space,” McGuire ponders, “maybe a writer can.”

But as a writer, McGuire is largely confined to the press gallery. Barristers appear bemused by her ongoing interest as other media figures absent themselves from the less newsworthy proceedings. She briefly chats to some of Dunning’s relatives during a court recess, and offers a scrap of paper with her number. No one calls her, though. She isn’t granted access to the plaintiffs or defendants, either.

Given these restrictions, the most detailed character sketch we get is of someone outside the case: reclusive professional gambler and billionaire David Walsh, whose Museum of Old and New Art on Hobart’s riverfront attracts thousands of tourists but loses money.

Walsh’s daringness carries into his fascinating cat-and-mouse interview with McGuire, in which he says: “I don’t understand why you’d want to write a book about gambling. It’s impossible. You’ll never be able to encompass all the psychology, the politics, the complexities, the compulsions, the mathematics.”

Such a feat would be difficult. Indeed, in one passage McGuire describes lying in bed, fretting about the focus of her book: “I’d set out to write about gambling and instead was hung up on a manslaughter case that happened to take place inside a casino.” But it’s exactly how she becomes focused on the psychology and the complexities of gambling that makes Last Bets compulsive reading.

As the book progresses, McGuire displays her own signs of addiction towards the case: she fidgets waiting for court to start, her sleep is disturbed by increasingly lurid dreams. Eventually, her work life suffers; her boss reluctantly grants her unpaid leave to see out the Dunning trial.

While McGuire is always honest about her conflicting feelings towards the bouncers charged over Dunning’s death — and careful to question her fluctuating allegiance to Dunning, a man with whom she can acquaint herself only via CCTV footage of the incident — one of the biggest players in the trial remains shrouded in mystery. The only Crown spokesperson to come forward and speak to McGuire is its resident chaplain, whose job it is to wander the gaming floors and console those patrons down on their luck.

While Last Bets originated from a general uneasiness towards gambling culture, by the end of the book McGuire is just as fixated on the gap between a casino’s legal responsibility and its moral obligations; in particular, why it was that Crown casino did not alert the police about the Dunning incident.

Through her constant probing and sharp, well thought-out observations about how the legal system handles ethically complex cases such as Dunning’s death, the reader will be left similarly uneasy, pondering the same grey zones McGuire cleverly highlights.