Rachel Landers' Who Bombed the Hilton? wins literary prize

Short of a confession, the cold case of the Hilton bombing, will never be solved, says author-filmmaker, Rachel Landers.   Photo: Peter Rae
Short of a confession, the cold case of the Hilton bombing, will never be solved, says author-filmmaker, Rachel Landers. Photo: Peter Rae

A true crime investigation into one of the first acts of international terrorism carried out on Australian soil has won a major literary award for research.

Rachel Lander'sforensic investigation, Who Bombed the Hilton?, has taken out the $20,000 Nib Waverley Library Award for Literature, a prize with national profile recognising excellence in research in the creation of a literary work of merit.

"I always found the Hilton bombing very confusing and oblique and who did what to whom wasn't at all clear,'' Landers said. ''I think that is actually what piqued my interest. I thought why can't I articulate it any simple way? Whereas I could talk a leg off a chair about Lindy Chamberlain, as most people. All historians like a tangle, and I've always liked messy history."

Landers, the head of documentary at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, prevailed over a non-fiction shortlist which included Stan Grant's Talking to My Country, Gerard Henderson's Santamaria​, Helen O'Neill's Daffodil and Luke Williams' The Ice Age: A journey into crystal-meth addiction. The Nib, as it is known, is the richest literary prize awarded by a local government authority.

Fellow shortlistee, Melanie Joosten​, received the consolation of the $1000 People's Choice award for A Long Time Coming: Essays on Old Age, which examines life for people at that "invisible turning point where we stop respecting the old and begin punishing them for existing". The Military History Prize went to Garth Callender for After the Blast: An Australian officer in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A junior officer, Callender was seriously injured in a roadside explosion on deployment in Iraq in 2004. He was motivated to write to give the public a better understanding of Australian military's actions, give a personal side to wartime events reported in the media, and publicly acknowledge the support of his wife.

"Like most military people I feel that I have grown from all my experiences and it has developed me in ways that people who have not seen such a range of human activities and deeds will never quite understand,'' he said.

"I want society to stop thinking of military people as being on the fringe of social norms, and to break away from believing the stereotype of a military person as portrayed by Hollywood.

''Over the years I have had the pleasure of working with some of the most intelligent, compassionate and lateral thinking people around. Many do find their calling in military service and they do amazing things - save lives, rebuild communities, and help people return to dignified existences out from war and atrocities."

The Nib judges praised Landers for her "uncluttered and highly readable style", that made her account of the complex and murky Hilton Bombing investigation "as enjoyable to read as any thriller". 

Who Bombed the Hilton? came out of a failed film documentary project after Landers, a trained archive historian, couldn't persuade enough surviving main players to talk on camera.

Before writing a single word of her manuscript, Landers spent two years reading available public archives, including 1500 witness statements and ''an astonishing amount of primary evidence'', that showed the initial police investigation to be world class and had pursued several early theories suggesting the New Zealand, Indian or Singaporean prime ministers may have been the bomber's target.

With forensic dedication, she debunks conspiracy theories that Special Branch or ASIO were responsible for planting the bomb in 1978 outside Sydney's Hilton Hotel, in a garbage bin which was not checked or cleared in advance of the arrival of Commonwealth Regional Heads of Government.

While she can't say definitely who bombed the Hilton, there was ''strong circumstantial case'' linking the Ananda Marga sect to international acts of violence in support of their jailed spiritual leader around the time of the bombing. Short of a confession, she expects the cold case to never be solved.

''It was internal agency problems that really scuppered the case,'' Landers said. Special branch ''very clearly went rogue'' when it recruited mole Richard Seary, later found to have framed three young Ananda Marga rmembers, and that ended any early chance to solve the case.

This story Rachel Landers' Who Bombed the Hilton? wins literary prize first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.