The Kelly Gang Unmasked, by Ian MacFarlane
Oxford University Press (2014), Paperback, 248 pages
While there has been plenty of Kelly revisionism in the past few years, with authors lining up to poke holes in the Kelly mythos, this is far and away the most overtly anti-Kelly book I have ever come across. The author has literally not one good thing to say about Ned Kelly, neither in a historical or a personal sense. Less a re-telling of the Kelly story than a selection of particular aspects freshly re-examined in the light of new evidence discovered in Victoria’s archives, MacFarlane uses his admirably exhaustive research to paint Kelly in the blackest light possible, and conversely to rehabilitate the reputation of the Victorian police, usually depicted as the villains of the piece. After reading a few pages, I became convinced that MacFarlane had to be connected in some way with the Victoria police. Apparently he is not, but as you can imagine, the Victoria Police, Kelly’s unyielding foes in life, and not budging an inch in their condemnation of him in the 130 years since, are delighted with this book, as you can judge from this fawning review in the Victorian Police Association journal (http://www.tpav.org.au/_documents/Communications/Book%20Reviews/24e22c04-1dcd-4b1f-ba44-f09af67408ab/The_Kelly_Gang_Unmasked_Review_Nov_2012.pdf ) From my own perspective, I found MacFarlane’s rhetoric over the top for an otherwise worthwhile and fascinating book which does expose new facts about the case. I have never disputed that Kelly was in fact a career criminal and a multiple murderer, and that the Kelly legend has been overblown. On the other hand, I also recognise that Kelly was an articulate individual with tremendous charisma and powers of leadership, and that given a different start in life, could have been an outstanding individual in any one of a number of theatres of life, including politics, the worker’s movement, or the military to name a few. MacFarlane, on the other hand, concedes nothing to Kelly whatsoever, and I find that an unconscionable failure in a work of history. For all that, I do recommend this book to anyone interested in Australian history, and the Kelly story in particular, as it does present a fresh perspective on certain parts, and the discovery of new evidence in such a familiar story is always welcome. You can take or leave MacFarlane’s partisan rhetoric as you wish, difficult as it is to ignore. But a worthwhile read, certainly.