The Black Widow
by Lee-Anne Cartier (Penguin, $38)
Reviewed by Judith Morrell Nathan
Lee-Anne Cartier is the sister of the Christchurch man found to have been murdered by his wife, Helen Milner, after an initial assumption by police that his death, in 2009, was suicide. The case created a lot of interest when it eventually came to court four years later and was one of New Zealand’s most publicised murder trials. The fact that this book is listed in the top ten for sales and that New Zealand on Air is funding a movie shows there is still much interest.
Cartier reached her conclusions early on, as she found discrepancies in what her sister-in-law was telling her. This book explains how, over a period of years with frequent visits to Christchurch from Queensland, where she lived, Cartier persuaded the police to undertake further investigations and change their minds. With admirable persistence, she questioned neighbours, workmates and members of the extended family, checked texts and emails, and repeatedly reported Milner’s inconsistent stories and unusual behaviour to the police. She confided in many people over the years, often finding they shared her opinion. She pays tribute to a number of people without whose help her quest would not have succeeded.
Given Cartier’s account of what Milner was saying — that her husband had died in his truck, that he had died in his bed, that his typed suicide note (which the police did not fingerprint) was found in his briefcase case, later that it was in his bedside table (one version had a signature, another version did not) — it is amazing that the police took so long to decide that a thorough investigation was needed.
A key step was the inquest in late 2010 where the coroner delivered an open verdict, stating that there was insufficient evidence to support a finding of suicide. But Milner was not arrested until a year later in October 2011, two and a half years after her husband’s death. Of course the book tells us only one side of the story, but after the guilty verdict in late 2013, police admitted their initial investigations had been inadequate and praised Cartier’s efforts. But Milner did not give up. In the Court of Appeal her lawyer argued that some key evidence that was relied on was “unsafe”: if Milner had put the alleged amount of the drug in his food, it would have tasted odd and her husband would not have eaten it. That case was lost and permission to appeal to the Supreme Court was denied.
Being familiar with the basic story through the media coverage at the time, I found the book a quick read, though I needed frequent reference to the list of key people at the front to remember who was who and keep track of the extended family’s complex interrelationships. Some of the detail, for example a car accident that the author and her children had while in New Zealand, are of marginal relevance and would be of interest only to the family not the general public. However, it was interesting to have the transcripts of Milner’s 111 call and her two interviews with police appended, one held at the time in May 2009 and one eight months later.
Cartier is to be congratulated both for her thorough, and eventually successful, investigation and for her lucid account of it. It documents a case that is likely to remain of interest for years to come.