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The disappearance of an elderly Australian is a classic Outback whodunnit

Paddy Moriarty.

Paddy Moriarty and his dog vanished from their home in a disused gas station in Larrimah nine days before Christmas.

Larrimah, more than 400km south of Darwin, is a speck on the map of the black-soil, sinkhole country. Wild buffalo roam, death adders slither and wedge-tailed eagles scan for road kill left by the trucks barrelling along the Stuart Highway that runs all the way to Adelaide, 2800km to the south.

Some suggest a killer stalks the land, too. At least 13 people have gone missing on or near the lonely highway over the past 20 years. The latest – and possibly the strangest – was a little Irishman, Paddy Moriarty, aged 71, who vanished, along with his dog, from his home in a disused gas station in Larrimah nine days before Christmas.

Australians, most of whom live on the edges of an endless inland, are not unfamiliar with disappearances. But Moriarty’s captivates – the more so because of Larrimah’s 11 remaining inhabitants, who are in their 70s. Some came fleeing the past, others the future. Many loathe each other. Several believe Paddy was murdered. So do the police.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

The saga has opened a window upon the truth of lives in a part of the country where few Australians venture.

Larrimah, says New Zealand-born journalist Murray McLaughlin, the ABC’s longtime newsman in the Northern Territory, is “riven by intrigue and rivalry, division and dissension – the outback looking inwards”.

The town is so weirdly intriguing that a dying Darwin author who, 13 years ago, forecast civil war in the town bequeathed enough money for an annual two-week writer’s residency.

Despite the impression created by his crumbling lodgings, Moriarty, a retired cattle drover, was a man of order and daily ritual. A loner who arrived from rural Ireland as an unaccompanied teenager, he would make his bed each morning and cross off the day on his calendar. His routine was to slowly drink eight cans of beer in the one-room bar of the Pink Panther Hotel, and wander home at dusk for his tea. But on that early evening last December, his chicken dinner was untouched on the table and the kangaroo-skin hat he never left home without was indoors.

The hamlet has a history of vengeance. Unexplained fires have erupted, dead kangaroos have been shoved in homes, loved pets have been fed to the local crocodile, Sneaky Sam.

Darwin journalist Kylie Stevenson – who won northern Australia’s leading non-fiction literary award last year for her study of Larrimah – befriended Moriarty when she spent two weeks in the hamlet as writer-in-residence.

In her book, Notes from a Dying Town, she recounted how Fran Hodgetts, the owner of the cafe, sued Moriarty, alleging he poisoned her garden.

She wrote of the feuds such as the nightly one when the piercing, stinking bats arrive: “The screeching mob take off over the road to Karl and Bobbie’s place. A little while later, we hear Karl firing a slug gun and they come swarming back. Barry shakes a box of leaves at the foot of the tree and they depart again. Karl sounds a loud siren and back they come. Barry blasts them with water. The war is back on.”

Moriarty was no saint. In the one interview he gave, to McLaughlin, he said he liked living in Larrimah but that people didn’t get on. “Fran’s got the worst pies. I used to go over there and the dog wouldn’t eat Fran’s pie,” he said.

He frequently called Hodgetts “the bush pig”. She later accused him of hiding a dead kangaroo under her house and telling travellers not to enter her cafe. After he vanished, she said: “I don’t know where he is and I am not sad that he’s gone.”

Police have searched houses and the dump, and seized at least one car, but there’s no sign of Moriarty. They think he’s dead, killed in a dying – and deadly silent – town.

New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.

This article was first published in the May 26, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.