Sunday, May 25, 2008

Evil Books

Years ago a friend spent three years at university doing “Holocaust Studies” and despite the obvious importance of the subject I’ve never quite understood her choice.

Why spend what should be a rather vivid and enjoyable time of your life wallowing in the details of the worst crime ever committed? My friend has never been able to convince me it was a good idea.

Now, after spending a bank holiday week-end reading two paperbacks on the Ipswich murders, I’m even less convinced. True, there’s something about murder and crime detection that fascinates lots of people (me included). But the sheer misery of even five pointless deaths makes you wonder what kind of weird primates humans are; or at least some of them.

Hunting Evil was the first of the books I cracked, not least because I’ve met both of the authors, albeit briefly. Paul Harrison is a journalist for Sky TV who covered the Ipswich murders story almost from the beginning. David Wilson is one of the most remarkable men I’ve ever met; seriously handsome and charismatic, a professor of criminology, once Britain’s youngest ever prison governor, occasional Guardian columnist etc etc. He’s so blessed with talent that he began to remind me of Conrad’s Mr Kurtz; can anyone really be that good!?!

Published almost as soon as Steve Wright was driven from the court to begin his life sentence (shadowed by a Sky helicopter all the way) the book suffers from being a bit of a rush job and a very uneven collaboration. The problem is the two authors have such different styles and approaches to the case.

Paul Harrison is no doubt an excellent TV presenter but you can tell his background isn’t in print. Here are few random extracts from his chapters:

“…everyone in the room and across the country would be hanging on his every word.

Little did I know that, from that moment on, together we would be hunting evil.

But almost overnight her bright future would be transformed into a dull distant dream.

Yeah yeah yeah. Perhaps it’s unfair to treat a true crime story as literature but the frequency of the clichés and the clumsy way Harrison tries to produce suspense soon irritate. It doesn’t take many pages before you realise we’ve not got another In Cold Blood here or even the competence of a experienced true crime writer like Anne Rule.

Worse is the contrast with David Wilson’s chapters; calm, serious, rational and well written, they explore the case from a wider social perspective and with expert knowledge. The best thing about Wilson is he’s not a stuffy academic; instead he’s comfortable to draw from popular film and TV (The Silence of the Lambs, Cracker) to the FSS (Forensic Science Service of the Home Office) to the cases of Sir Edward Marshall Hall. His chapter on the ‘science’ of profiling alone is worth the price of book.

There are also useful photographs (although none showing the victims in situ, which would have been interesting in a harrowing way). There’s also a detailed timeline and a very good chapter (again by Wilson) on how most serial killers pray on the vulnerable in society; prostitutes, runaways, gay man, the elderly and children. It seems obvious when you see it, but I’d never really considered the phenomenon from that angle. It’s a pity that there isn’t an index.

Cold Blooded Evil (Are these publisher’s suggestions for titles? What's with the Evil thing?) is the second book, written by Neil Root. Mr. Root is a bit of a mystery; the book gives no details about him, nor (unusually) does that ever inquisitive mouse so perhaps he’s using a pseudonym.

Rather than comment on the style, I’ll simply quote the first three sentences of Chapter 1:

The Suffolk landscape in winter can be very beautiful, the falling leaves gently rustled by the wind a reminder of time passing and the inevitability of the life cycle. The bare branches of centuries-old trees stand in haunting silhouette against the white sky. This is the real English countryside, where the rustic majesty of the fields is richly veined by meandering brooks and streams.

Arghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. What is it about these true crime guys that makes them attempt this stuff? It’s not even true – the land immediately around Ipswich is featureless and ugly and scrubby, especially in winter and especially when the water table is so high that the turf turns to mud the moment you step on it.

Despite the style, it’s not a worthless book, and in fact having a single author means you don’t get any of those disconcerting contrasts between chapters that mar the Wilson and Harrison work. It’s also clear that Neil Root is fond of Suffolk and Ipswich and knows them both well.

That can be an advantage when he talks about the red light area. I had no idea that it contained 40 brothels (40! it seems incredible) in the 19th century when the port was booming (anorack Neil tells us it was once the largest wet dock in Europe). It’s a disadvantage when he talks about the victims; each one seems a wonderful girl who fell in with the wrong crowd and got addicted to drugs. It’s kind to avoid criticising the victims but not appropriate or helpful to paint them in such an idealised way in a factual account.

As the book goes on, Root’s writing style tightens and he does a good workmanlike job of telling the miserable tale of Steve Wright and his five victims. Without specialist knowledge he does a reasonable job describing serial killers, the science of DNA, and the speculation about Wright’s motivation and whether he’d killed before ('yes' is the consensus).


Both books struggle to describe the trial which managed to make the murder of five young women and the discovery of a skilled and a well camouflaged serial killer as cold and dull as the water in a Suffolk ditch. Without Steve Wright’s co-operation we’re unlikely to ever know why he did it, although both books do some informed speculation.

I’d have liked a bit more speculation, perhaps from off the record comments by the police. We still don’t know why Wright killed them, how he killed them, where he killed them, and where he disposed of Gemma and Tania. He may have even stored Tania’s body somewhere for days - perhaps weeks.

I have a friend in Copdock and driving there a few weeks ago noticed a bouquet of flowers placed carefully dead centre on the bridge railings. This is allegedly the spot where Wright pulled up (on possibly two separate occasions) lifted a corpse wrapped in a red blanket (never found) from the boot of his car, unwrapped it, then chucked the naked body into Belstead Brook.

It all sounds plausible, unless you stand on the bridge at night and look around you. The bridge is well lit by street lights and overlooked by several houses and other buildings. Even at 2 or 3 in the morning, devious clever Steve Wright was taking a huge risk, or the theory is bollocks. No wonder the prosecution mentioned a possible accomplice; I don’t doubt Wright was the killer, but some of the details of the prosecution case don’t convince.

Which is the basic reason why no book on the Ipswich murders will be satisfactory; Steve Wright is too opaque, too many questions won't be answered. At least all three authors had the courage to try.

DISCLOSURE: There’s a short extract from this blog, and a reference or two to me on page 236 of Hunting Evil.


Saturday, May 03, 2008

Royal Festival Hall

The Royal Festival Hall got a restoration fairly recently, and I've been meaning to blog about it for a while.

The brightest and the best decided to return it to its original state when it opened for the Festival of Britain on the 3rd of May 1951. Seen 57 years later, the building and it's 'city of the future' interior has a half-amusing/half impressive aspect. It certainly must have been futuristic in its day; when you glance at it from the outside you think 'mid sixties' certainly not 15 years older.

"S" and myself went for a drink and meal in the Hall on Wednesday. "S" was sure there was a bar with a view of the river and purple crushed velvet chairs. The staff assured us there wasn't, but showed us to a restaurant where you can have a drink at the bar. I took this bad photograph from our table, but at least it shows the wonderful view, and some of the nicely restored/replica 1950s details like the chairs and the lamps.

I wish I'd taken another picture of the waiters and waitresses outfits. We were both pretty sure that they were replicas too; patient leather and subtle earthy colours. A final nice touch; the drinks menu featured 1950s cocktails. The one 'S' chose seemed to have about 50% of your recommended daily fruit intake in a single glass. She assured me it was good and strong none the less.