Sunday, 9 August 2015

The Murders at White House Farm by Carol Anne Lee

Before reading this I only had a sketchy idea of the events of 7th August 1985 at White House Farm. I knew that on that night a whole family had been brutally murdered – father, mother, daughter and her two young children. I knew that a young man, Jeremy Bamber, the son of the elderly couple who owned the farm, was eventually tried for the murder, convicted, and has been protesting his innocence ever since. It was one of those notorious cases that resonate, like the Moors’ Murders and that of the Yorkshire Ripper, and unsurprisingly Jeremy Bamber has become something of a hate figure for the tabloid press.

Beyond that I knew snippets: something about a silencer with paint on, Bamber’s assertions repeated by his vocal band of supporters that movement had been spotted from within the house when Bamber was outside with the police, that he claimed that it was his sister, Sheila, an erratic and mentally unstable schizophrenic, who fired the shots.

Carol Ann Lee has form; she seems to like delving into the darkest recesses of the human psyche. I’ve only read one of her previous works, an exhaustive investigation into the mind and motivation of Myra Hindley. It was powerful but disturbing stuff, definitely not for the weak hearted. But it was also fair and balanced. One thing I applauded about that earlier work is how she refused to allow the wool to be pulled over her eyes. Many of Hindley’s supporters argue that she was led astray by the evil mind of Ian Brady. While acknowledging Brady’s psychopathology the author demonstrated that Hindley herself had many questions to answer, that on numerous occasions she had shown irritation and contempt towards the relatives of her victims.

So the author has the credentials and gravitas to tackle a case as sensitive as the murders at White House Farm, a massacre that in some ways is more controversial than the Moor’s Murders, for there has never been any doubt as to Brady and Hindley’s guilt. Does she manage it? I think she does. The Murders at White House Farm is as exhaustive account as her previous work, perhaps as definitive an account of what happened that night that we can ever hope to get. The author delves into the family and its wider milieu; she places Jeremy and Sheila’s upbringing under a microscope (the siblings were adopted) she pores over their tensions and schisms. Carol Ann Lee subjects the murder scene, police investigation, forensic evidence and trial to meticulous examination and while there is some evidence that Sheila had religious mania and was a seriously unwell woman the narrative of this tome comes back to one subject: Jeremy himself.

Jeremy Bamber does not come out of this book well, should he read it he won’t be pleased. He comes across as a cold, calculating and money obsessed psychopath, a man who resents his adopted parents for tying him to the farm, not allowing him to lives his own life, and most of all, not providing him with the monies to do so. He poses as heartbroken by his family’s graveside only to smile when the press has gone. He refers to Sheila’s children as a burden and thinks their father Colin should be grateful that he killed them. In prison he appeals and appeals, perhaps having convinced himself of his own innocence, but his efforts come to nothing, as there is nothing to be found.

One thing that did surprise me was the admissibility in court of the silencer. Rather than the police it was relatives who found it. The author’s account makes clear that they repeatedly handled it and didn’t immediately alert the police to its presence. Even once they were alerted to it, the police were slow to seize it and place it in evidence. There’s little evidence of conspiracy here and the author demonstrates that the anomaly is more than likely down to police procedure of the time, the issue does demonstrates a fascinating difference between US and UK law. In the US legal system there is a concept of The Fruit of The Poisoned Tree, whereby evidence is struck out if it was accumulated in a questionable way. My understanding is that the UK legal system does not recognise this concept. So while one might wonder about the chain of custody that doesn’t appear to have unduly concerned the court, either then or since.

At no point does Carol Ann Lee give her opinion as to Jeremy’s guilt, rather she lets the evidence speak for itself. On the basis of what I’ve read in The Murders at White House Farm there’s little doubt. I’m sure Jeremy and his supporters will condemn this book but for those with an open mind this is a magisterial and forensic account.     

I would give this book 5 out of 5 stars

Blood Salt Water by Denise Mina

I haven't read a book by Denise Mina since her novel, The Field of Blood, which was the first in her Paddy Meehan trilogy. I really enjoyed that book and don't know why I haven't read the rest of the trilogy, yet alone any of her other books, I just never seemed to get around to it.

Which leads me to Blood, Salt, Water, which is her latest. And wow! What a read! This is apparently the fifth featuring her protagonist Alex Morrow and on the strength of this I might have to go back and read the other four, and then finish her Paddy Meehan trilogy, and then read everything else she has written. Alex Morrow is a well rounded character, as are all the other people to feature in the novel, but what most excites me about this book is the story itself.

So many crime novels feature a serial killer or some variation of the theme. In fact, if memory serves me right, the Paddy Meehan novel I read had one. Quite frankly, I am tired of reading novels with deranged or psychotic killers murdering women or children in increasingly hideous way. Apart from the fact that real life serial killing is rare and that when it does occur the murders tend to be committed in less arcane and complex ways than those portrayed in pulp novels, there’s something a little sordid, a little sensationalist, a little voyeuristic about our obsession with what is quite frankly horrific crimes. This unedifying spectacle isn't helped by the fact that so often writers reduce their victims to what is little more than a carcass. So what is their left for someone who loves crime fiction but doesn't want to read about the antics of some psycho who wears other people’s skin? Gangsters? Yeah, but often that sinks into Mockney parody.

 A way through this dilemma is shown by Denise Mina in her latest book. Taking care not to give away any spoilers, the novel centres on an investigation into a drug dealing and money laundering gang. Through her description of Morrow watching surveillance footage we get to know the main target of this investigation, a woman called Roxanna Fuenticilla, in quite intimate detail. Which is important because she then disappears. Another character we get to know, again quite intimately, is a local thug who’s just killed and dumped a woman in a lake. These plot strands eventually come together thanks to a sinister professional criminal (and not who the reader thinks it’ll be, this books keeps you guessing until the end).

What Denise Mina achieves, and does it with quite extraordinary aplomb, is to humanise almost all the participants in this crime novel. There's no pantomime serial killing and none of the characters are mere one-dimensional victims. The plot itself is quite ingenious, but what sets it apart is that you end up having at least some sympathy for all the major characters, even those who aren't exactly very nice.

All in all this is a fantastic read and have no hesitation in awarding it 5 out of 5 stars.