BOOK REVIEW / Doing away with Dad: Murder in the heart by Alexandra Artley; Hamish Hamilton pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
IN NOVEMBER 1988 June and Hilda Thompson of Preston, Lancashire were found guilty of killing their father Tommy by shooting him at point-blank range while he was having an epileptic fit. They were given two years' imprisonment, sentence suspended. It is an incidental but not unimportant feature of this book that it should add to the current debate about the narrow legal criteria governing the defence of provocation in cases of killing by women. The main point of Murder in the Heart - of which the actual killing and its aftermath are only a small part - is to chronicle the operation of a household run by a man whose chief means of self-expression was persecuting his family.

Tommy Thompson was 57 when he was killed; a photograph shows him lying neatly dead in a downstairs room of his house, watched over by a picture of three round-eyed fluffy kittens. He had served in the Army, worked in a bleach factory, been a labourer and become a depressive. As a child he had been continually threatened with the devil by his mother. As an adult he was a virtuoso torturer. Early on in his marriage he started to hit his wife; early on in their childhoods his two daughters learned not to incite him to further violence by 'behaving badly' when he attacked their mother in front of them - instead, they stood on either side of her to prevent her falling down. He gave his wife an abortion on the kitchen table, using a piece of plastic clothes line: 'It was DISTRESSING for me,' she wrote to Alexandra Artley. While chopping bones for broth in the garden shed, Tommy announced to his 11-year-old daughter that he wanted to begin having sex with her.

The charnel-house aspects of the Thompsons' life were made much of in the reports of the murder: 'THE FAMILY THEY CALLED THE MUNSTERS,' gloated the Sun - though 'they' seems to have meant only the Sun. It is in documenting Tommy Thompson's smaller, more systematic and idiosyncratic manipulations and repressions that Alexandra Artley's book is more original. A comprehensive set of instructions regulated every feature of the three Thompson women's domestic behaviour. Washed spoons had always to be turned face downward on the draining- board lest water collected in their bowls; margarine had to be spread on bread 'quickly and efficiently in one direction only'; the details of any purchase had to be entered when the item was placed in the upstairs storeroom to which Tommy used to summon his older daughter when he wanted to have sex with her: 'Started to use new soap dish (from 'Choice') on 26.11.87. pounds 3.99.' If the women didn't hold the electric lead in an approved manner when they were vacuuming, Tommy would head-butt them.

On the one hand, excessive regimentation; on the other, compulsive disruption. Tommy had a flair for creating discomfort. He had a compulsion to move house - and an obsession about altering furniture. He would chop off the arms of a sofa, or stick one chest-of-drawers on top of another. The process was joyless and the results were hideous. 'It was always,' said June Thompson, 'like he was spoiling the look of things.'

The talents which made Alexandra Artley a lively Spectator columnist are sometimes smudged in the early stages of this book. There is too much random colour ('Golden Wonder crisp packets rolled vacuously'), and the asides about the author's hair, husband and telephone manner - perhaps introduced to avoid an overbearingly authoritative tone - can make her sound twee. But she has made vivid the skewed nature of the Thompsons' lives. And she has done so by peeling away the different layers of concealment which smoothed the way for Tommy Thompson's killing. She describes how the family believed him when he said he'd get them. Neighbours were tolerant of oddities; they thought it was peculiar when Tommy kissed his daughter on the mouth, but judged that June, in her thirties, was old enough to take care of herself. And Tommy was busy manufacturing his version of the truth by making his elder daughter keep lying diaries. Here the cause of the injuries which took her mother to hospital was disguised. Here June Thompson was obliged to record her visits to the Family Planning Clinic without revealing that the contraception was for her and her father. Here she wrote on her 25th birthday: 'I have everything I could wish for.'