BOOKS A study in life expectancy

THE VIOLENCE OF OUR LIVES by Tony Parker, HarperCollins £18 Parker leads us along a confused trail of regret, loss and rage
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TONY PARKER has been asked to explain his remarkable interviewing style many times; he has also no doubt often been asked how well it pays. But I imagine he has seldom encountered anyone who put him through it quite like Hank Sullivan.

Sullivan was serving life for multiple murder, armed robbery, possession of explosives and much else; his sentence totalled 300 years. When the criminal met his interviewer, he had one thing on his mind: how much does Parker earn for this lark? Parker named a figure (the reader doesn't learn it).

"Oh f*** come on, no kidding," Sullivan says, "only that much really, is that God's truth, that's all? Sweet f***ing Jesus when I'm out I make more than that a week. I'd give up if I didn't ... you've got to be a nut... Let me tell you this though, I'm going to drop the idea of trying it myself."

Thank heavens for that - a merciful murderer. No one can do this stuff like the underpaid Parker, and he always makes it seem a breeze: pick a subject - here it's Americans sentenced to life imprisonment - make travel arrangements, buy Duracells, transcribe. Yeah, you try it.

Parker's studies - most recently of the citizens of Belfast and small- town America - depend as much on editing as interviewing skills, the sleight of hand that turns a series of disjointed interview hours into these seamless confessionals. Occasionally he lets us see the joins - the meal breaks, the questions reflected in responses - but the stories race over the cracks.

Why should we care about his new subjects? This is a broad sweep from the country's state penitentiaries and correctional centres to the homes and workplaces of those released on parole. Most people we meet have been sentenced for murder, and many crimes were premeditated; concern for their victims is often cursory.

As Parker hints in the introduction, these people share little but an ability to survive. But bad deeds have always read rather well, and 18 true-life crimes can't fail to enthral a reader when retold with such brutal candour. Most stories contain some hope, the "essence of sanity" and all that familiar blah-de-blah, but then we meet John Joseph James. JJ is inside for killing a traffic cop and an inmate (just something about their language he didn't like, he says), and for him hope is irrelevant when you're banged up for ever. But he has worked out a jail philosophy founded on a new reality: punishment need no longer have meaning unless the prisoner desires it. Whistling this tune, even the person living in permanent incarceration is, dubiously, free.

JJ evokes a poor black childhood in Alabama with bitter precision. With his best friend Melvin he spent much time trying to work out the strange behaviour of adults. "I don't think we came to any conclusions except possibly one: it was that he and I might be related to each other, maybe we were half-brothers even, or something like that. That was because one of the men who lived in the house seemed like he was es-pecially nice to us: he'd put our arms round both our shoulders, and sometimes give us money for ice creams and tell us we were fine good boys."

Parker then finds he has a genuine confession on his hands, something his subject has seldom spoken of before, though he has thought about it often. This was his first murder, unreported until now, of his friend Melvin. JJ just didn't like the way Melvin was talking of his sexual conquests, so he kicked him over a clifftop to land on his skull 100 feet below.

The most compulsive tales come from those murderers who had previously lived serene and normal lives. Carrie Hammick, middle-class, 18 years inside and out for seven months, talks of her decline into poverty and drugs in a way that must surely lead us to her crime (these stories have the classic howdunnit properties: we know they'll get banged up, and we race towards the reason).

But we are fooled, as she would later fool her victim. Hammick had been cheating on her partner, and her new lover had threatened to tell all unless she left him. So she told her lover all was arranged. She lied. She told him they should go and celebrate at a regular spot. "He fell for it: an hour later we were there. It was an isolated ledge like a high- up shelf of grass on the edge of a ravine. We made love, then I took out my .25 from my purse and I shot him six times. I pushed his body over and it fell down out of sight something like 200 feet below. I was sure no one would ever find him."

Two schoolkids did, the next day, and when the police tracked her down she told them everything. And that's how her life ended, for a while.

Most stories include knifings and shootings, but little gore; it has long been Parker's ability to resist exploitation. Yet the thick fog of big emotions wears you down, a confused trail of regret, loss, and raging determination. Parker ends his study with brief observations from the relatives of murderers and murderees, less substantial but no less moving than the main conversations. One reaches the last recollection of Margaret Ferguson with some regret, and some relief: this is an enthralling but bruising work.