Books: Pick of the Week

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The Independent Culture
"News, darker and darker news, may be the only narrative people need, and the shapers of this narrative are authors in their own right. To a certain extent, their world has become our world, a place of extreme anger and danger," runs the Don DeLillo quotation on the back of Gordon Burn's new book about Fred and Rosemary West, Happy Like Murderers.

As Burn (right) is all too aware, contemporary Britain can also be a place of extreme anger and danger for any artist who attempts in any way to reshape and retell those dark narratives. Blake Morrison's poem about the Yorkshire Ripper, Gitta Sereny's book on Mary Bell and Marcus Harvey's handprint painting of Myra Hindley have all received the kind of deep- gut hostility from the public you would expect to see reserved for the murderers themselves. In some strange act of transference, it is as if, by associating themselves with appalling crimes, the artists have become the perpetrators by proxy. And where else have we to vent our justifiable rage, horror and disgust at those terrible, terrible things we were powerless to prevent?

In a tricky discussion at London's Institute of Contemporary Art this Friday, Gordon Burn and crime correspondent Duncan Campbell will be trying to discover whether there can ever be any legitimate, non-sensationalist purpose in writing about horrific acts.

"To say you don't want anyone to write about what happened is really to say that you wish those things never had happened," says Burn. "I can understand why people don't want it talked about; but it's as naive as accusing Kate Adie of ambulance-chasing for reporting on the famine in Sudan."

There is no avoiding the cruel and distressing detail, but Burn presents the Cromwell Street histories unembellished and distanced: written in the stilted, colloquial sentences of indirect quotation, as if told hesitantly between weak sips of Maxwell House in a small, tense kitchen.

"I know this may sound pious," says Burn, "but I truly believe not wanting to know what happened to West's victims is to let the poor people who suffered these terrible things bear it all on their own."

Horror Stories: Gordon Burn and Duncan Campbell, ICA, The Mall, London SW1 (0171-930 3647) 2 Oct, 7.30pm