Simon & Schuster, £16.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Handsome Brute, By Sean O'Connor

This chilling story of heinous postwar murders connects a 'damaged individual to a damaged world'

This is not a tale for the faint-hearted. On Thursday 20 June 1946 Margery Gardener, 32, separated from her husband and short of money, met Neville Heath in the Nag's Head, Earls Court. He bought her a meal, plied her and himself with drink, then took her to the Pembridge Court Hotel, Notting Hill. He tied her up, lashed her 17 times with a whip, bit off her nipples, shoved the whip half up her vagina and rotated it, then suffocated her with a pillow.

Next day, Group Captain Rupert Robert Cadogan Brook booked in at the Tollard Royal Hotel, Bournemouth. On 3 July Doreen Marshall, 21, an ex-Wren, in Bournemouth for a week to convalesce from measles, walked down the promenade, watched a Punch and Judy show, chatted to Brook and accepted his invitation to supper. There was champagne and duck. At 11 pm, walking her back to her hotel, he pulled her hair out, stuffed his penis down her throat, gagged and bound her, did his trade mark thing of biting off her nipples, throttled her, cut her up, stole her watch and ring to pawn and dumped her in a ravine near the beach.

Sean O'Connor's brilliance is to sustain the horrific dramatic tension of these murders while providing a rich and detailed context of place and period. His tone is careful and dispassionate, his research painstaking and extensive: not just into Heath's life and criminal career, but the lives of his family, victims and prosecutors. The personal stories are the more disturbing set against the backdrop of a world war in which up to 70 million people have died. Heath's murders had extensive coverage but O'Connor has had access to previously restricted police files. Mercifully, more evidence and the scene of crime photographs are embargoed at the National Archive until 2045.

It is a hallmark of psychopaths to be convincing in their manner, unremorseful of their crimes and lies, and indifferent to punishment. Heath, tall, blond, handsome and blue-eyed, from the off was an unmitigated liar, swank-pot and thief. From a respectable lower-middle-class family, he sold himself as a product of Eton and Oxford, walked with a military gait and was always well-dressed. He had a toff's voice, a range of aristocratic aliases and uniforms, unearned medals and decorations for bravery, and a collection of whips.

He qualified as an RAF pilot, but in less than a year was dismissed with a stream of convictions for theft, fraud and going AWOL. Elated when war broke out, he enlisted with the army, went to the Middle East, enjoyed the brothels of Cairo and, repatriated for crimes, jumped ship at Durban. As Lt James Robert Cadogan Armstrong, he married, had a child and joined the South African Air Force. The marriage lasted two months. The end of the war took away a cover for his crimes.

At his trial for murder there was the usual bewildering debate about whether or not Heath knew what he was doing and knew it to be wrong, and if so he was in legal parlance sane and should himself be killed by the state. O'Connor suggests that Heath's crimes were "not a simple tabloid tale of sex and sadism", but a more complex story of "damaged individuals in a damaged world". Certainly the bogus military uniforms Heath flaunted linked his depravity to that of the Second World War, but the chilling character so convincingly brought to life by O'Connor seems like that of a classic psychopath, not fixed to time or place.

Diana Souhami's latest book is 'Murder at Wrotham Hall' (Quercus)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
    France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

    Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

    Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser
    'Enhanced interrogation techniques?' When language is distorted to hide state crimes

    Robert Fisk on the CIA 'torture report'

    Once again language is distorted in order to hide US state wrongdoing
    Radio 1’s new chart host must placate the Swifties and Azaleans

    Radio 1 to mediate between the Swifties and Azaleans

    New chart host Clara Amfo must placate pop's fan armies
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    The head of Veterans Aid on how his charity is changing perceptions of ex-servicemen and women in need
    Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

    Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

    Its use is always wrong and, despite CIA justifications post 9/11, the information obtained from it is invariably tainted, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Rebranding Christmas: More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence

    Rebranding Christmas

    More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence. They are missing the point, and we all need to grow up
    A Greek island - yours for the price of a London flat

    A sun-kissed island - yours for the price of a London flat

    Cash-strapped Greeks are selling off their slices of paradise
    Pogues could enjoy fairytale Christmas No 1 thanks to digital streaming

    Pogues could enjoy fairytale Christmas No 1 thanks to digital streaming

    New system means that evergreen songs could top the festive charts
    Prince of Wales: Gruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence

    Prince of Wales: Gruff Rhys

    He is a musician of wondrous oddity. He is on a perpetual quest to seek the lost tribes of the Welsh diaspora. Just don't ask Gruff Rhys if he's a national treasure...