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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)