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)

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
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
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
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.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project