Heart of darkness in the heart of England

Happy Like Murderers by Gordon Burn Faber pounds 17.99
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The Independent Culture
Fred and Rose West were habitual and practised liars but they had no concepts of fantasy or role play. The tragic consequence of this was that when they came across sado-masochistic images amongst the pornography that was their only cultural reference, they took them at face value and put them into practice. During the mid 1970s they abducted young women from bus stops in what, for tourist purposes, is known as the Heart of England and tortured them, perhaps for days, and then murdered them. Fred had already committed at least three murders by then, possibly more, and countless rapes.

It is a horrible but now well-documented story. Gordon Burn lists six factual books on the case in his acknowledgements and more have appeared since. Does it benefit from the attention of a novelist's imagination? The first difficulty is that the book draws heavily on Fred's own highly unreliable account. Burn is continually sifting this for truth while filling the inevitable gaps from his own head. This makes for a confusing read since the book is presented as a novel and it is difficult to establish what comes from where. Burn, as Fred, often gives himself away by thinking things that are absurdly beyond the grasp of the real Fred.

The second problem is Burn's background in style magazine journalism. For him, wearing clothes is making a statement. Fashion, moreover, is a universal language which we cannot helping speaking whether we understand what we are saying or not. Since Fred dressed in whatever he found in rubbish dumps and Rose wore as little as possible inside and outside the house, they are not the best subjects for this approach.It is also ironic that Burn accuses Fred of being more emotionally involved with objects than people, because this is precisely the attitude of the style bibles.

Burn also has has the style journalist's fondness for absurdly grand generalisations: "In the city the forbidden - what is most feared and desired - becomes possible." Actually, going by the facts presented in Happy Like Murderers, it is rural life that is uninhibited by any form of taboo. By the time this clanging sentence is dropped on page 115, we have encountered few people who have not had sexual relations with a blood relative. We learn much that Laurie Lee spared us about Gloucestershire. Both Fred and Rose came from isolated hamlets where incest and violence were routine. Husbands beat wives, wives beat children. And behind the gates of 25 Cromwell Street the tradition continued.

Fred West was a physical man but not a sensual one. Despite living among hedonists most of his life he never drank or experimented with drugs. Although he was obsessed with sex, the act itself appears to have given him little pleasure. Rose despised foreplay and any form of physical intimacy. The use of the sense of touch as a means of expressing affection was unknown in Cromwell Street.

There is a joke that the world's shortest book is The Secret Life of Diana, Princess of Wales. For different reasons The Private Life of Fred West would not make up many pages. He was a man who felt compelled to be active, sometimes going without sleep in order to keep himself busy. It is unlikely that he had any sense of existence unless he was talking.

The difficulty of getting inside Fred West's head is that there is not much to find. For much of the book Burn has to make up for this lacuna by resorting to portentous padding disguised as suspenseful prose. Short sentences of two words. The occasional colloquism - yer know what I mean? Short impactful sentences. Words. Sometimes Gordon has to resort to padding. It is not easy to get into Fred West's head.

Burn's desperation for copy is sometimes so silly that he is transparently ashamed of himself. He notices a coincidental resemblence between the contrivances Fred knocked up at work to torture his children and the anti- masturbation devices dreamed up by Victorian hygienists. This leads to the great understatement "It is probable - virtually certain - that Fred West had never heard of Dr Schreber." Even so, "the central library and reference library are only yards from Cromwell Street and he might have seem illustrations". It's hard to imagine Fred ever set foot in Gloucester's public library. What would he be doing there? Returning a Don DeLillo novel on Rose's behalf, perhaps?

"People tend to bury bodies near their homes," says Burns, forgetting that people do no such thing because they seldom have any bodies to dispose of. Fred and Rose were exceptional but that does not make them very interesting.