Monday Book: False note fills a tale of horror

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The Independent Culture
WHAT IS the point of writing books about serial killers? Readers like them, as we know from the success of novelists such as Thomas Harris and Patricia Cornwell who have made serial murder their stock-in-trade. Their fiction, however, contributes to the lurid myths which have grown up around a subject which is sufficiently compelling in its own right. To them we owe the popular notion of serial killers as charismatic and fiendishly clever figures we find hard to square with real examples, like Fred and Rosemary West: the Gloucester couple whose violent career is the subject of Gordon Burn's new book.

Happy Like Murderers is not a novel but an attempt to reveal "the strange inner dynamic of the Wests' relationship". There is nothing wrong with this in principle, given that the more we know about serial killers, the less likely it is that future murderers will get away with their crimes for so long.

One of the most astonishing things about the discovery in 1994 of so many sets of human remains at 25 Cromwell Street, was that girls and young women connected with the house had been disappearing for such a long time without arousing suspicions.

What became clear at Rose West's trial in 1995, after her husband committed suicide in prison, was that the lodgers and clients - she worked as a prostitute - who thronged the house were not the sort of people to take their worries to the police. The normal sexual boundaries were simply non-existent in this strange household, where adults wandered around half-naked and children watched pornographic videos while eating their dinner. The young women on whom the Wests preyed were, for the most part, teenage girls who came from families where incest was rife.

At her trial, Rose denied all the murders she had been charged with, claiming that Fred had committed them on his own. It is true that Fred West was already a murderer when he met the underage Rosemary Letts and began to court her with cheap gifts. That this much older man systematically corrupted the troubled schoolgirl, moulding her to his sexual tastes, is in no doubt. Nor is her subsequent viciousness towards Fred's children from a previous marriage and her own offspring, catalogued in Burn's book in stomach-churning detail.

In 1973, Rose was found guilty with her husband of indecent assault on a young woman who had briefly worked as the couple's nanny, confirming her willingness to take part in sexual attacks. What remains in doubt, despite Rose's convictions, is her involvement in the actual killings - a question addressed in Brian Masters's exemplary volume, She Must Have Known: The Trial of Rosemary West. For reasons he does not go into, this question does not interest Gordon Burn, with the murders playing a relatively minor role in his text. And this is where the problems begin.

For most of the book, Burn adopts a chummy tone which approximates to speech. But whose speech? Here is Burn describing a new development in the Wests' relationship after Fred finished a short prison sentence in 1971: "[Rose] would go with some of his black men friends, who, he had been assuring her, were massive. His black men." These bursts of sentences, often without verbs, are unsettling. Fred West is dead, and any attempt to get inside his head, as Burn tries to do, verges on imposture. The book has no footnotes, merely a two-page list of acknowledgements, which means that the reader has little idea of the accuracy of his portrait of Fred, or its precise sources.

In that sense, much of the book is novelistic - worrying enough, given that the subject tends in any case towards horror fiction. But what are we to make of scenes like this, in which Burn describes Rose sexually assaulting one of her young victims? "Sometimes your legs were tied open, and sometimes your hands were tied behind your back. And once you were trussed up and unable to move the assault would begin". Who is the "you" addressed in this passage? In its entirety - it is too long and too unpleasant to quote - it employs many of the devices of suspense, including repetition and one-word sentences, to conjure up an atmosphere of terror and expectation. But it does more. There is a disturbing elision between the immobilised child-victim and the reader, achieved through a use of language whose most obvious point of comparison is pornography.

This is a bizarre outcome for an apparently serious book. What serial killers do is so horrible - and to a minority of readers, so exciting - that the mere repetition of the facts produces strong reactions. That is why many writers adopt a sober, even forensic, approach in their attempts to elucidate the subject.

What Burn's book lacks, in stark contrast, is any degree of distant authority. He has turned the lives of Fred and Rosemary West into a narrative which horrifies, disgusts and assaults the reader, without making a clear distinction between fact and speculation.