That is the question surrounding An Evil Love, Geoffrey Wansell's biography of Frederick West. It is the latest such book and follows copious reporting of Rosemary West's trial and conviction for 10 murders including the killing of her daughter and stepdaughter. For such a book still to be worthwhile, this writer - a well-regarded but undistinguished biographer of Cary Grant, Sir James Goldsmith and Terence Rattigan - would have to tell us something very special.
There is another doubt about the Wansell book. It has been commissioned by the State - by the Official Solicitor - expressly to raise money for West's children. In short, the details of this horror story have been sold for profit by an arm of the law; the very institution that put the serial killer behind bars.
Such a bizarre arrangement puts it into a different category to accounts of criminal's lives. Howard Marks, the drug smuggler, has just published his autobiography but his consequent profit from crime has not provoked outcry. Likewise, Inside 25 Cromwell St, written by West's children, Stephen and Mae, did not prompt debate about the fate of the proceeds. But the role of the Official Solicitor in Wansell's book - providing access to West's own 100-page "autobiography" - leaves a nasty taste. Consideration for the relatives of his victims requires that we are offered more than a state-sponsored freak show.
However, to be fair, Wansell's book has its virtues. It delivers a well-documented account of how this mass killer was created; a grim, unglamorous read. An admittedly secretive person himself, Wansell relentlessly pursues the truth through the haze of West's many deceptions.
It is the story of a young Frederick West, sexually initiated and beaten by his mother in a family where incest was accepted practice. From there he roamed, wooing, cajoling and coercing hundreds of women into fulfilling his fantasies. He could charm the authorities with his inoffensiveness: before his jail suicide, even his prison officers were photographed joking with him. Good old Fred, what a laugh.
There was nothing - including murder - that West could not get away with. And he encountered two key women, his first wife, Rena (a prostitute whom he eventually murdered) and Rose West, each of whom also suffered abusive upbringings and had fantasies he had never even imagined. Together, they went on a wild orgy of sex and violence in which depravity, argues Wansell, was their way of expressing love. And 25 Cromwell St, a lodging house with its constant stream of waifs and strays, was an ideal location.
All this is true. But it is little more than we know already and hardly justifies another agonising trawl through the horrors of West's life. More importantly, the book disappoints by not looking beyond a fascination with the story's central characters. It fails to locate the thread that links Fred and Rosemary, their fantasies and their actions, to people like you and me.
The Wests remain monsters, outsiders, not a challenge to our own personal thinking. At most, their ordinariness alerts us to the possibility that child abusers may be found in the most mundane and apparently normal situations. But we have yet to be challenged in this whole affair about what we, personally, share with them.
Some people will be offended at the notion that they might be associated with this vicious, revolting pair. I do not, however, say that a potential Fred or Rosemary West lies within each of us. Their upbringings - involving extraordinary physical and sexual abuse - and the nature of their relationship places them far down the continuum that links their lives with most people.
But how many men have shared at least some of the fantasies acted out by Fred West? None? Look at what is sold on the top shelves of newsagents. Go into a city telephone box and see the adverts for bondage, sado-masochism and sexual violence. "Mistress awaits you in her dungeon", is just one calling card I spotted this week, an apt, if ironic, description of Rose West's activities in the Cromwell Street cellar.
These messages sell. They resonate in our society. So, although we are horrified at what Fred West did, we have to ask whether his dark side is really so foreign to our own; a horrible corner of our minds which we dare not explore? Still more disconcerting is the extent to which some of us will read this book and privately, shamefully, marvel at Fred West's tenacity, his capacity to deceive, his persistent ability to attract and control women. Who, indeed, will find some of the story sexually stimulating?
Geoffrey Wansell has danced with this particular devil. For months, he has allowed Frederick West into his mind. When I spoke to him this week, he said: "There is an element of male sexuality which I came to understand as a result of this book, which is in a sense a West version, which wishes to take revenge of women, to abuse women, wishes to use women as vehicles for emotion. That is the uncomfortable conclusion you can't escape."
But he, and other writers, have avoided that conclusion in their published work. It is not difficult to see why. This is scary territory in which an honest man can easily be misrepresented as a sick pervert. Better to leave it alone; better to stick to the theory that there are monsters out there with whom we have nothing in common.
For a biographer trying to keep some distance from his horrific subject, it is particularly tempting to avoid the personal implications of what he finds. "You have to keep West compartmentalised," Wansell told me. "If you don't the dangers are so terrible. You are in danger of exploding in every direction. But the task of keeping him compartmentalised is so difficult because there is something in West which encapsulates male fantasy. Perhaps what he reveals is that there is a final compartment within all of us and, certainly within me, that is never revealed."
Wansell said this with the self-knowledge that comes from 12 years of Jungian analysis. But he doesn't say it in his book. To do so might, perhaps, have been too painful and awkward and have resulted in him being called a deviant rather than simply another opportunist making a mint out of what will be a best-seller.
But until people like Wansell face the challenge, their books will remain no more than a warning about a darkness out there and a voyeuristic experience for readers. We don't need any more of these books. We need a courageous book that will explore the darkness within.Reuse content