Leading Article: Mass murder and mass fascination

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The Independent Online
A NUMBER of Gloucestershire families have good reason to follow the horrifying investigation into the Cromwell Street murders. These are the relatives of local people who disappeared during the past 10 years or more. They have to face the possibility that their missing loved ones may have been victims of murder. But there are millions of others who are following the unfolding news from Gloucester with fascination. Why should such a grisly tale exert such a hold on the public imagination?

One reason must lie in the extraordinary nature of serial murder itself. By contrast with the majority of murders, which are family affairs perpetrated in the heat of the moment, the work of a serial killer is shocking both in its deliberateness and in the calmness with which it is repeated. The role of sexual appetite in many serial murders, from Sutcliffe to Nilsen to Son of Sam, provides further prurient interest.

There is also a comforting security in the interest that many television viewers and newspaper readers take in these investigations. When the victims are isolated figures in society, such as prostitutes, lonely homosexuals or drifters, others can shiver at the ghastly details without seriously fearing that they themselves are at risk.

In the current New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates writes that the serial killer 'has become our debased, condemned, yet eerily glorified Noble Savage'. Hence, perhaps, the extraordinary sales of encyclopaedias of modern murder and of week-by-week partworks on real-life killers - and the attraction that the subject has had for writers such as Brian Masters, previously known for his work on Moliere, Sartre and Rabelais.

Yet psychology can only rarely provide the clue to the whodunit. The American specialist who correctly predicted in 1956 that a series of murders were the work of a quiet, meticulous East European man aged between 40 and 50, living with a maiden aunt or sister, who wore double-breasted suits, was the exception rather than the rule. The sad truth is that most serial killers are lonely, retarded, unremarkable people, often with drink or drug problems, whose lives are otherwise of depressing banality. Our curiosity about them is understandable, but not something of which we can be proud.