Unnatural born killers

In this exclusive extract from her controversial new book, `Different for Girls', the acclaimed feminist writer and `IoS' columnist explodes some powerful myths about women who kill

Joan Smith@polblonde
Saturday 30 August 1997 23:02

Rose and Myra, Myra and Rose. Immediately after Rosemary West was given a record 10 life sentences for murder at Win-chester Crown Court in November 1995, the tabloids reported that she had been seen holding hands, in the high-security wing of Durham Prison, with her predecessor as Britain's most hated woman. "Rose's pact of friendship with Hindley" was the headline in the Daily Express, over a short article claiming that "the women are said to have been drawn together by their love of religion". According to unnamed "sources", they had made "unsupervised visits to each other's cells and have prayed together in the jail chapel". The friendship flourished "when West began to confide in Hindley, who later assumed the role of adviser". The subtext was clear: not just the women's nauseating hypocrisy in their public display of religious observance but the irresistible image of depraved Rosemary West sitting obediently at the feet of her evil mentor, the child-killer Myra Hindley. It hardly mattered whether the story was true or not, for tabloid logic demanded the pairing of these two supremely wicked women: Nightmare on Cromwell Street meets The White Devil.

The day before the article appeared, the police had released a colour photograph of Rosemary West for use on television and in the next day's newspapers. Rightly judging that the case would receive saturation coverage, especially in the tabloids - the Daily Express devoted 14 pages to "the full horrific story" - the police photographer had snapped West full-face, staring expressionlessly into the camera, in an obvious echo of the infamous mugshot of the Moors murderess. Yet while West had just been found guilty of some of the most horrific crimes ever described in British judicial proceedings, her picture was something of a disappointment; this was no Hindley, all bleached blonde hair and pitiless lips, but a middle-aged woman with badly cut brown hair and old-fashioned glasses. Where Hindley appeared a woman of her time in the photograph taken shortly after her arrest in 1965, hard as nails and icily sexy, Rosemary West was plump and homely, someone who wouldn't attract attention in a crowd of mothers waiting for their children at the school gate. The picture was unpromising material for anyone trying to explain how this 41-year-old mother of eight came to take part in the torture and murder of young women and girls; forced to abandon the "face of evil" line relentlessly pursued in the long aftermath of the Moors murders, journalists divided into two camps. Some, like the Daily Mirror's columnist Paul Callan, resorted to simple abuse; West stood in the dock, he averred, "like a toad on a stone, her face visibly paling". When the judge pronounced sentence, "her normally mean mouth tightened like a zipped purse and she turned briskly on her right heel. There was even a hint of defiance in the way she walked from the dock, with the two lady warders close behind her."

Mean, unrepentant, defiant to the end; elsewhere in the Daily Mirror, feature writer Cheryl Stonehouse tried and failed to discern these very same characteristics. Rosemary West was a woman "sunk so deep in depravity and brutality that she is unique. Yet you could never tell by looking at her." Below a colour graphic caricaturing West as a spider - the black widow - at the centre of her web, Stonehouse wrote:

"Here is a plump, middle-aged woman. Living in a peaceful part of England. With a daily routine like millions of others.

See her in the supermarket. See her in the street. See her with her children. Just an ordinary wife and mother.

No one except her husband saw the real Rose West. Few of us could even imagine her evil."

Nevertheless, according to an unsigned article in the Daily Star, this unremarkable Gloucester housewife had succeeded in dislodging Hindley from her previously unchallenged position as "Britain's most-hated serial killer". While it is obviously true that Rosemary West's homely appearance sits uneasily with the story that unfolded over the eight weeks of her trial, which was a sickening catalogue of abduction, calculated sexual abuse, mutilation and murder, it is generally the case that serial killers are undistinguished in the flesh, bearing little resemblance to the monsters popular sentiment would like them to resemble. Robert Wilson, then an evening newspaper journalist in the north of England, already knew that Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were implicated in the abduction and murder of two children, and the death of a teenage boy, when he got his first sight of them at their committal hearing in 1965. But the couple were not at all what he expected:

"They stood before the world, he flanked by two policemen, she by two policewomen. I stared at them, puzzled. There had been some mistake, the police must have got the wrong people. That isn't Ian Brady. That isn't Myra Hindley. I still don't know what I expected. But I had never expected this.

They looked human."

Wilson was still mesmerised by their unexceptional appearance when he wrote a book about the Moors murders two decades later. Brady and Hindley were "typical of thousands of young couples you might see together, sitting holding hands in a cinema, smooching on the dance floor at the Ashton Palais," he admitted. In this respect, plain, ordinary Rosemary West is no different from dozens of other murderers; if she is a troubling addition to the roll-call of serial killers which has become an unwelcome but familiar litany of our century, it is not because of her appearance. Nor, indeed, is it the number of her crimes that makes her stand out. Peter Sutcliffe was convicted of killing 13 women in the north of England and attacking another seven; Dennis Nilsen murdered and dismembered 15 young men he had lured back to his flat in London with the offer of a bed for the night. In the United States, John Wayne Gacy was executed for the murder and mutilation of 32 boys and young men; Ted Bundy is believed to have bludgeoned to death nearly 40 women.

Sutcliffe, Nilsen, Gacy, Bundy, Albert DeSalvo, John Christie, Neville Heath, Peter Kurten, David Berkowitz, Henry Lee Lucas, Carlton Gary, Bobby Joe Long, Jeffrey Dahmer, Kenneth Erskine, Michael Lupo, Colin Ireland; in what the author Colin Wilson has called "the age of sex crime", we have become accustomed to their names and the dreadful catalogue of brutality associated with them. We are also aware, at some level, of the fact that they are all men. "There are no known cases in which a serial killer is a female," the criminologist Steven Egger wrote bluntly in 1984. He also pointed out that "in a preponderance of known cases, the victims are young females chosen to satisfy the lust of the serial murderer".

With very rare exceptions like the English nurse who was found guilty of killing several of her infant patients, this formulation remains broadly true to this day, revealing a stark and inescapable asymmetry: serial killing is, in a majority of cases, a crime in which men are the perpetrators and women the victims. This uncomfortable fact may go some way towards explaining the widespread tendency to glamorise serial killers, to move them from the real world of pain, blood and guts into a semi-mythic realm where they are identified by pantomimic nicknames: Jack the Ripper, the Boston Strangler, the Night Stalker, the Green River Killer. Once this transfer to the symbolic realm is complete, they can even become heroes. The German dramatist Frank Wedekind finished the first of his two "Lulu" plays, Erdgeist (Earth Spirit), in 1895, only seven years after the original Ripper murders in the East End of London which are said to have been his inspiration; his heroine, whose cold, glittering sexuality ensnares and destroys one man after another, finally turns to prostitution and, in Die Buchse der Pandora (Pandora's Box), dies at the hands of a client who turns out to be none other than Jack. (This combination, Lulu and the Ripper, was so seductive that Wedekind's plays had already been filmed four times when the German movie director G W Pabst cast the American actress Louise Brooks as the seductress/victim in his eerie and compelling post-expressionist film Pandora's Box in 1928. Alban Berg's adaptation of both plays into an opera, simply entitled Lulu, was first performed in the Thirties and remains popular to this day.)

Charles McCabe, a columnist on the San Francisco Chronicle, notoriously saluted Jack the Ripper as "that great hero of my youth, that skilled butcher who did all his work on alcoholic whores". Robert Bloch, author of Psycho, urged readers to "let the Ripper rip you into an awareness of the urges and forces most of us will neither admit nor submit to". In a symbiotic process, "Jack" has enjoyed a long and varied career in films and novels, while fictional serial killers such as Hannibal Lecter, the psychiatrist turned anthropophagic murderer from Thomas Harris's accomplished thrillers Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, have become archetypes of the hero/villain who enthrals both Hollywood and the popular imagination (Lecter has appeared in two movies, played by Brian Cox in Michael Mann's stylish Manhunter and Anthony Hopkins in Jonathan Demme's version of The Silence of the Lambs).

Because the victims of so many serial killers, from Jack the Ripper onwards, have been female, the theory has frequently been advanced that serial murderers live with smothering mothers and hate them so much that they are compelled ritually to destroy them over and over again. This theory has an obvious flaw, as Professor David Canter pointed out in his book Criminal Shadows: Inside the Mind of the Serial Killer. Canter, who is head of the Liverpool University investigative psychology unit, asked rhetorically: "Why do we get no women serial killers living with their over-indulgent, elderly fathers?" The truth is that while the numbers of serial killers have been increasing exponentially - from 644 individual murders in the United States in 1966 to an estimated 4,118 in 1982, according to the FBI - their motivation is still poorly understood. And when we are faced with a criminal like Rosemary West, who deviates in almost every respect from the prevailing notion of a serial killer, such theories are worse than useless. She is the wrong gender, not a loner but a married woman living in an unusually populous household, variously described as a cheap lodging-house and a brothel; detectives investigating the case have apparently identified 150 people who passed through 25 Cromwell Street during the Wests' residence there, staying for periods as short as two or three days or as long as several years.

But there is another factor which complicates the West case, perhaps fatally damaging our chances of gaining an insight into how, and indeed if, she became a murderer - the prosecution case against her was by no means proved - and that is the suicide in prison of her husband, the builder Frederick West. By standing trial alone, Rosemary West's case can be manipulated to foster the myth not of the lone female serial killer - the most dramatic way of redressing the alarming gender imbalance described above - but of the next best thing, a murderous relationship between a man and a woman in which the latter is the driving force. It is this impulse which lies behind the concerted attempt, in the aftermath of the trial, to suggest that the Cromwell Street murders marked the moment when Britain finally achieved the dubious distinction of having a female Jack the Ripper.

THE RUSH TO present the Cromwell Street murders in this light was predictable and immediate. In the final week of the trial Colin Wilson confidently asserted on Radio 4's Today programme that Rosemary West had gradually become the dominant partner in the couple's crimes, a claim as unsubstantiated as his observation in the same interview that her husband's murderous proclivities were the result of a head injury. The notion of Rosemary West as the dominant personality was echoed by the Daily Telegraph, which characterised her immediately after the trial as "the strategist behind her moronic, doting husband". The newspaper repeated the claim elsewhere in its coverage of the case, in almost identical words: "Rosemary was the dominant partner, people said, the strategist."

Quite how "people" knew this, when the evidence of an unprecedented number of witnesses was tainted by cash offers from the media of up to pounds 100,000 is not easy to establish. But it is worth pointing out that in January 1995, after Frederick West hanged himself in prison, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) expressed public doubts about whether there was sufficient evidence for the case against his widow to proceed. "West's wife may go free" was the headline in the Evening Standard, over a story which stated unequivocally: "The Crown Prosecution Service today gave a clear indication that the case against Rosemary West could collapse following her husband's suicide." An unnamed spokesman for the CPS confirmed that "we will have to see if there is enough evidence for a realistic chance of prosecution and whether it is in the public interest to do so." Indeed, Frederick West's suicide landed the CPS with a particularly awkward problem in relation to Charmaine, the seven-year-old daughter of his first wife, Rena (Catherine) Costello. The date of the child's disappearance and death could not be pinpointed with accuracy, but it happened some time in 1971, when Frederick spent the first half of the year in prison. Certainly Charmaine was alive at the end of April, when the last photograph of her was taken; assuming that Frederick killed her some time after his release from prison on 24 June - dental examinations gave uncertain results, suggesting a date of death between the end of June and the end of July - the CPS duly charged him with the murder. Rosemary, who had been jointly charged with nine murders, was not charged on this count. Yet 12 days after her husband's suicide, and a full eight months after charges were originally laid against her, the murder of Charmaine was abruptly added to the indictment. Brian Masters, whose book `She Must Have Known': The Trial of Rosemary West examines the evidence against her in minute detail, asks why the police had been prepared to see Frederick West go to trial for a murder which, they now decided, he could not have committed because he was in prison at the time. The reason, Masters suggests, is that linking Rosemary to Charmaine's death was vital to the case against her: "If it could be shown that she was responsible for this death ... then the imputation that she was involved in the other murders would be more difficult to resist with or without evidence." The last two words are crucial; even the Daily Telegraph's own post-trial analysis, which was structured around the notion that Rosemary was the dominant partner in both the marriage and the murders, had to admit that the West case was "a prosecution brought without any direct evidence of the defendant's part in the crimes with which she was charged".

The jury was aware of this unusual feature of the case. Shortly before it reached verdicts on the remaining seven charges - Rosemary West had been found guilty on three counts, including the murder of Charmaine, the day before - its members returned to court to ask the judge a startling question: "Is the total absence of direct evidence other than the presence of the remains linking the victims to 25 Cromwell Street an obstruction to bringing in a guilty verdict?" (my italics). The judge advised that it was not, providing the jury could draw the necessary inferences on the evidence put forward by the prosecution. Not long afterwards, the jury returned with "guilty verdicts" on all the outstanding charges.

None of this is to excuse or exonerate Rosemary West, whose character was comprehensively destroyed during the court case and whose brutal treatment of surviving victims like Caroline Owens - sexually molested by Rosemary, raped by Frederick, threatened and then set free - beggars belief. But Rosemary West's husband is dead, and as long as she continues to protest her innocence it is hard to come to any reliable conclusion about the respective roles they played. What evidence there is from previous cases - and they form a minute subsection in the documented history of serial killers - is of a pattern in which a young and impressionable woman falls under the influence of a dominant older man.

"Typically in these events, the man is the leader and the woman is playing to that," David Canter observed after Rosemary West's trial. Helena Kennedy QC made the same point slightly differently in her book Eve Was Framed. Women and British Justice. "On the few occasions when women have played a role in serial killings, as in the Moors and Manson murders, they have functioned as hand maidens to a master," she wrote. What is remarkable about the West trial is just how swiftly the role reversal took place in the public mind, dramatically shifting the spotlight from the man, who admitted to all the crimes with which he was charged, to the woman who did not. The same process, which eventually resulted in the demonising of Myra Hindley to the near-exclusion of Ian Brady, took significantly longer in the Moors murders case; it was broadly accepted at the trial in 1966 and for some time after that Hindley, four years younger than Brady, was very much the junior partner in their crimes. Helena Kennedy has pointed out that Hindley was represented in contemporaneous press reports as Brady's "sex slave", and that there was little doubt that "she was not the prime mover in the murders". Evidence emerged at the trial that Brady had induced her to share two of his long-standing obsessions, the Third Reich and the works of the Marquis de Sade. The author Emlyn Williams, in his book Beyond Belief, explicitly suggests that there was a sado-masochistic relationship between them, citing photographs of Hindley which reveal the marks of a whip:

"In two of the single female poses, the model is completely nude; in the one she lies on the floor, face downwards and head away from the camera, feet together in the foreground, in the other the same position except that she is kneeling. On the buttocks, in both poses, several very faint horizontal lines. In the corner, the dangling end of a knotted whip."

Brady, originally convicted of three murders to Hindley's two, has all but disappeared from the public consciousness; Frederick West's suicide opened the way for a similar change in perception in relation to the Cromwell Street murders. Yet the notion of Frederick West as the dupe of his scheming second wife sits uneasily with the fact that he had committed at least one murder, and possibly two, before he even met her.

The chronology, like much else in the case, is not entirely clear. But Frederick West's first victim, Anne McFall, was last seen in the summer of 1967, two years before he met Rosemary Letts (at the time of the disappearance, Frederick's future wife was a 13-year-old schoolgirl). Anne, who had worked as a nanny for West and his first wife, Rena, was heavily pregnant with his child - as Shirley Robinson would be when she was killed more than 10 years later. Anne's body, along with the bones of her unborn baby, was later found by police in Fingerpost Field, Much Marcle, the village where Frederick West grew up. Rena West disappeared some time after Anne McFall - at one point, Frederick confessed to killing Rena in a field, realising her daughter Charmaine was still in his car and going back to dispose of the child - and her remains were also found near Much Marcle. David Canter has pointed out that the first murder in a series often involves a member of the family or friend who is killed for relatively mundane reasons such as anger, frustration, jealousy or to conceal a crime - a pattern to which the murders of Anne McFall and Rena West apparently conform.

West's reckless disregard for the law is reflected in his initial dealings with Rosemary Letts, who was only 15 years old when he picked her up at a bus stop and began an illicit sexual relationship with her in 1969. Indeed, there is a striking parallel between Rosemary at this age and some of the girls and young women who would later become the couple's victims. Like them, she was a vulnerable adolescent from an unstable background; according to the Evening Standard, minor transgressions in the Letts family "were punished with beatings and the children's fear of their father's temper was shared by their mother, whom neighbours recall once being dragged into the street by her hair". Rosemary's younger brother recalled his father doing "awful things to my mum".

At the time of their first meeting, Frederick West was 27, nearly twice Rosemary's age; it is hard not to construe his relationship with her as abusive. (His own childhood, living in rural poverty with parents who imposed discipline through regular beatings and in an atmosphere where incest seems to have been tolerated, was hardly designed to instil a grasp of conventional sexual boundaries. This textbook abuser's background throws an almost comic light on the Daily Star's pompous assertion, in an editorial, that "the West case does not teach us any lessons about our society".) "We couldn't understand what a man with two children wanted with a 15- year-old child," said Rosemary's mother, Daisy, after the trial, displaying astonishing naivety. Rosemary later claimed she had already been raped twice by strangers when she met Frederick, who wooed her with a second- hand fur coat and a lace dress. Within months she was pregnant; her parents put her into care and urged her to have an abortion, but her 16th birthday intervened and she moved into a cramped, dirty caravan with Frederick and his daughters.

The couple's first child, Heather, was born in Midland Road, Gloucester, in 1970, by which time Frederick and Rosemary were already encouraging teenage girls to take part in sex sessions. David Canter has suggested that the couple probably told each other their victims enjoyed the sexual ordeals they put them through: "My guess is that the Wests would have discussed it with themselves along the lines of everybody having a good time," he said. What happened next may never be known for certain, although the prosecution's case that Rosemary decided, off her own bat, to kill Charmaine while her husband was in prison, then kept the body for him to dispose of when he emerged, does rather stretch credulity. After that, also according to the prosecution, the couple's murder spree got going in earnest, sometimes involving victims who had been drawn to the lodging- house-cum-brothel in Cromwell Street, sometimes girls picked up away from the house - although it is worth noting that the Crown was unable to prove that Rosemary West had even met six of the victims whose bodies were buried in the house and its environs.

Lynda Gough, 19, vanished in April 1973 after moving into Cromwell Street to look after the West children. Fifteen-year-old Carol Ann Cooper, who had been taken into care by Worcester-shire County Council, was last seen getting on a bus in November that year. Lucy Partington, a 21-year-old student, disappeared a month later after visiting a friend in Cheltenham. Therese Siegenthaler, 21, a Swiss student, vanished in April 1974 after setting out to hitch- hike to Wales and take a ferry to Ireland. Fifteen-year-old Shirley Hubbard disappeared in November that year after leaving the Debenhams store in Worcester where she was doing work experience. Juanita Mott, 18, lodged at Cromwell Street and was not seen again after April 1975. Four years later 17-year-old Alison Chambers failed to turn up for work. The couple's own daughter, Heather, disappeared in June 1987 when she was 16. The final victim was Shirley Robinson, 18, and eight months pregnant with Frederick's child, who vanished in May 1978. The remains of all eight were found at Cromwell Street.

THE NATURAL human reaction to the account in Winchester Crown Court of what happened to these girls and women is one of sick horror. Many people simply stopped reading reports of the trial, unable to stomach the picture which was emerging, although it has to be said that the tabloids were probably correct in their estimation that an avid audience was waiting for the sordid revelations they had in store after Rosemary West's conviction. The Daily Mirror shamelessly printed a second-hand account of Frederick West's unsubstantiated claim that "he and his evil wife Rose belonged to a band of sex fiends called The Cult who slaughtered TWENTY girls". Its front-page headline "My Cult Will Kill Again" was surreally juxtaposed with an offer of a free Christmas and New Year TV Guide, with "your full festive listings".

The problem with this approach, apart from the minor matter of taste, is that it transforms tragic crimes into a horror-movie scenario. The air of unreality introduced into the proceedings is not just an insult to the victims but a serious obstruction to any real understanding of the case; among the things we do know about serial killers is that they are not charismatic characters like Hannibal the Cannibal or the fiendishly cunning Temple Brooks Gault, boldly hacking into the FBI's computers in Patricia D Cornwell's best-selling forensic thrillers. Even the term "serial killer" is unhelpful; as David Canter has emphasised, it is not the fact that they repeat their crimes that marks these criminals out. Most lawbreakers, from burglars to car thieves to credit-card fraudsters, are stuck in a cycle of repetition. Indeed, there is a sense in which murder, for these multiple killers, is merely a by-product of or an attempt to conceal the purpose for which they selected their victims in the first place. What distinguishes serial killers is a catastrophic inability to make healthy adult relationships: unable to see other people as fully human, they treat them as objects to be used, exploited and disposed of at will. The mutilation which follows death, as well as aiding disposal, is a graphic illustration of the way in which the victims have been dehumanised. This is the real, abiding horror of the serial killer: chronically insecure, they enjoy the sensation of having others in their power. In the West case, the victims seem to have been kept alive, bound and gagged, sometimes for days at a time; Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, projected on to women's bodies the weakness he feared in himself; Jeffrey Dahmer, a lonely white man, murdered and occasionally ate the black and South-East Asian men he picked up in bars in Milwaukee, thus literally incorporating the feared and desired "other". But the sense of power they gain from subduing and exploiting their victims is only temporary. All their relationships end in death, a chilling reminder of their underlying inadequacy which explains why men like Ian Brady and Frederick West seek a partner in crime.

"To do something as vile as what was going on with somebody you know who tolerates it is a form of egging on," David Canter has observed. What the women get out of it is a feeling of being elevated above the rest of their sex, presumably a heady sensation for a disturbed 15-year-old like Rosemary Letts. "Some women," Helena Kennedy suggested in Eve Was Framed, "feel strangely flattered at being chosen by such men, as though they had been singled out from the ordinary run of womankind" - a point Emily Bronte makes in that most savage of novels, Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff, expressing his disgust for his estranged wife, Isabella, recalls the brutality he openly displayed on the night of their elopement. His denunciation of her is couched in terms that might equally apply to a serial killer's female accomplice:

"She cannot accuse me of showing a bit of deceitful softness. The first thing she saw me do, on coming out of the Grange, was to hang up her little dog, and when she pleaded for it, the first words I uttered were a wish that I had the hanging of every being belonging to her, except one: possibly she took that exception for herself - But no brutality disgusted her - I suppose she has an innate admiration of it, if only her precious person were secure from injury! Now, was it not the depth of absurdity - of genuine idiocy, for that pitiful, slavish, mean-minded brach to dream that I could love her? Tell your master, Nelly, that I never, in all my life, met with such an abject thing as she is - "

Heathcliff, in spite of his inherent sadism, is persistently read by teenage girls - and older women who should know better - as a romantic hero. Myra Hindley's diary, written at the time she met Brady at work, has been described by Helena Kennedy as "a catalogue of childish desperation for him to show some interest in her". Excerpts from it, reprinted in Beyond Belief, include such naive sentiments as "I am in a bad mood because he hasn't spoken to me today" and "I hope he loves me and will marry me some day". When Frederick West was in prison for theft in 1971, his wife wrote him sentimental, adoring letters; Frederick's daughter Anne-Marie, who was raped by her father with her stepmother's encouragement, said that the couple "doted on each other. Rosemary had so much love for my dad. She would have done anything for him ... " A more sinister light is thrown on the couple's relationship by documents in Rosemary's handwriting, quoted in Brian Masters's book, which suggest that she was, like Hindley, a species of sex slave. One, countersigned by Frederick West, reads:

"I, Rose, will do exactly what I am told, when I am told, without questions, without losing my temper, for a period of three months from the end of my next period, as I think I owe this to Fred."

The other, so unpleasant that Masters could not bring himself to quote it in full, begins "I, Rosemary West, known as Fred's cow" and lists the orifices which she will make available to her husband on request.

What kind of cultural contortion is required to turn these unequal partnerships, Fred-and-Rose and Ian-and-Myra, into narratives of female domination? How does 15-year-old Rosemary Letts, seduced with cheap gifts by a man almost twice her age - already a fully fledged murderer in his own right - mutate into a criminal mastermind, manipulating her doltish husband? Helena Kennedy, writing before the Cromwell Street murders came to light, suggested that a woman like Myra Hindley "is the vessel into which society pours its dark secrets; like a war criminal, such a `she-devil' is a reminder of what is horribly possible". Of course Kennedy is right; offending against popular notions of womanhood as protective and nurturing, the transgressions of Myra Hindley serve to confirm, in a perverse way, the very norms from which they deviate. But an even more complex ritual is being played out in our response to these ghastly cases, as the aftermath of the West trial makes clear.

Female killers are simultaneously hate-objects who maintain other women in their customary beatific light and Lady Macbeths who incarnate men's darkest fears and desires: when a woman is bad, she is far, far worse than a man could ever be. ("The female of the species is more deadly than the male," as Kipling once claimed.) Yet criminal history shows that the dominant female killer, luring her hapless male partner into crimes he would never for a moment have contemplated committing without her evil prompting, is a myth; we believe in her not because she exists but because, like children who refuse to give up their attachment to Father Christmas, we need her too much to allow inconvenient reality to get in the way. For 30 years, the White Devil held centre stage, her performance tending towards but never quite achieving perfection; now, with the arrival of the Black Widow, the apotheosis is complete. With their pathetic male accomplices relegated to the wings, languishing in the shadows of madness and death, the true partners-in-crime are revealed in all their malignant glory. Here they come, hand in hand, that demonic female duo: Myra-and- Rose.

! Extracted from Joan Smith's new book, `Different for Girls: How Culture Creates Women', published this week by Chatto & Windus. `Review' readers can buy the book for pounds 8.99 - pounds 2 off the pounds 10.99 published price - P&P free, by calling the TBS 24-hour credit-card line on 01621 819596 and quoting `IoS' `Different for Girls' Offer.

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