Sunday, November 16, 2008


The point of Gordon Burn's literary non-fiction profiles of serial killers is, on the face of it, and judging by their titles, to render them ordinary. Hence Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, is to be shown to be "somebody's husband"; and Fred and Rose West, inhabitants of Gloucester's "house of horror," are to be be shown "happy," albeit "happy like murderers."

Peter and Sonia SutcliffeBut, at least in the book on Sutcliffe, Somebody's Husband, Somebody's Son, this strategy rather backfires. Burn finds no link between the Ripper's ordinariness and his horrendous and unprovoked assaults on women. Indeed, the dislocation is all the more horrendous. For instance, Sutcliffe is driving home with a friend one night in 1975 when he spots a woman he thinks may be a prostitute:
slipping out of the car, he quickly caught up with her and mumbled a pleasantry about the weather before striking her twice on the back of her head with a hammer. [. . .] Back in the safety of his own car, he appeared "unusually quiet" to Birdsall; when asked what had taken him so long he replied that he had been "talking to that woman." (145)
Perhaps Burn is reluctant to try to get inside the murderer's head not merely because of a reluctance to dramatize, but also because of what becomes the theme of the ensuing 1981 trial when the Ripper is eventually caught: in Burn's words, it is not so much Sutcliffe who is up in court as the discipline of Psychiatry, which is subject to a "ruthless" and "damaging" examination at the hands of the prosecution lawyers (335). As Sutcliffe's defence rested on a plea of diminished responsibility because of schizophrenia, the courtroom had to ponder the "philosophical riddle: Was he a sane man pretending to be mad? Or a mad man who thought he was sane? Or a mad man who thought he was sane and was pretending to be mad?" (350).

The court's verdict eventually was that Sutcliffe was sane: bad, not mad. The prison system, however, soon relocated him to the secure mental hospital, Broadmoor, where he has been ever since. It is as though the criminal justice system itself were in two minds, strangely and ironically schizophrenic about the issue. Burn himself, then, comes down on no side: his exhaustive, nearly 400-page book never really answers (or even properly addresses) the riddle to which it points.

Burns book coverHappy Like Murderers is a more successful book. Perhaps this is because Burn has learned a lesson or two from the other great chronicler of the Ripper case, David Peace. Burn's account of the Wests is inflected with some of the stylistic gestures that mark Peace's fiction, not least the repetition of key words and phrases, the quick switches between locales and genres, and the use of free indirect discourse through which to imaginatively recreate characters' thought processes and affects.

Or maybe it's just coincidence that Burn seems to have something like the measure of Fred (not so much Rose, perhaps unsurprisingly): and his clue comes from a stylistic tic, the fact that Fred repeatedly referred not just to people as things, but also to things as people. As Burn puts it:
In his many weeks of police interviews after his arrest in 1994, he would repeatedly refer to the body of a murdered person as "it" and to inanimate objects and materials and pieces of equipments--a cattle ramp, a paddling pool, a patio slab--as "him." "As the end of the slab sunk, you put more soil under, or gravel, to level him. As the body sinks, then the slab was tipping. . . Pea gravel. (175)
Hence Burn's observation:
All through [West's] life he would invest his deepest and most complicated emotions--all his most difficult and disturbing thoughts--not in people, but in things. Places and things. People as things. (105-106)
So it's not really true that West was "emotionally null" (405). It is not affectlessness that is at issue here, as indeed Burn's title also indicates; rather, it's the horrific consequences of a very particular regime of affect.

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