crime fiction

authors index

books index




click to enlarge
Harold K Banks
The Strangler
Mayflower, London, 1967
(price: 5/-; 240 pages)
The story of terror in Boston

click to enlarge
Gerold Frank
The Boston Strangler
Pan, London, 1967
(price: 5/-; 416 pages)
The story of terror in Boston

click to enlarge
Joan Paisnel
The Beast of Jersey
New English Library, London, 1972
(price: ?; 176 pages)
The man who terrorised the island for eleven years

click to enlarge
Steven Valentine
The Black Panther Story
New English Library, London, 1976
(price: 60p; 160 pages)
The most expensive murder hunt in Britain

click to enlarge
Michael Nicholson
The Yorkshire Ripper
Star, London, 1979
(price: 95p; 176 pages)
The authoritative study of the most vicious series of murders this century
click to enlarge
Peter Kinsley & Frank Smyth
I'm Jack
Pan, London, 1980
(price: 95p; 192 pages)
The police hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper

The fascination that true-life crime exerts over a mass market is always a bit uncomfortable. At the time of writing, for example, one of the big movies in town is From Hell, with Johnny Depp giving us his cockney detective investigating Jack the Ripper, and - while Depp is surprisingly good in it - you can't help wondering why so much effort is going into yet another film about women getting murdered and chopped up. (Particularly when the theory it advances was dealt with in Murder By Decree, when Christopher Plummer's Sherlock Holmes came to the same conclusion.) I mean, it's okay for me to see these things, but I do worry about other people.

Anyway, here's some books of varying merit. First up, a couple of examples of the traditional straightforward true crime story: rehearsals of the thirteen murders committed by Albert DeSalvo, the Boston strangler (assuming his confession was genuine, of course), and the investigation into the crimes. Mr Banks' book is adequate, solid and voyeuristic - absolutely typical of the genre - while Mr Franks gives us a seemingly definitive account: more sober, more detailed and in its way, a model of how to do these things. (Though, of course, the movie-tie photo of Tony Curtis gives an exploitation angle, just to be on the safe side.)

The Beast of Jersey is a horse of a very different colour. Edward Paisnel was convicted in 1971 of a string of violent sex attacks on children and adolescents. This account of his life and crimes is notable chiefly for having been written by his wife, as part of an attempt to understand how the man she lived quite happily with could have turned out to be a part-time monster. As far as I know, it's still the fullest version by an unsuspecting spouse there is, and it's particularly interesting in the modern era, following that extraordinary conviction of Rosemary West for offences she clearly didn't commit.

Donald Neilson's wife was also charged with complicity in her husband's crime, but no one really doubted that the so-called Black Panther (he wore a dark balaclava) was a loner. Motivated entirely by the pursuit of money, Neilson first attracted attention with a series of armed attacks on sub-post offices, which led to three murders. His promotion to national notoriety came with the kidnapping of an 'A' Level student, Lesley Whittle. Ms Whittle was always described as an 'heiress', a word that I've never liked much: a man is sometimes said to be an heir to a fortune, but it's not seen as a position in society - being an heiress is effectively considered to be an occupation. Anyway, her late father had built up a coach business and left her a trust fund worth a reported 82,500; Neilson read those reports, kidnapped the girl to demand a ransom and - in his ineptitude - killed Lesley Whittle.

It was a deeply unpleasant crime, and Neilson, when caught and convicted, got multiple life sentences; he remains in gaol today. Despite the attempted glamourisation of his crimes by the tabloids (including the moniker bestowed upon him), the fact remains that the most notable aspect of his squalid career was the inability of the police to find him.

The same of course is even more true of Peter Sutcliffe. But what's particularly striking about the two books here - The Yorkshire Ripper and I'm Jack - is that both tell the story of the so-called Yorkshire Ripper prior to the arrest of the murderer. I'm Jack therefore ends with the distressing words:

One thing is sure - he is here today, living and working in Britain, leading his double life, revelling in his ghastly secret. He may even be looking over your shoulder, reading these words...

It's an odd idea - and, in publishing terms, deeply risky in that the book could easily be overtaken by events - but it has one huge advantage over virtually every other entry into this field: the absence of any information on the killer means that the emphasis is thrown back on the victims. Normally in these books, the victims are there to be acted upon by the central character: here, they get due coverage, and consequently there's much less risk of glamorising the horror.

Of the two, The Yorkshire Ripper thinks it's more weighty but actually gets more sensational by throwing in stories about previous killers, including Peter Kurten and Neville Heath, while I'm Jack is much more straightforward in its treatment of the 'investigation' and the women. It's the better of the two: a curiosity, but not without merit.

the twelve women whose deaths form the subject of I'm Jack

Patricia Atkinson

Joan Harrison

Emily Jackson

Barbara Leach

Wilma McCann

Jayne MacDonald

Vera Millward

Yvonne Pearson

Irene Richardson

Jean Royle

Helen Rytka

Josephine Whitaker

non fiction