Why Myra Hindley was easy pickings for a psychopath who needed a female accomplice

Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 16 May 2017

They look like a young couple on a day out in the country, his arm slung casually over her shoulders. They’re obviously working-class, the man in his shirtsleeves, the woman with peroxide-blond hair and a fashionable full skirt. The 1960s are in full swing and they could be anybody, enjoying the new freedom that’s arrived with the Beatles, Twiggy and the decline of deference.

But the man is Ian Brady, the notorious serial killer who died on Monday at the age of 79, after spending 51 years in prison. With his accomplice Myra Hindley, he tortured and murdered five young people, ranging in age from ten to 17, in a series of crimes so horrific that they ripped a gaping hole in the optimism of post-war England. The scar remains to this day and the death of this elderly serial killer, while hardly unexpected, still made headlines.

Back in 1966, when the details that emerged at their trial shocked the nation, things were supposed to be getting better after a long period of austerity. A Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, had come to power two years earlier promising a ‘new Britain’ forged in the ‘white heat’ of technology. Yet the actions of this apparently unremarkable couple from Greater Manchester exposed a human capacity for savagery that people didn’t want to think about after the horrors of the Second World War.

The couple made a recording of the screams of their youngest victim, ten-year-old Lesley Ann Downey, as she pleaded for her life. They became so cocky that they tried to enlist Hindley’s brother-in-law, David Smith, in the axe murder of their final victim, 17-year-old Edward Evans. The traumatised young man – Smith was the same age as the butchered victim – went to the police, leading to the couple’s arrests in October 1965.

A police mug shot of Hindley, with dyed blond hair showing dark roots above fierce black eyebrows, has become one of the most instantly recognisable images of the 1960s – the face of ‘the most evil woman in Britain’. The direct gaze, and the full lips that speak of a kind of sensuality, invite endless speculation. Perhaps most disconcerting of all, Hindley looks recognisably modern, a woman of her time, yet her crimes hark back to the calculated cruelties of the Marquis de Sade.

The 1960s were a turbulent decade, in which class barriers and traditional sexual morality were both breaking down. Many people thought that was a good thing but the Moors murders stopped them in their tracks. What kind of society had produced this amoral young couple, whose flouting of social norms had turned into an unprecedented killing spree? It is important to remember that when Brady and Hindley were arrested, serial killers were a relatively new phenomenon. Everyone had heard of Jack the Ripper but most of the notorious cases, such as Peter Sutcliffe or Dennis Nilsen, were some years in the future. Nor did serial killers feature in traditional crime novels.

This was a new type of crime, involving child victims and killing for the sake it, and it caused a sensation. The idea of a female serial killer went against every notion of womanhood, and that police mugshot, with its pitiless stare, appeared to confirm that the woman had been the dominant partner.

In reality, this goes against every bit of evidence we have about the relationship between Hindley and Brady, which shows conclusively that he was the prime mover. But within no time at all Hindley had been pushed into the foreground, so much so that a huge painting by Marcus Harvey, based on the mugshot, was the controversial star turn in the ‘Sensation’ exhibition by Young British Artists in London in 1997.

Of course the fact that Hindley was the junior partner does not excuse her or reduce her culpability in these terrible murders. But if, as seems likely, the killings would not have happened had Brady and Hindley never met, it is vital to understand the dynamics of their relationship. That is true of Fred and Rose West as well, and in both cases the evidence suggests that the man was the instigator.

Hindley was only 18, four years younger than Brady, when they met in 1961 at the firm where she was a typist. She came from an impoverished background in Gorton, a working-class area of Manchester, and a household where domestic violence was rife. Conditions were so cramped that she initially had to share a bedroom with her abusive parents, including a father – an alcoholic ex-soldier – who regularly beat her.

We know now that children who grow up with extreme domestic violence are at risk of becoming victims or perpetrators themselves. Hindley would become both. With a predator’s instinct, Brady seems to have recognised her vulnerabilities, understanding her need for affection and manipulating it. ‘I am in a bad mood because he hasn’t spoken to me today,’ she wrote in one of many naïve entries in her diary.

She wanted him to marry her but he had other ideas, introducing her to two of his obsessions, the Marquis de Sade and accounts of atrocities committed under the Third Reich. She was too unworldly to see through his crackpot theories about cruelty and the master race, becoming drawn into a sado-masochistic relationship in which she would do anything to please him. Photographs exist of Hindley kneeling on the floor, naked, with the marks of a whip visible on her body.

Brady needed an accomplice and it had to be a woman; he couldn’t drive and he knew that his victims were more likely to get into a car if they saw a woman in the driving seat. Once he had Hindley entirely under his control, they abused the trust of vulnerable children, presenting a monstrous inversion of the normal parental relationship. Decades later Rose West, who also witnessed domestic violence as a child, would play a similar role, reassuring young women who were uncertain about accepting a lift in her husband’s car.

At the Moors murders trial, Brady was convicted of three murders, Hindley of two. He didn’t admit the full extent of their crimes until 1985, when he confessed to the murders of 16-year-old Pauline Reade and Keith Bennett, aged 12. Brady died this week without ever revealing where on Saddleworth Moor they buried the body Keith Bennett, prolonging the ordeal of his family. Greater Manchester police say that while they are not actively searching the moor, the case remains open.

Brady’s death means that two of the most notorious murderers of the 20th century are no longer with us. At the time of their trial, people knew little about either of them, and their instinct was to focus on Hindley. She and Brady had done unimaginably awful things and deserved no sympathy, but the public reaction to Hindley was skewed by beliefs about how women should behave.

Now they’re both dead and we have the gift of perspective. Myra Hindley grew up in a violent household where she witnessed and experienced beatings, and that made her easy pickings for a psychopath who wanted an accomplice. Perhaps it’s time to re-assess that original analysis, putting aside the notion of Hindley as some kind of demon.

Heaping most of the blame on the woman in such relationships is the easy option,but it doesn’t make much sense. It is vital to recognise the pattern – and the key role played by domestic violence. It took two people to set this terrible train of events in motion, and the clear light of history tells us that Brady needed Hindley – and they were as culpable as each other.

 

How Theresa May Brought Britain To Heel

New York Times SundayReview | OPINION

14 MAY 2017

LONDON — Margaret Thatcher, it is safe to say, wouldn’t have been caught dead in a pair of trousers. Her successor as a leader of Britain’s Conservative Party, Theresa May, is far more adventurous. When she made her bid to head the country’s main center-right party last summer, she was wearing a tartan pantsuit by the onetime high priestess of punk, Vivienne Westwood. Ms. Westwood’s label is mainstream these days, but it was still a bold choice for a would-be Tory prime minister.

Some months later, Mrs. May lounged on a sofa in a pair of leather trousersfor an interview at the end of the momentous year that saw her move into No. 10 Downing Street. But why am I even talking about the prime minister’s wardrobe when she has called a snap general election for June 8?

This is the first time in three decades that a mainstream British political party has gone to the polls with both a female leader and a serious expectation of winning. Isn’t it demeaning, not to say sexist, to focus on how she dresses?

The problem for feminists like me, who would normally leap to a female politician’s defense, is that Mrs. May would never complain about any of this attention. She gives every impression of liking it. The public probably knows more about what she wears than it does about her policies, confirming just about every sexist stereotype.

Women and shoes, huh? But to dismiss any discussion of Mrs. May’s careful cultivation of image as trivializing or gender-biased is to miss how strategic she is. Her famous leopard-print heels have long been a form of camouflage, usefully diverting attention when she has unpalatable things to say (which isn’t very often). They made one of their first outings at the Conservative Party Conference in 2002, when Mrs. May told activists they needed to stop earning their reputation as “the nasty party.” She discovered just how easy it is to distract Britain’s popular press with an unexpected choice of accessory.

In the opening weeks of this election campaign, all we learned about the country’s second female prime minister is that she utters the words “strong and stable” at every opportunity. Public appearances have been carefully choreographed: typically, a tour of a factory filled with supporters, with the media kept well away.

And it has worked. Mrs. May’s personal popularity is at stratospheric levels, with some opinion polls suggesting she is even more popular than Mrs. Thatcher was in her heyday. Perhaps the prime minister was channeling her inner Iron Lady when she stood at a lectern in Downing Street recently and scolded the leaders of the European Union, demonstrating how effectively she hid her true colors in the past: She, too, can be nasty when she needs to be.

It is becoming clear that Mrs. May’s political views are farther to the right than her reassuring presence — the head teacher who always has time to discuss little Johnny or Jessica’s problems — would have us believe. When Mrs. May was home secretary and in charge of the country’s borders, she supported a wildly optimistic policy of Prime Minister David Cameron, whowanted to reduce immigration to a few tens of thousands a year. That undertaking was an abject failure by any standards — net immigration last year was just under 275,000 — but it doesn’t seem to have done her much harm.

Mrs. May has corrected course by adopting an even tougher stance on the international refugee crisis than Mr. Cameron. In February, she canceled the government’s commitment to allow 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children into Britain after only about 350 had arrived.

She has proved adept at shifting position without incurring political damage. Last summer, she supported the Remain side in the referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union, but she did it so quietly that she succeeded in seamlessly maneuvering into being the best-placed candidate to lead the tricky Brexit negotiations after Leave won.

For feminists, Mrs. May is no less troubling a figure than Mrs. Thatcher was, embodying many of the same contradictions. The fact that the current leader has been called “Maggie May” by the popular press is chiefly a reminder that there are still too few role models for powerful women.

In the 1980s, the media routinely sexualized Mrs. Thatcher in under-the-radar ways. For a generation of upper-middle-class men who had grown up with nannies and school matrons, Mrs. Thatcher evoked a potent mix of anxiety and fantasy and sadomasochistic scenario. The writer Christopher Hitchens, hardly a natural admirer, claimed that the prime minister had once spanked him with a parliamentary order paper, mouthing “Naughty boy!” as she walked away.

The subtle edginess of Mrs. May’s personal style seems to wink at this role of national dominatrix. Those leopard-print shoes of hers inspired anotorious photomontage in The Sun, a top-selling British tabloid, that showed a similar pair crushing the heads of Tory men under the headline “Heel, Boys.”

And she has done nothing to discourage the toxic sexism that swirls about her. When the Daily Mail provoked outrage by publishing a photo of her with the first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, under the brazenly sexist headline “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!” the prime minister’s spokesman refused to comment. For her part, Ms. Sturgeon was furious andsaid so.

When President Trump met with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, he conspicuously declined to shake hands and avoided eye contact. In stark contrast, when the president first met Mrs. May in Washington in January,he grabbed her hand in full view of the cameras. This was a power play none of her ministers back home would dare to attempt, yet Mrs. May did not demur.

She has done little to challenge even the most hoary, outdated assumptions. When she took part in a rare joint TV interview with her husband, Philip, last week, she caused astonishment by saying that they divide household chores, such as taking the trash out, into “boy jobs and girl jobs.” She also appeared to think she needed to explain the fact that she wasn’t a mother when, in 2012, she chose to reveal her disappointment about being childless – something that speaks volumes about the social values of the British Conservative Party, as well as the insularity of British politics.

Mrs. May is more modern in her attitudes than some in her party — and undeniably more collegial than Mr. Cameron, let alone Mrs. Thatcher. Mrs. May voted for gay marriage, has promoted women to top posts in her cabinet and has a longstanding interest in preventing domestic violence. Yet she presides over a government that has pursued a dismantling of public services that disproportionately affects women. And the calling card she used to signal a break with the stuffy Tory past — the eye-catching footwear, the leather trousers — has now returned to haunt public life with unsavory, sexualized expectations of women at the highest level of politics.

This is all the more disappointing at a moment when the Conservative Party has overturned the traditional order of British politics by fielding a competent, personable woman against a male opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who looks and sounds like a throwback to the 1970s. Mrs. May’s refusal to confront the infantile misogyny of the media leaves her open to the accusation that she got where she is not by challenging patriarchy, but by colluding with it. What does it say about gender equality in Britain that the politician tipped to win by a landslide in next month’s election is most famous for her footwear?

Troubled Waters

Sunday Times, 14 May 2017

Donna Leon is one of the most familiar names in modern crime fiction, but she still has the capacity to surprise. Her latest novel, Earthly Remains (Heinemann £18.99), is set not in the streets and canals of Venice but in the lagoon, where the smooth waters are threatened by environmental disaster.

Commissario Brunetti, Leon’s detective, doesn’t know that when he decides to spend an idyllic couple of weeks in a villa on the island of Sant’Erasmo, reading Pliny and learning to row again with the elderly caretaker, Davide Casati. He is recuperating from stress and the slow pace of life is a delight. The only thing to disturb him is Casati’s anxiety about his dying bees, and his enigmatic remarks about his past.

When he disappears during a storm, Brunetti’s holiday comes to an abrupt end, and the search for the missing man uncovers the source of the guilt that weighed so heavily on him. This beautifully written novel confronts Brunetti with a type of crime that is completely outside his experience, threatening the health of everyone who lives on the Venetian lagoon.

Linwood Barclay has already set a quirky trilogy of crime novels in the small town of Promise Falls in New York State. The last book in the series left the town reeling from a deliberate poisoning of its water system, in revenge for the failure of passers-by to save a girl who was murdered in a local park.

In Parting Shot (Orion £18.99) some residents have overreacted by forming vigilante groups, homing in on an 18-year-old boy who accidentally killed a friend in a drink-driving incident. As attacks on the boy’s home escalate, his wealthy family hires a local PI to protect him, unintentionally unveiling some of their own secrets. Barclay’s plots are a delight, and his small town never fails to deliver a series of shocks.

Arresting the fiancée of a school friend on a drugs offence sparks a catastrophic sequence of events for Kjell Ola Dahl’s world-weary detective in Faithless, translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Orenda £8.99). Inspector Frolich hasn’t seen his friend Karl Anders for years before the night of the latter’s 40th birthday party, where he suddenly recognises the woman Anders is about to marry. He keeps quiet, but shortly afterwards a body turns up in a skip, and Frolich finds himself torn by a conflict of loyalties. This is a chilling novel about betrayal, written in a hard-boiled style that highlights the careless misogyny of Dahl’s characters.

Michel Bussi is one of France’s most ingenious crime writers. Don’t Let Go, translated by Sam Taylor (Weidenfeld £12.99), is set on the lush Indian Ocean island of Réunion, where the husband of a French tourist is the chief suspect in her disappearance. When the man goes on the run with their young daughter, suspicion hardens into certainty for the local cops, but Bussi has plenty of twists in store in this fast-moving novel about a long-planned act of revenge.

 

We should be shocked by the wedding day rape in Emmerdale – but not for the reason you think

Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 25 April 2017

The idea of a husband raping his wife only hours after their wedding ceremony is genuinely shocking. So it was perhaps to be expected that some viewers of Emmerdale would be up in arms after the long-running ITV soap showed just such a scene last night - not least because it was aired a couple of hours before the 9pm watershed.

They are right to be shocked - but for reasons that have nothing to do with the time at which the rape was shown. The watershed is increasingly irrelevant these days, when we can watch TV programmes on demand. No, the reason we should be horrified is that so many people don’t know that rape in marriage is a crime in this country – and has been ever since the law was changed in 1992.

When Emmerdale character Pierce Harris dragged his bride Rhona Goskirk indoors after a blazing row and raped her, he was committing a serious criminal offence. The days when men could say ‘You’re my wife and I can do what I like’ are long gone, at least as far as the criminal justice system is concerned.

But the soap was absolutely right to highlight widespread ignorance of the law, something that endures even among those who would profess to know it.

According to a 1993 biography of Donald Trump, the mogul forced himself on his then-wife Ivana after a row about hair loss treatment. The book, Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump, describes a “violent assault” where Trump “jams his penis” into a “terrified” Ivana, who apparently then told her closest friends: “He raped me.”

Trump has denied the allegation, and the book included a statement from Ivana stating she did not want her words to be interpreted ‘in a literal or criminal sense’.

We may never know the facts. But when the story resurfaced during the US presidential campaign, Michael Cohen – a lawyer acting for Trump - didn’t stop at denying it on the now-President’s behalf. He also poured scorn on the entire notion of marital rape as a crime, displaying an astonishing level of ignorance when he claimed, “You can’t rape your spouse.”

As an inconvenient aside for Mr Cohen, rape in marriage has been a crime in New York State since 1984 and was outlawed throughout the US in 1993, a year after the law was changed in the UK.

The producers and writers of Emmerdale have done another public service by reminding viewers that many rapes take place behind closed doors – and in two-thirds of cases the attacker is known to the victim. That statistic comes from the Metropolitan Police, by the way, and it confounds the popular notion that most rapists are strangers who lurk in dark alleys.

Stranger-rapes do happen, of course, and they have a devastating effect. But many women, like Rhona in Emmerdale, discover that the danger comes from a man they know and perhaps love. Here is another police statistic, even less well-known to the public but hugely relevant to scenes like the one that has caused such an outcry: around a quarter of rapes are believed to be linked to domestic violence.

That’s why police and local authorities up and down the country have set up sanctuary schemes - basically a safe room in which a woman and her children can hide if they are threatened by a violent ex-partner or spouse. A man who raped his wife while they were living together may have no qualms about trying to do it again, a fact understood by women’s refuges, which have to spend huge sums on security.

Some viewers objected to the Emmerdale rape because it took place so soon after the couple’s wedding ceremony, but even that isn’t as implausible as it might seem. All the warning signs were there, with Rhona’s friends describing her husband-to-be as ‘jealous’ and ‘obsessive’.

For some couple, weddings have become big events in modern life. It’s totally believable that a woman might put all her energy into thinking about the details, distracting herself from justified doubts about the man she is marrying.

Sober reflection, as well as crime statistics, suggest that someone who is controlling and jealous before saying ‘I do’  will only get worse afterwards. Women who have escaped from abusive relationships sometimes look back and say they were anxious, but pushed their worries aside in the excitement.

There are, naturally, some viewers who have welcomed the Emmerdale rape plot line. Television and radio can be a powerful means of educating people about subjects such as domestic violence – you need only think of The Archers’ Rob and Helen Titchener. In the wake of a storyline that saw Helen become the victim of her husband’s controlling behaviour, more than £100,000 was raised for the charity Refuge.

In contrast, in the hours after the final episode of the BBC’s Broadchurch was aired earlier this month, a similar push for fundraising saw just a tenner donated to Rape Crisis. Various theories have been put forward for this, from Trish Winterman’s rapist turning out to be a stranger (so not in keeping with the reality of rape in the UK) to the fact that we just find sexual assault to be unpalatable. Something we struggle to confront and that is just too horrible to think about.

Then there’s the even more awful suggestion that we still, partially, point a finger at the victim. A recent study by the  Fawcett Society  found that over a third of people still think “if a woman goes out late at night, wearing a short skirt, gets drunk and is then the victim of a sexual assault, she is totally or partly to blame.”

Clearly, there’s still a long way to go before it’s generally accepted that the only person to blame for sexual and domestic violence is the perpetrator – and women will continue to be in danger until there’s zero tolerance of these dreadful crimes. It may be uncomfortable to watch or listen to, but TV and radio drama is a very effective way of getting that vital message across. Before or after the watershed.

The rape boasts of Adam Johnson show victim-blaming is still with us

The video of the disgraced footballer claiming that he wishes he’d raped his 15-year-old victim is shocking – but the myths he repeats are all too common

The Guardian, Friday 21 April 2017

Perhaps he misses an admiring crowd. Perhaps he feels he has nothing to lose. Who knows what persuaded the disgraced former England footballer – and convicted sex offender – Adam Johnson to speak quite so candidly about his crimes. But Johnson’s remarks, caught on video and published by the Sun, offer a staggering insight into the mind of a man who last year lost his job, career and reputation over sex offences with an underage girl.

Professional footballers are notoriously arrogant but Johnson’s claim that he wishes he’d raped his 15-year-old victim is in a class of its own. This, remember, is a man who is serving a six-year sentence after a trial in which he admitted two counts of grooming and sexual activity with a child, and was convicted of a third offence of sexual touching. (His second appeal was turned down only last month.)

Yet his response to a fellow prisoner who points out that he didn’t rape his victim is to say: “No, I wish I fucking did for six years [his sentence].” This is the bragging and bravado juries don’t get to hear, and almost the worst thing about the video is the way fellow prisoners egg him on.

At his trial at Bradford crown court, Johnson apologised and claimed to feel “ashamed” of his behaviour, but the video tells a very different story. After just over a year in prison, he has concluded that nothing is his fault. He dismisses his crimes as “fuck all” and complains that he has little chance of reviving his football career in the UK because “do-gooders” will try to stop him playing again. He blames his fame for the fact that he has ended up in prison, claiming he would have got off with a caution if he hadn’t been well-known.

It’s a repellent performance, complete with Johnson making crude comments and gestures about his victim. But what’s really striking, once viewers get over the initial shock of witnessing Johnson’s expletive-laden self-pity, is that he regurgitates every myth in the book about rape and sexual assault. It’s a list of gripes directed at the victim, her family and women generally, accompanied by a whine that he didn’t even – brace yourselves – get his “cock out”.

Like every man who has ever been charged with sexual activity with a girl below the age of consent, Johnson claims he believed his victim was 17 or 18. It’s completely untrue, as he admitted in his very first police interview and later in evidence at his trial. Yet, of course, he goes on to complain about how she was dressed. He says she wore tight jeans and turned up at the Sunderland ground after matches, asking for pictures and a signed shirt.

This is the unexceptional behaviour of a teenage football fan. But Johnson’s wrath extends to the girl’s family, whom he accuses of going to the police solely because he was well-known. The myth of the gold-digger comes up time after time, even in cases like this one where the victim has suffered torrents of abuse for having the courage to come forward and tell someone what’s happened.

It’s rare to hear sex offenders speaking so freely about what they’ve done, ditching any pretence of the remorse they feel they have to show in court. The most startling thing about Johnson’s rant is his belief that men are the real victims in rape cases, at risk of being falsely accused by women who are too drunk to remember a sexual encounter. His understanding of the notion of consent is woefully inadequate, yet it appears to be shared by some of his fellow inmates.

At one level, it’s astonishing that Johnson has learned so little from his trial and conviction, suggesting that British prisons desperately need to provide education programmes for sex offenders. At the same time, it’s hard not to think that his bravado and lack of remorse are symptomatic of a much more widespread problem.

Every year, the figures for rape and sexual assault keep going up. The police and the crown prosecution service are more sensitive to victims than they used to be, but juries are a different matter. The crude language of the Johnson video is rarely heard in court but it isn’t just in prisons that victim-blaming finds a receptive audience.

Singe-minded pursuit of the truth

Sunday Times, 16 April 2017

Child sexual abuse is rarely out of the headlines these days. It is a tempting subject for crime writers, but calls for sensitive handling, and Isabelle Grey never loses sight of the impact on victims in The Special Girls (Quercus £19.99). This is the third novel in her impressive series featuring a detective based in Essex, and it begins with the murder of a young psychiatrist at a summer camp for girls with eating disorders. When DI Grace Fisher discovers that the doctor in charge of the camp was accused of child abuse 20 years earlier, she finds herself at odds with the detectives who cleared him.

The difficulties posed by historical accusations are well-known and Fisher encounters all of them as she tries to gain the confidence of traumatised young women. But she pursues the truth with single-mindedness in this brave and harrowing novel.

Iceland’s award-winning crime writer, Arnaldur Indridason, has always been more interested in the recesses of the psyche than forensic science. The Shadow District, translated by Victoria Cribb (Harvill Secker £12.99), is the first in a new series, and begins with a murder in the present day. But a link with a crime committed 70 years earlier allows Indridason to explore his signature theme, the inescapability of the past.

Like his gloomy detective Erlendur Sveinsson, who featured in the novels that made Indridason’s name, his latest characters are haunted by things that happened decades ago. Back in the 1940s, when Iceland was occupied by American troops, a local woman was found strangled in Reykjavik. The crime appeared to have been solved but the killing of one of the lead investigators, now aged 90, casts doubt on the inquiry. Scenes set in wartime Reykjavik brilliantly capture the tensions of a small city coping with an influx of foreign troops.

With his fast-moving plots and unsparing accounts of violence, Jo Nesbo is about as far removed from Indridason as it is possible to imagine. But the past is about to catch up with his troubled detective, Harry Hole, in The Thirst, translated by Neil Smith (Harvill Secker £20). Hole has left front-line policing, but the savage murder of a woman in her own flat by someone who drank her blood brings him out of retirement. He suspects the culprit is a serial killer he failed to catch, but intense media interest forces the police to enlist an expert on vampire killers. Whether such people really exist is one of Nesbo’s trademark teases, and the novel ends with a stunning cross-country chase.

The tidal mudflats of Essex provide an atmospheric setting for The Restless Dead (Bantam Press £12.99), the latest novel from the bestselling Simon Beckett. His forensic consultant, David Hunter, is called out to help police identify a decomposed body that has been in water for weeks. Detectives think it is the missing son of a wealthy local businessman, but Hunter finds anomalies that don’t fit the theory. This is a tense, gripping read, even if the plot is overcomplicated towards the end.

Why the more successful you are, the more dangerous your relationship could get

Daily Telegraph, 5 April 2017

No woman is immune from domestic abuse. It affects those from all kinds of backgrounds. Indeed, in some cases it appears that success actually increases the risk of violence.

Concerns about the welfare of former Spice Girl Mel B, whose real name is Melanie Brown, have surfaced in recent years. The 41 year-old has appeared in public with visible bruises and abrasions which, at the time, she explained away, claiming to have fallen and hurt herself.

But she has painted a very different picture of her marriage since filing for divorce from the producer Stephen Belafonte, who has consistently denied allegations that he has been violent towards his wife.

Brown has now taken out a restraining order against her husband of a decade. Documents filed with a court in Los Angeles lay out a catalogue of alleged abuse, including claims that Belafonte punched and choked her, as well as forcing her to have sex with him and ‘random women’.

One of her key claims, which will be horribly familiar to organisations that help victims of domestic violence, is that Belafonte’s behaviour got worse as she became more successful.

Brown alleges the abuse followed a pattern in which her husband ‘would beat me down to let me know he was in charge’. She claims he was so jealous when she filmed a segment with the singer Usher for the X Factor in 2012 that he punched her and split her lip. Another claim refers to the closing ceremony of the London Olympics, when Brown was due to make a high-profile appear with the Spice Girls.

The day before, according to Brown, her husband punched her and pushed her to the floor, causing carpet burns on her body. The marks were so visible, she claims, that Belafonte forced her to tweet that she had injured herself by running in heels.

Many victims of domestic violence will hide the violence they are subjected to, suffering crippling feelings of shame and fear of their abuser. Brown’s allegations, if true, offer insights into a form of abuse that often hides in plain sight- not least because it’s commonly thought that a successful, rich, apparently confident woman cannot be a victim.

The link between poverty and domestic abuse is well-known, with research published by the Office for National Statistics showing that women who live in poor households are three times more likely to become victims. But that doesn’t mean that affluent women have nothing to worry about, with a Norwegian study pointing to a specific risk to women who have a higher income or education that their partners.

The research, published three years ago, highlighted the effects of a perceived power imbalance within relationships. Crucially, it identified some men’s inability or refusal to cope with having a successful partner as a key factor.

“Violence or control is used as a compensation for the partner’s weak position in the relationship, and may thus be regarded as an attempt to balance what is perceived as an uneven division of power,” said sociologist Heidi Fischer Bjelland.

The same theme is emerging in new TV series Big Little Lies, where the character played by Nicole Kidman is abused by her husband when she decides she wants to return to work. To outsiders, the idea of marriage as a contest is unpleasant and disturbing. But in this type of toxic relationship, the man is initially attracted towards a successful woman, using her to big himself up.

As time passes, however, her success turns from a source of self-congratulation – a form of reflected glory – into something that makes him feel small and neglected. Brown’s court documents contain allegations that suggest that her husband was supportive when they first married, at a time when she claims her self-esteem was low, but changed dramatically when her career took off again in the US.

Power can be as significant in some abusive relationships as economics. Women may assume they’re safe because they have a supportive partner, who makes a point of telling friends how well they’re doing. But men who seemingly like a ‘mentor’ role sometimes feel very differently when the woman they see as their protegee begins (in their warped view of the world) to outperform them.

Domestic abuse comes in many forms. What’s important is to spot the signs – and make sure every victim gets the support she needs to escape from a violent partner.

The Final Curtain

Murder in Minnesota with a Shakespearean twist kicks off Joan Smith’s round-up

Sunday Times, 12 March 2017

Lady Macbeth has always had a bad press. In The Last Act of Hattie Hoffmann (Quercus £12.99) by Mindy Mejia, the actress playing the role in a high school production is found stabbed to death on the opening night. Mejia lives in Minnesota and the victim appears to be a typical teenager from the mid-west, brought up on a farm with loving parents and a brother serving in Afghanistan. But someone hated her enough to mutilate her face in a fit of intemperate rage.

The local sheriff is a friend of Hattie’s father and he has known her from birth. But he discovers that she was a gifted actress in her own life, playing different roles with her best friend, boyfriend and a married lover who immediately becomes a suspect. The links with Lady Macbeth are obvious and Mejia exploits conventional ideas about female manipulation, only to challenge them as the novel unfolds. This is a haunting piece of fiction, full of characters whose self-obsession leads directly to tragedy.

Samuel Bjork’s first novel, I’m Travelling Alone, was a runaway success. His second, The Owl Always Hunts At Night (Doubleday £14.99), translated by Charlotte Barslund, features the same close-knit squad of detectives based in Oslo. It begins with the ritual murder of a 17-year-old girl whose body, half-starved and surrounded by feathers, is found in a forest after disappearing from an institution for troubled teenagers. The only thing in her stomach is animal feed, a detail that eventually links the murder to a ring of voyeurs. Two books into this stark but compelling series, Bjork’s trademark themes are the lethal intersection of technology with child abuse and misogyny.

Summary Justice (Little, Brown £16.99) is an all-action court drama by John Fairfax, who will be better known to readers of crime fiction under his real name, William Brodrick. He has adopted the pseudonym for a novel featuring a newly-qualified barrister, William Benson, who also happens to be a convicted murderer. Benson protested his innocence and used his time in prison to read for the bar, but now he’s out and no one will help him with his first case. It’s a murder trial, due to start in four days, and it looks hopeless until a solicitor who saw him convicted at the Old Bailey offers to help. This is the first novel in a series and it takes time to set up Benson’s history, but once the trial gets going it really takes off.

Rob McCarthy’s terrific second novel, A Handful of Ashes (Mulholland Books £14.99) marks a second outing for his amateur detective, Dr Harry Kent, a medical examiner for the police. McCarthy is a medical student, providing invaluable background for Kent’s job, and the book’s highly topical subject is whistleblowing. It starts with a routine call-out to the apparent suicide of a junior doctor who has been suspended after raising concerns about a well-known heart surgeon. Kent quickly realises that the death has been staged, plunging him into an explosive confrontation between grieving relatives and the medical establishment.

 

Screen Surrender

Literary Review, March 2017

Irresistible: Why we can’t stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching

Adam Alter, Bodley Head £18.99

When I was a child, I had a number of relatives who kept the TV on all the time, turning down the sound with obvious reluctance whenever we came to visit. Conversation was conducted with furtive glances towards the flickering screen, as though we couldn’t possibly be as interesting as what was displayed on it. There is nothing new about a preference for the latest technology, as it then was, over interaction with actual human beings.

What has changed is the sheer diversity of technology and the speed with which it is updated, creating the (apparently) irresistible temptations cited in Adam Alter’s book. Home computers, smartphones, virtual reality devices: we are already, in only the second decade of the 21st century, inhabiting a world which would have looked like science-fiction not so long ago.

I rarely watch TV and I’m not on Facebook but I do have a smartphone. When I began reading Alter’s book, I wondered whether I might be spending too much time checking emails and Twitter, but an ‘Internet Addiction Test’ in the first chapter established that I’ve nothing to worry about. Most of his advice for avoiding over-use, such as keeping smartphones at a physical distance some of the time, had already occurred to me.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the dystopian world that Alter opens out in the book. It is packed with individuals who spend entire days playing computer games, wasting money on gambling sites and fretting about how many ‘likes’ they have on Facebook. Alter doesn’t mention the 45th President of the United States but Donald Trump is a striking example of someone who is unable to stop posting score-settling tweets in the early hours. Sad!

Alter’s book is about behavioural addictions rather than the more familiar substance addictions. He is an associate professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University but he writes in an engaging journalistic style, using interviews and academic research to demonstrate the amount of time people spend online. Some of the results don’t seem that surprising: users of an app designed to track smartphone usage discovered that they were spending between one and four hours a day on their phones, for instance.

A much bigger piece of work, in which a group of researchers at the University of Southern California reviewed dozens of studies, came up with an estimate that 41 per cent of the population had suffered from at least one behavioural addiction in the past 12 months. Their definition was very broad, including addictions to gambling, love, sex, shopping, exercise and work as well as the Internet. So was their list of negative consequences, which ranged from damage to relationships to ‘involvement in dangerous situations, physical injury and impairment, financial loss, or emotional trauma’.

I was still digesting this claim and trying to square it with my own experience when I came upon another study, this time suggesting that ‘up to 40 percent of the population suffers from some form of Internet-based addiction, whether to email, gaming, or porn.’ That’s pretty alarming, on the face of it, and it sent me scurrying to the notes at the back of the book. The figure actually appears to derive from a study of the impact of ‘problematic Internet use’ by a group of American students on family relationships, which may not tell us much about the behaviour of the wider population.

There is no doubt that Alter’s speaks to a widely-shared anxiety about the impact of technology on human beings. At the same time, one of the biggest problems created by the Internet is mentioned only in passing in Alter’s book. Women’s organisations and children’s charities are hugely worried about the effects on adolescent boys of viewing violent and degrading porn on their smartphones, skewing their expectations of relationships. This is sometimes described (not by Alter) as an addiction, an approach I find deeply troubling. Watching videos of women being beaten and raped is a choice, and one that deliberately ignores the pain that is inflicted on victims, many of whom have been trafficked or otherwise coerced.

He does write about World of Warcraft, an online role-playing game which he describes as ‘one of the most addictive behavioral experiences on the planet’, but he doesn’t mention its citation at a notorious murder trial. Anders Breivik, the right-wing extremist who murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011, spent virtually an entire year playing it. Most players of computer games don’t become mass killers but it is a vivid example of the complicated (and notoriously difficult to unpick) relationship between online behaviour and real life.

I would have liked this book more, I think, if it looked beyond the impact of behavioural addiction on individuals. Vast generalisations such as the one at the end of the book – ‘half of the developed world is addicted to something, and for most people that something is a behavior’ – demand social and political context. I’m not convinced by the claim, but let’s say for a moment I’m wrong. Why, then, isn’t Alter isn’t curious about the impact of all this mind-numbing activity on our critical faculties, the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ and the rise of mendacious politicians like Trump?