Liam Neeson’s story isn’t just about race – it’s how men talk about rape too

Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 6 February 2019

Liam Neeson’s revelation that he wanted to kill a black man after a ‘dear friend’ was raped has caused a storm, although the attack happened around forty years ago.
It was even considered worthy of a discussion on Radio 4’s flagship Today programme where three men (of course) discussed racism, revenge and how men deal with their feelings.

Someone is very obviously missing from all this. It is indeed curious how quickly this story has gone from a story about rape to a story about race. Neeson has said that the woman has since died but that won’t stop speculation about her identity. The pool of potential victims is probably quite small and she may have friends who are now having to cope with Neeson’s headline-grabbing revelation, which was made during an interview to publicise his new film.

Equally, many may be wondering if it really was a friend who was involved in the attack – or someone else entirely. As you may have noticed, I have used the word ‘attack’ without an ‘alleged’ anywhere to be seen. For this is that vanishingly rare event, a rape which has barely been questioned, solely because it has been vouched for by a well- known man.

Let me tell you just how unusual that is. Most rapes aren’t even reported to the police because the victims are traumatised – and fear they won’t be believed. We don’t know whether Neeson’s friend reported the attack, whether anyone was charged or what the outcome was.

What we do know is that the number of contemporary rapes that result in charges are at a ten-year low, even though more incidents are being reported to the police. There was a drop of 23.1 per cent in cases that led to charges last year, suggesting it’s getting harder to get cases to court. When men aged between 18 and 24 are charged, fewer than a third are found guilty, according to figures published last year.

Women who have suffered brutal sexual attacks, and not been believed, must be ruing the fact that they didn’t have a famous male friend on hand to validate their accounts. And that’s another reason why Neeson’s admission and the response to it are so infuriating.

Unsurprisingly, he has faced a barrage of criticism, both for the way he appears to have held all black men responsible for the rape and for his admission that he acquired and carried a cosh afterwards – classic vigilante behaviour, for which he has rightly expressed regret. What hasn’t attracted anything like as much opprobrium is the way Neeson has put himself at the heart of the story, making a woman’s horrible experience all about him. Playing up to the old fashioned view that when a woman is attacked, it is the man in her life who is hurt more and therefore must avenge the act.

If Neeson wanted to do something constructive about sexual violence, instead of making himself sound like the protagonist of one of his action-man films, he could have talked more about how devastating rape is for the victim. He could have used his influence to say that women shouldn’t have to go through a second ordeal of not being believed – and called on other men to share his anger towards rapists.

Because we need men to condemn sexual predators – men like the comedian Bill Cosby, who was accused of drugging and sexually assaulting women for years. And men like Harvey Weinstein, who has been accused of using his powerful position in the film industry to assault dozens of women. Weinstein is currently facing trial in New York, while police in Los Angeles and London have also opened investigations. (Weinstein denies all the allegations.)

All of these men will be remembered long after their alleged victims – his actual victim, in the case of Cosby, who was convicted of three counts of indecent assault last year. Many victims rightly value the lifelong anonymity granted to them in UK courts but where sexual predators are concerned, there’s a fine line between fame and notoriety. Women are already denied a voice in public discussions of rape, cast as helpless victims or, far more often, liars and fantasists.

Neeson’s friend has been slotted into the first category, thanks to his celebrity and she has been all but written out of the ensuing furore. Instead we have had two days of men talking about rape in the most self-absorbed way it’s possible to imagine. It hasn’t challenged any of the nonsense that’s talked about sexual violence or helped women one jot. Because when famous men think they’re talking about rape, the conversation is actually all about themselves.

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No way out – and the chauffeur’s dead

A superb Japanese locked-room mystery and a new Jane Harper lead Joan Smith’s round-up

Sunday Times, 3 February 2019

An isolated mansion stands on a cliff at the tip of Japan’s northernmost island, overlooking the freezing sea. This quirky edifice, with its sloping floors and ill-fitting staircases, is the setting for Soji Shimada’s hugely entertaining locked-room mystery Murder in the Crooked House (Pushkin Vertigo £8.99), translated by Louise Heal Kawai. Shimada has been a huge figure in Japanese crime fiction for almost four decades and the new novel has echoes of his iconic debut The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (1981).

 

An eccentric industrialist, Kozaburo Hamamoto, has invited his business partners to spend Christmas in the mansion, which houses his sinister collection of antique masks and automata. The murders begin on the first night when a chauffeur is found dead in his room, locked from the inside, while the disjointed model of a golem — a mythical creature from Jewish folklore — lies outside in the snow. Shimada plays with a range of cultural traditions, referring to Edgar Allan Poe and even appearing to suggest, at one point, that the golem might be responsible for the killings. But the arrival of his detective, a gifted amateur loftily dismissed by the local police, brings the novel to a brilliant and satisfying conclusion.

 

In just a couple of years, Jane Harper has soared into the first rank of contemporary crime writers. Her third novel, The Lost Man (Little, Brown £12.99), returns to the parched landscape she used to such powerful effect in her debut, The Dry. A weather-beaten gravestone marks the boundary between two cattle farms in Queensland, its inscription recording the solitary death of a stockman in the 1890s. Now the body of another man lies beside the stone, with marks in the dust speaking of his futile attempt to find shade. The man owns one of the farms and suspicion falls on his brother, whose business is facing ruin. Three generations of women — the dead man’s mother, wife and daughters — struggle to come to terms with these terrible events, and the family’s shocking history holds the key to this superb murder mystery.

 

Jo Spain’s sophisticated new crime novel, Dirty Little Secrets (Quercus £16.99), isn’t technically a locked-room mystery but it’s set on a gated estate in rural Ireland with a closed circle of suspects. When an invasion of bluebottles reveals the fact that one of the residents has been dead for three months, Spain’s detectives find it hard to believe that none of her neighbours noticed her absence. A post-mortem is equivocal but Spain uses a series of vivid flashbacks to reveal how many residents of the estate had reason to hate the dead woman, suggesting that Withered Vale more than deserves its ill-starred name.

 

Bernard Minier’s literary crime novels are bestsellers in France. They’re mostly set in the Pyrenees where the battle of wits between his gruff detective, Commandant Martin Servaz, and a devious serial killer, Julian Hirtmann, has now reached a fourth volume. Night (Mulholland £14.99), translated by Alison Anderson, begins on a train in Norway, where a female detective has been sent from Oslo to investigate a murder in a church in Bergen. The chief suspect works on an oil rig but photographs among his belongings suggest a connection with Hirtmann, sending the detective to Toulouse to team up with Servaz. Minier is an accomplished writer but the protracted pursuit of a fiendish criminal is a familiar trope and his plots are starting to seem forced.

 

Hanna Jameson’s The Last (Penguin £12.99) is a clever murder mystery set in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse. In a Swiss hotel, miles from anywhere, a group of guests and staff hear news of a nuclear strike on Washington. Over the next few hours, cities in the US and Europe are wiped out, forcing the residents of the hotel to decide whether to stay put or risk setting out in search of supplies. An American historian, Jon Keller, tries to distract himself by keeping a journal but it turns into something else when a girl’s body is discovered. Some of his fellow survivors aren’t interested in what appears to be a murder, given the scale of the catastrophe that’s unfolding, but Keller’s mission to find the killer becomes a stand for human values in a brutalised world.

If two men were killed at the football every week, it would be a scandal – so why don’t wecare it’s happening to women?

Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 18 December 2018

Every single week, at least two women are killed by men in this country. In most cases, the killer won’t be a stranger but someone the victim used to think she could trust – a husband, an ex-boyfriend, in some cases a work colleague or friend. The harsh truth is that many women are in much greater danger at home than they are in public places – and the figures from the latest Femicide Census, carried out Women’s Aid and the campaigner Karen Ingala Smith, are jaw-dropping.

Of the 139 women known to have been killed by men in 2017, just over three-quarters (105) knew their killer. Almost half (64) died at the hands of a current or former partner, while 24 were killed by a colleague, neighbour or friend. Ten of the victims were killed by their own sons, in a crime – matricide – that has been regarded with peculiar horror down the centuries,

It’s an outrage but, weirdly, one we’re not really all that outraged about. The former Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, pointed out four years ago that if two people died every week at football games, there would be a national outcry. She’s right – so where is it? Where are the government ministers promising to do more to protect women from male violence? Where is the public outrage over cuts to refuges that leave women with no choice but to stay with violent men?

Some murders, to be blunt, matter more than others. In London, where a spike in knife attacks caused huge headlines earlier this year, domestic abuse has led to almost as many homicides as gang-related violence (in September, the comparable figures were 21 and 22). The increase in knife crime has been discussed at summits and other high-level meetings, and no one doubts that the killing of teenage boys and men in their 20s is agonising for  friends and families.

The Femicide Census shows, however, that knives are as great a danger to women as they are to teenage boys. A sharp weapon was used to kill women in 66 cases, including one horrific attack in which a victim was stabbed 175 times. Yet the response seems to be little more than a weary shaking of heads, as though domestic violence is just something we have to live with, like the weather.  

According to the Office for National Statistics, 1.2m women suffer domestic abuse each year although only a fraction of that number report it. Even when they do, around half of domestic abuse crimes recorded by the police don’t lead to an arrest, again according to the ONS. Reluctance of victims to give evidence is often cited as a reason for the low number of convictions, but that could be addressed by offering more protection and support to women who are rightly terrified of their former partners.

The failures of the criminal justice system were exposed once again this week when a man was jailed for the double murders of his ex-girlfriend, a Syrian refugee who fled the Assad regime to seek safety in the UK, and her mother. Janbaz Tarin, 21, stalked 22-year-old Raneem Oudeh when she ended their relationship after discovering that he had a secret wife and family in Afghanistan.

Tarin repeatedly broke a non-molestation order obtained by Ms Oudeh, sleeping outside her mother’s home in Solihull on 12 consecutive nights. On the evening of the murders, he confronted Ms Oudeh and her mother, 47-year-old Khaola Saleem, in a restaurant, lay in wait for them when they arrived home and stabbed both women to death. Ms Oudeh was actually speaking to a 999 operator – her third emergency call of the day – when she was murdered.

Leaving a violent man is incredibly dangerous – and the evidence in the Femicide Census is incontrovertible. More than half of the women killed by an ex-partner last year were killed during the first month of separation, and 90 per cent within the first year. The evidence also challenges the idea that men kill in a ‘moment of madness’, demonstrating that ‘overkilling’ – using much greater force than required to kill the victim – was evident in 42 per cent of all the killings. One woman was hit 40 times by an axe.

We should be ashamed that this is happening in a society with legal and moral commitments to equality. The home is a dangerous place for far too many women, not to mention the children who are orphaned as a result. Chronic under-resourcing of the criminal justice system and services for victims is an obvious factor, but insufficient explanation in itself.

The awful reality is that neither our politicians not the public care anything like enough about what happens to women. If they did, tackling the intimidation, violence and abuse that goes on behind closed doors would be a top political priority. It isn’t – and that speaks volumes.

Crime round-up

Sunday Times, 6 January 2019

In 2017, Jane Harper’s fine first novel, The Dry, focused attention on Australia’s drought-ravaged small towns. The Australian journalist Chris Hammer now uses a similar setting for his debut, a stunning novel set in a town struggling to survive after another inexplicable tragedy. Scrublands (Wildfire £16.99) has a journalist arriving in Riversend to write an article on the first anniversary of a mass shooting carried out by the local priest.

The parallels with The Dry are obvious, yet the books are very different. Martin Scarsden blunders into Riversend with the confidence of a journalist from the big city, opening up barely healed wounds in a town bitterly divided by the priest’s actions. Some locals insist he was a good man, yet the fact remains that he shot five people. When Scarsden uncovers a long-ago rape and the unsolved disappearance of two backpackers, the novel turns into an epic account of the psychological damage accumulated over many years in a dying agricultural town. Scrublands is that rare combination, a page-turner that stays long in the memory.
The American journalist Julia Dahl has created a riveting series featuring Rebekah Roberts, a reporter on a tabloid. In Run You Down (Faber £8.99), a woman from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclave in New York has been found dead in odd circumstances, but the police don’t seem interested. Her husband takes the unusual step of asking Rebekah to write about his wife’s death, but she is hampered by witnesses who don’t trust outsiders and her scant knowledge of the enclave. Her own mother ran away from a Hasidic community, but vanished soon after Rebekah’s birth, leaving her ignorant of the Jewish side of her family. The investigation gradually brings the women together, offering touching insights into Rebekah’s insecurities. The novel highlights the
threat from right-wing extremists and gives a chilling picture of the resurgence of
anti-semitism in America.
Lina Bengtsdotter has been hailed as the next Swedish crime sensation and her first novel is already a global bestseller. For the Missing, translated by Agnes Broomé (Orion £14.99), opens with the disappearance of a 17-year-old girl in Gullspang, a small town in southwest Sweden. Two detectives are sent from Stockholm to assist in the search, but one of them, Charlie Lager, is hiding the fact that she was brought up in Gullspang by an alcoholic mother. The febrile atmosphere is intensified by a series of melodramatic flashbacks, dropping hints about an unhealthy friendship between two local girls. While Charlie’s secret local knowledge is initially useful, her heavy drinking and enthusiasm for casual sex soon get her into trouble. Contemporary crime fiction seems to have an inexhaustible appetite for self-destructive female cops such as Charlie, reviving old stereotypes about women in a man’s world.
David Mark’s distinctive detective novels are set in his home town, Hull, where he used to be a crime reporter. Cold Bones (Mulholland £18.99), has a revenge plot reminiscent of Restoration drama but it is also a tribute to the town’s lost fishing industry. An elderly woman is found murdered in a bath of ice, a death that recalls the fate of three trawler men from Hull in the freezing waters off Iceland years earlier. The dead woman, a former social worker, was closely involved with the families of the lost men, allowing Mark to write vividly about their suffering. It is gory, startling and a complete one-off.