Rillington Place captivates us because it exposes how little abusive men have changed

Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 13 December 2013

Why did she stay with him? It’s a question often asked when a woman is badly beaten or killed by a violent partner. Ethel Christie, wife of John Reginald Christie, whose crimes transfixed the country in the 1950s, appears to have known or at least suspected that her husband was a serial killer.

The couple lived at a rented flat at 10 Rillington Place in Notting Hill, then a run-down area of west London. The address became so notorious that the street was eventually demolished. Christie abandoned Ethel for nine years early in the marriage, a detail highlighted in the BBC’s chilling new three-part drama series, Rillington Place.

The first episode began with Ethel, played by Samantha Morton, visiting her husband, an eerily convincing Tim Roth, in prison after finally managing to track him down. ‘Do you want a divorce?’ she asks nervously, immediately exposing her sense of powerlessness.

Of course Christie doesn’t because he is a dyed-in-the-wool misogynist who has already begun attacking women. His behaviour is escalating and he goes on to murder at least eight women and the baby daughter of one of his victims. Ethel is useful to him, providing cover and disarming potential victims who might be suspicious of a seedy man living on his own.

She is also undemanding, an essential trait for a man who appears to have been impotent, and able to have sex with women only when he felt in complete control. His modus operandi was to rape victims whom he’d first rendered unconscious, using gas or strangulation.

The Rillington Place murders were extraordinarily bleak, going unnoticed for years because Christie chose his victims as carefully as he chose his wife. Some worked as prostitutes, leading absolutely dreadful lives, and were unlikely to be missed.

Beryl Evans (played by Jodie Comer in the TV series) was a young mother who lived in the upstairs flat with her husband Timothy (Nico Mirallegro). He would now be described as having learning difficulties, and when Beryl became pregnant again she couldn’t face having a second child in such squalid surroundings.

Christie, who often pretended to have medical training, persuaded Evans he could perform a safe illegal abortion. He used the opportunity to strangle Beryl and blame the murder (and that of her daughter, Geraldine) on her confused and frightened husband. Evans was convicted of killing the baby and hanged in what turned out to be a notorious miscarriage of justice. He did not receive a posthumous pardon until 1966, while it took until 2003 to formally clear his name.

Christie went on to murder Ethel and his crimes were discovered only after he moved out of Rillington Place, when a new tenant discovered the corpses of three women behind a false wall. He was convicted of Ethel’s murder and hanged at Pentonville prison in 1953.

These events happened more than 60 years ago, yet they still fascinate. That’s because the themes resonate in the modern world, whether it’s Christie’s cunning manipulation of his wife or the desperate measures women are driven to when they can’t get legal terminations. The idea of Beryl entrusting her life to the creepy Christie is horrifying.

Yet in the US, Donald Trump’s election as President has emboldened opponents of abortion, with a new law passed in Ohio last week which would ban terminations after six weeks. At that point, many women don’t even realise they are pregnant.

The other issue raised by the Christie case is what we now call coercive control. There are similarities between Christie’s treatment of his wife in the TV series and the fictional relationship between Helen and Rob Titchener in The Archers, Radio 4’s long-running soap.

Listeners asked exactly a similar question – why doesn’t she leave him? – as Helen succumbed to Rob’s bewildering combination of charm and menace, a pattern similar to Christie’s behaviour in Rillington Place.

Superficially, the relationships could hardly be more different, especially as wartime London is so beautifully recreated in the TV series. But abusive men haven’t changed much and Christie doesn’t need modern technology – mobile phones and so on – to bring Ethel under total control. A miscarriage shortly after their reconciliation may have left her uninterested in sex, making her the ideal wife for a man chiefly interested in hurting women.

The drama shows Christie undermining her self-esteem, offering little presents at one moment and suggesting she has mental problems the next. He is calculating, praising his victims while they’re still alive so Ethel sees them as rivals, not targets of male violence.

Did she realise that her own life was in danger? It seems likely that she did, especially as a scene in the film shows Christie strangling her until she blacks out. In the 1950s, however, few people understood the dynamics of abusive relationships.

Now we know that some men deliberately set out to demoralise their partners until they have no will of their own. But even in our more enlightened times, coercive control only became a criminal offence at the very end of last year. It’s true that we are better equipped to recognise signs of abuse these days, but the poignancy of Rillington Place is rooted in how easily women can understand Ethel’s situation – one that, even now, never seems like too distant a possibility.

 

Stop calling the football child sexual abuse scandal ‘bigger than Savile’

Daily Telegraph, Friday 2 December 2016

One of the worst things that can happen to a child is being sexually abused by a trusted adult. Football is at the heart of the latest historical allegations, with police forces up and down the country revealing they have been inundated with claims stretching back decades.

The scandal is already being described as ‘bigger than Savile’, something that may turn out to be true in pure numbers of victims and perpetrators. A joint report on Jimmy Savile by the NSPCC and Metropolitan Police identified 450 victims, including 328 under-age children. In the last week alone, police investigating claims involving football clubs say they have received allegations about attacks on 350 people - almost all of them men who say they were assaulted as children or teenagers.

We don’t know the final number yet, but it’s becoming clear that boys were abused by a whole series of perpetrators at different levels of the game, from professional clubs to amateur teams. Greater Manchester police, which is one of 17 forces now involved in the investigation, say they have identified 10 suspects after being contacted by 35 victims.

Some former football players have waived their anonymity to talk openly about rapes and sexual assaults that happened on a weekly, and in some cases daily, basis. Their accounts are harrowing and some men have broken down in tears. Many have praised the bravery of the former player, Andy Woodward, whose description of being abused encouraged others to come forward.

It is a very good thing that the taboo on men talking about rape and sexual abuse is finally being broken. For too long, victims stayed silent because they couldn’t face explaining what happened to them – something that applies equally to women and girls, of course. At the same time, comparisons with Savile are uncomfortable to listen to and risk setting up an undignified competition between victims, all of whom are equally deserving of sympathy.

There are similarities between the two scandals, not least the way in which the allegations have multiplied over a short period. Within days of an ITV documentary broadcast in 2012, revealing claims against Savile by several women, the number of his victims had risen into the hundreds. Something similar has happened since Woodward came forward and many people are genuinely shocked (as they should be) by the scale of what is being uncovered.

There is no doubt that sexual abuse ruins lives. Former footballers have talked eloquently about an inability to trust, substance abuse and other lifelong consequences. But child sexual abuse is a painful enough subject without ranking it in terms of numbers and outcomes - as if there is a ghoulish desire for one to be worse than another. It must be hard for Savile’s victims to hear casual claims that this latest scandal is worse than their own.

There is another difference which may be hard for his victims (and women raped by less famous men) to hear. As soon as Savile’s crimes were revealed, people rushed to his defence. They complained that a much-loved entertainer and charity campaigner was being maligned after death, when he was no longer around to clear his name.

They accused his victims of lying, claiming they were publicity-seekers who had made up stories to get attention. Men from the 1960s and 70s entertainment industry, including a couple who are now serving prison sentences, accused under-age girls of ‘throwing themselves’ at DJs and pop stars.

Every tiresome rape myth was recycled, from blaming the victim to outright disbelief. It is easy to forget, now that Savile is known as a serial sexual predator, that some people were so reluctant to let go of their perceptions of him that they were prepared to traduce his victims.

What we are seeing now is very different. As far as I know, no one has accused the former players who have spoken publicly of lying, or having shady motives. Interviewers have behaved with sympathy, understanding and care not to re-traumatise men who have been through horrific experiences.

This is as is should be. All victims of rape and sexual assault should be treated the same, regardless of whether they are men or women; part of a sweeping historic scandal or an individual attack. I really hope it sets a precedent for the next time something like this erupts. We should never forget that the handful of victims who were brave enough to go to the police during Savile’s lifetime were not believed.

This really is too serious a subject for comparisons. Next time you hear someone claiming that the scandal around football clubs is ‘bigger than Savile’, please remember that the last thing we want is a contest in suffering.

Raped and then arrested for having ‘extra-marital’ sex – how one British woman is facing jail in Dubai

Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 16 November 2016

It is a well-known fact that different countries have very different legal systems. But many women travellers don’t understand what it actually means until something terrible happens, such as a rape. According to reports from Dubai, a British woman is facing charges – and a possible prison sentence – after telling the police she was gang-raped in a hotel last month.

The woman’s relatives say she told the police she had been lured to a hotel room by two British men who raped her and left the country shortly afterwards. They claim that instead of investigating the allegation, the police arrested her and charged her with having extra-marital sex. She has been released on bail but the authorities have confiscated her passport and she faces a £24,000 bill to cover her legal fees. ‘She is staying with an English family but she is absolutely terrified’, said a friend.

If these claims are accurate, it would not be the first time a victim of an alleged rape has been prosecuted in Dubai. It is one of the biggest cities in the United Arab Emirates and a popular tourist destination, but it also has some of the strictest laws in the world about sex and alcohol. Three years ago, a 24-year-old Norwegian woman went to the police in Dubai, claiming she had been raped during a business trip, only to find her own conduct under suspicion.

The woman was charged with having extramarital sex, drinking alcohol and perjury, and given a 16-month prison sentence. She was pardoned by the vice-president and allowed to leave Dubai only after she withdrew the rape claim. She insisted she retracted it because she had been warned that no one would believe her.

In 2008 two British tourists were jailed for three months for having consensual sex on a beach in Dubai, although the sentence was later suspended. Few people in this country would approve of such behaviour but the treatment of alleged rape victims in some Middle Eastern countries should and does cause outrage.

It is difficult enough to report a rape in the UK, where the conviction rate remains scandalously low. But UAE is one of a number of states where rape is regarded not as sexual violence but an offence against laws banning sex outside marriage. It is a reflection of the low status of women, affecting local women even more than foreigners although cases involving the latter are more likely to cause an outcry.

The UAE is not the only country where such laws exist, although the Foreign Office has previously said that Britons are proportionately more likely to be arrested there than anywhere else in the world. It says it is aware of the case and is working to support the woman and her family.

The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has yet to comment even though he made reducing violence against women one of his priorities in his previous job as Mayor of London. Johnson has talked to victims of sexual violence and he understands the damage it inflicts. So did one of his predecessors at the Foreign Office, William Hague.

It may be that the British government is still trying to get a clear picture of the case – the FCO has reportedly said it is aware of the case and is providing support to the woman and her relatives as well as remaining in contact with local authorities.

Sometimes there is an anxiety that ministers publicly criticising other countries’ treatment of their citizens will make matters worse. At the same time, the UK is publicly committed to observing and promoting equal rights. As we wait for more details of this latest arrest in Dubai, the Foreign Secretary should reflect that his job gives him a rare platform to speak up for victims of sexual violence – and to call out laws which by any modern standards are a disgrace.

Crime round-up

Sunday Times, 13 November 2016

Elly Griffiths is best known for her crime fiction featuring a forensic archaeologist in Norfolk. But she is also the author of a quirky series of novels set in the 1950s that bring together a stage magician, Max Mephisto, and a young police inspector, Edgar Stephens, who worked together in an army intelligence unit during the Second World War. The Blood Card (Quercus £16.99) is set in 1953, just days before the Coronation, which is going to be televised for the first time.

When Mephisto and Stephens receive a summons to Whitehall from a mysterious general, they discover that their former commanding officer has been murdered. Clues from the victim’s flat suggest he was worried about an anarchist plot to disrupt the Coronation, but it sounds far-fetched and all the suspects seem to be former music-hall stars. No one takes it very seriously until Griffiths pulls a truly startling rabbit out of the hat, demonstrating that this is more than the cosy mystery it initially appears.

Over half a dozen novels, Belinda Bauer has staked a claim to the gruesome, spectacular and bizarre. In The Beautiful Dead (Bantam Press £12.99) she serves up a serial killer so convinced of the rightness of his actions that he wants wall-to-wall publicity. When he spots a television reporter at the scene of his latest murder, he decides to make her an ally; the reporter, Eve Singer, is under pressure from her boss and a scoop matters to her more than anything. Bauer is scathing about the morals of television journalism, but it is a familiar critique. The more affecting passages are about Eve’s home life in suburbia, where her father has dementia. This isn’t Bauer’s best book but it has flashes of her trademark ingenuity.

John Rebus retired ages ago, but Ian Rankin keeps on finding reasons to bring his popular detective back. In recent novels Rebus has worked as a civilian support officer, and in Rather Be the Devil (Orion £19.99) he can’t resist getting involved when gang warfare erupts in Edinburgh. The gang boss who took over from Rebus’s old sparring partner, Big Ger Cafferty, is in hospital after a vicious attack and Rebus wants to know if Cafferty is behind it. The adversarial relationship between the two men is well-worn territory by now, and the inclusion of an unsolved murder from 40 years ago underlines the sense that Rebus’s moment has passed.

Carl-Johan Vallgren is a Swedish musician who writes extraordinarily dark crime fiction. The Tunnel, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles (Quercus £14.99), opens with a gang of nervous robbers planning to hold up a security van, but behind the heist lies a murder mystery of labyrinthine complexity. A private detective, Danny Katz, is trying to find out who killed a small-time drug dealer when he discovers that the victim’s missing girlfriend worked in the porn industry. His investigation reveals a conspiracy involving sex trafficking, with an unexpected connection to one of the robbers. Chilly and compelling, this is crime fiction without redemptive illusions.

 

Why are we obsessed with teen girl killers?

Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 19 October 2016

They are not glamorous bank robbers. They are not ‘Bonnie and Clyde’. They are a teenage girl and her boyfriend, who are awaiting sentence for a brutal double murder in an English market town.

The killers were 14-years-old at the time of the ‘cold and calculated’ attack, in April this year. The boy, we are told, was encouraged by his girlfriend to stab a 49-year-old woman, Elizabeth Edwards, and her daughter Katie, aged 13, to death as they slept in their beds. The girl was convicted of murder after pleading guilty to manslaughter, while the boy admitted murder earlier in the trial

That is horrific enough to contemplate, without trite comparisons that get in the way of understanding this highly unusual case. But the ‘guilty’ verdict on the girl had barely come back when the sensational response began.

Some called them ‘evil’. Others compared the pair to outlaws and made much of the fact that the girl and her boyfriend took a bath after the murders, had sex and watched the vampire film Twilight. One report, in the Mirror, managed to get both references into a headline: ‘Teen “Twilight” killers who murdered a mum and daughter compared to Bonnie and Clyde’.

In fact, there are very few similarities between the two 14-year-olds and Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who died in a shoot-out with police in 1934. They were adults, members of a gang which committed crimes during the Great Depression, holding up shops and gas stations. There is little evidence that Parker killed anyone, but Barrow and other members of the gang shot police officers and members of the public who got in their way.

The comparison was made during the trial by an expert witness, forensic psychiatrist, Dr Philip Joseph, who mused: ‘Bonnie and Clyde…that sort of intense attraction, emotional closeness – them against the world. It’s that sort of thing that led on to this’.

He was right to highlight the toxic relationship between the teenagers but almost everything we ‘know’ about Bonnie and Clyde comes from a successful 1967 film, starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, which presented a highly romanticised version of their desperate lives and sordid deaths. Such comparisons do nothing to help us understand why two British children, living in a Lincolnshire town, would plot and carry out the brutal murders of a mother and daughter. They only serve to fuel our enduring fascination with young female killers; indeed, so much attention has been paid to the girl’s part in this horrific crime that the boy’s role is in danger of being overlooked.

We are more accustomed to thinking about girls as victims of crime, rather than perpetrators. A recent series of harrowing trials, involving men accused of sexually abusing underage teenagers in towns such as Rotherham, has driven that message home. But while it’s true that teen girls are more likely to be victims of violence, there are cases (albeit a relatively small number) where they are actively involved in crime. In cities with a gang problem, for instance, teenage girls are sometimes horribly abused and then used to draw other young women into the gang’s clutches.

Perversely, the expectation that girls are usually victims means that the rare exceptions are guaranteed the kind of sensational coverage we have just seen in the Spalding case. Describing a teenage girl as ‘evil’ tells us nothing about her; it is a distancing mechanism, employed to reassure the public that no one needs to think too hard about what happened before she committed such a terrible crime.

Even the fact that the girl watched a vampire film – one which is also hugely popular with teenagers who have never so much as dropped a piece of litter – has been used to suggest that she’s not quite human.

Such incidents, we are being asked to believe, simply defy understanding. This is almost never the case and the mythologising that follows is very damaging – disastrously so in some instances. A recent Netflix documentary showed how the investigation into the savage murder of a British student in Italy, Meredith Kercher, was derailed by the demonising of her American flatmate, Amanda Knox, who fought for years to clear her name after being paraded in the press as ‘Foxy Knoxy’.

Both the teenagers in the Spalding case had displayed disturbed behaviour before the double murder. In diaries, the girl described herself as an ‘emotional train wreck’. They appear to have hated themselves and adults, had suicidal thoughts and had initially planned to kill themselves after the murders.

That they ever met was a disaster. But so too was the lack of stable emotional attachment in their lives – a common factor in the backgrounds of young people who take part in extreme violence. But it’s far easier to attach labels than look at why no one spotted their problems or intervened.

It doesn’t excuse their horrific crimes, for which they are now paying the price. But calling them ‘Twilight murderers’ – almost fictionalising their actions – does nothing to help us make sense of the tragic events that have shaken an English market town to its core.

Ched Evans verdict: why we should all feel anxious about high-profile rape cases

Daily Telegraph, 14 October 2016

The judge who presided over the second trial of the footballer Ched Evans got it right: ‘This case has been conducted out in the public gaze,’ Mrs Justice Nicola Davies said as she discharged the jury. They had just cleared Evans of rape after deliberating on their verdict at Cardiff crown court for three hours.

Few cases have attracted as much attention as that of Evans. His conviction for raping a 19-year-old woman in 2011 was quashed by the appeal court earlier this year, leading to a retrial. Applause was heard from the public gallery following the ‘not guilty’ verdict and Evans sobbed as he embraced his girlfriend, Natasha Massey, who was involved in a high-profile campaign to clear his name. The jury at the retrial was not told that Massey sent a Facebook message about a £50,000 reward to a key witness, signing it with a kiss.

Evans has always denied rape, saying that he walked into a hotel room in Rhyl where his friend, the footballer Clayton McDonald, was having sex with the complainant. He said that McDonald asked ‘Can my friend join in?’ The prosecution claimed that the woman was too drunk to consent but Evans insisted that she replied ‘yes’.

He admitted in court that he lied to get a key for the hotel room and did not speak to the woman before, during or after having sex with her. His lawyers argued that the prosecution case was ‘built around the myth’ that the woman was too drunk to agree to sex.

His legal team asked for and was given permission to question the complainant at his new trial about her sexual behaviour with two other men, arguing that it was ‘so similar’ as to be relevant. That is one of a number of respects in which the Evans case is unusual - not least the fact that it has been going on for more than five years.

It comes at a moment when the subject of rape and the criminal justice system is rarely out of the headlines. Less than two decades ago, it was routine for complainants in rape trials to be questioned about their sexual history. But it was widely accepted that fear of being cross-examined about other, consensual relationships deterred women from giving evidence.

The law has since been changed in several respects, based on a recognition that complainants in rape trials are often vulnerable witnesses. Many people believe that the 1999 Youth and Criminal Justice Act outlawed questioning on these lines, not realising that the act contains significant exceptions. Some campaigners are uneasy that such evidence is allowed in some cases but not others, which means that a woman who makes a complaint to the police has no idea whether her sexual history will become an issue.

We already know that some of the protection put in place for complainants has not proved as effective as it should. They are entitled to lifetime anonymity but social networking platforms have been used to reveal their identity in some cases and even where they live, in defiance of the law. The abuse they have received, regardless of the verdict in an individual case, is an issue that the criminal justice system urgently needs to address.

No doubt the Evans case will also prompt renewed calls for anonymity for defendants in rape trials as well as complainants. It is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of rape, which is almost always a serial offence. Conviction rates in rape cases are low and falling, but what makes a difference is when more than one woman gives evidence. Often other women only come forward when a man is arrested and charged - and they realise it has happened to someone else. Granting anonymity to defendants would actively obstruct the process of getting justice for victims.

Critics of the present system also argue that cases take too long to get to court and complainants don’t get sufficient support. They say that the focus should be whether the complainant consented to sex with the defendant, not how she behaved in sexual encounters with someone else in different circumstances.

They also worry about opinion polls showing that sizeable numbers of people have harsh attitudes to women, blaming them if they danced with a defendant before the alleged rape or had been drinking, for instance.

The balance between the rights of defendants and complainants has been the subject of fierce debate for many years, and no doubt will continue to be so. But there is a legitimate anxiety about the effect of lurid publicity around high-profile cases. Justice will not be served if future victims fear the trial process so much that they are deterred from going to the police.

 

What if there’s more sexual violence now, not just reports of it?

We can’t go on explaining the entire rise in rape reports by saying victims are more likely to speak up. I fear the reality is grimmer than that

The Guardian, Friday 14 October 2016

We’ve been saying it for years: the huge increase in recorded rapes in this country is because victims are more confident about reporting it. Women have read about Jimmy Savile, they’ve heard about well-known men going to prison and they trust the police more than they used to. But the trend is so relentless that I think we now have to consider a much more alarming possibility – that more rapes are being committed.

First, the figures. The number of rape claims – from both adults and children – recorded annually by the police has more than doubled in the past four years, from just over 16,000 to almost 36,000, according to figures just published by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary. I’ve got used to arguing that these increases are a good thing because we need victims to go to the police, to get justice for themselves and to protect other women.

All of that is true, but it doesn’t look to me as though it’s happening. There is a long-running argument about how to calculate the percentage of rape reports that end in convictions but the actual figure – only 2,689 this year – tells its own story. While that number is slightly up on the 2,414 convictions four years ago, over the same period the proportion of reported cases that led to conviction – already stubbornly low – has dropped by half, from 15% to 7.5%.

I’m not dismissing the idea that some victims have more confidence in the criminal justice system, post-Savile. But I’m worried that the assumption may hide an actual increase in the number of rapes and serious sexual assaults. If the conviction rate had kept pace with the increase in reported cases, there would have been 5,400 convictions this year – more than 2,700 higher than the actual figure.

I’m not alone in being concerned. Women read the news, they watch TV and they know that men who commit rape are unlikely to be convicted and sent to prison. Even if senior police officers and prosecutors have dramatically changed their approach to women who allege rape, there is still a wider culture of disbelief that is evident during high-profile trials.

If you think victims are treated more sympathetically by the media these days, I suggest you read reports of rape trials in the Daily Mail. The paper regularly splashes on stories about men who have been found not guilty, going into prurient detail about the accuser’s “past” – it recently described one young woman as having “an extraordinary sexual appetite” – and failing to acknowledge that false accusations are rare.

Then there are inexcusable delays in the criminal justice system. Long waits to get to court mean that victims have to live with anxiety about giving evidence and fear of intimidation, especially if they knew their alleged attacker. I would never argue that women shouldn’t go to the police but it’s the beginning of a lengthy process, and there isn’t anything like enough support for women who are going through it.

I’m just not convinced that we can go on explaining the entire rise in rape reports by saying that victims are more likely to make a complaint. The possibility of an actual increase is starting to be discussed among senior police officers, prosecutors and organisations that work with victims, and there are a number of factors that might explain it. After all, it isn’t just victims who read angry articles by campaigners about how easy it is to get away with rape.

It is a fact that most men who commit violent sexual attacks on women (and other men, in a small number of cases) will never be brought to justice. When I think about how long sexual predators like Savile got away with their crimes, it is inconceivable to me that there aren’t serial rapists walking round free today, entirely unperturbed by the (distant) prospect of ever being arrested.

If anything, technology has made the whole thing easier. Earlier this year, a man called Jason Lawrance was jailed for life for raping five women and attacking two others he met on the dating site Match.com. Lawrance, who was 50 and married, was a serial rapist who preyed on women who were divorced or widowed.

His is an extreme case, but the internet makes it easy for rapists to invent attractive biographies for themselves and gain the trust of potential victims. Earlier this year, the National Crime Agency revealed that the number of people reporting a rape with someone they met via a dating website had risen six-fold in five years, albeit from a low base.

We also know that the internet has created opportunities for paedophiles to contact underage children, concealing their real age and persuading victims to meet them without parental knowledge. Most people, I suspect, have yet to realise quite how extensively the internet is being used to plan and commit sexual offences, including rape and serious sexual assaults on children.

I hate the idea that more individuals may be undergoing the horror of a sexual attack. The implications are alarming for everyone who wants to live in a country where such violence is beyond the pale. But I don’t think we can go on taking comfort in assumptions, however reassuring, that may turn out to conceal a much grimmer reality.

A classic murder mystery with a cunning twist

Sunday Times, 9 October 2016
The classic murder mystery has plenty of suspects, all with plausible motives, and a detective who spots clues nobody else has seen. Anthony Horowitz supplies these elements twice over in Magpie Murders (Orion £18.99), an ingenious novel-within-a-novel about the death of a bestselling crime writer. Alan Conway falls from a tower shortly after completing his latest book, in which Atticus Pünd, his eccentric German-Greek detective, is summoned to investigate a sudden death in an English village in the 1950s. Conway’s editor, Susan Ryeland, has just spent the weekend reading the typescript when she discovers that the final chapters are missing.
When she receives the shocking news that Conway has killed himself, she is far from convinced, and can’t help seeing sinister parallels between the novel and the death of her least-favourite author. Part crime novel, part pastiche, this magnificent piece of crime fiction plays with the genre (Horowitz includes “reviews” of Conway’s books) while also taking it seriously.
The Danish author Thomas Rydahl won two of the most prestigious prizes in Nordic crime fiction for his first novel, The Hermit, translated by KE Semmel (Oneworld £16.99). The book is set on Fuerteventura, the second-largest of the Canary Islands, where a Dane called Erhard has been existing quietly for two decades. He lives in a remote spot with a couple of wild goats for company and earns his living as a taxi driver. No one knows why he left Denmark or how he lost one of his fingers.
When a car is found on a beach, with a dead baby in a cardboard box on the back seat, Erhard is asked for help because the box also contains cuttings from Danish newspapers. The police soon lose interest, but something about the child’s death troubles Erhard. He is neither a natural investigator nor an attractive human
being, which means the novel is not an easy read. But it is original and compelling, and it is not difficult to see why the book has become a bestseller in Denmark.
Anita Nair is one of India’s most successful poets and novelists. Chain of Custody (Bitter Lemon £8.99) is the second in a vivid series of crime novels set in her home city, Bangalore, where prostitution exists side-by-side with extraordinary wealth. Her irascible detective, Inspector Gowda, is investigating the murder of a lawyer inside a gated community when his cleaner’s 12-year-old daughter Nandita goes missing.
Nandita is a clever girl, with no reason to disappear, and it soon becomes apparent that other children have vanished in similar circumstances. Nair is an accomplished writer,
and she uses this searing novel to expose the hideous and all-too-real world of
child-trafficking.
When PD James died in November 2014, she left behind a number of short stories that hadn’t been published in a single volume. The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories (Faber £10) brings together four of them, written over more than three decades and linked by the theme of Christmas. It offers a lovely coda to James’s career, and the first story, which is set in a country house in the bitter winter of 1940, shows her writing at her sly and brilliant best.

The Fale Sheikh is overthrown, but the matter can’t rest there

Big questions remain for prosecutors who relied on Mazher Mahmood’s testimony – and for all who allowed him to act without oversight

The Guardian, Thursday 6 October 2016

In the course of his long career, the undercover journalist known as the Fake Sheikh bragged about the number of people he’d sent to prison. Back in 2012, during a melodramatic appearance at the Leveson inquiry, Mazher Mahmood declared that he was “proud to have jailed paedophiles and drug dealers”. Now, in a stunning reversal of fortune, the famously camera-shy Fake Sheikh may be facing a prison sentence himself.

Mahmood has been convicted, along with his driver Alan Smith, of tampering with evidence in the drugs trial of the singer Tulisa Contostavlos. That trial was the result of a “sting” operation reported in the Sun on Sunday. Both men have now been found guilty of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, an offence which carries a jail sentence of up to two years.

It is all a far cry from the days when drug dealers, sports stars and celebrities who had fallen on hard times allegedly quaked at the mention of the Fake Sheikh. His scalps included members of the Pakistan cricket team, three of whom were jailed for match-fixing during a tour of England in 2010. Mahmood, by contrast, was celebrated. He won a series of press awards for the story.

The reporter boasted to the Leveson inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press that he had been responsible for more than 250 successful criminal prosecutions, although critics say the figure is closer to 70. He claimed that he lived under “a constant death threat”, persuading the inquiry that he could give evidence only in a courtroom cleared of everyone except lawyers. Reporters had to listen to the audio feed of his evidence from another room, allowing him to protect his identity – and increasing his mystique.

But there was always a darker side to Mazher Mahmood’s self-mythologising, with some of his best-known stories falling apart long before the Contostavlos debacle. Stings are part of newspaper life, the most recent being the Daily Telegraph’s revelations about Sam Allardyce, which prompted his resignation as England manager. But there is a difference between investigating pre-existing allegations of corruption in sport – or, indeed, a prominent MP’s willingness to pay for sex while chairing an inquiry into prostitution law, as the Sunday Mirror did recently – and persuading people such as Contostavlos to act entirely out of character, which is what, we must now conclude, Mahmood did.

What next? Mahmood and Smith are due in court for sentencing later this month. But even then, it doesn’t end. Big questions remain for police and prosecutors who relied heavily on Mahmood’s investigations and testimony in a number of contested cases. The lawyer Ben Rose, who defended Contostavlos at her drugs trial, went to the heart of the matter: “The real scandal in this case is that Mahmood was allowed to operate as a wholly unregulated police force, ‘investigating’ crimes without the safeguards which apply to the police,” he said.

Following the collapse of the Contostavlos trial, the crown prosecution service dropped a number of criminal cases in which Mahmood was due to be a witness, and announced a review of 25 past convictions. The criminal cases review commission is currently reappraising six cases involving celebrities who were convicted after being targeted by Mahmood.

But the questions go further than that. Consider that some police officers have privately complained that all weekend leave was cancelled when their superiors got wind that Mahmood was about to publish a big exposé in the News of the World. If true, is that level of complicity at all appropriate?

Surely such allegations, indeed all issues raised by the case, demonstrate the urgent need for ministers to set up the second part of the Leveson inquiry, specifically to examine relationships between the police and the press and whether they work towards the public good. It appears to have been parked. The very public fall of Mazher Mahmood tells us it must now be set up without delay.

Flatlines

Literary Review, October 2016

Transit, by Rachel Cusk (Jonathan Cape £16.99)

Rachel Cusk’s narrator is a writer who is in the process of reorganising her life after the break-up of a long relationship. She moves back to London with her two sons and decides, on the advice of a friend, to buy a bad house in a good street rather than the other way round. It needs a massive amount of building work but that isn’t the half of it; the basement consists of a council flat occupied by a hellish couple who harass her at every turn.

To an outsider, this purchase seems ill-judged from the outset, and the state of the house quickly comes to seem like a metaphor for everything that’s wrong with Faye’s current circumstances. She is self-deprecating and uncomplaining – we don’t even learn her name until a long way into the novel – and these characteristics are reflected in the manner of her narration.

Whenever a new character is introduced, she begins to tell his or her story, often employing reported speech as if she’s little more than a mouthpiece. Here she is, for instance, summarising a conversation with an ex-boyfriend who went to live in Canada when she left him years ago: ‘They had stayed on in Toronto for another eighteen months, Gerard went on, during which time Clara was born.’ The problem isn’t so much that these stories are hard to believe – Faye is a passive narrator, not an unreliable one – as her unemotional reaction to them. It is mystifying, given that some of them lead lives of spectacular misery.

There is a clue to Faye’s detachment in the opening chapter, in a rather laboured anecdote about an unsolicited email from an astrologer. Faye knows that the woman has been generated by an algorithm but in the end she pays up for the reading she’s been offered. She seems to be suggesting that the world is so cruel and confusing, and genuine communication so difficult, that computer-generated sympathy is as reliable as the real thing. She has a friend who feels the same following his divorce, feeling ‘moved to tears by the concern for his health and wellbeing expressed in the phraseology of adverts and food packaging’.

Of course this man is depressed and far from alone among the melancholic characters who take their turns in Cusk’s pages. As in her critically-acclaimed earlier novel, Outline, other people move in and out focus, not seeming to relish their moment in the spotlight. Faye’s life exists in the intervals between these stories, as if she’s not even assertive enough to claim back her own narrative. In the course of the book, she moves into the house, sends her sons to stay with her ex-partner when the building work becomes too disruptive, speaks at a literary festival and becomes embroiled (possibly too strong a word) in a feud with her downstairs neighbours.

The malice of this working-class couple – she is obese, he claims to be suffering from cancer, even their dog is ‘shrivelled’ and ‘hobbling’ – is one of the strongest feelings in the novel, rising through the floor like the smell of boiled cabbage. Their mere presence creates a sense of menace which is hard to interpret – do they pose a genuine threat to Faye? – and would send a less passive protagonist straight to the police.

Clearly Cusk shares a great deal with her narrator, having written about the break-up of her own marriage in an angry, self-exposing piece of non-fiction entitled Aftermath. She is no stranger to blurred boundaries in her fiction and non-fiction, inevitably raising questions about what this series of novels represents. The titles – Outline, now followed by Transit – suggest some kind of movement, but whose progression is it?

Cusk’s themes – failures of communication between men and women, the distance between even well-intentioned adults, the damage sustained in childhood – are clear enough. Transit is an unusual entity, a novel almost without minor characters as though her protagonist is involved in a deliberate exercise in literary democracy, insisting that everyone’s inner world has the same value.

Once this becomes evident, any expectation that the novel will arrive somewhere, rather than repeating its themes, quickly evaporates. If Faye is going to emerge from her passivity and depression, it doesn’t seem likely that it will happen in this book: ‘I said that perhaps none of us could ever know what was true and what wasn’t,’ she suggests to a friend as they sit in a café, batting ideas about love backwards and forwards.

A question remains at the end of this ambitious but contradictory novel. Is it a reflection of modern life, accurately capturing the loneliness felt by many adults in a sensitive piece of fiction? Or is it a series of apparently disparate characters who share Cusk’s low expectations and distrust of the world? The book’s flat narration and affectless style seem to suggest the latter.