View Full Version : Gordon Burn: Happy Like Murderers

7th Sep 2004, 2:09
Certain books, and these are books that I like by the way, fill me with a certain frisson of shame every time I read them in public. One of these (and its sister, while we're at it, Somebody's Husband, Somebody's Son) is Gordon Burn's Happy Like Murderers. Do I mean shame? Is that the right word? There is nothing lurid about the cover, after all, for it is just a photograph of topsoil upon which sits a bright yellow smiley from a child's toy. Indeed, the look of the thing is rather discrete. No red and black, no garish iconic overused photo, no trumpeting screaming tabloid cri de coeur blasted across the masthead.

No, none of these, but it does say - and it really does try and say it as soberly as possible - 'the True Story of Fred and Rosemary West'.

Straight away this puts you through the looking glass, and people stare. They do, they stare and they judge, I'm certain of it. You can't rush through it though, not like those ten-a-penny tie-ins that come out the evening after a juicy murder trial (Howard Sounes's Fred and Rose doing the honours in this case). In fact, I bet you're thinking it now, aren't you? But it's important to get this across; here, it's different. Really.

You'll know the story, of course. Fred and Rose West, seemingly 'OK but a bit rough' married couple, open house, waifs and strays, abuse, murders, burials - and that's all true. All of that shitty truth is detailed endlessly in these pages, but there is so much more to it.

To attempt anything within the parameters of the history of 25 Cromwell Street, you have to get past the violence. Burn runs at that particular hurdle head on. We get it all; the rapes, the casual assaults, the beatings, the murders, the disposals, the de-humanising brutality, everything delivered straight and unflinching. The effect, and you may argue that this is real shame, is to become numb to the horror. From that point on, you start to notice the other stuff.

Burn begins by picking up threads, different people, peripheral characters who knew the Wests, and telling their stories, explaining their lives and motivations. These people, you see, are real, interconnected, they're me and you. He gives a social history of Cromwell Street, painting a picture of Gloucester between the wars:

For five years from 1927, Eddie Fry, destined to be known as 'The Pocket Hercules' and 'Gloucester's Midget Strongman', walked along Cromwell Street on his way to the back playground entrance of Sir Thomas Rich's. He was aged eleven to sixteen then and would return to Cromwell Street to live a few years later when he married Doris Green, the girl at number 25.


Mr and Mrs Miles have lived at 43 Cromwell Street for fifty years...Mr Miles, a retired civil servant, grows flowers in beds that run around two sides of his house. He is often to be found on his knees on the pavement, pruning and trimming, forking and sifting, tending his little bit of suburbia.

Gradually the picture builds up, an existence repeated everywhere across England in working towns. Not too bad, full of community, full of systems of surveillance, restraint, obligation, a complex network of checks and balances. All about to fall apart, of course.

Sixties. Seventies. The rapid disintegration of established codes as economics forces square pegs into round holes nationwide. Somebody's Husband covers much the same ground in dealing with the new uncertainties of masculine sexual politics, here though it's all migration and social dislocation. Old rules no longer applying, certain unfortunate circumstances conspiring to bring the results to the doorsteps of predators (in Bingley with Sutcliffe, in Gloucester with Fred). Eighties. Choice, all glossy and blinding, a shiny new commodity we're eager for and sold on, comes rolling along and topples us over. HLM follows behind the ride and bumps over the wake, watching what is turned over and over, and usually it's kids. Kids picked up by Fred and Rose on the Gloucester Ring Road, or in pub car parks, or by burger vans and lay-bys. Taken in, fed and watered, bumped and dumped; Fred authors their destruction with a fierce and strongly held ambivalence.

He's so powerfully uncaring. His own virtual impotence with his wife - whom he demands sleeps around, and then reports back - only finds authority in the casual ruin he effects on those who wander into his orbit. He pushes their bodies (strangers, lodgers, his kids) into holes too small to take them. He twists their limbs off with a pop. He removes their fingers, toes, shoulder blades, takes them to certain places that mean something and buries them there.

When the floor of the cellar had been filled up with bodies and concreted over and made into a bedroom for the children, he would spend many hours sitting on the edge of their beds drinking tea and talking. Talking if there was anybody there with him but sitting hour after hour down there anyway where five bodies were buried.

Ah, sorry, should have warned you. We're back to the violence again. The thing is, like a dull background drilling, like roadworks or sitting in a dentist's waiting room, you tune in to the horror again. The anaesthetic wears off, the traffic eases, and it's there again. You're lucky, you've absorbed the point along the way, but without realising it surges insidiously back again:

She started hitting Anna with fists and hands and swearing at her, calling her names. Anna was gagged. She started screaming. She was screaming in her head. Rose raped her. And then Anna remembered her father being there and he had his work overalls on. She remembered pleading with him with her eyes. Her father raped her. She presumed it was his lunch hour.

But in the end the book triumphs because it is so glaringly humane in its ability to deal with the subject matter. Fred's inhumanity grows to colossal proportions. The book stares him out, it has to I guess, and proves itself by winning that particular contest. In the end, he's a pitiable creature, a bully, a thug, so totally without human recognition that it dawns on you you've won the battle because you cannot possibly get further away from this man. So, shame? No, I suppose not. But a missionary zeal, perhaps, a calling to convert and urge people to read this book because in the end you can't help but feel affirmed by it.

John Self
7th Sep 2004, 11:19
'Nice' review amner. With a wild sense of inappropriateness, I once bought a friend this book for her birthday (and yes, she is still speaking to me) but I haven't read it myself, even though I consider myself a fan of Burn's. I think I am probably afraid of it.

What I want to know is, how does Burn know so much about the precise nastiness of their deeds? Most of the victims are dead, and presumably the Wests didn't tell everything to the police.

(Speaking of what they told, I once heard an extract from a tape of him being interviewed by police. I can only describe what I heard this way. Sometimes I have clients who, in conversation, are perfectly coherent and fluent, but when they send me a letter or something else in writing their words are suddenly half-formed, inarticulate, as though created by a shuddering clockwork mechanism. Fair enough for people who haven't had a great education. But when West spoke that was exactly how he sounded to me: barely able to construct individual words let alone sentences. Scarcely a higher animal at all.)

Martin Amis (whose cousin Lucy Partington was killed by the Wests), in his memoir Experience, rejects the use of "Fred" and "Rose," insisting on Frederick and Rosemary West: they don't deserve the chummy diminutive, he says, or something like that.

8th Sep 2004, 11:02
What I want to know is, how does Burn know so much about the precise nastiness of their deeds? Most of the victims are dead, and presumably the Wests didn't tell everything to the police.

'Lord knows what it has cost him', as one crit says on the back. Yes, well, I would concur with that level of concern, most definitely. Checking out the acknowledgments section you can see a great deal of family and 'friends' of the Wests listed there. Many of the victims were not killed, though, some were just objects of abuse and looked upon no.25 as an open prison kind of deal. The first such victim we encounter, is Caroline Roberts, and she's written her own account (http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/1843580888/qid=1094633678/ref=sr_8_xs_ap_i1_xgl/202-9572539-9522235). I think he's been thorough and strong-stomached, essentially.

But when West spoke that was exactly how he sounded to me: barely able to construct individual words let alone sentences. Scarcely a higher animal at all.

Like an animal, he was able to sniff the vulnerable out. People who stood up to him made him feel helpless. His bullying makes you more and more angry as you read.

Martin Amis (whose cousin Lucy Partington was killed by the Wests), in his memoir Experience, rejects the use of "Fred" and "Rose," insisting on Frederick and Rosemary West: they don't deserve the chummy diminutive, he says, or something like that.

I was going to mention Amis. Yes, I can of course see his point and when Burn isn't employing his almost vernacular style he does become more formal (Rosemary, certainly, is used). Mostly the thing has this very-close-to-fiction feel which I think horrified a lot of readers because it acts to bring you closer and closer to the perpetrators, rather than the comfort-zone distance of, say, Brian Masters (She Must Have Known - terrible title).

8th Sep 2004, 13:03
The problem with searching for - as above - Caroline Roberts's book about her ordeal (which goes by the rather restrained and even intriguing title The Lost Girl) is that for a while you get similar ball-park recommendations thrown at you by Amazon on your next visit. It's like a peek into another world. Some of these just sound excruciating:

Hush Little Babies by Don Davis
She lovingly kissed her boys good night - then used a kitchen knife to say good-bye...forever
Always in Our Hearts by Doug Most
The story of Amy Grossberg, Brian Peterson, the pregnancy they hid, and the child they killed
Dying for Daddy by Carlton Smith
Did a devoted father smother his children - to death?
No, Daddy, Don't! by Irene Pence
The horrifying true story of John Battaglia, an abusive husband who committed the ultimate act of violence and betrayal by murdering his two young daughters, as their mother listened helplessly on the telephone.
Sleep, My Child, Forever by John Coston
The riveting true story of a mother who murdered her own children - 8 pages of photos! [their exclamation mark]
Please Don't Kill Mommy! by Fannie Weinstein
The true story of a man who killed his wife, got away with it, then killed again

Ms Weinstein is also author of Where the Bodies Are Buried and The Co-ed Call Girl Murder. Don Davis is also co-author of If Bad Sound Were Fatal, Audio Would Be the Leading Cause of Death. No, I don't know what that means either.

John Self
8th Sep 2004, 13:08
Ugh. And lol.

Incidentally, restrained the title of Caroline Roberts's book may be, but it is clearly designed to appeal solely to those pokers and ghouls (all gazillions of them) who bought Dave Doubtful Authenticity Pelzer's The Lost Boy.

http://images-eu.amazon.com/images/P/1843580888.02.LZZZZZZZ.jpg http://images-eu.amazon.com/images/P/0752837613.02.LZZZZZZZ.jpg

8th Sep 2004, 13:12
Or this?:

Crikey, growth industry grief, huh?

John Self
8th Sep 2004, 13:18
I'll see your Sickened and raise you a Kid:


Yes it's truly appalling: the fact of these books, not their content. How difficult could it be to make up a harrowing childhood - or if you actually had one, to garnish it with sellable sick stuff?

8th Sep 2004, 13:32
Raising the ante again, I'll go:
You can imagine the photo-shoot: 'OK kids, and finally, we're not paying you ... heyy, excellent!'

8th Sep 2004, 13:33
Awful, just awful. It's like with that Pelzer guy, I bet if you added up all the years he has written about, he'd probably be about a hundred by now. He's published loads of books.

I even saw on eof those self-help manuals that certain people find so alluring written by him. Live my life the Dave Pelzer way? No thanks.

8th Sep 2004, 13:58
You have to be careful, of course. Two of the criticisms aimed at Pelzer are that a) he's not that good a writer, so you get an horrific litany of abuse, but no 'connection' (unless you're looking for one, for whatever reason), and b) people use it as a convenient compartment to tidy away their distaste rather than going out and actually helping combat the problem. Add them together and it appears to me (I haven't read them) that for the most part they're for the comfort-zone 'how awful!' brigade.

For casual readers to the thread, as JS says above, it's not the subject per se, but their sellability. I dread to think of the purchase dynamics in operation here.

Many, many years ago I had the distinctly Curate's Egg experience of working for a Social Services office that dealt with child abuse. During that time I read plenty of texts - all of them sans the saccharine-sweet covers of a Pelzer - which the people I dealt with found comforting/inspiring/helpful/affirming. I'm sure he has a story to tell, and wouldn't want to slag his life history, but none of the books I read on similar subjects were ever sold in a supermarket.

16th Sep 2004, 11:00
My book club, which frankly is living on borrowed time, sent me a glossy with shedloads of these wallow-fest tomes. So, a few more for you:
.Enough with the same design, already!

16th Sep 2004, 13:24
How can any of us be expected to prosper in this world? Our thoughtless parents didn't abuse use enough.

16th Sep 2004, 14:09
I agree. I recently read (or part read) Where Did It All Go Right? which was intended as a counterpoint to all these kinds of novels about the author's own happy childhood growing up in the bosom of a loving family and it was a bloody dull read.

5th Sep 2011, 12:04
Lots of visits to this thread today, following - I guess - ITV's Appropriate Adult drama. Welcome.

ono no komachi
6th Sep 2011, 9:46
I have to say, I thought the first part of Appropriate Adult was impressive. And I am informed by a friend who was on duty with Gloucestershire Constabulary at the time, that Dominic West gave an extremely accurate portrayal of West, down to his vocal mannerisms and filthy fingernails. My friend was extremely impressed with the accuracy of secondary characters such as West's son, too.