I loathe listing true crime. When I sit with a pile of books filled with murder, torture, rape, and other unspeakable things, and as I read the back of the book for the synopsis, I get completely creeped out. It might sound ridiculous, but there you have it. I have hundreds of true crime books, and I usually limit myself to listing a small group at a time as it’s about all I can stand.
The very first true crime book I read was at the request, or suggestion, of a customer. When we had our bricks and mortar shop I had a lovely customer who read True Crime. Like a lot of readers she used to like to have a chat, and decided to convince me to read a true crime books as I had never read one.
“You know I read Enid Blyton” I told her laughingly “I’m not sure I could handle reading a true crime book”
Being passionate about her favourite genre, as we all are, she finally managed to convince me after much wheedling. When you have a small struggling business you really appreciate your regular customers (and they can usually talk you into reading all sorts of strange things)
She had recommended Happy Like Murderers by Gordon Burn. This was the story of Fred and Rosemary West, probably the most notorious serial killer couple of all time. I came across a copy, and after some tentative peeking at the first few pages, I delved in.
This is not an ordinary true crime book. As the first true crime book I had ever read it was not what I was expecting at all.
The title, for starters, Happy Like Murderers, and the smiley face on the cover, should have warned me. I only knew of Fred and Rosemary West, I knew absolutely no details of what evil crimes they had committed. The book had no pictures, no scans of police reports, no mug shots, no images of shallow graves or fresh-faced innocent victims to make you rage at the injustice of them having their lives mercilessly snatched from them.
The book is narrative. It doesn’t begin, as one would expect, with the early life of the Wests. It begins with a victim, Caroline, written in a fictional style, of her tough life and how it led her into the world of Fred and Rosemary West. By the time Fred West is introduced you’re absolutely filled with dread for the inevitable.
And then Burns draws you in. And on, and on, relentlessly repetitive, detached, chilling, until you really don’t want to read one more word but you can’t put the damn book down. Every tiny detail he includes about the Wests, the victims, Cromwell Street, their children, their everyday life, that beckons you in closer and closer, until you’re in the most evil place on earth and you can’t leave until it all collapses around you.
I’ve since returned to my happy world of wizards and dragons and good conquering evil, and I have never ventured back to that one. I have read snippets of, and a very few true crime books since, but in a genre filled with a sensationalism and glorification, this book will always stand out.
Don’t read the damn thing, you won’t sleep for a week.