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The bare bones of the case

28 February 2004

12:00 AM

28 February 2004

12:00 AM

Beyond Evil Nathan Yates

John Blake, pp.279, 16.99

It seems only the other day that Ian Huntley was convicted at the Old Bailey of the pointless murder of two pretty Cambridgeshire schoolgirls, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, and here, already, is a book about the case by a journalist who covered every day of the investigation. One is bound to ask why. What purpose can the book serve? What can it add to our understanding of what happened? What solace can it offer to the bereaved? What wisdom can it provide to the curious? The answer to all four questions is, I am afraid, not much.

The book fulfils the very least of expectations by presenting a cogent narrative for posterity. This is exactly how the story unfolded and how it was resolved, with no added flourishes or embellishments. And it is told by somebody who knows his subject from his predicate, so that the usual illiteracy prone to infect this kind of instant book is mercifully absent. It is also free of hysteria and headline adjectives, though there are perhaps too many ‘nightmares’ wandering through its sentences. But it tells us absolutely nothing that we do not already know from reading daily newspaper accounts and following the course of the trial. Indeed, rather less, for the trial is stuffed into a few pages at the end and is not examined at all, let alone in detail. So this is newspaper reporting between hard covers.

One does have a right to expect more. You look to the dignity of a book to explore beyond, to enter into the springs of moral behaviour and distortion, to ponder the philosophical implications of an event wherein a man can snuff the life out of two harmless girls and then treat their bodily remains as so much garbage to be disposed of without rite or ritual, without tears or lamentation, and then continue himself to eat and love and chatter. All that deserves pondering, for it would go further than the bald facts to look at the essence of human aberration. But Nathan Yates does not even try. Perhaps it would require a novelist to take this case as a basis upon which to construct a moral tale of profound dimensions capable of giving the reader an intellectual wince, for the murderer himself has said nothing to elucidate either his character or impulses. It needs a Dostoevsky, not a Boswell.

Hence this superficial book is risibly mistitled. ‘Evil’ tells us what we ought to feel, and ‘Beyond’ is an empty boast. The subtitle, ‘Inside the Twisted Mind of Ian Huntley’, is woefully unjustified, for we are not shown how the mind is ‘twisted’ nor how and why Huntley responded to stimuli and opposition the way he did (the murders can only have been the result of thwarted will, a frustration most of us manage to conquer). We are told the murderer had a ‘dark, troubled mentality’ as a straight assertion. We learn he was bullied at school, was terrified of his father, told lies to inflate himself, poisoned himself with jealousy, none of which would be sufficient to explain.

Yates allows it possible that Huntley’s bafflement was genuine, that he really did not know why he attacked the girls. He also talks about the man’s capacity for ‘hatred’, which I think is closer to the truth of his moral disfigurement. You abduct children in order to keep them, not immediately to obliterate them; that kind of impulsive attack can only derive from fierce anger. Why he should be so angry with them, or with their attitude towards him after possibly repulsive suggestions, needs to be explored. Most adults in such a situation would find ways to backtrack and defuse.

On one matter Yates hints at a subversive view. It is generally accepted that Maxine Carr, who provided a false alibi for her lover Ian Huntley, had no idea she was protecting a murderer. Yates points out that she went to enormous lengths to scrub the house clean, rather more than house-pride would demand; that when he interviewed her before her arrest, she carefully blocked his view of the room in which the girls are thought to have died; that she wept when looking with Huntley at the open boot of his car, in which the bodies had been transported to their ditch. Now there is nothing intrinsically tear-jerking about an open boot. Understandably enough, Yates cannot quite say so, but I think he does not believe her.

Everyone in the country will agree with him that the abiding image of this deeply distressing case is the glorious snapshot of the two girls in their red football shirts taken less than two hours before they died. It is an ‘image of innocence desecrated’, and it will endure long after all the words we sprinkle are forgotten.

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