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A week with a human monster!

19 June 2004

12:00 AM

19 June 2004

12:00 AM

Natural Born Killer Sandy Fawkes

John Blake, pp.216, 16.99

Thirty years ago Sandy Fawkes was a Daily Express reporter following a story in the southern states of the USA. She met a good-looking young man in a bar, and spent the next six days in his company, driving around with him, eating out, and sharing a bed. He was enigmatic and monosyllabic, but sufficiently intriguing to keep her interest alive. Just as well, for had he been bored he might well have murdered her. She later discovered that he had been responsible for the hideous deaths of at least 18 people, the last four within the two days immediately before he picked her up. She had been intimate with wickedness, and the realisation frightened her.

This was a better story than any she had been sent to cover, so she naturally wrote it up in a book she called Killing Time. The book under review is essentially a reprint, with an additional six pages of postscript and a new, tendentious title. The faults of the original are still there, and we might as well despatch them at once. The pages are stuffed with clichés so hoary as to make one cringe, and the descriptions of sexual performance with her friend are lewd, coarse, adolescent, fit only for pub-talk. If you can stumble through these blocks, however, and as long as you do not nurse expectations of profundity, you are likely to find this tale sufficiently gripping to forgive the railway its latest delay.

The first half of the book, told neatly in the third person, portrays the man she knew before she knew the man. He was attentive and courteous, placing his jacket on her shoulders to protect her from the chill of the evening, rushing to assuage her pain when she accidentally burnt her fingers, taking time and care to rescue a hawk-moth. He was, as she said later, ‘too gentle and calm for violence’ (always a trap, that). He was fastidious about his appearance and insistent on wearing clean underpants. She felt sorry for him. The American Dream had obviously passed him by, and though he had a plain mind, he seemed to have a sweet nature. There were clues scattered in his talk and his behaviour, but if you were not on the alert looking for them, they were mere words or things, lacking the weight which hindsight bestows upon them.

In the second half, we assume the first-person narrative as the true identity of Paul John Knowles is revealed and Miss Fawkes comes into the light. The car they had driven around in, the credit cards which had financed them, the presents he had given her, the clothing he wore, had all been stolen from the corpses of his victims. She had ‘been playing sulky games with a man whose rage could wreck a room’. And yet this same man said on his arrest, ‘Please help me,’ by which he meant, surely, please stop me. Dennis Nilsen always referred to his arrest as ‘the day help arrived’, and in neither case is this whimper incompatible with the vainglorious enjoyment of attention consequent upon the arrest; men addicted to murder are more complex than simple headlines would have you believe. Knowles showed no remorse, for his moral fibres were adrift, severed from the human community which should have sheltered him and prevented his disintegration, as it does for most of us.

Sandy Fawkes teeters on the edge of developing interesting themes such as these, but quickly withdraws into her story, which is all too breathtakingly exciting to allow for the intrusion of thought. She notices how American lawyers hijack a case and turn it into a game of chess between them, forgetting the crime and its horror with the same indifference as the murderer himself, but she takes the observation no further. This experience of hers is unique, her literary use of it banal.

That she can write with genuine feeling is revealed in one paragraph outside the central narrative, when she recalls the implacable sadness of losing her infant daughter to cot death. This is moving and real. The rest is red-hot and contrived.

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