John Preston

Beautiful and damned

Beautiful and damned
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Handsome Brute: The Story of a Ladykiller

Sean O’Connor

Simon and Schuster, pp. 480, £

According to his mother, Neville Heath was ‘prone to be excitable’. He was that all right — and then some. In the space of two weeks in the summer of 1946, Heath murdered two women with such brutality that, as Sean O’Connor puts it with shuddering relish, ‘war-hardened police officers vomited on seeing them’.

The public were fascinated by him. Elizabeth Taylor reworked Heath’s story into a novel, Patrick Hamilton drew on it heavily for his Gorse trilogy and Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make a film about the case, but had to ditch the idea when the studio decided it would be too revolting.

Heath was fascinating mainly due to his ambivalence. Clearly capable of appalling brutality, he could also be tender and considerate. One of his girlfriends described him as a ‘big teddy bear’, while the actress Moira Lister wrote that she found it impossible to equate ‘the savage abnormal sex murders he had done with the charming man who would take me out on the town’.

Heath was not only charming but unusually good-looking. Women went gooey at the sight of his blond hair and penetrating blue eyes. At his trial, several female fans queued for 14 hours outside the Old Bailey just to catch a glimpse of the man the tabloids dubbed ‘the most dangerous criminal modern Britain has known’.

His first victim was a 32-year-old woman called Margery Gardner, who Heath murdered in a hotel in Notting Hill. He met his second victim, Doreen Marshall, in a hotel in Bournemouth where he had registered under the name of ‘Rupert Brook’. Both were repeatedly lashed, bitten, then eviscerated.

An intelligent man, Heath was unable to offer any explanation for his crimes, beyond saying, ‘I felt my head go tight.’ In fact, his head had been going tight — to varying degrees — ever since he was a young man. Brought up in a modest house in Ilford, Heath had a spell in borstal as a teenager for thieving — one of his fellow inmates was Brendan Behan.

On leaving, he set his sights on becoming an RAF officer. Throughout his life, Heath had a big thing for uniforms and for decorations, awarding himself both an OBE and a Distinguished Flying Cross. But his service career was blighted by a succession of scrapes, and also by his habit of adopting false identities — ‘Lord Dudley’ was a particular favourite.

No one, though, ever marked him as anything worse than an amiable chancer. When confronted with his misdeeds, Heath owned up with disarming frankness. ‘Are you Lord Dudley?’ a plainclothes policeman once asked him. ‘Yes, I am, old man,’ Heath replied. ‘Well, I am Detective Inspector Hickman of the CID.’ ‘Then in that case I am not Lord Dudley.’

Kicked out of the RAF for bouncing cheques, he managed to get back in via South Africa where he qualified as a flying instructor — under another assumed name. Heath had a distinguished war flying bombers, but he also began having blackouts which seemed to get worse after he was demobbed. He was also a colossal boozer, once sinking 25 pints of beer in an evening. Whatever the trigger was, when Heath snapped he clearly did so in a big way.

At his trial, it wasn’t just adoring women who queued up to get in; everyone wanted a peek. On the first day, one couple settled themselves in the public gallery, reached into the large bag they’d brought and took out 12 rounds of toast, a jar of marmalade and a teapot.

Heath himself appears to have been indifferent to his fate. He refused to appeal after being found guilty and sat in his condemned cell reading The Thirty-Nine Steps — twice — and writing letters to his mother. ‘The weather is quite amazing, don’t you think?’ he wrote in one. ‘Although the days are quite cold the pleasant sunshine reminds one of any country except England.’ He went calmly to the gallows and by the time his body had been cut down, his waxwork had already gone on display in the Chamber of Horrors.

Sean O’Connor is particularly good on period detail: the possum fur cape that Margery Gardner wore on the night she died, the tube of Gynomin tablets (‘the scientifically balanced Antiseptic and Deodorant Contraceptive Tablet’) she had in her handbag. However, he also has a mania for extraneous bits of information. While I’m quite happy to learn that Madame Tussaud’s suffered a direct hit in a bombing raid in 1940 after which Paul, the museum’s cat, was found clinging to the waxwork of Dr Crippen, I can’t get too excited about the fact that 126 different types of weed — including ‘the rose-bay willow herb’ — were found growing on London bombsites.

All this ensures that his narrative — 400-plus pages of it — is a stop/start affair which, oddly enough, only really hots up after Heath is arrested. O’Connor is also worryingly keen on granting his subject a tentative sort of victimhood. Heath, he writes, might be ‘counted as a casualty of historical forces beyond his control’. Well, I suppose he might, but personally I think it would be a wallopingly big mistake.