For one week in July 2010, the aspiring spree killer Raoul Moat was the only news. ‘Aspiring’ because he didn’t actually achieve his violent ambitions: by the time he died, he’d only managed to shoot three people (four if you include himself) and murder one (two if you count PC David Rathband, who was blinded by Moat and killed himself four years later).
But he made it, in a way. His self-constructed mythology had all the makings of a folk hero —working-class man, wronged by his woman, a grudge against the police — and there was a public ready to embrace him. Floral tributes were left outside his home and at the site of his suicide, and a Facebook page called ‘RIP Raoul Moat You Legend!’ attracted over 35,000 likes before it was removed. David Cameron obligingly ensured Moat’s outlaw credentials by calling him a ‘callous murderer, full stop’ and declaring there should be ‘no sympathy’ for him.
Andrew Hankinson’s account of the case is a direct challenge to the Prime Minister’s words: ‘You have nine days and your whole life to prove you are more than a callous murderer. Go.’ The ‘you’ here is Moat, because the book is written entirely in the second person, using Moat’s own recordings and letters to patch together the internal monologue of a killer; where Moat’s account diverges from the factual record or clarification is needed, Hankinson adds a commentary within square brackets. We only know what Moat knew, so there is thankfully no interlude with Gazza and his fishing rod.
This device means that sympathy is inevitable: it is, as a matter of grammatical practicality, impossible to read a text in the second person without feeling some kind of identification with the ‘you’. And this gives rise to the Dorothea problem. In chapter 29 of Middlemarch, George Eliot breaks off mid-sentence to ask: ‘But why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one?’ Why always Moat? Or, for that matter, why always men (Dorothea got the better part of the novel’s central consciousness over her regrettable husband, but that is by no means typical)? And why so often men who kill?
The Boston Strangler, Psycho, Peeping Tom: the mind of a killer is supposedly a terrible place, but a terribly attractive one too, with a great deal more fiction devoted to understanding male violence than to its victims. Highly publicised killers inspire more killers, and Moat is an object example. For Moat, as Hankinson tells us, Derrick Bird (who killed 12 people in Cumbria in June 2010) was ‘a sign from God’. As American school shooters learn each other’s lines, critiquing the methods and refining the results of their predecessors, so too middle-aged northern men with shotguns. Is it possible to write an account, as Hankinson has done, and not become a script for further murder?
The answer is yes. Critically, Hankinson is driven by genuine curiosity about his subject. Neither crass hagiography nor ignorant condemnation could deliver the answers he wants, and Moat’s inner life is so extraordinarily deluded that it’s arguable there is no way to understand it without standing inside. But every time the self-justifying diatribe takes hold, the square brackets tear a hole in the fabrications.
Moat believed he was the victim of a police vendetta; the square brackets tell us no, although he had a history of petty criminality and violence, especially towards women. Moat believed his girlfriend Sam had been cheating on him while he was in prison; the square brackets tell us she wasn’t (not, of course, that cheating is a crime to be punished with a gunshot anyway). Moat says in his letters that he never hurt Sam; the square brackets tell us that he admitted elsewhere to hitting her.
The result is one of cumulative bathos, of which the title is a prime example. On the one hand, you could do something amazing with your life; but on the other, you’re a belligerent paranoiac who refuses to seek psychiatric help. Moat’s head feels like an authentically awful place to be trapped inside: he certainly hated himself, and by the time you know everything he did, and all the ways he hurt the people around him while casting himself as the victim, it’s easy to sympathise fully with that self-loathing.
In his underwhelming spree, Moat had support from two accomplices: for them, the proprietorial violence he committed against his ex-girlfriend and her partner Chris Brown (Moat’s one fatality) apparently fit within the realm of the tolerable. Moat was an extreme example of something quite ordinary, and You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life is an extraordinary study of violence, in all its bathos and banality.