OK, so ‘❤️’ probably isn’t the right emoji here, but Rachel Fairburn sure has that fascination of the abomination going on. She’s not alone.
BBC One’s three-part drama Rillington Place starts tomorrow, starring Tim Roth as infamous serial killer John Christie and Samantha Morton as his wife Ethel. The uncovering of Christie’s rapes, murders and concealments of bodies appalled and enthralled 1950s Britain, and looks set to continue to do so 60 years on.
True crime, particularly murder, is a subject that has fascinated many of us for centuries. From bumped off Roman emperors and the Victorian fascination with the Illustrated Police News’s sensational accounts of the infamous Jack the Ripper to the relatively recent dreadful crimes of Dr Harold Shipman, the public’s thirst for accounts of grim incidents has always been keen.
In recent years, TV shows such as Making a Murderer, The Jinx and the hugely popular Serial podcast have gripped audiences worldwide with the ‘did they or didn’t they?’ format, giving people the chance to be an armchair detective and sparking debate among friends, colleagues and even law professionals.
“Reading books about serial killers, I learned that you can judge a book by its cover. If a true crime book has gold writing and a blood stain decoration, it’s going to be dreadful.”
True Crime is a genre staple of many large bookshops; popular magazines such as Chat and Take A Break have a weekly story; Hollywood uses cases as the basis for blockbuster movies and mainstream television has several channels devoted to the topic where we can watch stories of everything from Killer Kids to Killer Clergy. Whether included in a trashy mag, a slick documentary, a dubious made-for-TV movie, or in a well-researched book we are invited to explore the darkest elements of the human psyche; something that few of us possess and will hopefully never experience.
I have always been interested in true crime and in a specific area of it: serial killers. I think I’ve always had a subconscious awareness of them. I grew up in Manchester, a city that over just a few decades saw several horrific murders – Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the Moors Murderers; Peter Sutcliffe, The Yorkshire Ripper; Trevor Hardy, The Beast of Manchester – and as a teenager I remember reading the shocking reports of Harold Shipman, a Hyde GP who coldly killed hundreds of his patients, making him one of the most prolific serial murderers in history. I heard of the earlier murderers through sporadic newspaper reports and general talk from people who were around at the time.
It was when I was in year six of primary school though that my curiosity was piqued. Each Monday we had to write a diary about what we did at the weekend and had to include a news story chosen by the teacher. One Monday the story my teacher chose was the news that had dominated the papers all weekend; the awful crimes committed by Fred and Rose West at their home, 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester.
An odd choice when I think back but this was a Mancunian Catholic primary school and they didn’t tend to sugar-coat things. There was a lot of evil in the world to be dealt with – usually by singing a hymn or having a Summer Fair. (The singing and tombolas must have worked, as I don’t recall any Killer Kids or Killer Clergy at Our Lady of Mount Carmel.)
Writing about the Wests in class made me follow the story on the news and read about it in the papers. I remember being very unnerved by the fact that one of the Wests’ victims was Heather West, their own daughter. I think maybe this was when I began to realise that not everything in the world is fun and nice.
I watched the BBC’s Crimewatch with my dad. It was probably the only father-daughter bonding time we had really, although he did, to my mum’s horror, let me watch Poltergeist when I was three, which explains a lot (but that’s a different tale for a different day).
Reading books about serial killers, I learned that you can judge a book by its cover. If a true crime book has gold writing and a blood stain decoration, it’s going to be dreadful.
Writing true crime well is an art and some authors haven’t mastered that art; some books in the genre read a little like a Jackie Collins novel. A good work of true crime, be it book, TV or film, should be informative, factual, give us an understanding about the social issues and challenges occurring at the time a crime was committed and, above all, be respectful to the victims and families of these devastating crimes.
When I was 19, I read a book about the Wests called Happy Like Murderers by Gordon Burn. It’s a true crime classic that easily sits alongside Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It’s not an easy read. There’s in-depth research into the killers’ backgrounds and hearing about the less-than-pleasant lives of many of the victims is particularly poignant.
It made me realise why so many of us are fascinated by serial killers; I lost count of the amount of times I said, “Why the hell did they do that?” out loud to myself. Humans can do horrific things that are so far removed from humanity that it baffles us. Or at least it should.
Check out Rachel and Kiri Pritchard-McLean’s dead good podcast, All Killa No Filla here.
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Rachel Fairburn is a stand-up comic, co-host of the All Killa No Filla podcast and lover of leopard print.