26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 43

Grappling with the untouchable

Brian Masters

HAPPY LIKE MURDERERS by Gordon Burn Faber, f17.99, pp. 390 One piece of genuine literature emerged from the disgusting case of Fred and Rosemary West in Gloucester, which culminated in his suicide while in custody and her trial and conviction at Winchester Crown Court in 1995. It was an article by Gordon Burn in Granta, grimly but accurately describing the silent shock which engulfed all who heard the evidence for the first time at the committal proceed- ings. Experienced journalists realised their stock of words was useless; Burn found new ones to grapple with the untouchable, and did us all a service by demonstrating how writing may ennoble not the subject, but our uncomfortable interest in it.

One knew then that if a book of merit could be written about these crimes, Gor- don Burn would be the man to do it. His achievement rests on two pillars — the novelist's acute glance at apparently incon- sequent detail and the researcher's bold determination to immerse himself in the fetid world it is his task to explain. He understands Frederick West. What this has cost him, God only knows. On the surface, West was a `shrewd, proud lout' with 'a cheeky cackle and a rabid imagination'. He was amiable but ridiculous, a grubby scavenger, yet a good reliable worker. The only clues to the murkiness which inhabited him were his incessant chatter about sex and his obses- sion with tools, with objects which func- tioned rather than with people who pulsed. Even these were not really clues, for there are plenty of priapic men who fiddle with cars without being lust murderers. They were but the visible ripples of an unsuspected subterranean turmoil.

West's unrelenting incest was not designed for pleasure; it was a manifesta- tion of his emotional blindness, of his belief that his daughters were there for use, holes to be penetrated. His wife, too, was an object, to be used by hundreds of men of his choosing, then recorded, photographed and filmed while so doing, in order that he might listen and watch as one might observe a machine in full operation. She was no longer a woman being cherished, but a thing set in motion. He even posi- tioned the camera so as not to reveal her face, to dehumanise and reduce her. He placed the lens inside her vagina to see how it all worked. His tools were his friends, his house was his lover. Inanimate objects alone fired him, and animate ones had to be robbed of their power to respond unpredictably by becoming his property in a snapshot or on film for him to do with as he wanted. You can discard a snapshot, you can rewind a film, they do not argue or resist.

These are the marks of a true necrophile, of a living person afraid of life. When he routinely (and routines are important to necrophiles, too) had intercourse with his eldest daughter, it was on a building site or surrounded by pots of paint, the objects which gave him solace and control. And when his dementia erupted into murder, as it did twice before he met Rosemary, and at least ten times afterwards, it was the bits of his victims which enthralled him. While they were still living and subjected to his ghastly experiments (not unlike, as Burn points out, the experiments which Victori- an medical men sometimes hypocritically, sometimes innocently, conducted upon restrained women), he covered their faces with sticky tape to `unmake' them. And once they were dead, he took them apart like a Meccano set.

Rosemary West was much more normal, although by the time she was 20 she had descended, according to Burn and to the jury which convicted her, into a 'vocational humiliator and vindicatrix'. He reproduces a telling piece of dialogue recorded when she was with one of the men she was made to function with, in which she passes from sex-talk to talk about manholes and build- ing equipment, knowing that this will excite the unseen eavesdropper; she had become Fred's creature. (Three people in the coun- try, besides myself, think she is more than likely innocent, and in the absence of solid evidence against her ought to have been acquitted.) The cumulative effect of all this is one of suffocation. The reader feels he must open a window, take a walk, listen to some gen- tle lute music. But the approach is justified, and the response healthy. After all, Dosto- evsky did not feel obliged to sanitise his narrative for fear of making the reader throw up. Literature is there to make us think and feel, not merely to give us sweet- ies for breakfast. Gordon Burn does not shrink. His prose is robust, and above all honest. Even his repetitiousness is stylis- tically apt, for it seeps into the soul until one knows, inwardly, the creeping addic- tion of torture and murder. It is brave, and by no means easy, to do this without pruri- ence.

Only once did I think he had gone seri- ously awry, when he talks about the gulf between torturer and victim, 'the greatest distance that can separate two human beings'. On the contrary, it is a foul but close intimacy, and the torturer has to have the imagination to feel pain or there is no purpose in inflicting it. Then I saw in the acknowledgments that this was a quotation from Elaine Scarry; it was she who got it wrong, he who only did not notice that she had.

The novelist's eye for decor — the atmo- sphere at Cromwell Road, the West Indian community of Gloucester, the role played by bus stops both literally and metaphori- cally, additionally make this a book of record. Read it, and see.

Brian Masters is the author of She Must Have Known: The Trial of Rosemary West, Corgi, £6.99.