7 OCTOBER 1972, Page 16

The case of a gifted novice

Rayner Heppenstall

The Case of Mary Bell Gitta Sereny (Eyre Methuen £2.75) In December 1968, at Newcastle assizes, Mary Flora Bell, then aged eleven, was found guilty of the "manslaughter because of diminished responsibility" of two boys, aged respectively four and three. The acts had indubitably been acts of deliberate murder, and Mary Bell's responsibility was diminished only by her age, for she was a girl of more than average intelligence, knew what she was doing and knew that it was wrong.

Her subsequent confinement 'for life' has proved richly embarrassing. Deprived of small boys, she has killed hamsters, and her attainment of puberty was celebrated with charges of indecent assault against a housemaster, whom the authorities at Newton-le-Willows in Lancashire were foolish enough to allow to be dragged through a magistrate's court to Liverpool quarter sessions, where he was of course acquitted. The girl enjoyed killing, and the other principal ' motive ' for her actions seems to have been, and still to be, delight in forcing adults into hopelessly untenable situations. Her gifts in this direction have been gratifyingly exercised on policewomen and psychiatrists, among others. She came from a home not so much broken as disorderly. Both her parents have police records. They are, it seems, legally married but have pretended not to be in order to get more out of the welfare. There were decent Scottish grandparents.

Child murderers, as distinct from childmurderers, are indeed penally awkward, no less to those who do than to those who do not favour capital punishment for adult murderers. The eighteenth century was not tender in these matters, but the Newgate Calendar records for 1748 the case of a poorhouse boy of Mary Bell's age, William York, who, though sentenced to death, was " respited from time to time and . . . at length pardoned" for murdering a girl, his bedfellow, aged 5, in circumstances of quite remarkable atrocity and without a sign of remorse. It would be a rash or dishonest reader who claimed to know exactly what should be done with Mary Bell.

Miss Sereny seems to, but fails to convince the reviewer. She attended the trial and has followed the case up since, as part of her studies in cruelty to children. Determinedly progressive in her views, she thinks we are monstrous if we describe Mary Bell as a little monster. To Miss Sereny she was simply "disturbed." Her actions were "a cry for help." And of course " society " was the guilty party.

What we need is a great deal more compassion. Then all will be well.

This is surely, nutty stuff. It yet seems likely that Miss Sereny's book will have to be regarded as indispensable to the jurists. Gone are the days when Messrs Hodge of Edinburgh or Mr Bles or, for a few years, Jarrolds might be expected to put out a Notable British or Famous or Old Bailey Trials volume containing a faithful transcript of all the evidence presented in court, the whole of the judge's charge to the jury, pertinent appendices and a long introduction by someone qualified to assess the importance of the case in all its aspects.

Miss Sereny quotes a lot of the evidence and some of Mr Justice Cusack's summing-up, and for this we must be grateful. But it is all selective, and in the absence of acknowledgements we must suppose that it was transcribed by Miss Sereny herself in enviable shorthand. From my own, quite inadequate newspaper cuttings, I am able to fault her a little no more than once, in respect of the evidence of June Brown, mother of the first little boy, heard on the third day of the trial, December 9. This must have stuck in many minds, but readers in the south-east may care to be reminded of what they read in the Evening Standard that day.

Mrs. Brown said: "The next time I saw Mary was about three days after Martin died. She came down to my house.

"Mary asked if she could see Martin and I said: 'No, pet, Martin's dead.'

"She turned round and said: 'I know he's dead. I want to see him in his coffin.'

"She started to grin, to smile, when she said, 'I know he's dead.' I was just astonished that such a young child should want to see a baby dead."

Miss Sereny places this peculiarly nightmarish part of Mrs Brown's evidence not where it belongs in the trial proceedings but in her preliminary narrative, with a "June Brown says" which suggests that the boy's mother said it to her or to a journalist colleague outside court.

To the fluently compassionate, such faults will seem trifling. To the meticulous (claiming no more than their share of the saintly virtue the currently-much-used word ' compassion ' denotes), they may seem cumulatively grave.