Best remembered for his non-fiction, the late British writer's novels also took on fame, crime, Thatcher and New Labourby Tim Martin / December 6, 2019 / Leave a comment
Towards the end of Happy Like Murderers, his patient and terrifying account of the lives of Fred and Rosemary West, Gordon Burn relates how Gloucester city council planned to dispose of 25 Cromwell Street, the house where the Wests sexually abused, tortured, murdered and buried children and young women for 30 years. The decision was taken to disappear the West house entirely: raze it to the ground, fill in its mass grave of a cellar and turn the space into a cut-through connecting its quiet residential street to the city centre. Other alternatives were considered, Burn continued: “a commemorative plaque at the site, a memorial garden. But nobody wanted to keep those memories. A permanent reminder.”
Nobody wanted to keep those memories: what a strangely-angled phrase that is, as though memory itself were optional or erasable. But probing questions about the memories people want to keep, and the steps they take to quieten the ones they don’t, are everywhere in Burn’s work. They are particularly pressing in the four books republished by Faber to mark the 10th anniversary of his death in 2009.
Prolific as a writer, journalist and art critic, these days Burn is best known for his two non-fiction books on serial killers. This is both understandable—because the books are works of unforgettable darkness and insight, among the best crime reporting of the 20th century—and undesirable, because Burn’s unique talent extended far beyond a single genre. Deeply attuned to the undercurrents of desire and aversion in human affairs, each of his books anatomises a pocket universe of its own, a shadow-space in the collective British mind.
Fact ran through Burn’s fiction, while his factual books were wrapped in fictional technique. His model was Norman Mailer, whose 1979 book The Executioner’s Song, about the trial and execution of the killer Gary Gilmore, inspired Burn to write the first of his books. This was Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son (1984), an investigation into the life and social climate of Peter Sutcliffe, the so-called Yorkshire Ripper.
Keen to move beyond the gruesome shallows of most true crime, Burn went about his research for the book in an…