Published in November 1995 issue of Prospect Magazine
What is the fascination of murder trials? I like to think it isn’t just ghoulishness, or there-but-for-the-grace-of-God. A big trial, reported in loving detail, tells you how someone died. But more revealingly it tells you how they lived. You find out what they did at 9 and 10 and 11 o’clock that night (and perhaps every night) up to the point when, on that particular date, they were killed.
Similarly with the killer. You learn exactly what his or her life consisted of, apart from the moment of picking up the axe, the gun or the carving knife. Nowhere else do you find such a precise light shed on the everyday secret world other people inhabit (and that you inhabit for other people).
Fiction attempts it, but less precisely. Or at least the realistic school of thriller writers does: Ian Rankin, for example, with his Inspector Rebus series, set in the grimier streets of Edinburgh; or Michael Dibden, with a book like Dead Lagoon, set in the even grimier back alleys of Venice. Most contemporary fiction, written in Britain is tempted off into fantasy (Salman Rushdie), history (Pat Barker) or sentimentality (Joanna Trollope). Gorden Burns’s book on the Yorkshire Ripper, Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, is the best account you’ll read of life on the grey side of Yorkshire industrial cities. It’s much better than his later excursions into fiction.