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Happy Like Murderers by Gordon Burn
'News, darker and darker news, may be the only narrative people need, and the shapes of this narrative are authors in their own right. To a certain extent their world has become our world, a place of extreme anger and danger.' - Don Delillo, MAO II
Having read in excess of two hundred True Crime books I always pick and choose what I read these days. I know the story of Fred and Rose West, who doesn't apart from the people who have lived under a rock for the last two decades. I have always been a fan of True Crime books with a difference. The book shelves in shops and libraries and online stores are filled with non-fiction books that tell the account of a serial killer and are usually the story of how they grew up and a run-down of each murder and the murder victim in detail. In that sense, this book is a little different.Yes, we do hear about the murders but in no great detail. We hear about Fred burying the bodies but not really much about how they were murdered. That part is left for the reader to decide but it is not hard to imagine how the victims were murdered when you read what is going on day to day in the West household.
This book is more of a portrait on the day to day life of two sick and twisted sociopaths and the pain and suffering they put their children through. So that is why I put it in the 'different' category as it doesn't just churn out detail after detail about each murder and the crime scene. We also read very little about the crime scene and the media impact in this book. It is almost totally written from the perspective of the West children and chronicles the sick depravities of their sexually deviant parents.
It is hard to believe that it is twenty years next year since the Wests were arrested and were on every news report for weeks on end as other bodies were found buried under their house at the infamous twenty-five Cromwell street in Gloucester. The address became a 'house of horror' and has since been reduced to rubble in order to stop sightseers and people with morbid fascination from descending on the small street in the quiet, unassuming town. Many of you will remember watching the news on your TV as body after body were carried from the house on stretchers from the tent which covered the area.
I will talk about the book and how it is written after a little background on the story, which unfortunately for the victims is a true story.
Rose was a vulnerable fifteen year old girl when she first met Fred West and he showered her with gifts such as lace dresses and fur coats. They would become inseparable and Rose would do anything for Fred. They would be married and have eight children together. A happy family to anyone looking in from the outside; on the inside the children lived a life of sexual, physical and mental abuse that must be some of the worst cases in history.
On 26th February nineteen-ninety four, the remains of Heather West were found in the garden of twenty-five Cromwell Street where she had lived with her seven brothers and sisters and her parents Fred and Rose West. Over the next week or so another eight women were found buried in the garden or under the house and twenty-five Cromwell Street would be etched on our memories forever.
Fred West hanged himself in prison before he could answer to charges of rape, child rape, sexual abuse, torture and murder that he was awaiting trial for. His wife Rose became the most hated woman in Britain after the truth of her role in the murders became public knowledge. At first she was the doting housewife who had no clue what her husband had done but it turned out that she was just as bad if not worse than Fred when it came to inflicting pain and sexual abuse upon women and her own children.
This book will delve deeply into the story of Rose and Fred so that you can make up your own mind on whether Rose was a sadistic, twisted killer and a full partner in crime with Fred West or a tormented and psychologically damaged victim herself and a slave to an evil murderer who shaped and moulded her through her obedience into a zombie-like creature who would actually do anything for him even if it meant talking another person's life.
Gordon Burn has written other non-fiction true Crime books and has also dabbled with fiction. One of his works of fiction 'Alma Cogan' won him the Whitbread Best first novel award in nineteen-ninety-one. He was also a columnist for Esquire magazine and won columnist of the year in nineteen-ninety-one for his sports column. He was born in Newcastle in nineteen-forty-eight and now lives in London.
For the writing of this book Gordon Burn was given access to files and inside information that had not been available to anyone else and he was allowed access to the West family who were now living under different names in different parts of the country.
He has written a different book than most people would've expected. It is a story of a family that lived under the most volatile conditions. The children were not allowed out and had to follow strict rules or they would be punished. They grew up thinking that it was normal to have sex with Mommy and Daddy and that being tied to beds and being probed in their private parts while hooked up to medieval type contraptions was something that happened in every household.
Gordon Burn really does give us a great insight into what life was like for the West children as well as for Rose and Fred. He pulls no punches and make no bones about it; the book is hard to digest.
My only complaint is that sometimes you lose track of whether the author is giving an opinion or whether the opinion is being stated from Fred's point of view. A lot of the book is also awkwardly constructed for me. There is a lot of repetition to drive home the distasteful facts of the sexual depravity that went on but for shock value it definitely brings it home to the reader.
Research wise he has obviously done is homework. If you're a fan of true crime and expecting a book about murder then you may be sorely disappointed as this book is more about Fred and Rose and the workings of their sick minds and of the children who had to put up with what no child should endure.
It is a shocking account of one of the most high profile cases in English history but more an account of what went on between murders and leading up to them and in my opinion something just as evil and decrepit as the murders themselves.
I think Burn has done a good job but maybe the editors or proof reader let him down a little as there are some bad grammatical errors as well.
At nearly four hundred pages and quite small writing in a large hardback book, this book is quite a long read but add to that the sometimes sickening content and you have a difficult experience ahead of you when you pick it up. Saying that though, I wanted to finish it which is also a good testament for its ability to get you hooked.
I knew a little about Fred and Rose West and always remember Rose protesting her innocence on arrest. Then I saw the ITV drama and realised what a cow she actually was. After reading the book I can safely say that that has grew tenfold and I think that Rose West is one of the most depraved human beings to ever walk the earth. I would say she was a slut, a deviant, a sociopath and a downright nasty bitch as well as a murderer and how she managed to get away with her lifestyle is beyond me. It is a scary thought to think how many Fred and Rose Wests are still out there and getting away with it and how many poor children are suffering at the hands of these monsters.
It is the children that you really feel for when reading this book as they are innocent and know no better. Fred basically brain-washed the whole family and the children were under his and Rose's rule and were nothing but sexual playthings and mini house-workers who cleaned and scrubbed while Rose entertained her male friends or 'customers'.
Fred was obsessed with the inner workings of the female human body and when arrested the police found photograph albums of close ups of vaginas and video upon video of close up footage of Rose placing all kinds of implements into herself.
Fred also made Rose sleep with other men and had a thing for her sleeping with black men. He would drill holes in doors and walls so he could watch and even fitted a listening device and a camera so he could film it. Three of their children were half caste and Fred didn't mind this and always made a point of saying they were as good as his own.
Fred thought nothing of groping and feeling his young daughters; they were six, seven or eight at the time. He would tell them that it was best to lose their virginity to their father as he knew them best and that all girls should sleep with their father before anyone else. This was the twisted and sick mind that ruled over these poor defenceless children.
He would build contraptions like something out of a medieval torture chamber. One he would fix to his young son's head and attach it to a chair so he couldn't move his head; Fred would then make his young son watch porn or people having sex with animals. He built another contraption that was like a reverse chastity belt which would lock around his daughter's waist and keep their legs open while he raped them. Rose would join in.
The children were made to sleep in a cold, dark and dank cellar that was dripping with water and freezing in the winter. If they opened their mouths to anyone they would be beaten black and blue. Rose once held her young son around the neck until he went blue and the blood vessels popped in his eyes.
These are just a handful of the everyday occurrences that went on in the West household and some of it is really hard to read.
The book really does give you an insight into the workings of Fred West's mind and just how much and also how little control he had over Rose and her part in this grisly tale.
At the end we do get to read some of the letters he wrote to Rose once arrested and see how he cheated justice by manipulating the prison system in collecting banned items in order to orchestrate his own death. He had access to a razor blade, which they found embedded in the leg of his prison chair in his cell, but didn't have the guts to use it or perhaps enjoyed the game of getting one over the authorities by dying like he did. My opinion is that he was a coward and all bullies are wimps when it really boils down to it; Fred West was apparently no different and he took the easiest way out he could find. May he rot in hell!
I would recommend it to a reader of True Crime but would also warn them that it is not pretty and pretty hard to digest at times. What it is though is a different take on the Wests and a full account of the life they lived as well as the lives they ended.
Having read a lot of articles, newspapers and books about the Wests, I still didn't think I knew that much about them. Studying the psychology of serial killers has been a hobby of mine for a while now and find it very hard to find decent material without the sensationalism of journalists getting in the way. I was recommended this book by a good friend who shares the same hobby. When starting to read the book its starts off with the history of 25 Cromwell Street where the Wests finally landed in I think 1971. The previous owners and tenants, their lifestyles and habits. The book does not leap straught into the murders, the abuse of their children or how they were caught but meticulously details the environment of the time, the people involved and how they interacted. It was a bit confusing and a bit boring to be honest reading probably the first two chapters. After that the author gets into the real background and character of Fred and Rose, their children, neighbours and friends. The subject is dealt with in a very matter of fact and precise way. The content is not immotively persued nor is it sensationalised but recorded in a very detailed and very direct fashion. From when Rose and Fred were born to their meeting, marriage, the birth of their children and the ups and downs of their lives together up to their arrest and Freds death is all compressed into a small book in exceptional detail. If you want to know the facts about the Wests then I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone. Its hard to imagine that these things do happen in this day and age. This book is a good reminder.
I picked this book up three months ago, cheaply, after having heard it was a compelling read. I was also attracted by the publisher’s name (Faber & Faber). A lot of serial killer books tend to be spurious trash, exploiting the victim’s deaths for narrative reasons or the author’s glory. They tend to be badly written and edited mixtures of presses clippings and testimonials from people barely connected with the original crimes. Thus I always find them depressing, full of cod psychology and damning titles such as "beyond evil". This annoys me as I think the word 'evil' stops people questioning what causes the behaviour of these admittedly abhorrent people, its all too easy to dismiss serial killers as 'evil' a word that only seems appropriate in a religious context. Gordon Burn in this magnificent book refuses to use such black and white terms, he uncovers a truth that is much more disturbing that the tedious 'them and us tabloid' mentality, namely that Fred and Rosemary West seemed happy as murderers, and they were blind to the idea that anyone could find happiness in any other way. The book frequently goes into often near unbearable detail of their sadistic and murderous behaviour, which they saw self-righteously as 'normal'. It was all they had ever known (both were abused as children and then abused their children). Yet Gordon Burn refuses to try and explain their behaviour, which included raping and murdering twelve women, including their own daughter. He seems to realise that psychology is best left to psychologists and instead tells their story in a lucid, stylish manner exploring details of their lives in extreme detail. He offers no judgement, just the facts that are known, and leaves the reader shaken by the brutality and almost unbelievable details of the story. At the end of the book the west’s house is demolished "every brick was crushed" in an attempt by Gloucester council to cle
anse the city of its murderous past. But I believe that the West’s crimes, however unpleasant, should not be forgotten, but remembered and learnt from; this book provides a objective, compelling and necessary means to do just that.
This is a difficult read. Gordon Burns is almost cruel to his reader in the purity and bareness of his style. The story told in the pages of 'Happy Like Murderers' of the life and times of Fred and Rosemary West, is not in anyway titillating or salacious. Gone are the tabloid headlines about sex parties, and instead the reader is presented with something that feels very much like wading through autopsey reports and witness statements. The repetition and colloquial language used serve successfully to suck you in to the reality of this tale. It stops being an old news story, and starts to breath, as the total horror of events surrounding the Wests, long before Cromwell street, infact Long before they were even the Wests, begins to dawn. If you believe you know what happened 'Happy Like Murderers' will still present you with more information, it can't fail to, as it is overflowing with detail, probably far too much detail for some. More importantly perhaps, if you think you have an incling into why what happened happened, this book will make you re-examin in frightening detail, all of the theories. It will not preach to you or present you with answers, but it will arm you with some understanding perhaps, of how some lives go disasterously wrong, and of the devestating possibilities that this brings
It's very tempting to say that you don't need to read this book because it is monumentally depressing and probably won't teach you any more about the Wests than you already know: i.e. they were people who did very bad things, people who behaved in a way that is unthinkable. It's equally tempting to say that everyone needs to read 'Happy Like Murderers' because it is an absolute masterpiece of reporting. To know the way in which the Wests lived, to understand how their depravity was tolerated and exploited by a massive network of other people, is to understand the way in which violent crime on this scale is far from isolated and unknowable, but can be found in the most familiar of places. The detail here is not prurient, and Burn is very careful to ensure that each of the victims who are claimed along the way is treated not as a statistic, but as a living, breathing human being who had a life, a family, and a place in the world which the Wests stole. It is, clearly, very hard to take, and you may not like yourself for being curious about what happened - but people need to know that the Wests were not weird monsters living in a castle, but neighbours, friends, relatives, a couple in contact with all sorts of people who turned a blind eye, or actively engaged with what they were doing.
I had my first doubts about this book when I learnt that the cover photo was designed by Damien Hirst. Like a book with a quote from Nietzsche in it, this suggested to me that the author has Pretensions to say something Significant - and I think he has too. Fortunately, this doesn't seem to be too obvious most of the time, and apart from an “unheimlich” in a discussion of Fred West's fascination with the vagina I didn't spot any signs of full-blown academitis. I didn't spot any signs of an attempt to explain the Wests’ behavior in biological terms either, and unlike the lack of academic jargon that, for me, wasn't a plus. Not that I’ve managed to read the whole book through: I found some of the sentences curiously difficult to read and gave up without getting out of the first chapter. Browsing in the rest of the book didn't encourage me to make a second attempt at the whole thing, though I think I have learnt something about what it must have been like to live with the Wests and to suffer at their hands, and Burn's description of Fred West's peepholes and spy-cameras as an attempt “to catch reality offguard” was an effective one. In short: I didn't like it, but that's not to say you won't. STOPPRESS. Whoops. I have to take it all back. After putting the book aside I decided to try it again properly, started further in, and discovered it's really not so bad after all. In fact, it's good. Maybe even very good. Maybe even better than that. Don't read it for a dispassionate survey of times, places, and crimes, but do read it to taste a little of the flavor of life – and death – with the Wests. And note, along the way, that Fred West injured his head badly at least twice and that Rose West had a strange habit of "rocking" as a child, which is sometimes a sign of brain damage.
There have been many books written about Fred and Rose West, but none of them is anything like this. The text is gripping, Gordon Burn writes like a novelist rather than as a journalist transcribing facts. But that's not to say that the facts aren't there, far from it. The full awful truth of what went on is revealed in graphic detail. The suffering of the murder victims is matched by the suffering inflicted on the West's children. Highly recommended, and far more frightening than most fiction.