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How bizarre do you have to be, to compulsively murder and sexually mutilate 13 women? Gordon Burn makes an honest attempt to delve into the life that Peter Sutcliffe once inhabited as a 'normal' human being. This book is a study about how someone could develop such hideous and murderous tendancies without their nearest and dearest suspecting a thing. Whilst it has to refer to the murders themselves, this is not the focus of the work and is therefore not treated as such. The book is more inclined towards that of his upbringing, his relationship with his family, the quality of relationship between his mother and father, not forgetting the introduction of Sonia into his life. He tries to look for influences, reasons, or trigger points that caused the deviant behaviour. And it's true that there are situations that he either witnessed or instigated, that could be seen as making an impression so deep that it manifested itself into the uncontrollable rages that destroyed the lives of many. Sutcliffe was known to attack using a ball-pein hammer to knock the victim unconcious (or in some cases, more or less kill outright) and then stab frenziedly with a knife, an acknowledged sexual tool. Therefore it is reasonable to expect there to have been a sexual motivation behind his attacks. Whether this comes courtesy of his adored and respected mother, where an affair she was having was brought out shamefully by his father in a public setting, or whether it developed because of Sonia's sexually repressed nature is hard to tell. It could be a little of both. Ultimately, the result is the same. The Sutcliffe family are down-to-earth unit, earthy with their language and opinions and possessing the direct attitude famously atributed to northerners. The way that Gordon Burns introduces them shows that their reactions to the news, that the reviled serial killer who had held a terrifying grip over the country during the mid 70's, was their son, brother and husband, was just as bewildering and upsetting as it would be for any other family. And that is exactly what they are. They have had their ups and downs, the parents have had their problems. Their expectations of life had been rather unassuming, they are your average working class rooted family. You can find excuses for Peter's behaviour if you read about the family, but they are that. Excuses. The episodes shouldn't be used as reasons. People inevitably overcome childhood traumas far worse than those suffered by Sutcliffe, and develop different coping mechanisms than that of murder. Some don't, but many many more do. So what does Gordon Burn actually manage to achieve with this book? It's well written and thoroughly researched, with an angle that was cleverly developed, and although not unique as families will often bring out their own versions, but the point of view with which this is written is definitely different. You can tell from their attitude, especially that of Mick his brother, that loving the sinner whilst not his sins, is still something that was hard coming to grips with. I also felt a twinge of pity for Mick, who looks so eerily similar to his monster sibling. Not for those who really want to read about the actual crimes and the forensic tactics, nor for the incompetent police angle, but this is a book about a man called Peter, and how those who spent the longest time with him came away knowing practically nothing at all.
Do you remember the 1970's and early 1980's? Were you even born then? If so, then you will probably recall the name Peter Sutcliffe - also known as The Yorkshire Ripper. Sutcliffe was a serial killer who, for many years, terrorised women in the North of England, striking quickly and unexpectedly and yet somehow always eluding capture, sometimes seemingly by the skin of his teeth. "...somebody's husband, somebody's son" (sic) is Sutcliffe's story. Yet, it is not really a 'true crime' book, since Sutcliffe's murders and attempted murders barely merit a mention. The stated aim of the book, which author Gordon Burns wrote over two years, is to "establish the truth about Peter Sutcliffe and the events surrounding his life". Hence, instead of dwelling on all that was abnormal about Sutcliffe, it centres on everything that was NORMAL. Partciularly (as is suggested by the title) that this feared and abhorred man had a large, unsuspecting family with whom he continued to interract throughout his criminal career. The book is divided into three sections. The first, entitled "Home" deals with Peter's childhood. It tells of his birth in Bingley, Yorkshire, of the extremely close relationship he shared with his mother, Kathleen and of his attendance at a Catholic School where his timidity and reticence made him a natural target for bullies. By part two of the book - called "Room" - Peter, the young man, has already met his wife to be Sonia, whose mental problems during their courtship provided Sutcliffe with a tenplate for his defence, when finally arrested. And, he has already begun to attack women. Part three of the book - " Other Rooms" - covers Peter's marriage and the purchase of his first house.It also covers the murders he committed, his arrest and trial. Yet, as I said earlier, this is not really a true crime book. The focus throughout i s on relationships and interractions between family members. Written with the full co-operation of Peter's father, brothers, sisters and friends (plus a "brief interview" with his wife),the book examines in great detail the normal day to day occurrences which take place in every family. The petty fights and squabbles, the more serious 'fallings out', the tensions between family members, the good deeds and the bad. It documents, rather than seeks to explain, leaving the reader to draw his/her own conclusion about how so 'ordinary' a family spawned such an abnormal son. Peter's family were working class - yet proud. Not one of the children achieved a single academic qualification and there were countless petty crimes,marriages, divorces, adulterous affairs, drinking (then throwing up!) and laddish pranks. Yet, according to Peter's father, John, the children's upbringing was not "rough and ready" and they were "loved,cared for and protected". Peter, particularly, was thought of as the 'caring' member of the family - the sensitive lad who loved and protected his mother and sisters, stuck with his girlfriend throughout her period of mental illness and hand delivered carefully chosen Christmas presents to elderly relatives.Indeed, following one of his murders, Sutcliffe took time to deliver a birthday card and present to his mother. Where did it all go wrong? Describing a family for whom 'effing and blinding' comes as naturally as breathing, the book is peppered with expletives. It could also hardly be described as 'politically correct' since it contains derogatory references to homosexuality and race. If these things shock or distress you, then this is not a book you would enjoy.By the same token, it is not a 'whodunnit' or a psychological thriller. It is,in fact,the written equivalent of a fly on the wall documentary - a fascinating, detailed and sometimes dis turbing peep into the personal lives of a dysfunctional family who, unkowingly harboured a member who was more dysfunctional than they - or anyone - could ever have imagined. "...somebody's husband, somebody's son" - Gordon Burns - Heineman - ISBN 434 09827 2 (price refers to hardback edition)
I read this book the back in the early 90’s and although quite some time has passed, I still remember it in some detail. At that time, I found it lived up to my expectations in regard to details of the places and people involved in the murders and, to a lesser extent, the how and where they were carried out. However, I was disappointed by the amount of ‘hindsight’ which Gordon Burn chose to include in his re-examination of the 1980’s most notorious murders. The reader is treated to page after page of detail relating to Peter Sutcliffe’s ‘matrimonial problems’; his wife Sonia’s mental health problems are examined; it gives details of what the Sutcliffe family thought about their son’s choice of spouse, how each of them related or otherwise to their ‘stuck-up’ in-law. One instance that demonstrates the type of detail Gordon Burn saw fit to included in this ‘True Crime’ book, is where he tells us what the Sutcliffe family was in the habit of eating on a regular basis. However, what it does not attempt to delve in to too deeply into is the psyche of one of the UK’s most notorious villains. Although, it is suggested that Sutcliffe was taking out his anger and frustrations about his wife on his unfortunate victims, there is very little genuine attempt made on the part of the author to understand what really drove Sutcliffe to carry out all the killings or to explain why he behaved in the way he did. Just in case there is anyone out there who was on another planet during the time of “the Yorkshire Ripper” case, Peter Sutcliffe was found guilty of murdering 13 women and attempted to murder seven more. The general content of this book is quite good, but that is as far as it goes. In support of the author; Gordon Burn is or was a Sunday Times journalist. He is not a “True Crime” author as such . On the other hand, some of the best “True Crime” books on the market have been written by ‘non-authors’, people who write from experience or through some in-built drive that makes them ‘have to write’. If you are someone who is used to reading “True Crime”, you may or may not find this book to your liking. I personally found it a rather difficult read, lacking in the quality of detail I have come to expect from any book that dares to deal with such a complex scenario. If you have difficulty finding it, the following is the ISBNnumber: ISBN: 0140096140 I do not usually write such negative opinions but, as someone who at one time read just about every “True Crime” book that I could lay my hands on, I have to say that this comes nowhere near “the best read ever.” GG
Story of the Yorkshire Ripper