In a 1996 essay for Granta, the late Gordon Burn set down his experience covering the trial of Rose West. “There was nothing much to see and it was always much the same,” he wrote. “But the heavy media presence was in itself justification for having the story high in the running order.” Burn was a writer of unusually versatile brilliance, who returned repeatedly to the most violent, sordid corners of British life. But even in the mid-1990s, he was to diagnose a growing weariness at the sheer number of crime stories on offer. “There are now so many … that only the most sensational or brutal or those which contain unusual elements stand any chance at all of making it on to the news agenda.”
Having just published my own book on a historical crime, I know all too well that Burn’s diagnosis can be applied today with minimal alteration. True crime is in the midst of an exceptionally well-documented boom. Real-life tales of murder, rape, robbery and fraud are deeply ingrained in the Anglo-American cultural landscape, arguably long past the point of oversaturation. We are more than familiar with the arguments as to why this may be a bad, or at least unedifying, thing. It sometimes feels that for every Serial or Dahmer, there is an accompanying viral essay restating the baked-in exploitation and muddied ethics implicit in packaging grisly crimes of the recent past as entertainment.
The appetite for this debate is almost as ferocious as that for the stories themselves, as a recent back-and-forth between the crime writer and columnist Sarah Weinman and the incarcerated journalist John J Lennon in the New York Review of Books made clear. The very public debate had begun with Lennon’s subtly critical review of Weinman’s latest nonfiction book, an account of the life and crimes of Edgar Smith, an American prison writer and murderer. Lennon’s piece asked to what extent true crime, however skilfully crafted, might deepen a collective “thirst for punishment”.
Yet several questions are often overlooked. Why are some crimes destined for perpetual re-examination and others locked into permanent obscurity? And what precisely are the “unusual elements” that Burn wrote of, that make a particular case so attractive to a certain kind of audience? It might be a particularly savage or unfathomable level of depravity, as with the crimes of Fred and Rose West. But very often it has something to do with the precise amount of mystery involved. Unsolved, and perhaps unsolvable, cases offer something that “ordinary” murder doesn’t. One thinks about the apparently bottomless fascination with the Victorian bogeyman Jack the Ripper, or the nightmare lore of the self-styled Zodiac killer of late-1960s California. Stories so well known and theorised that they have long ago curdled into myth.
The playing out of this process is what led me to start reporting, in 2018, on Glasgow’s infamous Bible John killings. Between February 1968 and the end of October 1969, three women were killed after a night spent in Glasgow’s Barrowland ballroom. Patricia Docker, Jemima MacDonald and Helen Puttock were three young, working-class mothers living through a a fractious time in the city’s history, when the murder rate was high and a fear of “youth violence” lingered in the air. Their murders were later ascribed to the spectre of an apparent serial killer, who the enterprising tabloid press of the day rapidly christened Bible John: a moniker derived from the figure’s apparent fondness for scriptural quotation, according to the memory of Puttock’s sister.
The murders sparked what was then Scotland’s largest ever manhunt. Thousands were interviewed across the country, as part of a fatally flawed police investigation led by Joe Beattie, a distinguished and terminally inflexible Glaswegian detective who was quickly consumed and eventually engulfed by the hysteria surrounding the case. The killings have never been solved, drifting into the city’s folklore over the subsequent half century. For some, including the police, as well as the run of writers, documentarians and celebrity criminologists who have taken up the story over the years, the myth has carried its own convenience. After all, it is easier by far to blame a quasi-mythical scripture-obsessed killer than interrogate the litany of professional and institutional disasters that followed the murders.
There is perhaps some slight temptation in glossing over my own role in keeping Bible John alive. Clearly, anyone who has decided to write a book on the subject has to reckon with some degree of complicity with the true-crime industrial complex, even if that same book is intended as a critique of the genre’s worst excesses. It was a question I wrestled with from the earliest days of my reporting. What gave me the right to try to reframe and retell these stories?
Perhaps this is a question without a satisfactory answer. If pressed, I’d say the crimes were a window through which a volatile, captivating chapter in Glasgow’s recent history could be seen. I never proffered a theory regarding the killer’s identity, or made any outlandish claim that I could “solve” the case. Instead, there was the weight of available evidence to sort through, which showed how and why these murders still carry such an outsized fascination for so many. It is a search that has taken me from musty Glaswegian archives, to hotels in the Scottish borders and council estates in Kent seaside towns.
These sorts of mysteries are a powerful prompt to all manner of ingenuity. The social media-enabled internet sleuth is a very modern phenomenon and it isn’t just murder that fuels it. Much critical coverage was recently devoted to the blunt insensitivity and wild speculation surrounding the weeks-long search for Nicola Bulley. Though shocking, it was hardly surprising for anyone that has lingered in an unsolved mystery forum or Facebook group. This is what not knowing can provoke, particularly when one is located at a safe remove from any sense of real jeopardy. For many, the right to air a theory is increasingly sacred, however careless or harmful it may be. This impulse is easy enough to condemn in others; it is far harder to acknowledge that it may lie dormant in us all.