By Gitta Sereny.
ISBN 0 7126 6297 9
Murder, like sex, makes compulsive reading and viewing. Even
‘ordinary’ murders, crimes of jealousy and hate, make headlines,
but serial murders, sex and sadistic murders hold attention over
Perhaps, most bizarre of all, murders of children by children
have the added power of challenging comprehension. Are the killers
evil sports of nature – ‘bad seed’ – or are they deeply needy, sick
children requiring treatment not punishment?
First published in 1972, this book concerns a child murderer,
Mary Bell, whose case was tried at Newcastle upon Tyne Assizes in
1968-9. The author, a European journalist, was present to report
for the Daily Telegraph Magazine. The complexity of the human drama
and its participants led her later to write the book, now
republished with the addition of articles written in 1994 about the
two boys who killed toddler James Bulger. Sereny was present at
their trial, too.
Part of the original purpose of the book was to highlight the
lack of suitable provision for seriously disturbed children,
including adequate mental health residential facilities and
Who could disagree? In many respects specific provision has not
improved in almost 30 years; in some respects – notably the loss of
many child guidance clinics – services have deteriorated.
There is a wealth of detail in family stories, physical evidence
and selected dramatic happenings.
Yet, for this reader, the picture constructed lacks the
precision and logical development of a good police dossier, or a
careful psychiatric or social work case history.
Mary’s mother disappeared and reappeared equally unpredictably,
but was she mentally ill or ‘on the game’? It is not clear,
although it was surely important.
The text contains too many unprovable value judgements, such as
‘model institution of its kind’, ‘exceptionally generous’,
‘renowned psychiatrist’; and descriptions of people and bodies do
not gain authority, but rather seem diminished, by such
Contrasts and comparisons between the two celebrated cases of
murder undoubtedly highlight what remains a mysterious child care
What makes children commit murder? How should they be dealt with
at the time and in the years that follow? As many others have done
since the Bulger case, the book questions whether adult courts
should deal with children, however serious their offence.
Curiously, though, the primitive response of some of the public to
the child murderers is not mentioned.
As with journalism generally, the book is best when it is
telling a story, and asking challenging questions.
It would certainly make useful training material for members of
Barbara Kahan is an independent consultant.