I remember reading Happy Like Murderers, Gordon Burn’s tremendous interrogation of the Fred and Rose West murder case a few years back, and being struck by the opening which spoke about the way in which the West house was quickly demolished and paved over. Nothing to see here, the demolition seems to imply. Burn felt that the right thing to do was study. Investigate. Understand. You don’t grow and you don’t learn by ignoring something terrible.
Of course, there are a great many people in this country (or so it sometimes feels) who don’t wish to understand anything. The baying mob. This book – The Devil You Know by Dr Gwen Adshead & Eileen Horne – would, we sense, not be for them. Just as Happy Like Murderers would not be for them. Just as Gita Sereny’s The Case of Mary Bell or Blake Morrison’s As If would not be for them (‘them’ being the Daily Mail reading horde who just need to hear “String em up!” to start frothing at the mouth).
The Devil You Know is a book ostensibly ‘by’ Dr Gwen Adshead, a criminal psychologist, albeit, we imagine, with some fine support work from Eileen Horne (the book is narrated ‘by’ Adshead, as if we are hearing her innermost thoughts but the presence of Horne on the cover suggests that perhaps a little more than ghostwriting went on). Adshead worked for many years in Broadmoor and dealt with a great many people who the Daily Mail horde would be quick to dismiss as monsters. The easily triggered should know that there are paedophiles here, arsonists, stalkers, murderers, serial killers – all manner of wrong uns. But Adshead is not quick to judge.
“I hope that as this book ends, the reader will surface, glad of the fresh aire and freedom, with a changed perspective on what we call ‘evil’. It is really a term, much like beauty, which says more about the viewer than the object.”
Adshead is also, as you’d probably expect, critical of the ways in which successive governments have reduced spending upon mental health:
“…prison can be a frightening environment… at times, and [the staff’s] work is hard. It has been made even more difficult by recent staffing cuts within the service, which are estimated at 30 per cent over the last decade, despite the rising prison population.”
Adshead is gentle, full of humility and quick to demonstrate her wisdom via her reading (there is barely a page that goes by without something you’ll want to scribble down in your notebook, if you do that kind of thing) – quotes from Robert Frost, Shakespeare, countless others. At times you may want to reach out and actually ask Adshead to be a little more judgemental than she is; but at the same time, the glimpse into the way she works (where she is constantly second guessing herself or cross referencing her approach via colleagues or therapy of her own) inevitably has you nodding in deference to her vast experience.
Any Cop?: Whilst I think The Devil You Know would be met with incredulous huffing from the aforementioned baying mob, it certainly made me look at how I am, with a gentle push to understand more, if I’m ever gripped by the need to condemn someone for whatever reason.