One Of Your Own: The Life And Death Of Myra Hindley by Carol Ann Lee
To be honest, this is not the sort of book I would normally choose to read, and everyone I’ve told that I was reading it has said “why?” in a tone of incredulity; yet, I am glad I picked this up despite the sleepless nights it has since given me. As Hindley’s crimes have been in the news again recently I felt the need to be better informed about the events that happened before I was born, and which continued to unfold whilst I was growing up. Everyone has an opinion on Hindley and they are often at polar extremes – one friend commented “She was worse than him”, while another said “She was so incredibly manipulated”. So what is the truth behind that infamous mugshot, and the name which has become synonymous with female evil?
Lee’s biography turned out to be a meticulously researched, calm and rational account of events with contributions from family members, friends and colleagues of Hindley and Brady, and of course the relatives of the victims and the police. It is truthful about the horror of events without being graphic or salacious, and it refrains from analysing Hindley’s psychological make-up or overly moralising. There is no doubt that Lee believes Hindley to be entirely responsible for her own behaviour and deserving of the consequences, but I get the sense she came to the story with an open mind, and likewise wants her readers to decide for themselves what they think of Hindley. I certainly felt by the end that I understood the mind of this infamous woman as well as I ever will, and have formed an opinion of her that is based more on fact than myth.
As a counterpoint I then read Beyond Belief by Emlyn Williams, which was a contemporary account of the murders; Williams was actually present in the courtroom during the trial. Although he was not privy to the details that emerged in later years when he wrote his bestselling book, his narrative suffers from attempting to capture the northern dialect and mannerisms of Manchester, which for me had the effect of reducing everyone involved in the case to a stereotype. Further, his unfortunate technique of imagining the actual thoughts of Hindley and Brady, which is hardly psychological analysis but supposition in the extreme, undermined what is actually an otherwise well-researched book. Lee’s version, in contrast, is far less hysterical.
Hindley was undoubtedly a complex person who both repels and fascinates. She was doubly damned because of her gender; the implicit assumption in our culture is that men are expected to do terrible things, whereas women are meant to nurture and protect. When they don’t conform to this stereotype, they are regarded as more evil than men – her face, her name, have attained an iconic status surpassing Brady, the instigator of the murders. Her long campaign for release from prison was based not only on her claim that she was abused and brainwashed by Brady and was not therefore wholly accountable for her actions, but also that she was capable of redemption. Lee’s biography casts significant doubt on the veracity of both these claims. While I don’t doubt that Hindley was physically and psychologically abused by Brady, Lee presents us, through the words of those that knew her, a picture of a woman who was not really capable of understanding the pain of others; who viewed people outside her own family sphere as somehow less than human. There was something lacking in Myra Hindley. And that lack was there before she met Brady – she tried to fill it with religion, but instead found sex and death, and built her world around a personification of these forces. Hindley helped to kill children in order to fill that lack in herself; her “love” was devoid of any meaning. She deserved her punishment.
One Of Your Own is a disturbing but compelling biography of the woman behind that photograph. It won’t help you sleep at night, but it helps to raise serious questions about our entire society. Until we understand women like Myra Hindley – and she was by no means unique – we will not understand each other, or ourselves. Rating: ****
Mainstream Publishing, 2011, ISBN 9781845967017
Evil Relations: The Man Who Witnessed The Moors Murderers by David Smith with Carol Ann Lee
After reading One Of Your Own I was pleased to discover that Lee had then gone on to collaborate on a biography with David Smith, Hindley’s brother-in-law, who actions led directly to their arrest and imprisonment; his was a story that I felt really needed to be told. As a young man he was effectively groomed by Brady, but this proved to be Brady’s greatest misjudgement – as after witnessing the brutal murder of Edward Evans, Smith went to the police. Smith was in many respects the hero; without him the two killers may never have been brought to justice. Yet as a consequence of his actions that night he faced years of violent abuse from the community and was branded as the third Moors Murderer, and Lee’s preface makes it clear that this reputation persists today. The recent death of Smith in May this year makes the publication of this autobiography even more poignant.
Smith is remarkably candid about his nefarious activities as a young man, and the violence he meted out to his first wife, Maureen. He comes across as a man who has had to face his demons every day since that fateful evening of the 6th October, 1965, and does not shirk the shame of his own behaviour. But he remains sympathetic, as he calmly relates the events of the following years, and I was left with a profound sense of compassion towards someone whose life was almost ruined by doing the right thing.
What struck me was the level of violence in the community; domestic violence was a given in the slums of Manchester in the 1960s, and this was the society that moulded Myra Hindley. Reading it, it seemed a world away from our modern reactions and perceptions, and gave an insight into a culture in time, location and mind that is a universe away from my own. I would thoroughly recommend this book, not only as it sets the record straight on the 20th century’s most infamous British murder case, but as a piece of social history. Rating: ****
Mainstream Publishing, 2012, ISBN 9781780575391
The Lost Boy: The Definitive Story Of The Moors Murders And The Search For The Final Victim by Duncan Staff
To close the book on my interest in the Moors Murders, I read Staff’s “Sunday Times Bestseller”, which I hoped would look at the case more from the perspective of the victims and their families. Unfortunately, this book is wrongly billed, poorly written and very much a missed opportunity – I would have expected better from a Guardian journalist.
This is not really the story of the search for Keith Bennett, although that does feature as a loose structural device. It is instead a biography of Myra Hindley, whom Staff had the opportunity to talk to and whose papers he gained access to after her death. This access gave him a role in the police enquiry, as officers assigned to the case tried to find out if her papers revealed any clues to the location of Keith’s grave. Yet the content of these papers, or of the conversations with Hindley, is all rather vague. The details of the enquiry are rather vague. The conversations with Professor Malcolm MacCulloch, the psychiatrist working with Hindley, are rather vague. Why not interview him properly? The whole book came across as surface level, with no real, substantive analysis of Hindley’s motivations, critique of the police enquiry, or any real connection to the case of poor lost Keith Bennett. And I was times disturbed by the feeling that the book served mainly to aggrandise the author – a feeling that was confirmed in the conclusion, with his bold statement “The forces of law and order, rather than a journalist, should have discovered the truth behind the Moors murders.” After reading this book I was at a loss to pinpoint exactly what real input he had had in “solving” the case.
This was a real missed opportunity. If the author had access to the material he claims, this could really have been the “definitive” book on the subject. Instead it’s thinly disguised tabloid journalism. Disappointing, and I’m sure, a letdown for the family of the Lost Boy, Keith Bennett. Unrated.
Bantam Books, 2008, ISBN 9780553818079