The Magnetism of Murder

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In 1957 I was a schoolboy in what was then known as Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, when Arnold Jones, my English teacher, insisted that we all go with him to hear his compatriot, the Welsh author and actor Emlyn Williams, who was on tour with his one-man tribute to Dylan Thomas, A Boy Growing Up. This performance was a watershed in my appreciation of the spoken and written word. Williams held us spellbound for three hours: a small middle-aged, grey-haired man on a bare stage, bringing to life a child’s Christmas in Wales, making us laugh at Thomas’s self-portrait as a schoolboy drawing ‘a wild guess below the waist’, as a Young Dog with a beer bottle stuck on his finger, and then unexpectedly reducing us to pin-dropping silence with ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ and ‘Death shall have no dominion’. For me, this was the beginning of a lifetime’s enjoyment of the work not just of Dylan Thomas but of Emlyn Williams himself.

From school I went on to the recently established University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, the first multiracial university in Africa, and in 1961 our Dramatic Society put on The Corn Is Green, Williams’s very successful semi-autobiographical 1930 play about schooldays in a village in Wales. For our programme the author wrote:

From my short but vivid glimpse of the University College and its setting I was able to realize how much you have the welfare of the underprivileged at heart, and it seems that the theme of this particular play – apart from the entertainment value I hope it will provide first and foremost! – is peculiarly suitable in the circumstances.

Ten years later I was back in Africa as a teacher at my old school, and the Welsh connection was affirmed as we introduced the next generation to what had inspired me as a schoolboy. I put on a production of Under Milk Wood with a cast of fifty teenagers, and stage-managed Williams’s 1935 thril

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In 1957 I was a schoolboy in what was then known as Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, when Arnold Jones, my English teacher, insisted that we all go with him to hear his compatriot, the Welsh author and actor Emlyn Williams, who was on tour with his one-man tribute to Dylan Thomas, A Boy Growing Up. This performance was a watershed in my appreciation of the spoken and written word. Williams held us spellbound for three hours: a small middle-aged, grey-haired man on a bare stage, bringing to life a child’s Christmas in Wales, making us laugh at Thomas’s self-portrait as a schoolboy drawing ‘a wild guess below the waist’, as a Young Dog with a beer bottle stuck on his finger, and then unexpectedly reducing us to pin-dropping silence with ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ and ‘Death shall have no dominion’. For me, this was the beginning of a lifetime’s enjoyment of the work not just of Dylan Thomas but of Emlyn Williams himself.

From school I went on to the recently established University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, the first multiracial university in Africa, and in 1961 our Dramatic Society put on The Corn Is Green, Williams’s very successful semi-autobiographical 1930 play about schooldays in a village in Wales. For our programme the author wrote:

From my short but vivid glimpse of the University College and its setting I was able to realize how much you have the welfare of the underprivileged at heart, and it seems that the theme of this particular play – apart from the entertainment value I hope it will provide first and foremost! – is peculiarly suitable in the circumstances.

Ten years later I was back in Africa as a teacher at my old school, and the Welsh connection was affirmed as we introduced the next generation to what had inspired me as a schoolboy. I put on a production of Under Milk Wood with a cast of fifty teenagers, and stage-managed Williams’s 1935 thriller Night Must Fall, the story of a plaus-ible but evil young man who takes advantage of an elderly lady. What I did not realize at the time was that the play is based on a true story, the notorious case of Sidney Harry Fox, who made a living by swindling gullible women out of considerable sums of money and who was in 1930 hanged for the murder of his mother for her life insurance. Williams did not write any more plays during his long career as an actor and performer, but thirty years later he noted: ‘Ever since writing Night Must Fall, I have wondered if a murder case would one day present itself which would challenge me to embark on a book aiming at that dual accuracy’: the accuracy of both history and imaginative understanding, a concept attributed to the historian of crime, William Bolitho.

In 1965 such a case did present itself, the horrific story of Brady and Hindley and the Moors Murders. Ian Brady was born in Glasgow but was adopted by a family in Gorton, a very poor district of Manchester, where Myra Hindley also grew up. He was in trouble with the law from an early age and became fascinated by accounts of violence such as the horrors of the Nazi death camps and the works of the Marquis de Sade. Myra was originally a typical Gorton teenager. She had once dreamt of training as a children’s nanny and moving to America, but instead, after leaving school at 15, she got a minor secretarial job in the same office as Brady. She was attracted to him and his perverted ideas, and over the next few years together they abducted and killed several children, afterwards burying the bodies on the moors outside Manchester, until finally they were betrayed by Myra’s terrified young brother-in-law who had witnessed one of the murders.

Brady and Hindley were tried and convicted in 1966, and two years later Williams wrote Beyond Belief, his meticulously researched account of the case. Since then a score of other accounts have appeared, ranging in approach from the forensic to the frankly sensational, but Williams’s book embodies the essence of classical tragedy, the foreseeable but inevitable descent into horror. In place of the traditional Chorus he opens with these lines from Emily Brontë:

I dream of moor, and misty hill
Where evening gathers, dark and chill . . .
What have those lonely mountains worth revealing?

He acknowledges the difficulty of filling in the gap between one set of established facts and the next, and uses the term ‘surmise’ for his reconstruction of behaviour, conversation and thoughts to fill that gap. The result is a fascinating and very convincing eye-witness account based not just on the evidence produced at the trial, but also on his own involvement: interviews with family, friends and acquaintances of the central characters, and an artist’s observation of the setting: ‘the smudged evening rabbit warren of old Gorton’. The pubs, the shops, the constant but usually cheerful struggle to make ends meet, and the occasional treat: the fairground, perhaps, or the ever-present cinema. Comedy, adventure and romance of course, but also, as Williams’s gleaning of contemporary newspapers shows, a never-ending parade of violence, much of it from the Hammer Films studios: ‘Kings Mar 27 The Curse of the Werewolf. Olympia Sep 13 Killer at Large. Corona Gorton Oct 31 Companions in Crime. Essoldo Nov 5 Wings of Death.’

The leading characters in this tragedy are the outlaws and outcasts; Williams stresses that most of the cast are ‘ordinary men and women’ like Brady’s one-time neighbours, the Galways, a young couple with a small baby. He worked in the foundry and was taking night classes; she sometimes sang with the local Operatic Society: ‘We shall not meet the Galways, but it is good to remember that the three of them are on the other side of the wall, you can even hear them poke the fire.’

In the midst of tragedy, Williams tries to maintain a chronicler’s detachment: Myra, a teenager when she first met Ian Brady, kept a diary which served as a valuable source of information, and he drily remarks, ‘Professional writers apart, only virgins and generals keep diaries.’ Sometimes, however, his humanity comes through: before the horrific climax there is an echo of the traditional pantomime audience’s pleas of ‘Look behind you!’: ‘Myra Hindley, do now what you nearly did. Emigrate.’

In 1987, the last year of his life, Williams wrote another book based on a famous criminal case, Dr Crippen’s Diary, supposedly preserved until seventy-five years after the doctor’s execution in 1910. Hawley Harvey Crippen was an American dentist and purveyor of quack medicines. His second wife, Cora Turner, fancied herself as a star of the musical theatre and adopted the stage name of Belle Elmore. In 1897 the couple moved to London and bought a house on Hilldrop Crescent in Holloway, an address which was to become infamous in the annals of crime. Belle constantly bullied and humiliated Crippen in front of their friends, and he fell in love with his secretary, the mouse-like Ethel Le Neve. One night, having had enough, he killed Belle and buried her body in the basement. He told friends various stories to cover her disappearance but the police were not convinced by them. In the end Crippen panicked and fled to Canada by ship, accompanied by Ethel, disguised as his young son. Shortly afterwards Belle’s body was discovered, and information sent to the captain of the liner by the new miracle of wireless telegraphy. Crippen was arrested on board and brought back to England for trial.

In the Diary he admits being responsible for the death of his wife but denies it was murder. The explanation he gives (which I will not reveal) was probably suggested by the line of defence Sir Edward Marshall Hall intended to pursue had he accepted the brief, according to the Notable British Trials account.

Williams has an ingenious solution to one of the ongoing mysteries of the case: why did Dr Crippen leave an easily identifiable item of his clothing on his wife’s body when he hid her remains in the basement? The Diary records how the uninhibited and quarrelsome Belle mocked the prudish Crippen for what he describes as his ‘quirk of keeping it [his pyjama-top] on during intimacy’, and says she always called him ‘Mr PT’. Years later, while burying her body he runs out of towels and goes to find something with which to clean his hands: ‘What should be the first thing I fish up, but a Pyjama-Top! I had to smile . . . and looking down the hole said out loud, This is from Mr PT, and dropped it down.’ It is as good an explanation as any: the police found the matching pyjama bottoms still in his bedroom drawer.

Williams brings his skill as an actor into his writing. Just as an actor must identify with the character he is portraying, so must the author of works like these somehow get to know his subjects. In the case of Crippen he is at times understanding, even almost sympathetic: ‘Poor Ethel Le Neve. And poor Crippen. She loved him, he loved her. As a step towards diminishing the legend of the Monstrous Little Man, it would be fair to remember that.’ Perhaps he was recalling Dylan Thomas’s hen-pecked Mr Pugh, surreptitiously underlining certain passages in Lives of the Great Poisoners. In the case of Brady and Hindley, however, he is unequivocally outraged: their bodies may be separated by prison walls but ‘their souls are together, buried on moors of their own making. And when on Judgement Day those souls are dug up, they will stink to heaven.’

I was watching an old episode of Rumpole of the Bailey when I last saw Emlyn Williams, then aged 78, playing the part of an arrogant elderly artist accused of the forgery of a painting which had deceived the experts. It was like meeting an old friend. He was perfectly at home on the stage of the court room, as would be expected, and clearly enjoyed the twist at the end: Rumpole gets him acquitted, but only by proving that the painting, although in fact a forgery, was actually done by his greatest rival, and imploring the jury to have pity on a poor painter ‘who could not even produce a forgery of his own’. Williams obviously relished his last line on any earthly stage: ‘You bastard, Rumpole, you’ve joined the con-o-sewers!’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 68 © Alastair Glegg 2020


About the contributor

Alastair Glegg lives on Vancouver Island and has retired after a lifetime in the classroom and lecture hall. He has spent the lockdown with his books; picking up the many he had put aside to read later but soon abandoning them for old favourites.

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