Happy Like Murderers, by Gordon Burn
Fred and Rose West were murderers and they were happy being murderers. That much is true. The rest is debatable. Gordon Burn has taken a difficult task of chronicling the life and crimes of the evil duo. Ploughing through the lies and half-truths Burn has produced a dark, disturbing account of not just what went on in the hallowed rooms of 25 Cromwell Street but also what happened before.
Fred and Rose West murdered at least ten women together, some were buried under the patio of their garden, some in the cellar, others in fields and one was even buried under the floorboards of their own bathroom where their children would wash and get ready for school. Burn does not dwell on the murders, he delves into the characters of the disturbed Fred and Rose West. Ranging from the sexual abuse of both as children, the abuse they inflict on their own children, their murders and eventual capture Burn’s well researched novel focuses more on the why rather than the how.
The book, however, is more of a collection of accounts on the abuse Fred and Rose inflicted on their children. Burn pushes the boundaries when he talks about these things, he aims to disturb the audience with the shocking and grotesque details like the children were shocked when their parents did such horrific acts. One incident stands out among all the others, the act that shows how evil they were.
As Rose takes her step-daughter, Anne-Marie, out for a drink – at age twelve – to the local pub, Anne-Marie – already constantly abused by her step-mother and father at this point – thinks Rose is actually her friend. When the night is over, however, and Anne-Marie is drunk and vulnerable a van pulls up – driven by her father – into which she is pushed by Rose and raped by the pair in the back of the van. What started off as a normal girly night out ended in rape and battery. This crucial moment in the book shows just how Fred and Rose went from normal civilians to sickly animals. Burn portrays their transition wonderfully, giving us the details of where these two came from and what kind of lives they led before they started murdering together.
Burn’s novel, however, is more of a good, informative starting point for those who are interested – and thereby disturbed – by the West’s case. Burn shows only Fred’s side of the murder of his daughter Charmaine – whereby he says he killed her – however many people believe it was Rose who in fact killed the young girl, not Fred. Burn decided to leave this detail out. Although the characters are equally explored and portrayed as evil it’s hard not to see Rose as merely the abusive, sex-obsessed housewife when Fred was the compulsive worker who perverted over young women, his wife and children and killed. It is not suggested Rose did not kill but more left to the imagination. This may have been done by Burn because only one alive person knows the to what extent Rose was involved however Burn could have explored this more.
Burn’s style of writing is what lets the book down. Although deeply compact with detail Happy Like Murderers seems like a large volume of bits of information, not organised in a coherent way. It is, in parts, unclear. One minute we’re talking about their eighth victim, then their first, the children are twelve and then five. It seems Burn banged out the sordid details of the abuse and murder and forgot to bring his audience with him along the way.
Overall Happy Like Murderers is a great book. It is more disturbing than any other books related to the murderous couple and brings you through the doors of 25 Cromwell Street to understand what kind of life the Wests lived. Its only flaw is cramming in too much detail where by doing this Burn misses out other interesting avenues to explore. Those that are intrigued by the case or want to read a true story about murder, rape and abuse will appreciate this book. Burn has not just created a grand collection of memories and information but an exploration of what it means to be a killer and stay hidden by the masks of normality they wear.