Sweet Fucking Jeezus.
I was 15 when bodies started being brought out of 25 Cromwell Street and, like the rest of the country, I equal parts fascinated and horrified at what else was unearthed alongside the remains of the young women that had fallen victim to Fred and Rose West. Thanks to the wall to wall media coverage that accompanied the investigation, I thought I had a fair idea of the depths of depravity that the West’s were capable of. Reading Happy Like Murderers quickly disabused me of that notion.
Both from nightmarish backgrounds, with families who regularly engaged in sex with their children, parents, siblings and animals, it’s small wonder that the West’s grew up to be incredibly fucked up monsters. Who knows what kind of damage they would have individually been capable of had they not met one another. But they did meet. And young women started to die.
Not limiting their abuses to strangers but making sure that the whole household suffered, Fred and Rose were the sorts of parents you wish would abandon their children but instead they kept them under strict control, beating them and using them as sex toys according to their whims, and even offering them up to the many lodgers and visitors to the house, many of whom took up the offer. This is what my mind kept circling back to over and over whilst reading this book: That Fred and Rose were depraved and inhuman I understood. What I couldn’t understand was how anyone else would not be shocked and horrified at being offered an 8 year old, and at the very least have reported them, but instead it seems that my faith in humanity was completely misjudged and that most of the men jumped at the chance rather than reporting them or kicking their teeth in. Over and over again, I was shook at how much I’ve taken for granted that people en masse are mostly decent, when instead it seemed that pretty much everyone in the community in which the West’s lived had either been horrifically abused or were horrific abusers themselves. The terror and degradation which the West’s children endured (as it was they who were the focus of much of the abuse) is incomprehensible (and would probably drive you insane if you could imagine even a tenth of it).
While Happy Like Murderers is filled with terrifying anecdotes from the West’s children as well as the sad details of the lives they took and buried under their house and garden, telling you everything you ever wanted to know about them (and a lot that you would never want to know), it did also employ a couple of stylistic choices that I sometimes struggled with. It had the occasional habit of jumbling the chronology, skipping a few years into the future to talk of something or other and then back again, making me a little confused at times as to when certain things had actually happened, as well as engaging in a lot of repetition for effect. Whilst this did a good job of portraying how mundane the constant violence had become in the West household, it also brought me up short a few times, making me think I’d somehow lost my place in the book. As was later pointed out to me, it also contains at least one error, when Burns portrays the murder of Charmaine West by Fred – a murder that we now know was committed by Rose whilst Fred was incarcerated for another crime. And so, despite being a book that I couldn’t put down (it was read in one sitting) it’s getting a couple of stars knocked off. And I’m off to bathe in bleach.