Today marks the coronation of Charles III as king of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth.

As a political institution the British monarchy ceased having any purpose back in the 18th century. Because of its near total irrelevance, and the expense of its maintenance, there have been frequent calls for getting rid of it. These have become more pointed recently, as Charles is not well liked and is 74 years old, which seems very old to finally be elevated to the position of even nominal head of state. At least until you realize that both Joe Biden and Donald Trump are older. When will we be rid of this cursed generation?

How much longer will the monarchy go on for? Will cancel culture ever come for it? I doubt it, but if it does I imagine it will be for the reason any long-running show finally gets the (metaphorical) axe: a fall in ratings.

The thing is, few people care at all about the monarchy anymore. According to one recent poll, a whopping 78% of young people in Britain fell into this camp. The Crown is more popular than the Crown.

Things were different just forty years ago. The marriage of Charles and Diana was a big deal, and a popular show. But then the funeral of Diana was perhaps the last TV special that drew an audience. The media put a huge amount of effort into selling Harry and Meghan, and the funeral of Elizabeth II, but these weren’t even blips on my radar. The coronation will receive enormous coverage, even in markets like the U.S. that severed their ties to the monarchy a couple of hundred years ago, but I wonder if anyone will pay attention despite all the play on CNN. I know I won’t be watching. And this really is the key point in our attention economy. If royalty aren’t celebrities then they’re nothing at all.

DNF files: Hell Town

Hell Town: The Untold Story of a Serial Killer on Cape Cod

By Casey Sherman

Page I bailed on: 79

Verdict: I was looking forward to this, as I didn’t know anything about Tony Costa and the rampage he went on in 1969 where he killed a number of young women on Cape Cod. But it put me off right away with the novelistic treatment of its subject. Here’s the first sentence: “The prisoner closed his dark eyes and inhaled, taking the warm air of midspring deep into his lungs.” Talk about sounding a false note. I mean, I suppose Costa at some point on the day in question closed his eyes and took a deep breath, so there’s no saying Sherman is wrong here. But at the same time he’s clearly just making it up. As are subsequent accounts of Costa’s mental operations (“his thoughts turned to . . .”, etc.). Costa did write a sort of memoir while in prison that Sherman draws on here, but it’s hardly a reliable source. Meanwhile, what sources he does refer to are only sparingly referenced in the endnotes.

The “non-fiction novel” is a bastard genre I don’t care for, and it’s very much the hell that Hell Town was on a  highway to. To take just a couple of related examples, at one point Sydney Monzon is out late driving with Costa and he leaves the car to break into a medical office so he can steal some drugs. Sitting in the car, “She fiddled with the radio and landed on Hugo Montenegro’s orchestral from the Clint Eastwood film The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which was nearing the top of the Billboard charts. She now felt a bit like a desperado herself as she sat in wait for her companion to make his score.” Then, later in the book, Patricia Walsh and Mary Anne Wysocki are described driving to Cape Cod: “the young women listened to the car radio and the sounds of Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine,’ which at that moment was the number one song on the Billboard charts and had dominated the airplay at local radio stations.”

At the time, the only witnesses here would have been the three women themselves, as no one else was with them. And Costa soon killed all three. So how does Sherman know what they were listening to on their car radios? How does he know they had the radios on at all? There are no sources for this guesswork because none are available. Instead we’re just pointed to the songs that were big at the time, according to Billboard Magazine. And why would Sherman assume that Monzon felt like a desperado? I would have thought she’d be nervous as hell.

It was at the second of these car-radio scenes that I gave up. But I hadn’t been enjoying the book up till then. Patches of dialogue, for which again Sherman seems to have no source, are related directly and sound highly dubious. At one point Costa, who was a police informer as well as a drug peddler, asks the local police chief for a gun so that he can protect himself. The chief denies his request. Costa responds: “I’m astonished, and I cannot believe your indifference. You will not offer me protection until there is a violent act against me?” Really? That’s what he said? Those exact words? I don’t believe it. Not without a tape recording. And maybe not even then.

The chapters oddly alternate between telling Costa’s story and the literary rivalry of Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut. This didn’t interest me at all, as I already knew something about them. What I was hoping for was more along the lines of a cultural-historical commentary about the nightmare that the hippie movement turned into, sort of like what Helter Skelter did with the Manson case, but that didn’t seem to be on tap. And to top it off the writing is just hack work. Just before killing Monzon, Costa has a brief, abortive make-out session with her in his car. Did this happen? No way to know. So I guess Sherman was either taking Costa’s word for it or making it up. How does it go down? “They kissed as droplets of rain rolled down the windshield like tears on a baby’s cheek.” Ye gods. Tears like rain. And a baby’s tears. Why? Because a baby evokes pathos and the imminent murder of innocence? Because they’re extra soft? But a baby’s tears are more likely to be accompanied with red-faced screaming rather than make one think of tender lovemaking. Or duplicitous lovemaking, since babies are nothing if not authentic in their rage. The simile is ridiculous. There was no way I was going to read 400 pages of this. Begone!

The DNF files

Brave New World Revisited, revisited or Consider the dodo

From Brave New World Revisited (1958) by Aldous Huxley:

Does a majority of the population think it worth while to take a good deal of trouble, in order to halt and, if possible, reverse the current drift towards totalitarian control of everything? In the United States – and America is the prophetic image of the rest of the urban-industrial world as it will be a few years from now – recent public opinion polls have revealed that an actual majority of young people in their teens, the voters of tomorrow, have no faith in democratic institutions, see no objection to the censorship of unpopular ideas, do not believe that government of the people by the people is possible, and would be perfectly content, if they can continue to live in the style to which the boom has accustomed them, to be ruled, from above, by an oligarchy of assorted experts. That so many of the well-fed young television-watchers in the world’s most powerful democracy should be so completely indifferent to the idea of self-government, so blankly uninterested in freedom of thought and the right to dissent, is distressing, but not too surprising. “Free as a bird,” we say, and envy the winged creatures for their power of unrestricted movement in all the three dimensions. But, alas, we forget the dodo.

TCF: A Deal with the Devil

A Deal with the Devil: The Dark and Twisted True Story of One of the Biggest Cons in History
By Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken

The crime:

Maria Duval was the name and face behind one of the biggest mail frauds in history. People (usually the elderly and vulnerable) sent money to her hoping that her psychic powers would bring them good fortune. But when a pair of CNN reporters tried to track down Ms. Duval they found that she was just a front for a much deeper scam being operated by a variety of mysterious and shady characters.

The book:

I don’t say this very often, but this is one of those books I couldn’t put down. It sucked me in and I kept reading it all in a rush.

I think it helped that it was a mystery, and no less satisfying for being a mystery without a full solution. Ellis and Hicken are intrepid reporters, and seem to have been having a lot of fun along the way while trying to track Duval (or “Duval”) down, but as with any great conspiracy story we only get past one wall (or e-mail address, or shell company) to find another standing behind it.

This is what I found so fascinating about A Deal with the Devil. I think everyone agrees that we live in a time that’s rich with magical thinking and dense with conspiracy theories. What doesn’t get enough attention are the background cultural factors that contribute to this.

In some ways it all goes back to the way the world itself has become more complicated through science and technology, making us feel increasingly alienated from and powerless in the grip of tools that we use and depend on every day but don’t understand a thing about. But there is a political and economic side to this as well, as we feel both left behind and in the dark by governments and big corporations that operate so much in the shadows that there’s often no way even investigative reporters working for major news outlets can figure out what it is they do.

This leaves A Deal with the Devil reading a bit like a Pynchon novel for the Google Street View age. All the indeterminacy and mystery in our everyday lives naturally leads to unexpected lapses into credulity and conspiracy mindsets. Near the end of their investigations the authors are even entertaining one tip from Romania suggesting that a cult of Satanists might be behind the whole thing. Shades of QAnon! But the truth, though less sensational, is even more unnerving: a cabal of international money people and crime bosses running a global scam taking in hundreds of millions of dollars. If this is so, might there not also be some truth to ESP and the power of magic crystals? Given the existence of such real conspiracies, wouldn’t it be a kind of survival technique to just believe everything?

The one part of the book I felt resistance to came at the end where the authors finally get to meet Maria Duval and find the perfect image for the wall of unknowingness they’ve come up against in the blank eyes of an old woman afflicted with dementia. There is a suggestion made of this being a final irony, in that Duval herself might be seen as a victim of the fraudsters who bought her name and monetized it by attaching it to their scam. That may be, but I had zero sympathy for Duval. She cashed out and was in no way a victim in all of this.

Noted in passing:

Is it the case that native speakers can’t hear themselves speaking with any kind of accent? That they just see their own accent as “normal”? I think this might happen, which is why I was surprised when the authors (both born and bred in the United States) described the Canadian characters they meet as having “a charming Canadian accent” or “a distinctly Canadian accent.”

According to Wikipedia, most North Americans “cannot distinguish the typical accents of the two countries [that would be Canada and the U.S., though Mexico is also in North America] by sound alone.” Of course there are regional differences. People from Texas, Boston, or Newfoundland have easily recognizable accents. But I don’t think there’s any difference between the speech of someone from Toronto and a native of Cincinnati. The old joke from South Park where Canadians are heard pronouncing “out and about” as “oot and aboot” always baffled me. We don’t sound like Scots.

When I went and watched some videos about Canadian accents I was just as confused. The way words were being pronounced in a “Canadian accent” didn’t sound like anything I’d ever heard. I don’t think I’ve ever heard “sorry” pronounced as “sore-ee.” There are some Canadianisms, like the particle “eh?” that I guess are a tag, but to be honest I don’t even hear “eh?” very much anymore. Certainly not as much as it was used thirty or so years ago, when you did hear it all the time. Place names are a specialty in any language, so I don’t know how many people from elsewhere pronounce Toronto as Trahn-toe (which is how we do it). Probably as many as pronounce New Orleans as New Orleens or New Orlee-ans, when I think it’s supposed to be New Orlins or New Awlins (but not Nawlins, which I’ve heard is a myth).

In any event, Ellis and Hicken don’t give any examples of what makes the Canadians they talk to sound so charmingly or distinctly Canadian, so I don’t know what it was they were responding to.


It’s lucky the Duval mail fraud was shut down, though I doubt it has been shut down so much as it’s just been diverted into other channels. These operations know how to stay two or three steps ahead of the law. It’s exasperating reading about scams like this because they’re like junk mail, telemarketers, and spam: at any point the government could step in and put an end to all this but they won’t because there’s too much money involved.

What’s worse, in accepting, as I think we do, that so much of normal capitalist activity is a fraud or a scam, or something very like it, we tend to valorize the scammers as heroes and see their victims as clueless suckers who are, in the words of one of the people involved in the fraud here, “too dumb to live.” Taking the life savings of these people is a sort of cull. And this is old school mail fraud we’re still talking about. The Internet takes this heartlessness to a new level.

True Crime Files

Maigret: The Grand Banks Café

I read The Grand Banks Café out of order, coming to it after I’d nearly finished the Maigret series. It’s an early novel, one of nine (!) in the series that were published in 1931. Simenon was just getting started, and still writing in a white heat. Apparently he only took eleven days to write a Maigret roman, because if they took any longer he felt like he’d burn out.

I should have liked this more, as I was coming off reading the later, less distinguished entries and part of the action here is about as close as the series came to Canada. A trawler returns from fishing cod off Newfoundland, but the captain is murdered as soon as he leaves the ship. A wimpy young man who was radio operator on the trawler is arrested and Maigret, who is technically on holiday and only “working in a private capacity” is asked by a friend to look into the matter. Madame Maigret raises some objections because they’d planned to stay for a week with her family in Alsace, while “the thought of staying in a hotel by the seaside with a lot of other people from Paris filled her with dread.” But that’s all we hear in the way of complaining, and immediately she’s packing her sewing and crocheting. How obliging she is!

The idea here is pretty good, with Maigret trying to piece together, largely through intuition, what happened on this “voyage of the damned.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand the motivation of any of the principals, and by the time the wireless operator (literally) spills his guts I thought it had all become implausibly melodramatic in a way Simenon usually avoided. Even the femme fatale, if you can call her that, is a blowsy caricature, her seductiveness limited to offering up “fragrant flesh in a trawler that stank of fish.” Madame Maigret had a point about holidaying in such a place, especially given that this is another story where her husband lets the perp walk. They should have gone to Alsace.

Maigret index

Stupid aliens


I’ve been watching a number of videos online recently that have addressed the popularity of the Netflix series Ancient Apocalypse, written and hosted by Graham Hancock. These online “debunking” videos, produced with little or no budget, criticize Hancock’s show for advancing highly speculative theories on the basis of little or no evidence.

Hancock has been at this for a while, following in the footsteps of Erich von Däniken’s smash bestseller Chariots of the Gods (Hancock even gave his books titles like Fingerprints of the Gods and Magicians of the Gods). I wanted to get some more insight into the attractiveness of this kind of fantasy history so I checked out a DVD from the library called The Best of Ancient Aliens: Greatest Mysteries. This was a two-disc collection of eight episodes from the popular television series Ancient Aliens. I’d heard of this show, and was of course familiar with the face of Giorgio A. Tsoukalos and his famous meme, but I’d never actually watched any of it. So I stuck it in the machine.

I don’t think I’ve ever given up on a show faster. I made it maybe 15 or 20 minutes in to “Aliens and the Third Reich.” The intro kicks off with some talking head telling us that “a lot of the information we’ve been told about the Second World War is wrong.” Well, no doubt. Especially if you include shows like this. Then we cut straight to the lede: “Did, as some believe, Adolf Hitler base his plans for world domination on secret extraterrestrial knowledge?”

No. No he did not. Nor do I think Nazi rocket technology came from reverse engineering a downed flying saucer.

I then tried to watch a bit of “Alien Tech,” which had to do with the alien influence on the building of ancient megastructures. I think. It just seemed like more bullshit to me. None of the claims being made had much if any evidence to back them up but it was all put across with slick production skills and in documentary style, including interviews with experts whose credentials I didn’t think amounted to much.

Two thoughts came to mind.

First of all, why is this bullshit so popular? It’s been big since at least the ’70s so it’s not a recent phenomenon, but it’s still tempting to tie it in to our contemporary rage against experts and elites who seem to know it all and our appetite for the craziest conspiracy theories imaginable. If you believe that Democrats are shape-shifting lizard people I suppose none of this seems that far-fetched. This brought me back to the well-known passage from Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism:

In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. . . . Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.

Whenever I come across this sort of “reject authority” babble I find myself agreeing, at least somewhat, with the skeptics and doubters in their questioning of the evidence, but being baffled as to their own alternative theories. Put another way, I can sort of understand why they don’t believe what they don’t believe, but I can’t figure out why they believe what they do. Cynicism shouldn’t have its end in such blank credulity. But Arendt’s observation only brings home what Chesterton said: “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”

The second, and more depressing if of less immediate concern, point is the fact that television used to be good at putting together quality documentary series that were entertaining and educational. I wrote about this a couple of years ago and tried then to think of some reasons for how and why we’d lost our way. I was only concerned then with what we’d lost, not with what had taken its place.

Of course what drives all this is ratings, and stories about lost civilizations and ancient aliens do attract eyeballs. But it does make you wonder just how much stupider we will get if we continue on this course. I’m heartened by the popularity of some of the debunking videos, but they’re still coming nowhere near the cultural reach of the (underline this!) mainstream media messaging of pseudoarchaeology. It’s almost like there really is a conspiracy afoot to keep us from the truth . .

TCF: Lust Killer

Lust Killer
By Ann Rule

The crime:

In the late 1960s, Jerry Brudos killed four young women in Oregon. A closet transvestite with a particular obsession for high heels, his method involved strangling the women and then having sex with their dead bodies. He was apprehended and pled guilty to three counts of first-degree murder. In 2006 he died in prison.

The book:

I’ll start at the end. Lust Killer was one of Ann Rule’s earlier efforts, written under the pen name “Andy Stack” and first published in 1983 (The Stranger Beside Me, a work of memoir-true crime that drew on Rule’s acquaintanceship with Ted Bundy, came out in 1980). Later editions included an Afterword published in 1988, where Rule speculates on the possibility of Brudos getting early release. We now know that didn’t happen, and indeed Brudos was told by authorities that he was never getting out.

It’s also in the 1988 Afterword that Rule talks about how Brudos stands as “one of the classic examples” of a lust killer, but at the time even the label “serial killer” was something new (Rule herself has credited its first use to Pierce Brooks, the creator of the ViCAP system, in 1985, though others have found earlier instances). Today Brudos is a familiar type, with sexual fetish escalating into violence and necrophilia (in Rule’s account, a “constantly accelerating process – a juggernaut of perversion”). Apparently Ted Levine based his performance as Buffalo Bill in the film The Silence of the Lambs on Brudos, and it’s possible author Thomas Harris had him in mind as well when writing his 1988 novel.

What was different about Brudos? What first jumps out is that he was a married man, with two young children. This was seen as being so odd at the time it led to his wife Darcie being charged as an accessory, mainly on the suspect evidence of a busybody neighbour. She (Darcie) was found not guilty, and at least as Rule tells the story her complicity in the murders seems a stretch.

This isn’t unheard of with serial killers. Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, was another lust killer who was married with two children (not to mention president of his local church council). Russell Williams, who also had a fetish for taking pictures of himself in women’s clothing, was married. So it does happen, even though I think it’s considered rare. Everyone compartmentalizes their life to some extent, but being a married serial killer, not to mention sexual deviant, is a hard act to maintain.

Noted in passing:

It was 1968, and Brudos had shag carpet (colour: blue) in his garage workshop. He said he needed it to keep his feet warm.

I’ve mentioned the process of escalation in Brudos’s criminal career, and it’s clear he was well on his way to becoming another Ed Gein at the end. When Rule mentions Gein, however, she says of him that “he hated his mother so much that he had killed her and other women and made vests of their dried flesh.”  This is actually a myth, reinforced by Hitchcock’s film Psycho. In fact, Gein seems to have doted on his mother, who died of a stroke and whose body he left intact and undisturbed in its grave.


Rule emphasizes the key point: if you’re being abducted, even at gunpoint, you might as well take your chances and fight it out, because things aren’t going to get any better for you once you’re tied up in someone’s basement.

True Crime Files

Et tu, Brute?

Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln . . .

Recently, while reading Heather Cox Richardson’s How the South Won the Civil War, I came across the following passage:

The process of constructing a new nation based on the idea that all men — and possibly women — were created equal would require the deft hand of someone like Abraham Lincoln. But on April 14, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, the actor John Wilkes Booth shot him in the back of the head in one last, desperate attempt to protect the oligarchic world of the Old South. As he jumped to the stage from the president’s box, Booth shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis” (thus always to tyrants) — Virginia’s state motto and the line Brutus speaks in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to justify his murder of the emperor.

This made me blink in surprise. While I knew Booth said these words after shooting Lincoln, I was pretty sure Brutus hadn’t used them in Shakespeare’s play. I turned to my bookshelf and a few seconds of flipping pages took me to Act 3 Scene 1 where I found what I suspected: Brutus doesn’t say anything when he strikes Caesar down.

Given that Julius Caesar is one of the better known works in the canon, remaining a staple even in high school, it seemed odd to me that a highly-regarded book by an academic historian published by Oxford University Press would have allowed such a mistake to get by.

Curious, I decided to dig a little deeper. At Wikipedia I found this:

John Wilkes Booth wrote in his diary that he shouted “Sic semper tyrannis” after shooting U.S. President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, in part because of the association with the assassination of Caesar. In the scene of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar where Marcus Brutus assassinates Caesar, he yells the phrase, and the entire Booth family was well-known for their theatrical roles, Booth and his brothers having played roles in past productions of Julius Caesar.

Some of this is true. There’s no question Booth identified with the character of Brutus, and saw his killing of Lincoln to be an event on a par with the assassination of Caesar. After killing Caesar he said that he had only done “what Brutus was honored for.” And such a role was almost a birthright. His father, also a Shakespearean actor, was even named Junius Brutus Booth, and his brother Junius Brutus Booth Jr.

But again there is the assertion that “In the scene of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar where Marcus Brutus assassinates Caesar, he [Brutus] yells the phrase.” This is the same thing Richardson says, and it’s not true.

Apparently no one is sure where the words originally came from. Again having recourse to Wikipedia we are told that “it has been suggested” that an ancestor of Marcus Junius Brutus said them upon expelling the current tyrants of Rome and thus establishing the Republic, “but the suggestion is not based on any literature of the time.”

Historical support for Marcus Junius Brutus using the expression upon killing Caesar is also slim. Wikipedia says this Brutus is “sometimes credited with originating the phrase” but an editorial note asks “by whom?” Not Plutarch, anyway. Or Shakespeare, who was using Plutarch as a source.

I’m not beating up on Wikipedia here. I love Wikipedia and it’s often the first resource I turn to when looking into questions like this. I also liked how they included the speculation of a Classics professor named Mike Fontaine that Sic semper tyrannis might be a Latin translation by an American in the eighteenth century of what Scipio Aemilianus said when he heard of the assassination of Tiberius Gracchus. That’s interesting.

What I raise an eyebrow at here is that Richardson may have accepted Wikipedia as her source with too great a degree of trust, and that nobody else caught it, either upon her book’s first publication or two years later when it appeared in paperback. Come on, Oxford!

Feel the burn

Last week we had a bit of a pre-heat wave in these parts, giving us an early taste of summer. Winter jackets came off and people were walking around in tank tops and shorts. Or less. This leads me to offer the following public service announcement.

People: the sun is not your friend. First off, it leads to skin cancer. Tan a luscious dark brown every summer and you’ll be spending your senior years suffering the death by a thousand cuts of having bits and pieces of yourself sliced off by a skin specialist. And some of those pieces won’t be small!

Even if you avoid cancer, the effect of the sun is to age your skin considerably, causing greater wrinkling and sagging and the growth of thick (non-cancerous) warts and lesions on the skin.

And even if you don’t notice those effects right away, you will feel the burn of having fried your and having it peel for the rest of the week.

Meanwhile, what is the upside? You think you look a little better? I think even here the tide is finally starting to turn against tanning. I anticipate a return to the beauty standards of the 18th century (or earlier), where women cultivated a “moon look” of ivory skin. A tan was the mark of a peasant, someone who spent a lot of time working outdoors. I don’t approve of the class distinctions, but I’m on board for the aesthetic.

Nor is there any need today for outdoor laborers to burn all summer. Wear a shirt! You won’t die! Every summer I see roofers working shirtless all day. When I was having my own roof done five or six years ago I was talking to one of the crew and mentioned my concern, telling him he’d be better off with a shirt on. He said he was aware of the danger but put on sunscreen. I had to shake my head. What is a safe sunscreen these days? SPF 50? 70? And it doesn’t last all day. If you’re doing a job like working on a road crew or roofing you’d have to be slathering it on every couple of hours. Something I very much doubt many workers are doing. So just wear a shirt.

Personally, I always wear a shirt with a collar whenever I go out in the summer now. The collar to keep the rays off my neck. That sun is just too strong. And yet last week I passed yard workers working outside in tank tops with arms so red you could practically hear their flesh sizzling. I winced seeing them. I also passed by a house being rented by a bunch of university kids who were sunbathing on the roof in shorts and bikinis. And as hard as it is for me to say this, I was wishing the girls in bikinis would have covered up.

In the future, and this is something I’ve admittedly been saying since the early ’90s, tanning is going to be looked on as the equivalent of smoking today. Meaning not just stupid and unhealthy but downright dirty. Now I know there are plenty of people out there who will object because they love tanning, or they own a tanning salon, or whatever. But leaving matters like that aside, it seems to me that the health considerations are irrefutable. Exposing your skin to a lot of sun is just plain bad for you. Don’t do it!

TCF: You Could Do Something Amazing with Your Life [You are Raoul Moat]

You Could Do Something Amazing with Your Life [You are Raoul Moat]
By Andrew Hankinson

The crime:

A couple of days after being released from prison (on July 1, 2010) Raoul Moat shot his estranged girlfriend and shot and killed her new boyfriend. The next day he shot a police constable in the face, blinding him (the constable would later take his own life). A massive manhunt for Moat ensued, ending with his killing himself.

The book:

You Could Do Something Amazing with Your Life [You are Raoul Moat] announces itself as literary non-fiction by being written in the highly unconventional second person. Despite all the rave reviews, I was on edge, thinking this a bit of a stunt.

It isn’t, and it works.

There’s a boldness to proceeding in this way. The stated “aim was to stay in Raoul Moat’s mind,” which presupposes an ability to inhabit that mind, to directly state what Moat was thinking at any given time. What allows Hankinson to go this route is the documentary evidence available. Moat left a record that speaks to us directly in his own voice:

The main source for this book was Raoul Moat, who left behind spoken and written material including audio recordings he made on the run, a 49-page confession he wrote on the run, recordings of this 999 calls before and after shooting PC David Rathband, recordings of phone calls he made while in prison, audio recordings he made during the final years of his life, training diaries, a psychological questionnaire, his correspondence, and six suicide notes he left in his house.

For all its literary qualities then, it’s also a very simple book, being a sort of Raoul Moat Reader or even oral history, with slight editorial asides inserted in square brackets instead of footnotes. But it makes for a great read and effectively delivers on the promise of taking us into Moat’s head by serving him up in his own words, even down to his employment of obscure local slang (“micey” being a word the exact meaning of which I’m still not sure of). The comparison most often made by reviewers was to the work of Gordon Burn, who did something similar in his immersive account of the Yorkshire Ripper, Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son. That both authors are natives of Newcastle upon Tyne is only a coincidence, but one that probably carries some meaning. On some level our language, even if it’s just a dialect or regional voice, reflects a type of consciousness, and for an author wanting to get inside his subject’s head in particular, I think being steeped in that language and being a native of that place makes a difference. (As an aside, I’d mention Michael Winter’s attempt to do something similar in his “non-fiction novel” The Death of Donna Whalen, though the results there weren’t as successful.)

We shouldn’t be surprised, however, that nothing remarkable is revealed. Moat wasn’t so much a monster as just a dull brute. He was a big guy – 6’3” and around 240 pounds – and took various supplements as a bodybuilder to turn himself into a hulk. This came in handy when he worked for a while as a doorman or bouncer at local clubs, but the thing about big guys like this – or any athlete, or young beauty – is that you have to be able to manage the decline. Your physique is a diminishing asset. Moat was deeply depressed at no longer being as big or strong or tough as he was as a younger man – “I’m well aware that I’m past my prime” – and saw the best years of his life as over. At 37 he was “too old to start again.” “I’m not 21 and I can’t rebuild my life,” he remarked after coming out of jail. “I’ve got no life left,” he told the police operator after shooting PC Rathband. The suicide note or recording was his obsessive genre. He was paranoid too, to the point of delusion, and could be downright whiny when it came to how he was being “bullied” and “stitched up” (framed) by the police, but taking his own life was always where this was heading.

Hats off then to Hankinson’s largely editorial skill in making such a depressing and limited figure so interesting. I guess I could call it “revealing” too, but it’s a case where little is revealed that you probably wouldn’t have figured out after reading a quick news report on the case. Instead it’s exactly what it sets out to be, which is a trip into Raoul Moat’s mind. Not a place you may want to go, but one that it’s worth knowing about.

Noted in passing:

The level of self-pity even among the worst members of society has few limits. This was brought home to me years ago when reviewing Stevie Cameron’s On the Farm: Robert William Pickton and the Tragic Story of Vancouver’s Missing Women. Pickton was the B.C. pig farmer who confessed to killing 49 women. After being arrested he referred to himself as being “crucified” by the police (apparently he also found God behind bars). I can’t recall now if Moat ever referred to himself as being crucified, though I think he does at some point. He uses a more unconventional image in saying “I feel like King Kong when he’s at the top of that flaming building, you know.” Jesus, King Kong: both persecuted martyrs hounded to death by the authorities. It’s a weird way killers have of justifying themselves, while also plugging into the contemporary cultural imperative (that’s not too strong of word) of always casting yourself as a victim.


Suicide can be a wrecking ball – just think of the prevalence of “murder-suicides” – and once someone’s course is set on self-destruction you should leave them to the professionals to deal with. Especially if guns and a history of violence are in the mix.

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