Crime Lords, Merlin Publishing (2003), 326 pages
Crime Wars, Merlin Publishing (2008), 403 pages
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Crime Lords and Crime Wars are two books by the Irish Sun’s crime correspondent Paul Williams. Williams’ books are fascinating insights into the ultra violent world of Ireland’s criminal gangs. Williams clearly has a strong dislike of republican groups such as the INLA and the IRA, and makes a strong case linking many of their members to criminal activity. He shows the hypocrisy of the INLA claiming to be anti-drugs activists whilst actually being up to their necks in drug dealing. His chapter on “The Ballymount Bloodbath” is particularly illuminating in this regard. Williams is also good at portraying the psychopathic personalities involved in gangland crime. Most of his main characters are either dead or in jail (or in the case of Martin Foley he is still being pursued for unpaid taxes).
Williams books illustrate the vital importance that the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) has played in making life in Ireland difficult for many of the country’s leading criminals. Spain and Amsterdam have become havens for Irish criminals trying to evade CAB’s clutches. For those that say that gangland crime shouldn’t concern ordinary people so long as the criminals stick to shooting themselves Williams demonstrates that gangland crime overspills into normal society with deadly consequences. The murders of Anthony Campbell and Baiba Saulite show that gangland crime can affect anyone in society. The lower down drug dealers and users are seen as expendable, they can be killed as a warning to those higher up the scale, with their deaths having consequences for their innocent families.
Paul Williams’ style is of the tabloid variety, heavy on colourful descriptions with little room for analysis. Williams has also been criticised for glamourising criminals by providing some of them with their distinctive nicknames (although this need for nicknames can be explained by having to avoid being sued for libel). Williams’ lives under police protection and will probably do so for the rest of his life. Crime Lords and Crime Wars are easy to read but hard to stomach books on Ireland’s most violent criminals.
Arrow Books (2012), 320 pages
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Frenzy! Heath, Haigh, & Christie: How the Tabloid Press Turned Three Evil Serial Killers into Celebrities covers the crimes of three of England’s most notorious serial killers. Ostensibly Frenzy looks at the media coverage of the three killers’ crimes but the book is, more or less, a straight retelling of the horrific crimes of three men. Where Frenzy is most useful is juxtaposing the differing motives for the crimes.
Heath, was a fantasist who used Walter Mitty type tails (he was a petty criminal with a penchant exaggerating his mediocre war record and wearing medals he hadn’t earned) and his good looks to attract women. Heath was a sexual sadist whose motive was the pleasure he derived from inflicting suffering and death on his two victims. Heath tried to claim he was insane but was executed in 1946.
Haigh’s primary motive was financial. He killed up to nine people and dissolved their bodies and personal effects in acid. Haigh’s sense of entitlement led to him continually living beyond his means with no way to legally fund his lifestyle. He chose murder as means to keep living the high life. When eventually caught he confessed to the murders but tried to be declared insane at the time of the crimes. He failed in his plan and was executed in 1949.
Christie was perhaps the most repulsive of the three murderers in the book. His cloying self-pity, extreme narcissism, and his willingness to give evidence that led to his neighbour being hanged for two of his murders mark him as an exceptionally calculating killer. He murdered at least eight women (including one baby and his own wife) before he was caught. Christie, like Heath and Haigh, had been a petty criminal before he became a murderer. Following the murder of his neighbours Beryl and Geraldine Evans poor police work and Christie’s testimony enabled Timothy Evans to be convicted. The police failed to find the bodies of Christie’s other victims buried in 10 Rillington Place’s tiny garden, it took them an unnecessarily long time to find the bodies in the wash room, and Timothy Evan’s confession was, at the very least, coerced if it wasn’t fabricated by the police. Although Christie was convicted of his wife’s murder you would have to wonder how much she knew about her husband’s activities (the film 10 Rillington Place hints that she knew about some of the murders). Christie’s narcissism and hypochondria continued until the very end; he kept a photo of himself in his cell and just before he was executed complained his nose was itchy. Ludovic Kennedy’s 1961 book 10 Rillington Place is still the best book on the case and a true crime classic.
All three murderers in Frenzy! began their criminal careers as petty criminals and fraudsters. All three also desired social status even if they could only gain it through lies and exaggeration. Heath pretended he was a decorated war hero, Haigh worked illegally as a solicitor, Christie exaggerated his police work during the war. All three were sociopaths and, like most serial killers, they were narcissistic, convinced of their intellectual superiority, and the only true pity they felt was self-pity.
Bantam Books (1987), 704 pages
The Bonfire of the Vanities is one of the select group of books that I’ve read more than once. The date on the inside cover shows that I last read it way back in 2000. Tom Wolfe writes as if New York came to life and penned a book about some of its most self-serving inhabitants. The prose is in-your-face, loud, snappy, and filled with grim humour. Wolfe’s extraordinary satire takes aim at all classes of society and their inability to see beyond the small bubble they inhabit. Early in The Bonfire of the Vanities Wolfe’s protagonist Sherman McCoy demonstrates the internalised prejudices and lack of self awareness that infects virtually all of his characters, “All at once Sherman was aware of a figure approaching him on the sidewalk, in the wet black shadows of the townhouses and the trees. Even from fifty feet away, in the darkness, he could tell. It was that deep worry that lives in the base of the skull of every resident of Park Avenue south of Ninety-sixth Street – a black youth, tall, rangy, wearing white sneakers. Now he was forty feet away, thirty-five.[…] Not once did it dawn on Sherman McCoy that what the boy had seen was a thirty-eight-year-old white man, soaking wet, dressed in some sort of military-looking raincoat full of straps and buckles, holding a violently lurching animal in his arms, staring, bug-eyed, and talking to himself.(p.17-18) New York in 1987 was a city where violent crimes were a regular occurrence (there were over 2,000 murders in 1987 compared to less than 650 in 2013). Arguably The Bonfire of the Vanities main character is a legal system creaking under the weight of over a million crimes a year.
The Bonfire of the Vanities centres around a murder trial and the myriad people who seek to exploit it for their own gain. The District Attorney, Abe Weiss hopes that the case will get him re-elected by showing how he is willing to prosecute a white man for the killing of a black man. Lawrence Kramer, the Assistant DA hopes the case will help his promotion chances and his status in the eyes of a woman he’s having an affair with. The alcoholic leech of a tabloid journalist Peter Fallow is happy to exaggerate wildly to impress his editor. Reverend Bacon seeks to exploit racial tensions whilst lining his own pockets. He uses the victim and his mother to further his own agenda. Roland Auburn is a witness to the alleged crime whose dubious testimony will see him receive a reduced sentence for crimes he has committed. McCoy’s mistress Maria Ruskin seeks to save her own skin at the expense of her lover. The only sympathetic characters are the victim and his mother; Henry and Annie Lamb. There is no genuine empathy as everybody seeks an opportunity to enhance their own position even at the expense of someone else. Indeed climbing up the social and economic ladder at someone else’s expense is the favoured option as not only have you increased your own standing but also knocked someone else out of the game.
Wolfe’s characters regularly refer to others as animals. Their internal monologues and their actions continually dehumanise their fellow citizens to such a point that it is hard to feel sympathy for those who suffer setbacks or celebrate those who succeed. Despite its length The Bonfire of the Vanities is compulsive reading laced with humour and intelligence.
New York crime rates
On Friday 22 May Ireland could become the first country to vote in favour of gay marriage. The latest opinion polls suggest that gay marriage will be legalised in Ireland with a yes vote of somewhere in the mid 60 percent range. Gay marriage is currently legal 16 countries (it is pending in Finland and Slovenia) and available in certain parts of the USA, Mexico, the UK (it is not legal in Northern Ireland). In all of these cases gay marriage was passed by the country’s parliament and not by a direct vote by the people.
In order to change the Constitution there has to be a referendum. This allows Irish people a vital, if limited role, in the creation of legislation. In theory the Irish government could have enacted legislation to make gay marriage legal without a referendum but there are a couple of issues with this approach. Such a change could have been challenged in the courts as unconstitutional. Although the Constitution does not explicitly state that marriage is between a man and a woman that was undoubtedly what was intended when the Constitution was written in 1937XXX. Also such legislation could, in theory, be changed by a future government. If Ireland votes to allow gay marriage then it could only be rescinded by another referendum not by any government. Perhaps most importantly a constitutional change will allow gay people in Ireland the highest level of protection in Irish law. As all other laws must be constitutional it would be difficult for a future government to draft laws that discriminated against gay people.