Frenzy!: How the tabloid press turned three evil serial killers into celebrities by Neil Root

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Frenzy!: How the tabloid press turned three evil serial killers into celebrities by Neil Root

Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A great true crime book, covering three interesting cases in one fell swoop, but perhaps letting down the media studies graduate in me when it comes to the tabloid press discussion.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: August 2012
Publisher: Arrow Books
ISBN: 9780099557760

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It was forever thus. Only last year, 2011, did the News of the World and the Sunday Mirror stop being the double-headed monster of tabloid journalism, and very little was different in the 1950s, beyond the inclusion of boobies, and the fact the Mirror was then just the Sunday Pictorial. Both formed a duopoly for those in their audience seeking all the salacious details of the scandals of the day, and the crimes and criminals people would talk about over their breakfasts. Three men stood out in those days for the ways in which they achieved their notoriety, and this book is an account of their goings-on, and how the press reported the stories – at times paying large fortunes for the privilege.

It serves as a brilliant joint biography of three serial killers, although four people here get hanged for the relevant deaths, pointing out all the similarities, differences, and noting just how close the cases were at times, geographically as well as historically. To me the least known, Neville Heath, sexually abusing and mutilating two young women, was apparently inspired by some kind of SM frenzy. John George Haigh touched his victims as little as possible – especially when he started putting them in vats of acid to dispose of them, while he quietly went about gambling and spending what fractions of their estate he could purloin. And John Christie, the resident of 10 Rillington Place, needs little introduction – he killed and then raped three young women, leaving them in a type of coal larder in his kitchen, thus making them join his wife under the lounge floorboards and two others in the back garden – yet simple Tim Evans, in the flat two floors up, got hanged for murdering his own wife and baby daughter.

This certainly was a different time, one where justice was able to pluck a man from being on the run one month, and find him guilty and hang him three months later. Where the author here is at his best, in unravelling and presenting quite bizarre detail, we find that might not have been such a good idea – the goings-on in court during Heath's two-day trial are astounding. All the cases are presented very well, with just the right amount of detail, some of which seem to have come to light purely from the author's own Freedom of Information requests – although one at least of those was denied, due to unsolved cases nobody in the general public was ever as certain as now actually happened.

The style of writing Root uses is very compelling – I certainly found myself having a very late dinner the evening I started this book. Towards the end there is some sense of journalese short-hand, and some small repetitions, but on the whole he has a great manner of reportage. I'm not sure yet whether I liked him drifting into a novelistic level of imagined detail, and using the present tense for that, but on the other hand I am quite sure I didn't notice every time it happened. It feels right, and this is the level of non-fiction I am very comfortable with, in authorial voice, technical detail, and so on.

What did strike me about it was the second layer intended to the book – for it to be a survey of how the media of the day made these multiple killers so famous so quickly. In that regard I think it fails a little – I certainly expected a lot more on that topic from the book, beyond a few mentions of modern-day phone hacking etc in contrast. Yes, there is mention at every trial of the press and their headlines hovering around the corpses – at Christie's there were two whole legal teams offered to him by the different factions of the press to act as defense – and thus procure the inside gen. All of which, of course, has stopped – the major crime writers of the day on the hit tabloids have (or bloody well ought to have) to work in less underhand ways now, and hopefully with fewer backhanders going to those whose names are in their contacts book. But surely the criminals themselves and their acts made them famous – if Root's opinion is that the infamy was press-generated, I think he really needs to go further and reveal why, for he doesn't here.

To conclude that matter, I don't think there is any detail about the media and tabloid coverage of these cases that would be extraneous to any biography of these criminals. Which brings me to why I did like this book – to repeat, for the friendly yet authoritative writing, and the exactly correct level of detail and insight into the murders, their victims of course, and the culprits. I knew something about Christie, and a little about Haigh too, having been brought up not too far at all from Crawley, where he worked and did some of his killing. (The editor of the local, Horsham, newspaper, was a big figure in keeping local interest in the case alive when I was in my teens, making me doubt the fact here that Haigh's last biography was in the 1950s.) And now, having read this as avidly as any decent true crime book, I know a lot more about the interesting and very bizarre details behind those news headlines of old.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

For more true crime we can recommend A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger. If you're interested in the power of the press then you might appreciate The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch by Michael Wolff.

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Buy Frenzy!: How the tabloid press turned three evil serial killers into celebrities by Neil Root at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Frenzy!: How the tabloid press turned three evil serial killers into celebrities by Neil Root at Amazon.com.


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