My mother the amateur sleuth
One of the dilemmas when clearing out the Aged P’s house two years ago was what to do about her extensive murder library. As it couldn’t possibly fit into her care-home room, my sister Kate carted the books off to her home in Essex, where they are stacked high in her children’s old play room, the Guantanamo Bay of murder biographies. I don’t think any of us really want to sell them. Over the years, we have all become oddly attached to them – titles like , and engraved into our collective psyche like grisly tattoos.
I took half a dozen of the murder books closest to my heart, of which I think the is my favourite. This is partly due to fond memories of the Aged P reading out extracts to me when I was young. Even though her impersonation of Buck, a Parsee GP in 1930s Lancaster, sounded a bit like Spike Milligan doing one of his immigrant caricatures from the 1970s, my mother’s intention was not to mock, but to sound authentic. Her mimicry made me laugh, but so did the unintentionally funny things he said during his trial. ‘That is absolute bunkum with a capital B’ was a phrase I remember (his response when accused of not only killing his common-law wife Isabella but also the only witness to the crime, the poor nursemaid). I always felt rather sorry for Buck Ruxton, with his temper problems and insane jealousy. These days he would be able to ring a helpline. Or make Isabella take a lie-detector test on Jeremy Kyle. Back then, a relative stranger in a strange land, there was no one to tell him he was blowing things out of proportion.
I think my sister currently has the rare specialist pathology tome on the case. It is a book that terrified me as a child as it contains photographs of the limbs and skulls of his victims. Even forty years ago, my mother was telling us it would be worth a ‘a great deal of money one day’.
The only crime book my mother has held on to is the, which she co-wrote with Colin Wilson, author of , some years before I was born. ‘I don’t want to read it,’ she told me, ‘I just want to be able to produce it any case the carers don’t believe me’ (she is posing in front of the Old Bailey on the back cover).
When they first met in 1960, Colin Wilson and my mother established an immediate rapport. He was discussing the Crippen case with someone at a party, and called out: ‘What was Crippen’s address?’ She instantly called back: ‘39 Hilldrop Cresent’. ‘It was at that moment,’ he wrote in his autobiography, ‘I decided Pat would make an ideal collaborator.’
The book took them a year to write, my mother doing the domestic crimes and poisoning cases, Colin dealing with the sex crimes and mass murderers (of no interest to the Aged P, who considers serial killers to be ‘crashing bores’). Twenty years later, Colin suggested they do an updated version but my mother turned the idea down. ‘Was it all too distressing to relive?’ I asked her. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I couldn’t be bothered.’
Now aged ninety, she continues to be the family oracle on murder cases. When the Aged P says a body will be found under the floorboards, it generally is. When she says, ‘It’ll be the next door neighbour,’ sure as eggs are eggs, the following week’s headlines will read ‘Neighbour arrested’.
Oscar-winning performances by relatives or boyfriends during televised press conferences seldom fool the Aged P. Before the stepfather or uncle has had a chance to open his mouth and say ‘Just come home, angel’, my mother is pointing at the screen exclaiming, ‘It’’s him! Look at his face. Just look. Look at those eyes. GUILTY!’
‘But how can you be so sure?’
‘I just know. Have I ever been wrong?’
Well, maybe just the once (Colin Stagg). But we don’t really talk about that. Not even Cracker got it right all the time.