Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Beyond Belief

Beyond Belief by Emlyn Williams remains one of the best True Crime books ever written. Published in 1967 it is an investigation into the appalling crimes of Moors Murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Why has it retained its power? I think it is because Williams approached the project from a literary rather than a strictly journalistic perspective. He aimed for what he called: "accuracy of history and the accuracy of imaginative understanding." In other words his book would be elevated by fictional elements. The previous year Truman Capote's factional In Cold Blood had hit the bookshelves to great acclaim. Williams stopped short of a complete novelisation of the gruesome events in Lancashire, choosing instead to use three elements: "Fact, Interpretation of Fact, and Surmise." Already a skilled and successful playwright he was able to dramatise the Moors Murders story in such a way that the reader is able to experience certain events in the present tense. Or, at least, that is the illusion. As a result Beyond Belief remains a more vividly compelling read than those red and black covered True Crime cuttings jobs, so prevalent in today's bookshops. Though, obviously, no less potentially exploitative for being well written.

Williams began writing Beyond Belief in late 1965. In April, 1966, he attended the trial of Brady and Hindley at Chester Assizes. In fact, in illegal photographs taken during the trial you can see Williams sat a couple of rows behind the killers - the writer's hair as white as Myra Hndley's. For his research he interviewed a host of witnesses and visited the Manchester haunts of Brady and Hindley. Flamboyantly gay with pomaded hair and wearing a cravat, he turned up on council estates and in rough pubs asking questions relating to the crimes, much to the bemusement (and, one suspects, amusement) of the locals who nonetheless treated him well. Williams's justification for writing about such ghastly subject matter was that: "No psychological phenomena can be forbidden to the serious and dispassionate writer, however 'unsavoury' the details." When the book was published it received favourable reviews and became a best-seller. But not everyone was a fan. Myra Hindley called it: "the most obnoxious piece of lies and fabrications that I have ever read."