Judith Sullivan is a writer in Leeds, originally from Baltimore. She is working on a crime series set in Paris. Fluent in French, she’s pretty good with English and has conversational Italian and German. She is working to develop her Yorkshire speak.
Frenzy! starts with a brilliant premise. It looks at three mid-20th century British murderers in the context of tabloid coverage of the crimes and ensuing courtroom events. Tantalising stuff to be reading on the day of the overturning of the Knox verdict and related media frenzy.
Sadly, Root’s book fails to live up to the alluring and interesting premise. His own cover of the three murderous sprees (John George Haigh, Neville Heath and John Christie) is solid – fast paced, non judgmental sufficiently well researched to cover all bases, covered briskly enough not to bore.
But like a Daily Mail headline, it leaves the reader (especially one interested in newspapers) wanting more and wondering what could have been. For example, in Chapter 5 dealing with Heath, Root touches on tabloid reporters buying into the accused man’s charm – joking and laughing and according to Root, failing to guess at the depths of Acid Bath Killer’s cruelty. The reader is busting to know more here – how did he fool them, were early tab reporters more gullible than their forebears? To what degree have things changed [or not] in the era of the Michael Jackson doctor trial, the Meredith Kercher fiasco and phonetapping of the families and friends of modern victims?
There are other what if moments. Towards the end of the book, Root refers to News of the World’s star crime reporter Norman Rae and the millions of people who read his John Christie coverage. This would have been a marvellous opportunity to explore the Rillington Place butcher’s place in the public imagination, his impact on newsstand sales and the impact Christie’s savagery on the emotion of the reporters closest to the events.
There are many who will take umbrage with the word great in the subtitle of the book (The First Great Tabloid Murders). This reviewer takes umbrage more at the failure to attack what could have been a great topic for a true crime book.