Written by Alex Radcliffe — Ruth Webb stands accused of complicity in a horrific series of sexual assaults and murders. Her husband, Eddie, has committed suicide in their home, after leaving an incriminating suicide note. The garden and the floors of the Webbs’ house have been dug up to reveal the remains of children and young women who became the victims of an almost unspeakable regime of sadism, perversion and murder. The viewpoint is shared between Anna Wyatt, the defence barrister whose task is to persuade a jury that Ruth Webb was an unwilling participant in her husband’s madness; Cate Harrison, who is making a film about women, crime and justice; and Detective Richard Andrews, the police officer in charge of the Webb case when it gripped the country two years earlier.
The plot is based on the horrific murders committed by serial killers Fred and Rose West in their Gloucester home between 1967 and 1987. All the salient details – the succession of disadvantaged young people passing through the house, the house itself – false walls, partitions, nooks and crannies, and the infamous patio – are present in the novel. Fred West hanged himself in prison on 1 January 1995, giving rise to one of The Sun newspaper’s most notable headlines – ‘Happy Noose Year!’ In the book, however, Eddie/Fred is already dead, and Ruth/Rose must face justice on her own.
The sheer vileness of what happened in the fictional house of Eddie and Ruth Webb is staggering enough to read in a novel, but it is harder to take when one realises that it holds a mirror to the actual atrocities which took place at 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester. This is not the first time that the spectre of Fred West has haunted a novel. In The Lamp Of The Wicked (2003), Phil Rickman examined the paranormal legacy of the dead murderer.
Bit by bit, a tale of depravity is told. Whether it is through the chillingly matter of fact testimony in court of Michele, a daughter lucky enough to escape the house, the cleverness of Anna Wyatt, or the tale told by the forensics in the police evidence, all the dots are joined. But what does the final picture reveal? We know the culpability of Rose West, but what of Ruth Webb? This is the hook that draws the reader deeper and deeper into the story, but then gives even more.
If the psychological grip relied purely on the legal guilt or innocence of Ruth Webb, then it would be flawed. Instead, we become intimately involved with the lives of those who circle Ruth Webb like satellites. Policeman Andrews is coming to the end of his career, and has invested time and his own health in preparing a case that will prove Ruth Webb guilty. Then there is Cate. She needs to make her film, irrespective of what the jury decides. We follow her difficult romantic life, torn between a handsome young journalist and an aging but charming psychologist. The Webb children hold the key to what the jury decides; will they believe the supportive words of elder daughter Susan, or will the damning testimony of Michele tip the balance?
Finally, Anna. She has a loving husband and a beautiful family, but her past contains a dark secret. Does she really believe in Ruth Webb’s innocence, or is she just very cleverly doing her job? The narrative is interspersed with dreams and nightmares. It is never totally clear which of the characters is experiencing these dreams, but perhaps that is not important. The message I took from the story is that dark deeds can spread in ever widening ripples across the most placid of waters.
Watch a reading from the novel below.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars