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Sleep of Reason

Christopher Owens reviews an updated The Sleep of Reason by James Smith.

True crime books often suffer from adopting a salacious, morally duplicitous angle that can often implicate the reader in the most unsubtle manner, laced with double standards. 

And it's not just books. Take any article by Jim McDowell or Paul Williams. Both present themselves as shining lights in the fight against crime and all that is wrong in society. Yet the two of them revel in sordid details, printing lurid pictures all while pretending to be horrified about what they're reporting. It's the oldest form of hypocrisy. 

First published in 1994, The Sleep of Reason remains the definitive reading of the murder of James Bulger. Covering the trial of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, as well as speaking to various officers, teachers and the families of the victim and murderers, the book is written in a direct, almost monotone, style with little to no room for dialogue. 

There's a reason for this: the bare truth is much more horrifying than any speculation. The description of that day, from Venables and Thompson deciding to "get a child lost", through to taking Bulger through the shopping centre and to the railroad track where he would die places the reader into (what David Ervine used to call) "the hamster wheel from hell", because the reader knows the outcome and each tale of a witness reporting a sighting or speaking to the boys delays the inevitable.

When the inevitable does happen on a train track, it brings a tear to even the most hardened reader. The image of two year old James Bulger, crying because of having paint thrown at him as well as bricks and a railway fishplate, is not one that can be easily forgotten. The indignity of having his trousers removed, foreskin pulled back and his torso being cut in half by an oncoming train was too much for me, and I had to put the book down for two days.

Examining the interrogation notes for both Venables and Thompson, the reader is never certain who to believe. At the time, the general perception was that Thompson was the ringleader, and Venables the gullible accomplice. Smith demolishes this view, by pointing out it was Venables who had suggested "getting a child lost" and he was the visibly pro-active one when dealing with Bulger (the infamous CCTV shot shows Venables holding Bulger's hand) and the public (several witnesses came forward to say they had approached the three of them, but Venables had brushed them off with claims about the three of them being brothers).

It's obvious from the notes that Thompson was a lot more controlled than Venables. He denied everything, but began to crack when under pressure. But even then, he only gave little bits here and there. Despite his footprint being found on Bulger's body, he does not admit taking part in the murder and passes all the blame onto Venables (portrayed as an emotional wreck), who returns the favour with more of the same.

Here, Smith begins to examine the home life of both boys. Although his claim about Venables coming from a broken home doesn't quite wash with the reader (his parents separated when he was young, and his two siblings had learning difficulties), it fits Thompson (a battered alcoholic mother, an absent father, bullying siblings and an unproven allegation of sexual abuse). Both kept back a year in school, both bullied and bullies. It's easy to see how the cycle of abuse and neglect would lead the two of them in front of a judge one day.

But what Smith also argues is that the boys did not set out that day with the intention to kill. Because, after all, why would you walk down a main street and allow yourself to talk to so many? His theory is that they really did just intend for Bulger to be "lost" (a malicious move on it's own) but that, as time went on, they became tired and at a loose end over what to do with him.

Tragically, they had to walk past a police station to reach the spot where James would die. Had they decided, Smith asks, at that point that he would die? If not, why not just walk in and leave him at the front desk? The boys never answered that and, Smith suspects, they never will.

For this revised edition, a new chapter, dealing with Venables' return to prison for possessing child pornography, has been added. Smith has written an excellent article about this aspect, and he incorporate the bulk of this material into the new chapter, as well as focusing on the effect it has had on the parents of the killers (Ann Thompson is depicted as wanting to tell off Denise Bulger, now Fergus, for not having reins on James at the time) and allegations that Venables and Thompson had been sexually abused in the past.

It's to Smith's commendation that he takes this highly emotive event and analyses it with a detached, clinical perspective which furthers his belief that the three children are victims, not just James Bulger. Although he certainly makes a compelling case for this, some readers may not be inclined to take this view, and it's not difficult to understand why.

Highly recommended, but approach with caution.

David James Smith, 2017, The Sleep of Reason: The James Bulger Case Faber & Faber ISBN-13: 978-0571340569.

Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.

Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212

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Anthony McIntyre

Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher

11 comments to ''Sleep of Reason"

  1. The UK lost it's mind when this happened, I remember adults attacking the van the then suspects were in. Some additional victims included Venables sister . She was 'piping off' other NA/AA meeting participants in a northern UK town (*), clearly a very damaged person.

    * her identity became apparent when her brother was re-arrested in the same town, this is not in any papers as far as I know, I just know it happened.

  2. I read parts of this story years was horrific what happened to that child...bloody sickening but the two boys are also victims of a failed society...Thatcher and her Tory policies destroyed the fabric of Britain and these boys were the rancid fruits they spawned.

  3. They certainly did, and probably for good reason (as this had been the first widely publicised case of a child murderer/s since Mary Bell in 1968). Unfortunately, this degenerated into mob rule when one person (who was questioned and cleared) had to leave Liverpool due to intimidation and attacks. John Major's quote about how "society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less" is emblematic of the times.

    That tale about Venables' sister is new to me. I know she had learning difficulties as a child, and had to attend a special school along with the oldest brother. Smith suggests that seeing the two of them being given special treatment was one aspect of home life that would lead to Venables "acting out" (violently) in school.

  4. A very uncomfortable topic. Great review. My own view is that on rare occasions just as we have child geniuses we can also have child monsters. I found little mitigating in the case of these two.

  5. Utter wank that such a killing was a result of Govt policies (indirect or not).It's an outlier that only fools would try to mitigate. Shame on those that seek political capital in such things.

    I won't post on here exactly, but I know what I wrote to be true.AM could probably guess, memory permitting.

  6. DaithiD,

    I wasn't implying that you were making that tale. It was merely a reaction to your reference that you hadn't seen it in newspapers. I wouldn't be surprised if she was acting in such a manner. Of course, people are free to carry on such activities, but her background (coupled with the fact that she is only 15 months younger than Jon) has undoubtedly played a part.


    Smith does go into the socio-economic background of England at that time in terms of discussing the background of both families. I can see why you have come to that conclusion, and I would have a certain amount of sympathy with that view. I know you're not using it to justify their crimes (you can certainly say that the system failed Venables in his rehabilitation). Ultimately, however, the real reason for the murder will never be known, unless one or both of them speak up.


    the recent case of the two kids in Edlington would certainly fit that view.

  7. Christopher, I didn't think you were questioning it. I'm constantly weary of employers searching out online presences, I think I was just anticipating skepticism I would of otherwise myself of felt reading what was written with little explanation (esp after relaying I've met IS beheaders recently too!)

  8. Christopher,

    your reviews are a serious asset here and I thoroughly enjoy reading them even if the subject matter is at times deeply unsettling. I hope you stay around as your writing adds a width to the content here.

  9. AM,

    I am deeply honoured at your comment. Thank you. I intend to stick around until you tell me to fuck off!

  10. Christopher,
    You're correct in that I'm not using society to justify their actions. But I base my assumption on work carried out by one of my siblings a and on my wife's work.
    There are no child monsters just as there are no such thing as child is spawned the othernutured....

  11. For those of you who are interested, this documentary is worth a watch purely because it takes Smith's article about Venables returning to prison and gives it context:


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