The 1970's seem as distant as the 1798 rebellion in 2019, even though they're probably the decade that shaped the modern world more thoroughly than any other decade.
But it's not so far removed that we can't discover some ugly truths behind the decade.
First published in 1999, former Sunday Times journalist Michael Bilton presents us with one of the first books to focus exclusively on the police investigation of the murders committed by Peter Sutcliffe. Other books have certainly dealt with the topic, but tended to focus more on Sutcliffe himself and his activities. In this, Sutcliffe is often a bit part player, only appearing when necessary.
With this approach, Bilton is able to explore the history of West Yorkshire, detailing the levels of poverty and immigration that has shaped the area, as well as treating the narrative like a crime novel.
This approach works brilliantly, as the reader finds themselves being absorbed into the West Yorkshire of the late 70's. Like Jack the Ripper nearly a century ago, the Yorkshire Ripper murders epitomised and highlighted attitudes of the time. A time when women were expected to know their place, the National Front were on the rise and where endemic levels of poverty meant that women were forced to become sex workers in order to help feed themselves and their family.
It's a truly toxic environment, and even more disturbing in this day and age. Bilton handles the background of each victim somewhat sympathetically (the section on Irene Richardson spending her last few nights destitute, sleeping in public toilets, had me in tears of rage and despair). While he notes that the perception was that victims who weren't sex workers were seen as "innocent" by police and the media, he doesn't delve into this enough to show the perceived culture of sexism of these times (Leeds United fans could be heard chanting "Yorkshire Ripper 13 - Women's Lib 0"), which is a disappointment but one that could be excused because of the main narrative.
The investigation (notorious for being a grotesque shambles) is depicted as being manned by well meaning officers like George Oldfield and Dick Holland, but the amount of paperwork and endless information being offered led to a "punch drunk" atmosphere where clues were missed (such as the photo fits that kept showing a dark haired, bearded man, the Nine interviews with Sutcliffe over every leading clue in the case), false information was considered to be genuine (like the infamous letters and tape) and, as a result, more people needlessly died.
Certainly, the reader does get the feeling of "going round in circles" as the book progresses, feeling like being on a hamster wheel. It's to Bilton's credit that, by doing this, we as readers feel the malaise and feeling of being stupefied by ever mounting information. In circumstances like this, it's easy to see how an entire investigation could veer wildly off course.
In circumstances like this, Wicked Beyond Belief overturns some stones and lets us see the dark secrets that lay behind this seismic case.
In Oldfield's case, it was Judith Ward (sentenced for the IRA M62 coach bomb). He based her case on inaccurate scientific information (the same techniques that convicted the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four) and concealed evidence from her defence counsel. When she was acquitted, Oldfield was posthumously criticised by the ruling judge for his efforts.
Not to be outdone, Holland was involved in one of the most disturbing and disgraceful miscarriages of justice in British legal history: Stefan Kiszko. According to David Peace," twenty-four-year-old Kiszko, who had physical and mental problems, was told that if he signed a confession he could go home to his mother. He would spend 16 years in prison before his conviction was quashed in 1992. Evidence that Kiszko could not have produced the semen found on Lesley Molseed's (the murder victim) clothing was withheld during his original trial." He would develop schizophrenia in prison (thanks to his isolation and his treatment) and would die not long after his release.
And these were the two men in charge of the investigation.
In both cases, Bilton is deliberately disingenuous. There is no mention whatsoever of Kiszko and, while the M62 bombing is discussed, he focuses on Oldfield's reaction at the carnage, with a quote from a family member talking about how the sights and sounds haunted him for years (I wonder if the Ward conviction caused him loss of sleep as well).
All of this is designed to present a 'human' side to the much maligned Oldfield, and it is utterly wrong. It was well known that the Ward and Kiszko convictions were what led to the two men being tasked with the Ripper investigation. No wonder the whole thing turned out to be a fucking farce with utterly horrendous consequences (the loss of three lives that, according to the Byford Report, could have been prevented).
Well worth adding to your bookshelf, but be aware of the agenda being pushed.
Michael Bilton, 2012, Wicked Beyond Belief: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper. Harper Press ISBN-13: 978-0007450732
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.