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Stone Killer

When Neville Heath stood trial for murder in 1946, women queued for up to fourteen hours for the chance to get a glimpse of the charming killer. Throughout the three-day hearing, the defendant remained indifferent to his crimes and accepted the death penalty imposed by the Judge, Mr Justice Morris, without comment.

What made the case all the more sensational was the extreme nature of the murders. Heath, a former RAF pilot and veteran of bombing raids over Europe, had befriended and savagely murdered two women, before walking in to a police station after a nationwide manhunt to pin him down. The victims’ injuries were so appalling that The Daily Mail described them as the most gruesome since the days of Jack the Ripper.

Heath’s trial was soon over. Unlike today, there was limited discussion as to his mental state at the time of the offences and no mitigating plea from his defence council in an attempt to reduce his sentence. His admittance of guilt in the murders helped speed up the judicial process and his date with Albert Pierrepoint, the man who fixed the noose around his neck and pulled the fatal lever. Heath died without expressing remorse for his crimes or his victims, adding to his grim mystique.

The real question isn’t so much the savagery of the crime itself but the effect it had on postwar Britain. Why the fascination with such a brutal killer, especially among women? Heath clearly had the looks and magnetism of a ladies man, an image further enhanced by the impeccable uniform he so often wore. But the look was a façade, hiding a deranged personality. Unbeknown to the many admirers of this dashing suitor, Heath was a convicted thief, a master of deception, and had been court-martialled on no less than three separate occasions.

The murders inspired several fictional accounts over the following years. The 1987 TV dramatisation The Charmer starred Nigel Havers as Ralph Gorse, a suave conman masquerading as an ex-RAF pilot. Alfred Hitchcock was so fascinated by the Heath persona that he optioned a screenplay based on the murders. Appalled at the bestial character of the leading man, studio bosses refused to allow the production to go ahead and Hitchcock had to abandon the project.

Sean O’Connor’s Handsome Brute is the latest attempt to explore the case. Meticulously researched and utterly compelling, the book covers ground that some of the more salacious earlier publications left out. A mixture of archive material, interviews taken from the time and a dramatic reconstruction of the events themselves, makes it hard to put down. The reader sits like a member of the jury, spared none of the gruesome details but, in the end, left to form his own conclusions.

Such amoral characters are not uncommon in fiction. In Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Talented Mr Ripley, the main character is a charming psychopath who adopts the identity of the man he befriends, and consequently murders. Aware of the difficulties in gaining reader’s sympathy for such a character, Highsmith gave her protagonist certain admirable qualities – traits Neville Heath also possessed and used to such terrible advantage.

There is something infinitely fascinating about the dark side of human nature. Serial killers and psychopaths have a particular hold over our collective imagination, perhaps because of their seeming indifference to human suffering. As law-abiding members of society, we are brought up to differentiate right from wrong. Other cultures may have their own interpretation of these standards, but essentially they remain the same the world over. Murder is universally condemned and the perpetrator made to face some form of public justice.

Neville Heath carried out his brutal murders shortly after the end of the Second World War. It is interesting that during the war years, the British public had witnessed bombing raids on their cities, ever-increasing austerity measures that reduced many to the poverty line, and news of death and atrocity on a daily basis. Thousands of demobbed servicemen returned home, many of them psychologically damaged by what they’d seen. Several murders were committed as a result of this phenomenon, a tragic consequence of the war and its effect upon the country’s young men, many of them unable to fit back in.

Were Heath’s crimes a result of his experiences in the war, or from some deep-seated neurosis that caused him to act in this way? Perhaps we’ll never know. But the events leading up to his execution on Wednesday 16 October 1946 offer a chilling portrayal of a man who remained indifferent to the end. His last words after being offered a shot of whisky just before he died were, ‘Under the circumstances, you might make that a double.’

Handsome Brute: The True Story of a Ladykiller by Sean O’Connor, published by Simon & Schuster 2013

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