December 1968, Newcastle Upon Tyne. Two girls aged eleven and thirteen are accused of strangling two little boys – four-year-old Martin Brown and three-year-old Brian Howe. The oldest girl, Norma, is acquitted, but the younger and more advanced Mary Bell, is found guilty of manslaughter. Investigative journalist Gitta Sereny tells the story of this terrible crime, charting the background, lead-up to the murders, the trial and the aftermath.
I like to think I remember this case, though at the time, I would only have been about seven years old. However, with the murders occurring only a few miles from my hometown, the case is one of those that sticks in my memory. Gita Sereny digs into the background of the families involved, highlighting the social and familial influences on Mary Bell and her parents. In detailed scenes including police reports, witness statements and court documents, the author unpicks the minutiae of Bell’s life, especially the influence of the mother, whose personal history and actions following the court case, shine an intriguing light on the case.
What is most interesting, is the difference in the way crimes of this type are handled now, and how those involved are dealt with. At the time, suitable custodial arrangements did not exist for very young children, and the authorities found themselves in a difficult position in finding a suitable ‘prison’ for Mary.
More than fifty years on, the name Mary Bell still evokes strong feelings, but what comes across most clearly in this book is the hopelessness of Mary’s situation and, perhaps, the inevitability of tragedy.
Included with this edition, is Sereny’s account of the James Bulger murder and the police investigation.
A troubling and thoughtful book that harks back to a time when the concept of a child killing another child was unheard of in this country.