In December 1968 two girls who lived next door to each other – Mary, aged eleven, and Norma, thirteen – stood before a criminal court in Newcastle, accused of strangling two little boys; Martin Brown, four years old, and Brian Howe, three.
Norma was acquitted. Mary Bell, the younger but infinitely more sophisticated and cooler of the two, was found guilty of manslaughter. She evaded being branded as a murderer due to what the court ruled as ‘diminished responsibility’, but she was sentenced to ‘detention’ for life.
Step by step, Gitta Sereny pieces together a gripping and rare study of a horrifying crime; the murders, the events surrounding them, the alternately bizzare and nonchalant behaviour of the two girls, their brazen offers to help the distraught families of the dead boys, the police work that led to their apprehension, and finally the trial itself. What emerges from this extraorindary case is the inability of society to anticipate such events and to take adequate steps once disaster has struck.
I don’t often read or listen to non-fiction, but I find audiobooks are often a good way for me to get through them, as I can listen whilst I do other things like walking, driving etc, and try and soak it all up!
I’m really interested in true crime, so this appealed to me, and it’s on a case I didn’t know much about (somewhat before my time!). It’s the case of two little girls, Mary Bell (11) and – no relation, just a neighbour with the same surname – Norma Bell (13), who were both on trial in the 1960’s for murdering two young boys. Gitta highlights that this case is also particularly interesting, from a sociological stance, because of the way the jury – and indeed the general public – seemed to place most of the blame on Mary, despite her being the younger of the two.
The book starts with some background information, and then there’s a detailed section on the trial itself; this makes up a large portion of the book, and it is indeed very interesting to hear what was said as well as Gitta Sereny’s analysis of it. However I wish there had actually been a little less of a play-by-play account of the trial, and more of a breakdown from Gitta on why this evidence or information might have been included in the trial, and what exactly it meant. Still, I enjoyed (or perhaps ‘enjoyed’ isn’t the right word?) listening to the trial and how it played out. The book then concludes with information on Mary’s (and Norma, to some extent) lives after the trial, and how the author feels that these tragic murders of two innocent little boys could possibly have been avoided in the first place. In this new edition Gitta also includes information and comparisons to the more recent Jamie Bulger case (which I actually remember hearing about when I was younger) which I found very interesting – though elements of the case are quite disturbing, so be prepared for that!
The audiobook is narrated well, with the two children’s strange behaviour relayed to the reader in an intriguing and clear manner, and the way it’s written lacks any sensationalism that you might get with other authors. I felt that at times the court scenes could perhaps have been split up a bit, and some parts felt a little uneventful, but I suppose you can’t really complain because this IS a true story, after all!
Overall, this is an interesting book which details an shocking and intriguing case. If you’re into true crime I think you’ll enjoy this one, whether you read the print version or listen to the audiobook.