After some consideration I decided to write two seperate posts about all the stuff that’s still running through me mind after having finished reading “This Body of Death”, the latest novel in the Inspector Lynley series by Elizabeth George. This first post will be almost spoiler-free and I really try to not give away anything essential to the plot (except maybe in the end, when I will have to write a tiny bit about one of the characters. Something you would find out or at least suspect in the first few chapters anyway). If you are planning on reading this novel anytime soon and don’t want to find out just the tiniest bit of the content in advance, you might want to stop reading now. This post will not really be about the novel / plot itself, but much more about the kind of frame narrative.
Because it still haunts me and keeps my mind occupied with thoughts about our society and justice and human behaviour and a lot of stuff. I can’t remember any other story having that impact on me since I read “We need to talk about Kevin” (by Lionel Shriver) a few years back. And the events and the story in this frame narrative of the Lynley-novel are equally disturbing.
The first few pages of the novel are the first part of a psychological study on three 10/ 11 year old boys and the novel is interspered with further excerpts from this study every few chapters, so it’s pretty obvious that one of the characters of this crime plot must have been one of these three boys. This study does not just describe the circumstances in which these boys grew up but also gives as very detailed account of what happened and gives some psychological explanation of why they did, what they did. The study draws a good picture of the dysfunctional, abusive, neglective families these boys grew up in and right from these first few pages it foreshadows that these boys commited a unimaginable horrible crime. I think what spooked me most from the start was the rather matter-of-fact tone in which this was written. Which of course is the point of a psychological study and between the lines the compassion of the expert writing this study is perceptible. But combined with the foreshadowing it just gave me goosebumps. Great writing by Elizabeth George by the way.
Even after these first few pages I immediatly thought of the murder of Jamie Bulger in the early 1990s and it very soon became evident that these three boys in this book did indeed commit an almost identical crime and thus something equally unimaginable. They take a 2-year-old boy from a McDonalds in a shopping mall and abuse and torture him until he dies. They don’t go to the mall with the intention to commit this crime, but it happens nonetheless, and the factual and detailed report of how all of these things happened and the psychological analysis of all persons involved just gave me the chills.
Because it is just so unimaginable that 10-year-old children can be so cruel and uncaring and seemingly without any moral sense of right or wrong. It’s also unthinkable that none of the adults who crossed their ways intervened. But even that is accounted for in this study: The boys told them it was their little brother and they were just taking him home and the adults believed them. And why shouldn’t they have believed them? We probably all like to say, we would have suspected something and intervened if we had seen these kids leading the toddler out of the mall But would we really have? If the older boys gave us a plausible explanation and if we maybe were in a hurry to get somewhere or just didn’t want to get involved. I’d say most of us don’t want anyone else to meddle in our life, so who are we to meddle in others? It’s so easy to just not act even if something might look a bit shady. But then we more often than not just think: who are we to judge? Don’t we?
I think that’s the most tragic part in this fictional study, but even more so in the very real case of the murder of Jamie Bulger in 1992: that the little boy’s torment and death could have been prevented if just one single adult had acted differently. In this fictional case: if the parent hadn’t let him out of his sight for just a few seconds, believing that it’d be safe when they were surrounded by dozens of other parents and their kids. If any one of the people who met the older boys would have been more insistent when they asked why the little one was crying or asked if they needed some help.
I don’t want to downplay the severity of the boys’ guilt, because it was them who took the boy and it was them who did what they did. And they had to be held responsible for this crime and they were. I actually don’t know exactly how the German law / jurisdictional system would have dealt with this kind of young offenders. In the UK – as it is told in this novel and as it has been done with the killers of Jamie Bulger – these kids had gotten a 10-years-sentence and spent these years in “secure units” at first, then in prison for young offenders and for the last part in maximum security prisons. After that they were released under special terms (regular contact to probation officers and such) and with a new identity. Because they would have been easy targets for anyone who wanted to take the law into his own hands.
My liberal mind and heart says (or wants to say) that this was the right thing to do, because these boys have been victims of abuse, neglect and a lot of crap in their crappy families themselves and that they needed help and that they deserved a second chance. And then I close my eyes and see this crying toddler with bruised knees, being dragged along the sidewalk by the older boys and it makes me sick to my stomach and it breaks my heart. And I want to keep those three boys locked up in jail for eternity. Or have done to them what they did to the little one and then let them rott in hell.
The following paragraphs contain spoilers for “This Body of Death”, sorry, but it can’t be helped. I try to keep them to a minimum though
What made it all the more complicated with this fictional study and fictional crime, is, that I very soon suspected (as the readers probably should) which of the central characters in the crime plot had indeed been one of these three boys all these years ago. And I know I should have hated and despised him for what he did, but I couldn’t. Because this man I “met” and got to know was a good man. Hardworking, responsible, thoughtful, caring deeply for his dog, living a rather solitary life. Which made sense once I figured out his backstory and when more and more of his thoughts and emotions were revealed. Which by the way, Elizabeth George does excellently by changing the narrative point of view in the various chapters or parts of the story..
He had lived a solitary life, but then he had fallen in love, even though he didn’t want to, because he couldn’t imagine how anyone could love him and how it could possible work out between him and a woman, when he couldn’t tell her about his past. About who he was and what turned him into this withdrawn person and what just made him who he was. And I have to admit that I felt rather sorry for him, because all he wanted was an ordinary life. To be able to trust and love someone and to have someone love and trust him back. It’s the most basic human want and need. And because of what happens to him over the course of this novel my heart broke a little for him in the end as well.
And that left me and still leaves me with the question: Did he really deserve a normal life after he had ended one in this brutal and horrible manner? Did he deserve to be loved and trusted by anyone? Can people really change from “bad” to “good”? Was it the right action to convict him and put him into jail as a 10 year old ? Could he really be held responsible for his actions at this age? And if so, shouldn’t he be punished with a life-time-sentence and never get out of prison? Do we really want to reintegrate those kind of offenders into our society? And if we do, how do we manage to do that? How forgiving do we have to be? How forgiving are we able to be? How forgiving could I be?
And then I close my eyes and once again I see the crying toddler on the sidewalk :-(