I’ve heard CBS Reality’s Murder by the Sea is returning in January (Tuesday 7th 10pm).
For those who haven’t seen it, the premise is that the jolly seaside resort is often the setting for unusual and sometimes frightening homicides.
Why should a place we associate with fun, sun and relaxation suffer such crimes? Having been involved as a talking head in all four series so far, I think several factors are important.
There is the transient nature of holiday resorts. Thousands of pleasure-seekers and workers flock in during the season, meaning many let their guard down and mingle with strangers in search of a good time.
Blackpool and Ilfracombe
One episode was about Stephen Akinmurele, 21, who moved to Blackpool to work as a barman. He murdered three people in their senior years, including his former landlady.
ITV has just announced a new three-part drama about murderer Dennis Nilsen.
Called Des – Nilsen’s nickname – it has top-quality talents involved, including David Tennant (a long way from Doctor Who here), Daniel Mays (Line of Duty) and Jason Watkins (The Crown). It is also based on Brian Masters’ landmark book, Killing for Company: The Case of Dennis Nilsen.
ITV has a decent record of producing serious, sensitive dramas about some of Britain’s most grotesque murderers.
Among them I would place This Is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, Appropriate Adult (about Fred West) and the recent A Confession (the murder of Sian O’Callaghan).
However, there is a fine line to tread with such difficult subjects. True crime is often attacked for being lurid and crass, virtually treating real tragedies and grief as part of a horror genre.
Brian Masters’ book, while it had its critics, was a serious attempt to understand how Nilsen was able to prey on young vulnerable men.
Great research, vivid writing, historical context – the best true crime can give compelling insight into the kind of personalities that commit notorious crimes. In no particular order, here are 10 true-crime books that I particularly admire…
Oswald’s Tale by Norman Mailer 1995
Forget the grassy knoll, mafia hitmen, Castro malcontents, CIA plotters – it was Lee Harvey Oswald what done it. Norman Mailer created a convincing portrait of a pathetic nobody who wanted to make a name for himself. He’d flirted with celebrity by ‘defecting’ to Russia in 1959, marrying a Russian, and attempting to shoot a general. Then, when he heard the President’s motorcade was passing the book depot where he’d just got a job, he reached for his $22 rifle. An unforgettable book.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara 2018
Not many true-crime authors can be said to have solved a historic case. Michelle McNamara, however, may eventually get some credit for the arrest made last year in the Golden State Killer investigation. She was a journalist who wrote here of her obsession with this grotesque series of home rapes and then murders. Sadly, the author died before the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, a former cop suspected or 50 rapes, 13 murders and many burglaries. However, her proposal for the use of ancestral DNA and geographic profiling may have played a part in the police taking a new approach to the unsolved case. An absolutely must-read, genre-busting book.
I was surprised and delighted to be contacted recently by Frank Quinn, the son of one of victims in the Hammersmith Nude Murders case.
This was, of course, the unsolved serial-killer investigation from the 1960s that I cover occasionally on this blog, having first written about it in The Hunt for the 60s’ Ripper.
Frank is the son of Frances Brown, who was the fifth of six women to be murdered.
The killer, who successfully eluded what was then the biggest police manhunt in history, picked up the women in his car or van, strangled them and left their bodies at public spots around west London. Dubbed Jack the Stripper by newspapers, he removed their clothing and jewellery, and sometimes their teeth, leaving few forensic clues for police.
‘The case has dominated my life,’ Frank told me. He feels it has been shrouded in mystery for too long, and is encouraged now that ‘things are coming out’.
Dark Son: The Hunt for a Serial Killer
The BBC4 documentary,Dark Son, followed up the findings in my book earlier this year. This pointed to convicted child killer Harold Jones as the man who should be considered the number-one suspect.
‘I found it an excellent documentary,’ Frank said when we spoke by phone. ‘It’s something I’ve been waiting for a long time. I never thought in my lifetime I’d ever see it happen.’
He is hoping the Met will make a serious attempt to reopen the case. In particular, he thinks they should look into Jones’s employment and driving records.
It is thought the killer may have used a grey Hillman Husky and that he worked on the Heron Trading Estate, where the bodies were stored before being dumped.
Of the six cases featured in the latest Murder by the Sea series, Louisa May Merrifield’s is the one I would most like to research further.
The Blackpool Poisoner was the final episode on CBS Reality’s British series last week, and it is fascinating.
In 1953 Louisa went to work as a housekeeper for a rather cranky old gal called Sarah Ricketts, aged 79. As I point out during the programme, Louisa was something of a dodgy character, having had 20-odd jobs in three years prior to this.
Murder at the bungalow
Louisa and her third husband, Alfred (who was 24 years her senior at 71) moved into Mrs Ricketts two-bed bungalow at 339 Devonshire Road, Blackpool.
The housekeeper got her employer to change her will, leaving her £3,000 bungalow to Louisa and her husband. Soon after Louisa put rat poison in the old lady’s favourite treat – a jar full of jam.
As Murder by the Sea makes, Louisa was greedy and boastful. She made several blunders and was soon arrested.
It is hard not to feel great sympathy for Rhianne Morris, who appeared on this week’s Murder by the Sea.
She was the girlfriend of Barry Rogers, who, with his mother Penelope John, went to jail in 2018 for murdering his grandmother, Betty Guy.
It is clear Rhianne is still haunted by her time with Rogers, who was abusive to her. She would later come to discover that while they were together, Rogers and his mother concocted their callous plot to murder 84-year-old Betty, a former nurse.
Once again Murder by the Sea, presented by the eccentric Geoffrey Wansell, uncovered a dark side to a beautiful coastal area, this time Pembrokeshire.
Matricide is a rare crime. As this episode makes clear, however, for a mother and son to collude in the killing of the mother’s mother is even rarer.
The language is ripe and the cast – including Timothy Spall and Kenneth Cranham – is excellent. The Diamond Wheezers who burgled the underground safe-deposit company in London’s jewellery district in 2015 is a fascinating true-crime story.
While pulling off this shocking theft, the veteran lags are also gasping, collapsing, falling asleep and taking plenty of toilet breaks.
That light-hearted side is excellently done, scripted by Jeff Pope and Terry Winsor. Pope in particular has a strong record in dramatising serious crime stories for TV, including Appropriate Adult, This Is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper and Mrs Biggs.
Just finished Miles Goslett’s account of the Dr David Kelly affair and it is a disconcerting read.
Dr Kelly was the British scientist and weapons expert who was caught up in the controversy over whether Iraq really had missiles that could threaten Britain with mass destruction in 45 minutes. This claim was used to help justify the West’s attack on the country.
Officials in Tony Blair’s government exposed Dr Kelly as a potential source for the news story that ignited the uproar in 2003. However, there was shock when, having been forced to testify on TV to politicians, Dr Kelly was then found dead in woods near his Oxfordshire home.
The official line from the start was that he had committed suicide. But this is where events became murky, as this riveting book makes clear.
With great skill, journalist Miles Goslett pulls together various strands of complex events. He reveals that what occurred after Dr Kelly was found was carefully managed by the government.
The CBS Reality series continued to rake through the dark side of our seaside towns this week. This time it was the sad case of Swansea landlord Alec Warburton, who was murdered by his callous tenant, David Ellis.
Ellis had a number of grubby convictions behind him, including sexual offences against a girl. He was also a liar and seems to have lied about his financial situation to convince Mr Warburton to rent a room to him.
Swansea is a pretty safe community, so what ensued shocked the locals. Ellis plotted to kill Warburton, who was 59, having arranged for the other tenants to forward their rent to him, Ellis.
He then launched a horrendous hammer attack on the unsuspecting landlord. As Home Office pathologist Dr Brian Rodgers says in the programme, there were no defence injuries on Mr Warburton. Ellis’s attack was a cowardly assault from behind.
The third episode of Murder by the Sea on CBS Reality is about a case that is 100 years old. The murder of Mamie Stuart was all made all the more unhappy because this was a crime in which the killer escaped justice.
Mamie, a 26-year-old chorus dancer, disappeared in 1919. She had married to a man called George Shotton in 1918.
They met soon after Mamie had finished a tour on stage and she had returned home to Sunderland. Shotton, something of a charmer and 13 years older than Mamie, was a marine surveyor. He was in Sunderland on business when he encountered Mamie in 1917.
Marriage turns violent
Once they were married Mamie went to live with Shotton at his home in Swansea. Having led what was probably a precarious but lively existence as a dancer, Mamie soon found domestic life with Shotton a living hell.