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The media, serial killers, and a perfect summer novel about both

Martin Quinn / Shutterstock.com

The media, serial killers, and a perfect summer novel about both

Martin Quinn / Shutterstock.com

Any sociologist interested in our relationship with crime has to be interested in crime fiction. It is hugely popular. Just count how many of your fellow commuters are reading the latest serial killer thriller.

Crime fiction covers such a huge range that most bookshops divide it into myriad sections – such as the fashionable Nordic Noir, or the somewhat less so Cosy Crime, novels that are typically set in charming rural villages – albeit ones where a murder has taken place.

Our work explores attitudes to crime and violence, and considers why we are so focused on the motivations of killers, rather than the impact of their crimes. These issues are explored in the work of the late Gordon Burn, a highly influential novelist and author. In particular, his dark, disturbing novel Alma Cogan has been a key influence on our work, which has examined the relationship between the media and serial killers.

Burn used a mixture of fact and fiction in his works to explore the nature of fame, celebrity and the media representations of individuals caught up in events, including investigations into notorious murders. He sought to dissect the ways in which the modern world of celebrity and the media interact and operate. In particular, Burn explored the amoral world of fame, fans and tabloid journalism.

Alma Cogan

Alma Cogan is Burn’s first novel, published in 1991. It won the Whitbread for a first novel that year. Cogan was a singing star of the 1950s and early 1960s, nicknamed the “girl with the giggle in her voice”. Cogan, as Burn notes, represented a form of ersatz American glamour in drab postwar Britain recovering from the trauma and privations of conflict. In the novel, Burn imagines that Cogan did not die of cancer in 1966 but is living out a life of obscurity in mid 1980s Britain. This was before the invention of reality/celebrity TV, but Cogan would have been a prime candidate for an 80s version of Strictly Come Dancing or Masterchef.

Burn uses the novel to explore our fascination with serial killers and their gruesome crimes. The crime in this case is that of the Moors murders, the abduction and murder of five children in Manchester in the early 1960s by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. So how and why does Burn link a faded 50s pop star with such crimes of brutality and degradation?

When they were arrested, among Brady’s property a receipt for luggage was found, which he had left at a Manchester station. Among those items the police found a tape recording of the torture of Lesley Ann Downey, who Brady and Hindley had abducted from a fair on Boxing Day. The tape was played in open court at their trial. In the background Cogan’s version of the Little Drummer Boy can be heard.

Burn manages to combine his exploration of fame with a parallel discussion of the media’s apparent obsession with violent sexual killers. An obsessive fan tracks down Cogan and arranges to meet her. She brings along a tape and plays it. It is a recording of the sexual torture and murder of Downey.

Cogan is obviously disgusted at the tape but also the way in which she has somehow been associated in the fan’s mind with these events. The fan does not see why she is so outraged:

I don’t see what the fuss is about … A few years anybody could buy a copy in Manchester. If you went to the right pub. You could buy pictures of the girl if you knew the right channels.

The fan then sums up the obsessive nature of fandom: “My only interest was you. The unavailability of those tracks anywhere else. The rarity value.”

This novel, despite being over 20 years old, explores our obsession and interest in the perpetrators of violent crime. It forces the reader to examine the way that the media seeks to exploit the suffering of the victims of these events. As part of this process, the reader has to acknowledge that they are complicit in the creation of a cult of celebrity.

Brady and Hindley become famous because of the violence and degradation that they inflicted on other human beings. However, many more people will know their names than those of their victims: Lesley Anne Downey (ten), John Kilbride (12), Edward Evans (17), Pauline Reade (16) and Keith Bennett (12).

Burn’s analysis of the nature of modern celebrity has proved to be incredibly influential. There is a prophetic quality to it. A world where Clement Freud cooks a risotto for the McCanns would have not have seemed strange or alien to this incredibly gifted writer. We cannot recommend any better summer brain fodder (and don’t worry, we haven’t given too much away).