First published online by Deborah Orr.
She thinks that, for her, the fascination may have started long ago, when she was a small child, and another Scottish serial killer was on the prowl. Peter Manuel, born in New York, settled in Lanarkshire with his Scottish parents when he was five. By the time Jean Rafferty herself was five, Manuel’s killing spree – he was convicted of killing nine people between 1956 and his arrest in January 1958 – was probably already under way. “We lived three floors up in a corporation flat in Glasgow [not near Manuel's Uddingston stomping ground at all], but my father was quite a nervous man and he was bizarrely anxious about it. The idea that Manuel got into people’s houses when they were sleeping – that really stuck with me, and I don’t know whether I remember this from then or later, he … In one of the homes, he ate pineapple chunks out of a tin and smoked a cigarette.”
By the time Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were convicted of the Moors murders in 1966, Rafferty was a teenager. Brady had been born and brought up not far from where Rafferty lived in Glasgow. “Brady actually worked in the butcher’s shop that my mum went to,” she says. “Not at the time that she was going to that butcher’s shop, but, Brady in a butcher’s shop … It’s so close. And I suppose that’s what interests me is how close it is. It doesn’t take much for those things to …”
To creep to the surface? “No.”
Rafferty was “surprised” when she couldn’t find a publisher for her first novel. I’m surprised at Rafferty’s surprise. Her book supposes that Hindley didn’t die in prison in 2002, but was released, under a new identity, to enjoy the rest of her life. Many publishers refused the manuscript, saying it was of fine quality, but that the material was, as Rafferty puts it, “immoral”. Eventually, Myra, Beyond Saddleworth was taken up by a small publisher, Wild Wolf. But was Rafferty right to prize literary quality over dubious subject matter?
The idea came to her when she was driving home from a creative writing course in West Yorkshire. She says that having the idea, then writing the novel “kept me sane at a very difficult time. I was looking after my mother … I was struggling to keep going.”
On this particular occasion, she had “come across the M62. It’s a very theatrical road, it just climbs and climbs up across the moors. And then you see the turnoff for Saddleworth. I’ve always been interested in extremes of human behaviour. When I got to where I was going, I said to the person I was visiting: ‘What a creepy feeling it is, passing that turnoff’, and she said: ‘Oh, do you think she’s still alive?’ That was an internet rumour at the time, not too long after Hindley’s death, and I said: ‘No, of course she’s not – but I think there’s a book there.’ And I was so excited.” Far from anticipating revulsion against her subject matter, Rafferty’s main worry was that she’d be beaten to it by “some young hotshot”.
At 62, having nursed literary ambitions since she was a student at Glasgow University, Rafferty must be thrilled that she is finally a published novelist. But what of the disapproval with which her novel has so far been received? “I had so many knock-backs from publishers saying this is immoral, or they couldn’t handle the idea of being sympathetic to Myra Hindley, which I’m definitely not. As a journalist I know the fascination that these people [Hindley and Brady] have for many. Any time I’ve read bits of my novel at literary workshops, people want to talk about it. They want to hold it up to the light.”
But the problem, of course, is that real children were killed in order to make this novel possible, children who have real parents, real relatives, some of whom are still alive. They are likely to be upset by the publication of a book that Rafferty, personally detached from the suffering that Brady and Hindley caused, wrote in order to exercise her wish to create an alternative version of Hindley, one who enjoys her freedom.
“Hmm-hmm,” she says. “I don’t think the parents are my audience. If that happened to my child, I wouldn’t want to read it. So I can understand that point of view, but I don’t think it’s … helpful, in a way, because if people don’t talk about these things, they end up being looked at in a very stereotypical way. People have said that they found the book quite challenging because you’re being asked to see this woman as a human being, and I think people prefer not to look at the, you know, ambiguities.”
In fact, the Hindley that Rafferty conjures is not a highly ambiguous figure. She is self-absorbed, self-justifying, sexually voracious, vain, manipulative and repugnantly charismatic. For Rafferty, the crucial point is that while Brady is criminally insane, with dark urges beyond his control, Hindley had choices, and she chose to facilitate Brady’s depraved desires, then refused to accept responsibility for that. “In one of her letters,” Rafferty says contemptuously, “she’s talking about the parents, and she says: ‘These people have haunted and hunted me for 20 years.’ Now, for God’s sake …
“I suppose what I really think is that if you did confront it you would just drop down dead of shame. She never did. He has, I think, made some kind of reparation … not a reparation, that’s too strong a word, but I think there’s … I think there’s acknowledgment there.”
Rafferty is probably more sympathetic to Brady because she has had personal dealings with him over a period of almost a decade. “Yes, journalistic habits die hard, you know, and as soon as I knew I was doing this, I thought: ‘I’ll write to him.’ I didn’t think he would necessarily write back, and then I got the first letter. God, that was creepy. I’d told him what I was doing and asked if he would help. He asked for some pictures of Glasgow as a quid-pro-quo.”
She kept up the correspondence, even though Brady ultimately declined to help. Did she ever think she’d become one of those women who write to killers in prison? “No. No,” she replies with vehemence. “One of my favourite books is In Cold Blood, and I don’t know if Truman Capote was telling the truth but he said that for six years he wrote twice a week to [the killers]. So that’s four letters a week. But … well, the life I was living, I just, I couldn’t do it as often as that.”
Did she look forward to his letters?
“I suppose in one way I did. The very first letter encapsulated him: somebody who was angry at the world, who reckoned that other people had urges just as deviant as his.”
Does Rafferty have a sense of Brady’s feelings now about Hindley? “I think he still loves her. I think he still thinks that they had a relationship that … I mean, he as much as said so to me that, you know, she cut off from him for practical reasons but that really they were bound together. And I believe that. I don’t think you can do the sort of things they did and not have a deeper bond with that person than you’re going to have with anybody in your whole life.”
Rafferty does admit that it is Brady, not Hindley, who bears primary responsibility for the pair’s crimes. But I find her attitude to him shockingly protective. Does he talk to her about his hunger strike?
“No, not much about that. What he really likes to talk about is Scotland of the past. I’ll send him postcards of the Clyde steamers, I’ve got some to send him now.”
“So, you’re kind to him, really?” “Oh yes, that man’s been in prison … that man could have … I think he had gifts which have been distorted and perverted … I’m kind to him because I hate the thought of anyone being in prison, whatever they’ve done. I’m not suggesting that either of them should have been let out, just that I would hate to be in their situation and wouldn’t make that worse for anyone.”
And do you have any feeling at all that Hindley may have been the catalyst as much as he was? “No, I think that she was … the word you used before, the facilitator.
“I asked [Brady], would he be dangerous if he was let out again and he said he wasn’t the person then that he was now. Most criminal behaviour in men takes place between the ages of 15 and 45, so it’s very likely he wouldn’t be dangerous any more. But he’s still a very angry man, so maybe he would. But he doesn’t want to be let out, he just wants to die, I think, as he says.”
So what would Rafferty like people to take from the book? “To not put people in boxes as if they’re not human beings. They are, and if you try to find out what drives these people, it’s not a million miles away from what drives lots of people. I think it’s a good book. I think it’s quite interesting to discuss.”
One for the book club, then?
Myra, Beyond Saddleworth by Jean Rafferty is published by Wild Wolf at £9.99