Thursday, 3 June 2010

Derrick Bird and the Cumbria Shootings


Yesterday’s news of Derrick Bird’s killing spree in Cumbria is so appalling that it is difficult to take in. There is, no doubt, much yet to be revealed about the man who murdered at least a dozen people in such peaceful places as Whitehaven and Seascale, who shot many others, and who finally ended his own life – in the paradoxically lovely Lake District village of Boot. But this terrible tragedy is another reminder of the chasm between fictional crime, which entertains so many of us, and the real thing, which in this case has lasting and disastrous consequences for so many innocent people.

Well-written crime fiction can, I think, help us to understand the mind-set of murderers, and I honestly believe that is a valuable function. But I must admit that it is difficult at this point to comprehend why a man who apparently was a reasonably well liked taxi driver should suddenly embark on a mass killing spree. No doubt – like a good many people – he had a darker side, but the man had only just become a grandfather and does not seem, on the basis of early reports, to have had a significant criminal record. He has ruined so much, for so many – what on earth possessed him? One report suggests that there is a connection with a family dispute about a will (oddly enough, I was talking to a friend about the bitterness of some will disputes only a couple of days ago) but whether that helps to explain why Derrick Bird went berserk remains to be seen.

In one news report, the comment was made that ‘lessons will have to be learned’. It’s a typical response to a bad news story, but I tend to agree with Nigel Eastman, a professor of law in psychiatry writing in The Daily Telegraph, who says that cases like this are ‘unpredictable and unpreventable’. This may be dismissed by some as a counsel of despair, but (although I don’t claim to be an expert) it matches the conclusion I reached when I researched spree killings for my book Urge to Kill.

Spree killings in the UK are thankfully rare – off hand, I can only recall Hungerford in the 80s and Dunblane in the 90s. It may give comfort to some to think that passing new laws can put an end to crimes of this kind, but I’m not sure you can legislate for the Derrick Birds of this world.

I am very sad that Cumbria, a marvellous county that I grow fonder of with every visit, has witnessed so many tragedies in recent months. First, the fatal floods of winter, then the deaths of teenagers in a school coach trip crash, now this. In my books, I write about a fictionalised Cumbria Constabulary, deliberately distanced in various ways from the real organisation. But the men and women of Cumbria Police now have a truly dreadful task on their hands, dealing with the aftermath of this shocking sequence of events, and they and the people whose loved ones have died or been injured have my utmost sympathy.


20 comments:

Clarissa Draper said...

It truly is sad. I know when I read mysteries that often the killers are fictionalized but when we hear of real killers and real victims it hits home how brutal life can be.

CD

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - ...as they do my sympathy as well. I can only imagine the shock and horror of those who have to deal with these murders at close hand. I can't even begin to imagine the grief of those who've lost a loved one to what seems to be such a senseless act.

You're right; there really is a huge difference between crime fiction and a tragedy like this. Sadly, we in the U.S. have had to cope with several such incidents. They are always dreadful, frightening, and much, much more. Their effects are long-lasting, too. I wish everyone well in dealing with this; my heart goes out to those who are facing this tragedy.

Bill O' Rites said...

Killings like this ARE unpreventable in a (relatively) free society like the UK.
The best we can do is guard against them. Unfortunately, those most likely to be present at such an event are law abiding citizens who have been disarmed by the very governments that promised them safety in exchange for restrictions on their freedom.

I guess it didn't work.

Why am I posting this?

Because I live in West Cumbria, knew the killer well in the past & have a passion for both freedom & firearms.
I arrived back from spending a fortnight shooting in the US only hours after this tragedy happened.

Bernadette in Australia said...

When I heard the terrible news about this event I couldn't help but think about a book I had just read, called A THOUSAND CUTS(called RUPTURE in the UK) by Simon Lelic. It tells the tale of a teacher who goes on a shooting spree in his school and The book was essentially an exploration of the motivation for the crime. It took a lot for the investigator to tease out all the factors that led up to the event and it was an extremely complicated series of things that led the person to take that action. I know there is a big gap between fiction and reality but I agree with you that fiction can help us understand real world events. I'm sure the reasons for this tragic event are as complex as the ones described in the book and I always fear that the immediate gut reactions of authorities in these kinds of cases never really get to the heart of matters because in the glare of public outrage they tackle the highly visible things (gun laws, surveillance of the general population etc) and the rest is lost along the way.

Regardless of all that though my heart goes out to the families and friends of the victims and all the police, emergency workers, health workers, bureacrats and myriad of other poor sods who'll have to help pick up the pieces.

Martin Edwards said...

Clarissa and Margot, thank you for your comments, which as always I value. As you say, Margot, the grief is unimaginable.

Martin Edwards said...

Bill, thank you for your comment. We can only hope that the communities affected by the tragedy have the strength and cohesion to get through it. From what I know of the people of Cumbria, they will make sure that the surviving victims and those close to them are well supported, but of course it will be a very difficult time for the whole area, and everyone's sympathy is, I am sure, heartfelt.

Martin Edwards said...

Thank you, Bernadette. I do not know that novel, but I am now strongly tempted to seek it out.

Uriah Robinson said...

The fact that these killing sprees happen rarely in the UK doesn't lessen the impact. It seems Derrick Bird may have killed his twin brother and solicitor before he started to kill at random.
My sympathies go out to all those affected by this tragedy.

Fiona said...

I would ask people also to spare a thought for those other innocent victims: Derrick Bird's two sons and the new grandson. They have to live with this for the rest of their lives....whenever the 'Cumbria massacre' is mentioned they will surely suffer just as much as the families of those killed, with the additional burden of feelings of guilt.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I was so sorry to read about the story in the news.

I think in a case like this, it's just something incredibly irrational that the person does, to prove a point. It simply doesn't make any sense, but it seems to to *them.*

Linda said...

I am truly grieved for the residents of Cumbria at this time as they deal with this real life tragedy. My thoughts are also with yourself, a writer who must know and love this area.

Dorte H said...

"But this terrible tragedy is another reminder of the chasm between fictional crime, which entertains so many of us, and the real thing, which in this case has lasting and disastrous consequences for so many innocent people."

Thank you for this important post about the difference between reality and fiction. I love reading and writing crime fiction, but there is a limit as to how real I want it to be. Part of the ´contract´ is the satisfactory ending where you GET the answers and where the protagonist is punished somehow or other.

Paul Beech said...

I rang my elderly father’s care home in Cumbria earlier and it was a relief to hear he was fine. Many of the residents suffer some degree of mental impairment, so mercifully had only a limited awareness of yesterday’s horror twenty miles away, but the staff were deeply shocked, of course – one of the victims was known to them.

The floods last November were a natural disaster and the recent coach crash an accident, but how could an episode as insane as yesterday’s have visited a county as beautiful and peaceful as Cumbria? Reports indicate that more than a hundred police officers have been on the case today. A family dispute or feud over a will there might have been, but how could this have so unhinged the mind of a mild mannered man as to propel him on a four hour killing spree with a gun?

So many lives brutally ended, so many shattered. Certainly there’s a world of difference between crime fiction and the real thing and it would be a gifted writer indeed who could illuminate the psychological process that led to yesterday’s senseless carnage.

Inevitably there are those calling for tighter controls on gun licences though ours are already the strictest in Europe. Fine, but there are plenty of other weapons a crazed killer could lay hands on. I’m afraid I’m with you in doubting we can legislate for the Derrick Birds of this world.

My heartfelt sympathy to all those who have to carry on after yesterday’s nightmare, the families of the victims especially.

Paul

Nan said...

Since I don't read the news very often, when I saw your title today I thought it was a new book you had written. How horrible and how very sad. I remember when we first visited England in 1971 everyone told us we would be completely safe and we were. It was a different country, and a different world then. We went two times after that year, and the last time, Tom was pick-pocketed on a crowded subway that was so crowded because there had been a bomb scare on another one. And that was in 1992 which we all think of as a relatively calmer time. Sadly, no place is absolutely safe anymore.

Martin Edwards said...

Uriah and Fiona, thanks for your comments. I agree, Fiona, about the terrible impact on the killer's family.

Martin Edwards said...

Elizabeth and Linda, thanks for your comments.

Martin Edwards said...

Dorte, the notion of the 'deal' or 'contract' between writer and reader is an important one, perhaps something we can discuss in future blogs.

Martin Edwards said...

Paul, thanks very much for your comment, and I am so glad that your father is ok.

Martin Edwards said...

Nan, as you say, nowhere is safe. But the contrast between the beauty of Boot, in Eskdale, and the death of the man who caused so much carnage is especially shocking.
I do hope you give England another try one day.

Nan said...

Martin, I didn't mean to say I wouldn't come again because of the pick pocket incident!! In fact we were all set to come in 2001 but didn't dare because of the hoof and mouth disease. We have sheep and goats, and get our raw milk from a farm so we just couldn't risk it. We hope to come again someday. We've never seen such beauty.