Gordon Burn gives us no comment of his own on the story he has to tell - just the facts: no speculation as to why Peter Sutcliffe behaved as he did, just the events, the family life, anecdotes that may or may not be pertinent, the pubs and their atmosphere. And we go back, or rather from the beginning of the book we go forward - from Sutcliffe's grandparents on both sides. How else is he to explain, or attempt to explain, this odd man who spread 13 murders over six years, and fooled even those closest to him until almost the last moment? That Sutcliffe was insane in some way is an inevitable conclusion after reading all the facts about him. All the facts? At once one has to start hedging: we know nothing of Sutcliffe's relations with his wife Sonia, to whom he was devoted: to know something about these might have clarified a little the puzzling defence he put up in saying that God had spoken to him, and told him to kill prostitutes. If God spoke to him as far back as when he was 20, and employed as a gravedigger in a church cemetery (where he claims to have first heard the voice), then Sutcliffe never mentioned it to his brothers Mick and Carl, nor to pub pals like Trevor Birdsall, which leads one to suspect that Sutcliffe might have thought there was something rather wrong or unpopular about such a message, assuming he ever received it. He was not known for faithful church attendance.
LRB 21 June 1984 | PDF Download