Bird 'not archetypal monster' found in crime novels

image captionNo one town will carry the "dreadful weight of association", says Zoe Sharp

Derrick Bird did not fit the bill of a mass murderer as portrayed in many crime novels, nor did Cumbria seem a likely setting, crime novelist Zoe Sharp explained on Radio 4's The World at One.

Recent events in Cumbria have propelled my home county into unwelcome prominence once again.

No sooner has the trauma faded from a fatal coach crash that cost the lives of two teenagers - and, before that, severe flooding in which a policeman was swept away - than disaster has visited once more.

The morbid fascination with Derrick Bird's crime and its location has begun already, but at least no one town will carry the dreadful weight of association, as with Dunblane and Hungerford before it.

'Ghoulish curiosity'

For those with ghoulish curiosity, the trail of Mr Bird's destruction has been well mapped.

As a Cumbrian resident, the places are familiar - Lamplugh, Whitehaven, Egremont, Frizington, Gosforth and Seascale - but just not in this context. People have expressed shock that something of this nature could happen there. It's more shocking that it could happen anywhere.

And I'm not easily shocked. As a writer of crime fiction, it's my business. But although I live in what some might describe as a rural idyll, my thrillers are set mostly elsewhere. In big cities or another country.

Maybe there is the feeling that bad things can't happen in good places, although Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes pointed out the dangers lurking within "the smiling and beautiful countryside".

It may be hard for those personally touched by this tragedy to understand why anyone would want to read about fictional crimes in the name of entertainment, but they do.

Crime novels pepper the best-seller lists and are the category most-borrowed from public libraries.

The best examples provide social comment and insight, offering closure where so often in reality none exists. An escape to a place of rules and order, where motives are explained and justice - whether judicial or summary - is seen to be done.

Crime writers are frequently prevailed upon to make their villains somewhat larger than life. If evil must have a human face, it seems, then let it be one anybody can recognise.

But Derrick Bird was not the archetypal monster - no tortured, inarticulate loner.

He was described by those who knew him as sociable, even-tempered and outgoing. A nice guy, who enjoyed scuba diving, working on his car, and a pint down the pub. In short, he appears to have been simply an ordinary man compelled to do monstrous things.

There is a random element to Derrick Bird's crime that shocks and frightens us all the more.

No closure

Yes, there is the suggestion of scores settled in his initial choice of victims - his twin brother, rival cab drivers, the family solicitor, and a former boss - but then it's hard to know what selection criteria he used, if any at all. And such random acts of violence are hardest to predict, guard against, or understand.

Derrick Bird's victims come from a small interlocking community that is used to self-reliance in the face of adversity. The hard winter brought out the best in people here. They will come together all the more tightly in grief.

Perhaps the worst thing, for the survivors and the families of the victims, is that unlike fiction, there will almost certainly be no closure in this case. Whatever words of comfort are offered by David Cameron and Theresa May during their visit to Cumbria today, they cannot provide an explanation.

The only person who can truly know what was going on inside Derrick Bird's head during his killing spree… was Derrick Bird himself.

By taking his own life - and some will no doubt make much of the fact he was the 13th fatality - he compounded his sin by taking the answers with him to the grave.

The World at One is broadcast weekdays at 1300 BST. Listen again to Zoe Sharp's report on the BBC iPlayer.

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