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.