Turn on your TV and watch a programme about true crime, murderers or the psychology of offending, and the odds are that David Wilson will be involved. Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University, former prison governor, and before that an academic in a different field – having gained a PhD in history – Wilson has had a long and varied career that has involved coming into contact with some of the UK’s most notorious offenders.
But more recently, he has become something of a ubiquitous figure in the media – true crime’s version of Lucy Worsley, perhaps, popping up in various locations and scenarios to tell us his thoughts. Sometimes, you forget about his academic credentials, and see him more as a TV presenter or media figure, such is his worth to production companies.
This creates, though, a dilemma. What is Wilson most proud of: his criminological work, or his media work? How does he see himself? This dilemma becomes apparent in his new book, My Life With Murderers, which is published next month.
Subtitled ‘Behind Bars with the World’s Most Violent Men’, it is a strange beast that is not sure of what genre it belongs to. Part memoir, part discussion of prison and rehabilitation, of psychopathy and mental health, Wilson’s self-belief and pride in his media work and other public-facing roles are clear throughout.
A bit of judicious editing would have been helpful here, to reign in Wilson’s excesses and keep him ploughing a tight narrative. Instead, he jumps around from topic to topic, interspersing regular anecdotes that serve to depict him as a multi-talented individual: an academic heavyweight, a source of advice to others, a sportsman who is happy to play badminton or rugby with offenders – or even go for a pint or two with them.
He’s proud of having gone to an ex-con’s wedding with his wife, even though his account of it lays bare an awkwardness about class and how a middle-class academic perceives a lower-class event (it featured skulls! But it was still a good day out!). He’s equally proud of being sought out for media work, or receiving rapturous applause at student events. He clearly sees himself as a persuasive character, a confident performer, someone people look up to. He wants the media attention, just as he argues one of the murderers he has interviewed (Bert Spencer, a suspect in the Carl Bridgewater case) wants it.
When he is asked to interview the suspect in order to draw conclusions for a book foreword he has been asked to write, his response is: “I agreed but on one condition – I wanted to film the interviews in order to generate as much publicity for this cold case as I could.” However, one is left with the distinct impression that he’s not trying to get publicity to help solve a case as much as he wants the publicity for himself.
And the book’s premise is not quite right. It’s not about the ‘world’s most violent men’ – they are predominantly British men. In addition, not all of it is about Wilson meeting murderers: there are his thoughts on murderers he’s never met; a retracing of the steps of murderers such as Thomas Hamilton, the man behind the Dunblane massacre of 1996, or taxi driver Derrick Bird, responsible for 12 murders in Cumbria in 2010.
He heads north to be something of a voyeur in these communities, wanting to know what the locals think (in Dunblane, they are reluctant to indulge him; and you get the sense that in Cumbria, he is only told the minimum. Do they not realise that this is Professor David Wilson they are talking to?!).
Wilson does acknowledge the fact that he would be unable to do some of his work without the handy group of postgrad students he has at BCU, who help him by ‘painstakingly going through the various documents, newspaper accounts, court and police reports’ in the Carl Bridgewater case, but largely, this is about him – an autobiography of sorts, and an indulgence.
However, he clearly sees it as more of an academic tome than it is – he ends by recommending various reading into the subject, although I’m surprised by his assertion that ‘there has been surprisingly little rigorous academic attention paid to murder’ and his summing up historical views about murder into a single paragraph that omits much of the academic work I’ve read about the history of crime.
Perhaps this is due to his acknowledged sidelining of gender and crime. He has largely dealt with male murderers, and so he states that this is what he has written about. That’s fair enough, and he does mention the lower percentage of female murderers compared to men. However, his mention of female psychopathy is interesting, and I would have liked to read more about this – perhaps this is a book that is waiting to be written by someone else.
Studies into murderesses, though, could have been mentioned in his bibliography section, with a recognition that this is something of interest to those reading about murder; although he mentions Shani D’Cruze, this isn’t in relation specifically to works into female killers, and I was particularly looking for works such as Lizzie Seal’s Women, Murder and Femininity to be included.
There are some interesting stories here, but as I say, they needed pulling into a bit more shape to my mind – although it’s undoubtedly an interesting book to dip in and out of, and there are some complex and fascinating characters presented to the reader in it.
However, in short, if you’re interested in what makes a murderer tick, there are probably books that will tell you more about it than this one. But if you’re interested in what makes Professor David Wilson tick, this partial memoir will probably tell you more than even he thought it would.