ON 6 JULY, 1946, a tall, good-looking man walked into the police station at Bournemouth. He said his name was Group Captain Rupert Brook. He was helping the police with their enquiries.
Handsome Brute by Sean O’Connor
Simon & Schuster, £16.99
He was there voluntarily, having been asked to clear up a mystery – the sudden disappearance, two days before, of Doreen Marshall, a 21-year-old woman. A detective, George Suter, showed Brook a picture of Marshall. Yes, said Brook, he recognised her. And yes, he had taken her to dinner the night before she disappeared. And then, said Brook, he walked her back to her hotel.
Brook, who did not look as if he had anything to hide, was about to leave the police station. But then the missing woman’s father and sister arrived. As Brook talked to them, Suter had a closer look at his face. It reminded him of somebody. It reminded him of Neville Heath, a man wanted for the murder of a woman in a hotel in Notting Hill two weeks previously. What Suter did not know was that Doreen Marshall’s mutilated body was lying under a bush along the coast. Suter turned to Brook and said: “I think you must have a double, sir.”
This is the story of Neville Heath, who committed two gruesome murders in the summer of 1946. I hadn’t heard of him before – somehow he has not entered the public imagination to the same extent as, say, Dr Crippen or Ian Brady. But Heath, who had been a bomber pilot in the war, was memorably twisted. He came from Wimbledon. His father was a moderately successful businessman. He attended Rutlish School – posher than an ordinary grammar, but less so than a minor public school. This story is, in a way, all about the English class system; it’s also about the war, and the strange period just after the war, when everything was in a mess.
London was full of hookers and chancers and people pretending to be someone else. One of these people was Heath. By the summer of 1946, however, his luck was running out. He’d been an officer in the RAF but he couldn’t afford the lifestyle of a gentleman. So he’d started conning people. Think of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley – attractive and apparently refined, but a consummate liar.
Heath got into more and more trouble. During the war, he’d been arrested on active service in Egypt and sent home by boat. The boat had to go the long way round via South Africa. Heath escaped, changed his identity and joined the South African air force, where he flew bombers over Germany before being shot down. He never stopped conning people, but in June 1946, the net was closing around him.
Something in Heath snapped and he started killing. O’Connor tells the whole story beautifully. It’s the best true crime book I’ve read for ages. His short description of Heath’s execution, at the hands of Albert Pierrepoint, is superb. At 9am on 16 October, 1946, the hangman opened the door to Heath’s cell. The noose was in the next room. On average, with Pierrepoint, 12 seconds passed between the opening of the door and the death of a prisoner. It took him seven seconds to hang Heath.