ONE afternoon in March last year, Simon Lelic was driving near his Brighton home when an item on the radio caught his attention. One of James Bulger’s killers, Jon Venables, was in the news. He had just been recalled to prison nine years after being released on licence. On the radio, the man being interviewed was Venables’s former solicitor, Laurence Lee.
It was 17 years ago, Lee said. He’d only got the case because he happened to pick up a ringing phone at the magistrates’ court. The point was, it could have just as easily been any of his colleagues. Any of them could have gone, like him, to the police station and sat down next to that angelic-looking eight-year-old boy. Boy B, as everyone outside the police station called him.
Lelic had been on his way to pick up his two young boys from their grandparents, but there was something about Lee’s story that he felt he had to write about. Seventeen years on, and the Bulger case clearly still framed his life. It was all there in his radio interview. The first time he realised that his client was guilty. Reading the post mortem evidence. The baying mob outside the court. His incomprehension when the judge ordered the two boys’ names to be released.
Even when the case was finished, Lee admitted, he still had nightmares about it. He dreamed about being run over by a train. He didn’t want to go back to court. Post-Bulger syndrome, he called it. Every time the case came up in the media, every time there was some discussion about children who kill, about the Bulger killers’ new life, about anything connected to the case, it all came flooding back. “It never goes away,” Lee said.
I’m sitting in the lounge of a hotel next to Victoria Station talking to Simon Lelic about his third novel, The Child Who. That’s where it began, he says, with a Liverpool solicitor talking on the Radio 4’s PM programme about a case that still haunted him.
“I never met Laurence Lee – in fact I made a conscious decision not to contact him. So this is just my reading of his emotions. But he struck me as obviously saddened by what had happened to Jon Venables, but also quite weary. Seventeen years later, people still had the same perception that Jon Venables must have been a monster, they still didn’t realise that he might have been a victim himself, and there were still the same kind of questions about why kids kill. And
the emotional complexity of Laurence Lee trying to get his own take out there yet still having to deal with all of this stuff from 17 years ago struck me as being
When it comes to knotty novels of emotional power and complexity, Lelic has form. His first, The Rupture, won a Betty Trask award and was shortlisted for a shoal of others in 2010, including New Writer of the Year in the publishing industry’s own Galaxy British Book Awards. The story of a school shooting committed by a teacher who kills three pupils and a colleague in assembly before turning the gun on himself, it is at first sight a clear-cut case of someone deservedly demonised but the message is that no man is a monster, no-one is inherently evil.
That holds for The Child Who, too: like The Rupture, the killer is revealed early on, and the whole point of the book is its examination of what a civilised society ought to do with him. But while the book shares the same liberal impulses as Jonathan Trigell’s Boy A in fiction and Blake Morrison’s As If in non-fiction, there is a difference here and it’s a significant one.
In The Child Who, when provincial solicitor Leo
Curtice takes up the case – as with Lawrence Lee, just by answering a ringing phone – there are further pressures on him. Defending 12-year-old Daniel, who has murdered a schoolmate, is hard enough, but he hadn’t counted on the full extent of the public’s fury, which starts to put a strain on his own marriage. His daughter, too, begs him to drop or swap the case: she is the same age as the young girl Daniel has killed and now she is being bullied at school because of her father’s job. The liberal impulse, then, isn’t an abstract one. It has a cost.
On his picture on the back cover of his book, Lelic has gone for the hard-man look: intent, intense,
focussed. In person, he is altogether more affable. This month, he points out, is going to be “interesting”: this week his third book is published and next week his wife is expecting their third baby. “Our last child, Joey, came in a hurry,” he grins. “He was born at home, which basically means I caught him in the bathroom. So we are all geared up for an emergency.”
Lelic’s two boys are now aged five and nearly three, but when he was writing The Child Who, nearly two years ago, they were both that little bit nearer the age of the young Jamie Bulger when he was murdered in Bootle back in 1993. “That made this book the hardest to write and to research. You couldn’t help imagining your kids in that situation.” Particularly if, of course, you’re reading Enid Blyton’s The Wishing Tree as a bedtime story to your children and then going back to the computer to write about a murdered child.
Lelic works in a shed at the bottom of the back garden of their house in Hove. It’s all set up for the family aluminium importing business his Slovenian father set up when he moved to Britain and which Lelic now runs. But whenever the phone isn’t ringing with, say, queries about the price of T3 hexagonal bars for clients in the Midlands, whenever there is no other aluminium business to attend to, out comes the notepad for the research into comparative youth justice, or maybe he’ll have another go at a particularly recalcitrant chapter.
He isn’t, he says, a very visual reader (“If someone describes a character, I’ll often skip that bit”) or writer (“No matter what you do, the reader is always going to have their own interpretation of how someone looks”). For all that, though, dialogue is consistently well handled, and consistently feels as though it is written from the character’s point of view: when Leo visits Daniel after being absent for a while, for example, we are told of his disappointment that his young client has put on weight. Yes, you realise, that is exactly what an assiduous solicitor would think. “Waif-like was good. Emaciated better. Ruddy, well fed, portly: each suggested slobbery, contentment – a lack, above all, of contrition.”
He set the story in Exeter because it’s a city he knows well (he read history at university there) and because it’s “small enough to feel like a goldfish bowl”. As a former journalist (eight years on trade magazines before going into the family business) he is fully aware of the tabloid tendency to point the finger rather than look for deeper understanding.
He is outraged, for example, that in England children can be criminalised as young as ten years old. “This is among the lowest threshold in the world. In Scotland it was eight but is now 12, and in most states in America it’s more like 14 or 16 or even 18
Just compare, he says, what happened with Venables and John Thompson in 1993 with a similar case in Norway that happened at the same time. “It was in a small community, but the child who did it wasn’t locked away and the victims’ parents accepted that. Whereas here, we just haven’t moved on at all. We still go with the gut reaction, which is to blame and punish. The far harder course of action is to evaluate why this terrible thing has happened in the first place.”
Lelic has started writing a new novel, but the next one might take a little longer. For a start, there’s their new baby. Then there’s the aluminium business. It is, Lelic points out, a barometer of the economy – “at the moment it’s actually quite busy, but in 2009, the phone hardly rang so I had pretty much most of the day to write because business was such a struggle. It’s a strange business. It can be busy sometimes, and then it can be eight hours before the phone rings. And sometimes when it does, I’m in the middle of a really tricky passage.”
He has to catch the train back to Brighton, I’m on my way to meet another author. Before we part, I want to wish him well. But how to do that? If I say I hope these will be good times in the aluminium importing world (let’s face it, I’m never going to be able to say that to another writer again) he might take it as me saying I hope he’ll be so busy he won’t have the time to write any more novels. And if I say I hope his business leaves him plenty of time to write, he’ll think I’m wishing poverty on him – and his new, young family. “I hope you …” I begin, falteringly.
He senses my confusion. “Oh, I’ll be fine,” he says. And he will be.
• The Child Who, by Simon Lelic is published by Mantle, priced