Title – Fred & Rose
Author – Howard Sounes
Genre – Non-fiction, Crime
Fact is truly stranger than fiction. I have spent the past month reading a number of horror and thriller books – a spook fest dedicated to Halloween. One of the books I read (Murderabilia – will review in due time), touched upon the theme of serial killers. The names Fred and Rose West led me to discover this book by Howard Sounes. The month ended with “Fred & Rose” , a true account of the serial killer couple who gained notoriety in British criminal history for murdering numerous women and children over a period of twenty five years; their own children being among the victims. Author Howard Sounes was a journalist at the time the crime was uncovered in 1994, and had reported for the Sunday Mirror newspaper in London under the headline “House of Horrors” – the title the case came to be known as (before the Josef Fritzl case of 2008). Cited to be among the most extraordinary murder cases that shocked even police authorities and medical experts, the skeletal remains of twelve young women and children were discovered – all tortured and killed by the West couple. Nine remains were discovered in the house the couple was living in – buried in the cellar, under the bathroom tiles, near the chimney – as life continued normally in the household. The remains of twelve corpses were identified; it is not known how many people Fred and Rose West killed in all during their murderous spree from the late sixties to the early nineties.
In “Fred & Rose” , Sounes has attempted to understand why so many people died in and around 25 Cromwell Street – the House of Horrors. The book begins back in time with the grandparents and parents of both Fred and Rose. A background into their individual childhoods helps us understand what motivated such violence and how they developed into people capable of such behavior. Both Fred and Rose were born to parents suffering from mental illnesses at various points in time, and were abused as children themselves, and didn’t see anything wrong in what they did to other people, including their own children. According to them, pedophilia was a part of family life – something they too went through growing up. (Their grown up children later said they loved their parents, and assumed the abuse was what happened in all families.) To the outside world, they appeared as any normal couple – cheerfully greeting people on the street, helping out neighbors with chores, providing accommodation to lodgers at cheap rates – they seemed to go out of their way to help others. 25 Cromwell Street was in the middle of the city. Numerous visitors went in and out of the house. And yet no one had an inkling of what was going on within.
The targets included hitchhikers, problem children from delinquent hostels, runaways – people whom no one might inquire about if they went missing. Fred and Rose would drive around town together, offering rides to hitchhikers. Sometimes they would take their children along too. Women who might have been suspicious about getting into a car with a single man, did not see any danger with a young woman and/or children alongside. Young women were invited to work as nannies for their children. They provided lodging at cheap rates affordable for poor students. The women who trusted them were abducted, tortured, raped, killed, cut into pieces, and buried within the floors of the house. Some of their own children too met with the same fate. (The ones who survived did so because they ran away.) Pregnant women had their bellies cut up because Fred wanted to check the gender of the babies. (Fetal remains were found next to the remains of the mothers.) The crimes went undetected for twenty five years. Schools didn’t check when a child stopped turning up for classes. Emergency units treated wounds without bothering to inform the police about abuse. Social services did not follow up on pregnant women who were registered under their care. Children who complained to neighbors were answered with, “They would never do something like that” . Lodgers who inquired about screams at night were told the children must have been having nightmares. Out of all the remains found over two decades later, only six women had been reported missing by their families. The rest said they thought their relatives had left home and didn’t want to be bothered. The House of Horrors case was as much about the sadism of Fred and Rose West, as it was about the failure of society as a whole.
The couple did not know the names of all their victims, and barely registered the faces of the ones they picked up at night. Remains were identified on the basis of dental implants and superimposition. Evidence of torture was identified on the basis of cracks in the bones, cords around decapitated heads, tape and fabric around skulls, nails stripped from fingers. There might have been many more victims whose bodies were never located. Before writing the book, Howard Sounes had broken the story and covered the murder trial of the West couple. In an age where the media often plays judge and jury, Sounes has presented the book as plain facts. Beginning from their own childhood, up to the lives of their surviving children as adults, we are provided a case study of a life in crime in forensic detail, showcasing a fascinating and frightening account at the same time. Sounes does not let his own emotions about the killer couple influence the reader, and urges us to read and reflect for ourselves. Whether one chooses to see Fred and Rose as victims themselves on account of their own abusive childhoods affecting their personalities and later behavioral traits, or one feels the punishment they received from the courts wasn’t enough for the depravity of their crimes, this book is a must read for the case details it provides. The discovery and unearthing of the skeletal remains, forensic identifications of the victims, the court trial, police interviews with the couple, media frenzy, people trying to make a quick buck by claiming to be former victims, actual victims and police detectives selling stories to newspapers and book publishers – Sounes has everything covered about the House of Horrors case. Depictions of torture are gory, but however squeamish one feels as a reader, one realizes that people actually went through the sadism of Fred and Rose. Not a read for the faint-hearted, but a book that deserves to be read as an ode to the victims who finally got justice over two decades after their disappearance and death. My rating is for Sounes’ presentation of facts and writing quality of the book. The content is absolutely heartbreaking.
Rating – 5/5