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For even the most hardened of true crime fans there are some crimes that we edge around, because they are too disturbing, too difficult and too horrible to look full in the face. There are other crimes that stick in the mind, become a landmark in memory and culture, the names involved becoming bigger than the person they used to be attached to and instead filled with emotion and meaning which is hard to quantify or contain. This is true of the case that David James Smith covers in The Sleep of Reason, which was the abduction and killing of James Bulger. Everyone over a certain age in the UK, can remember the grainy black and white CCTV pictures of two year old James being led away by boys who were only eight years older than him. The hushed, somber and serious tones in which that case was mentioned. The ages of the purpetraitors and the manner of James’s death meant that it shocked people to the core, and started a great deal of anger, as people tried to come to terms with not just what had happened, but what it meant about the boys who could commit such a crime, their families, and the society in which they were brought up.
Although it feels as though this case is unique Smith starts his book by reminding us that there have indeed been children who murder before, and it is sad but entirely possible, that there will be children who murder again. He details the short lives of both James and those who killed him, and goes into exacting detail of the last hours all three spent together. It is not an easy read, but Smith does his best to be factual and thoughtful. There is no sensationalism in this retailing, and to try to sensationalise this story, to do anything more than represent it’s true facts for readers to make their own minds up would feel somehow wrong, as though it would be obscuring some sacred truth.
What is that truth though, what is the essential truth it tells us? Is it something about the nature of evil, or maybe the effects of poverty, addiction and unstable home lives? Or could it be how random and unpredictable life really is, how no matter what you do to try to shield yourself and your loved ones from it, things can always happen which you would have never expected. Or could it be that no matter how much we try to search for a meaning at the centre of this, there is only a void. A hole into which no matter how we try to shape and tug at it resists all efforts to be made into something other than what it is, noting. Really, any meaning we try to give says more about ourselves, than it does about something that so many of us will struggle to ever comprehend, so terrible it is.