Genre: Arts, History & Current Affairs
Published: 28 February 2013
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (UK)

Handsome Brute

by Sean O’Connor


HANDSOME BRUTE tells the story of Neville Heath, an ex-RAF bomber pilot who murdered two young women in 1946. Heath was a charming, handsome, charismatic playboy whose complex character and sadistic, vicious crimes completely fascinated the public and the press at the time. George Orwell’s argument about the brutality of English crime during and after the war in Decline of the English Murder seems to prefigure the Heath case; Patrick Hamilton and Elizabeth Taylor wrote novels inspired by Heath’s story; and Hitchcock wanted to make a film about him.

The author, Sean O’Connor, tells not only Heath’s story, of a career that included fraud and prison and constant reinvention of his identity during wartime, as well as the heroic life of a “knight of the air”; but also the revealing, poignant stories of his young women victims, Margery Gardner and Doreen Marshall, as much refugees from the brutalities and vagaries of the war as Heath himself was. This is a fascinating cultural study of Heath, his crimes and his victims, examining them all within the context of the historical period, and showing how they shed light on the dramatic changes in British society and culture and mores after the Second World War, and indeed showing how in many ways the crimes and Heath himself were uniquely the products of their age.

"In this fine, balanced book, which spares no detail but avoids any hint of salacity, O'Connor has written something more valuable than a "Whydunnit". This is a fascinating portrait of a dreary, uncertain post-war world of drinking dens, cruddy hotels and hopes unfulfilled. You can almost taste the ration-book Brown Windsor soup." - Ben Macintyre, The Times
"It is a grim and gripping tale, and it's the details that linger in the mind: the anguish of Margery Gardner's grown-up daughter when she finally discovered, years later, the truth of her Mother's death; Doreen Marshall's sad, neglected grave in Pinner; and poor Mick Heath, the younger brother, who was always being asked: 'Any relation to Neville?' As O'Connor demonstrates, the curse of Neville Heath lingered for decades like an exceptionally bad smell. It's a story worth pondering; not for the sake of the vile individual (O'Connor eschews cheap analysis) but for the stricken society his crimes grew from." - Suzi Feay
"A keenly intelligent book... previous books about Heath have fixed on the story's gruesome and titillating aspects. But O'Connor restores its human dimension, using evidence and witness statements from previously restricted Home Office and police files. He brings home the grief of the bereaved families and collects a mass of detail about the two victims - everything from their school prizes, to the contents of their handbags - so that they become people again, not mangled corpses." - John Carey, The Sunday Times
"Sean O'Connor's brilliance is to sustain the horrific dramatic tension of these murders while providing a rich and detailed context of place and period. His tone is careful and dispassionate, his research painstaking and extensive: not just into Heath's life and criminal career, but the lives of his family, victims and prosecutors." - Diana Souhami, The Independent
"One of the many virtues of this absorbing book is the detailed attention it gives to Heath’s victims. It’s hard to read the first paragraph of the autobiographical novel Margery had started writing in an exercise book (‘Always new places, new faces, for Julie was out to conquer the world. . .’) without feeling a sense of sadness and of loss.'" - Craig Brown, The Daily Mail
"O'Connor tells the whole story beautifully. It's the best true-crime book I've read for ages." - William Leith, Evening Standard
"This week's book-of-genius-that-I-can't-put-down... simply brilliant... [a] completely fascinating piece of social history."
- India Knight
"Sean O'Connor's meticulously researched book... makes fascinating reading." - The Daily Express
'By weaving intricate detail and research into a thorough account of the environments and experiences which were the backdrop to the gruesome deaths, Sean O'Connor lets a real sense of Heath's character emerge. A fine read, and a thoughtful investigation into the effects of war, sex and class on human behaviour.' - welovethisbook.com
"O'Connor's book is the most thorough and considered book on the subject that I have come across... a compelling read for anyone interested in 20th century social history, psychology, criminal detection, murder, undiagnosed mental illness and how different things were in 1946 compared to now." - Jeremy Thomas
"This brilliantly researched study of the brutal, sexually deviant murderer Neville Heath is chilling and mesmerising in equal measure. The portrait of a wartime hero-turned-vicious killer is compelling. This is an important book." - Sally Morris's Must Reads, Daily Mail
"Highly recommended." - Mark Gatiss