- This week Dominic Lawson recommends his current favorite criminal books
- The Knife Went In explores real life murderers and our culture
- Chess behind bars is a guide to chess in prison seen from an unusual angle
Crime — the worse, the better — fascinates us. The eternal appeal of novels devoted to this topic attests to that. But they are make-believe.
For anyone interested in the real world of criminals and the criminal mind, there is no more essential writer than Theodore Dalrymple.
That is a pseudonym, and necessarily so. For the author was a prison psychiatrist for decades, chiefly in Birmingham, and it would have led to his immediate sacking if he had been identified.
THE KNIFE WENT IN Theodore Dalrymple (Gibson Square £16.99) and CHESS BEHIND BARS, Carl Portman (Quality Chess £19.99)
In fact, Dalrymple performs a national service by revealing — with cold, precise rage — the follies of the bureaucracy that envelops our penal system.
And while he has been accused of exploiting the criminals under his charge for literary gain, it is only the authorities who have something to fear from his pen.
The (disguised) criminals in his accounts, it is true, are characterised by a pathological inability to take responsibility for their actions. Hence the book’s title, The Knife Went In.
One prisoner, on remand for murder, tells Dalrymple: ‘A fight broke out, a gun arrived, I accidentally took it and it went off.’
As Dalrymple points out: ‘The only human action that he admitted to was the accidental discharge of the gun, by happy chance killing an enemy.’
Part of this must have been the as yet unconvicted killer preparing the grounds for his not guilty plea.
But it is much more than that: criminals are frequently the best examples of Nietzsche’s aphorism: ‘Memory says “I did that”. Pride replies “I could not have done that”. Eventually memory yields.’
THE KNIFE WENT IN Theodore Dalrymple (Gibson Square £16.99)
In this spirit, another of Dalrymple’s patients, inside for throwing acid in the face of his then girlfriend, tells the good doctor that he couldn’t have done it — because he did not remember having done it.
‘I asked him my usual question: “How, then, do you know that you didn’t do it?” “Because I don’t do them things.”
‘In other words, he knew he didn’t do it, because it wasn’t the type of thing he did, even if he could not say exactly what he was doing at the time in question.’
Sometime later, Dalrymple asks the man if he had ever been in prison before: ‘ “Yes,” he replied. “What for?” “I threw ammonia in a girl’s face.” ’
This is the blackest of black humour: and if you like that sort of thing, Dalrymple is the master. Some might feel it is unethical to make fun of what were, after all, his patients.
But I suspect that the criminals themselves might actually have preferred dealing with a shrink who didn’t envelop them with the officially approved jargon, but was completely unguarded and direct.
Like the prisoner, serving the latest of many stretches for burglary, ‘who asked me whether I thought that his continual resort to burglary had something to do with his childhood. “Absolutely nothing whatever,” I replied. ‘The answer took him aback. “Why do I do it, then?” he asked. “Because,” I replied, “you’re lazy and stupid and want things that you won’t work for.” Far from becoming angry, he laughed.’
Again, this may seem harsh, but by treating his patients as adults with agency and responsibility, rather than as mere billiard balls ricocheting impersonally and ineluctably from traumatic childhood to crime, Dalrymple displays more humanity than the system he represented.
For that, he has contempt — especially for the way in which the authorities have become concerned, not so much with doing the right thing, as with setting up ever more onerous reporting systems which make it appear as if they are.
Thus, he observes: ‘During my time, the Prison Service became worried about the number of suicides in prison — or rather about the publicity given to the numbers of suicides in prison at the time. It therefore decreed the use of a new form to be filled out on every prisoner thought by any member of staff to be suicidal or potentially suicidal.
‘The form was of such complexity that it would rarely be filled out correctly (its main virtue and purpose in the eyes of those who devised it).
‘The last suicide in the prison before my retirement occurred when there was a much reduced staff in the prison. Everyone else was away at “suicide awareness training”’.
There is, by the way, one crime committed in this book, at least in the metaphorical sense. Dalrymple’s pellucid prose is disfigured by howling typographical errors — at the rate of about one every ten pages. The editor responsible should be sent to a literary prison.
CHESS BEHIND BARS, Carl Portman (Quality Chess £19.99)
No such crime is committed in the pages of Chess Behind Bars, the account by Carl Portman of his years teaching the game in Her Majesty’s prisons (and he is still teaching today).
Portman, a county-standard player, is not just motivated by a desire to communicate his enthusiasm. He understands, as Dalrymple does, that behind so much criminality is a complete failure to think before acting, or to take responsibility for decisions.
What better way to change those people’s mindsets than by introducing them to a pursuit that demands you consider everything carefully before moving — and to take sole responsibility for your mistakes? And Portman produces many testimonials from prisoners who tell him that his chess lessons have transformed their situation.
Portman’s emotional connection with his unlikely pupils lies in his own childhood. It was one of abject poverty on a rough Birmingham council estate — probably one with which a number of Dalrymple’s clients would have been all too familiar. Portman never knew his father and his mother seemed to attract a series of dreadful, abusive partners.
Yet discovering chess as a schoolboy, Portman says, ‘helped me escape from my own kind of prison’. He went on to a 30-year career in the Ministry of Defence, specialising (as you might expect a good chess player would) in logistics.
Portman is nothing like the literary stylist Dalrymple is. But both men have enlightened the society of criminals with the best of humanity.
Courtesy: Daily Mail Online