(John) Rayner Heppenstall Anthony Holden - Essay

Anthony Holden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[George] Orwell pointed to the brutalising effects of war. Rayner Heppenstall, unconsciously showing how murder is absorbed into the fabric of an increasingly violent society, reaches a remarkably similar conclusion after noting sectarian killings in Ulster: 'One began to wonder whether old-fashioned murders took place any more.'

And that's really an epitaph on his own kind of book [The Sex War and Other] (subtitle: A Survey of Recent Murder, Principally in France). In the criminology stakes, Heppenstall is a pro: to him, a buried corpse is not decomposing, it is 'falling to pieces', cremation is 'incineration', a psychopath is 'a nut'. But no post-Freudian criminologist can afford, as Heppenstall thinks he can, simply to chronicle atrocities for the wide-eyed or moist-lipped. With a brief this broad, conclusions are only avoided by those out for not very gentlemanly relish; Heppenstall's impressionistic approach leads merely to some rather splendid (and possibly libellous) non-sequiturs, for example: 'As Sir John Hunt's expedition toiled up the lower slopes of Everest, the bodies were discovered at Rillington Place.'

The book is a thinly disguised manifesto for the return of capital punishment. (p. 589)

Anthony Holden, in New Statesman (© 1973 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), April 20, 1973.