Who doesn’t love a murderess? Popular culture tropes relish in the fantasy of the bitch, the fallen woman, seductress, but especially in the complete dissolution of the feminine stereotype, that notorious beast – the female serial killer.
Women killers feature heavily in Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s The Love of a Bad Man. If the ratio of female killers in the thrillers I read reflected reality there might be a 50/50 split. In the real world, men kill women (so far this year in Australia the number is 26, and it’s only May). A few specimens buck the historical status quo, the likes of Elizabeth Bathory and Aileen Wuornos. Invariably, women who kill do so when partnered with men Woollett has termed ‘bad’ – Charlie Manson, Charles Starkweather, etc.
A good friend recommended Woollett’s collection of short stories to me based on my predilection for dark reads, and for my notorious trivia knowledge of the bad side of humanity. It really was a case of ‘don’t judge the book by the title’, for when I’d seen The Love of a Bad Man on a bookstore shelf, I’d assumed it was some kind of romance. It is likely as far from a romance as you can get. Woollett’s intention with the collection examines that unanswerable question: is a killer made by nature or nurture, with just a spark that sets off the unstoppable? Actually, that does make it sound a little like love, albeit an aberration.
There is no other way to say it: Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s writing is striking, precise and deftly crafted. Enviably so. The visceral quality of the prose is not so much in its gory detail but in subtle evocative touches. The twelve women who form the framework of The Love of a Bad Man diverge in setting and history. They are not all killers, but they are bound to figures eternally tied to devastation, violence and horror.
The naming of the stories for the individual women shapes the chapters into ominous vignettes. I knew who ‘Myra’ was in an instant. It could only be Myra Hindley, of Moors Murders notoriety. Her perspective is utterly unremorseful, and she is a disturbingly unreliable narrator. She cites her ‘tenderness’ as the cause of the murders committed with Ian Brady.
He “seemed to turn on something predatory in me, a desire for possession that had always existed, below the fear and the piety and the deadly routine.”
Those I was not familiar with came with dawning dread. Some of the stories occur before the performance of the crimes for which these women have become known, like ‘Jan’, whose lover engages her in games of bondage and presents her with a coffin-like box, which will one day trap an abducted woman. Other stories take place in the aftermath, like ‘Karla’, feverishly working to undermine her psychiatric evaluation as she awaits trial for the drugging, assault and murder of her sister. Others are in the unfolding, like the final story, ‘Wanda’. She is one of Elizabeth Smart’s captors.
“I am not alone I am filled with love. A moment later my heavenly sister screams.”
Is it wrong to enjoy this book? Is The Love of a Bad Man a torturous catalogue of heinous crimes perpetrated by women? The book does not affect empathy with the women whose accounts are explored. Their stories are as much about the environment that shaped them. Woollett doesn’t offer up explanations or excuses but rather delves into the monstrous side of humanity. Perhaps that is the disturbing element to the book – that we may recognise aspects of ourselves in these hideous accounts?