In November 1993, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were convicted of the murder of James Bulger. They were ten years old when they committed the crime; eleven by the time of the trial. Seventeen years later, after both boys (now men) had served their sentences, Jon Venables was returned to prison on charges you can’t have failed to read about in the national press.
It was during this more recent furore that I decided to write The Child Who. Specifically, it was as I listened to a man named Laurence Lee being interviewed on Radio 4’s PM programme. Lee was Venables’s solicitor during the Bulger trial. He had no professional involvement in the 2010 case against Venables. At the time of the interview, I’m not sure the details of the charges were even publically known. But what was clear from Lee’s tone – which struck me as considered, weary and, above all, upset – was how emotionally engaged with Venables’s fate he remained.
Lee knew Venables. When Venables was ten, it had been Lee’s job to gain the boy’s trust; to spend hours, as I later discovered, playing computer games and darts matches with him in an effort to get him to open up. I’ve never spoken to Lee, I feel I must stress. I deliberately decided, as I wrote the book, not to try and contact him. But what became obvious to me as I listened to Lee being interviewed was that his life, from the moment he first encountered Venables, was irrevocably changed. And for all the countless column inches that his former client’s crimes have inspired, few have had the opportunity Lee has had to examine and understand what really went wrong.
There are no definitive answers to this question, of course. But what infuriated me as I started my research into the Bulger case, the Mary Bell trial and other similar cases, was how reluctant so many people seemed to be, in more general terms, even to ask it. I began to get a sense of why Lee, on the radio, had sounded so weary. It was after five; maybe he’d simply had a long day. But maybe, too, he was tired of the sensationalism, the puddle-deep journalism that seeks to answer, in rapid-fire bullet points, ‘WHY KIDS KILL!’.
And worse: since the Bulger trial, we (at least in England) seem to have gone backwards. At the time Venables and Thompson were put on trial, the courts were still obliged to consider whether a child aged fourteen or under was able to tell right from wrong (yes, was the answer in the cases of Venables and Thompson). Today in England, this is a done deal. If you’re ten (in Scotland it’s twelve, up recently from eight), you’re legally responsible. You’re not old enough to smoke, to have sex, to get a tattoo: the assumption is that the decision would be emotionally beyond you. But if you break the law, you know exactly what you’re doing.
This is the main reason The Child Who is set when it is. There is a back story, of course (Daniel’s story; the bulk of the book), as well as a contemporary strand, but for all my research about the Bulger case in particular, I wanted events in the novel to take place at a time existing legislation applied. The book is about Leo Curtice and his family – about the effects of Leo’s involvement in such a high-profile and emotionally engaging case – but it is also about his perspective of the law. He is forced to consider, virtually for the first time in his career, how things could be done differently. How, for all our sakes, they could be made better.
Questions for discussion:
1. After Leo’s first meeting with Daniel Blake, he describes his client to his colleagues as looking ‘[just] like a scared little boy’. Why do you think this provokes such a scathing reaction, even before Daniel has been convicted of a crime?
2. Leo is warned by his boss that the Daniel Blake case will be ‘like nothing you have experienced before’. Why is Leo so quick to dismiss Howard’s concerns? Is he being naive? Reckless? Or realistic that the public will realise he is not necessarily ‘on Daniel Blake’s side’?
3. With increasing intensity, Megan asks Leo to give up the case. Is she entitled to ask? Is Leo entitled to refuse?
4. What is your reaction to Daniel’s experiences at school, as recounted to Leo by Daniel’s former head teacher? Where do you think the responsibility for Daniel’s failure to integrate at school lies?
5. In his dealings with Daniel, does Leo overstep his professional responsibilities? Does he neglect his personal ones? How much sympathy do you have for him in his attempt to balance the two?
6. Leo tells Daniel, ‘I think, if you plead guilty, you’d be taking on more than you deserve to. I think you’d be letting the rest of us off the hook.’ What does he mean by this? Is he right?
7. Does Leo miss any signs that Ellie’s troubles are more serious than he has assumed? How would you, in his position, have reacted to the evidence of her distress differently?
8. In spite of his actions, is Vincent Blake a good man? Would you say he is motivated by selfish or selfless concerns?
9. Who, ultimately, is to blame for Daniel’s crime? Do you feel, as Leo seems to, that Daniel Blake should be considered a victim too? Who else in the book, other than Felicity, might also be considered a victim?
10. Restorative/reparative justice is an approach to justice that focuses on the needs of the victims, the offender and the wider community, typically involving dialogue between the parties involved. Around the time of the James Bulger case in England, for example, there was a similar case in Norway. The young offenders, rather than being prosecuted, remained in their community and were treated with compassion and counselling. Would such an approach work in the UK? Should it be tried?