Just Two Clicks

Jonathan Raban

As Barack Obama never tires of saying, America is a country where ‘ordinary people can do extraordinary things.’ In January 2006, Neil Entwistle, a seemingly ordinary 27-year-old Englishman with an honours degree from the University of York, who had been living in the US for barely four months, shot dead his American wife, Rachel, and their baby daughter, Lillian, with a long-barrelled Colt .22 revolver borrowed from his father-in-law’s gun collection. By the time the bodies were discovered in their house in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, huddled together beneath a rumpled duvet in the brand-new four-poster bed bought by the couple just ten days before, Entwistle was home in England, living with his parents in Worksop, as if what had happened in America was a violent dream from which he’d woken to reality in his old back bedroom at 27 Coleridge Road.

For several days, it seemed that he was going to get away with it. The police then had no weapon and no motive. People who knew the Entwistles remembered them as a happy couple, with Neil as the beau ideal of the doting father. Their family website, rachelandneil.org, still eerily preserved at web.archive.org, is a Hallmark-card-style commercial for wedded bliss, decorated with sepia-toned bridal sprays and full of pictures of the Mediterranean cruise, the weekend trip to Martha’s Vineyard, and baby Lillian at every stage of her nine months of life. Its home page is addressed to ‘Dearest family and friends’ and is signed: ‘Love, the happy family.’

Neil was described as ‘not a suspect’, then later as a ‘person of interest’. The case against him wasn’t helped by a careless mistake on the part of the police. On the night of Saturday, 21 January, some hours after Entwistle’s plane had landed at Heathrow, Rachel’s mother called the Hopkinton police department to say that her daughter hadn’t turned up for a lunch date that day, and wasn’t answering the phone. Officers made a ‘wellbeing check’ of the house at 6 Cubs Path, upstairs and down, but found nothing amiss. The next morning, two of Rachel’s friends borrowed a key from a neighbour and made their own search, but it wasn’t until 5.30 p.m. on Sunday that the police, going through the place for a second time, smelled a ‘foul odour’ and traced it to what lay beneath the duvet. After the news of the murders broke, American cable stations paraded a chorus of defence attorneys and legal experts who deplored the botched forensics of the crime scene, explained the demanding subtleties of extradition from the UK, and forecast that Neil Entwistle could well live out the rest of his days in Worksop.

Had he not driven back to his in-laws’ house in Carver, Mass., and replaced the revolver, he might be in Worksop now. But tests on the Colt, done on 8 February, identified it as the murder weapon and connected it with Entwistle. On 9 February, three weeks after the killings, he was charged in the US on two counts of first-degree murder, and arrested by police from Scotland Yard at Royal Oak tube station in London. He waived his right of appeal against extradition and was flown back to Boston in the custody of the US police. After a long-delayed trial, he was sentenced on 26 June this year to two concurrent life terms without parole; passing sentence, the judge told him that his crimes ‘defy comprehension’.

Early in the investigation, the local district attorney, Martha Coakley, suggested on national television that Entwistle had probably planned a murder-suicide, but that his courage had failed when it came to pulling the trigger on himself. This possibility was never discussed at the trial (the prosecution avoided it because it might have led the jury to feel some shred of sympathy for Entwistle, while the defence settled, feebly, on an implausible tale of how Rachel had killed herself and her baby while her husband was out shopping). But it remains the nearest thing to a comprehensible explanation of Entwistle’s extraordinary behaviour that morning.

Born in 1978, Neil Entwistle is just about young enough to count as an ‘internet native’ rather than an internet immigrant. He spent his gap year working as a PUE, a pre-university employee, at IBM in Warwick, and his master’s degree from York was in electronic engineering and business management – a logical education for a would-be digital entrepreneur making his living in virtual space, which is where Entwistle spent most of his time.

The global theatre of the internet, on whose enormous stage anonymous actors experiment with personae, using whimsical screen-names and avatars that can be changed from moment to moment, is a haven for the insecure. Shy teenage girls turn into bold sirens on their MySpace and Facebook pages, and it’s a safe bet that many of the most vituperative and expletive-laced comments on newspaper blogs are written by people who wouldn’t say boo to a goose if you ran across them in a pub.

Entwistle, described by two of his university friends at his trial as ‘quiet’, ‘reserved’ but ‘not unsociable’ in person, lived large on his computer, registering a string of .co.uk enterprises to the address of a rented student house in Heslington Road, York. He was, by all accounts, technically competent, even gifted, but what’s striking about all these sites is their imitative banality. He appears to have trawled for inspiration through the lower reaches of his spam cache, and the language of the sites is not that of a graduate but of a none-too-bright 12-year-old.

Millionmaker.co.uk (‘Copied by Many but Never Beaten’) sold a scheme for making ‘£6000 a month within six months’ and ‘£1m in under two years’ by hosting porn sites (‘You Have Nothing to Loose’). SR Publications (the SR stood for ‘specialist research’) was a shabby digital emporium that sold e-books and DVDs with titles including How to Get Free Microsoft Software, Pay Per Click Commando, Instant Internet Empires, 1001 Newbie Friendly Tips for E-Business, Secret Online Casino Winning Systems, 600 Famous Cheesecake, Fudge and Truffle Recipes, Grandma’s Recipes and Wives Tales and ‘our flagship product’, The Big Penis Manual (‘No Pills! No Pumps! No Surgery!’). Another site, registered to the same address on Heslington Road by ‘Mark Smith’, apparently an alias for Entwistle, was deephotsex.co.uk, which promised ‘Over 150,000 images of innocent teens’, ‘Real World Hidden Sex Cams’ and ‘Live sex shows where you tell girls what to do’.

The nastiness of these efforts shouldn’t blind one to their sedulous conformity. In the libertarian world of the internet, pornography is a meat-and-potatoes business, and it seems more than likely that Entwistle, always a creature of convention, was simply trying to follow the most obvious and well-trodden path to online riches. The trademark of his sites is not so much their sordidness as their imaginative poverty. The most interesting example of this is a site he set up later, embeddednt.co.uk, on which he offered his services as a consultant to companies branching out into digital commerce. Here’s his sales pitch: ‘Embedded New Technologies (ENT) offers Intellectual Property Cores for Xilinx, Altera and Actel FPGAs. DSP systems and systems-on-chip, SoC, embedded systems can be provided using our floating-point, fp, fast Fourier transform, fft, fir filter and digital down-converter cores.’

Understanding nothing of this except its bad grammar, I tried Googling each term in the hope of figuring out what on earth it might all mean. Every time, I was pointed to a bona-fide company in Malvern named Enterpoint Ltd, which has its office in a science park, right next door to QinetiQ, the high-tech defence contractor where Entwistle was employed after he left York University, from 2002 to 2005. The layout of embeddednt.co.uk looks like a rip-off of the Enterpoint site, from its pictures of circuit boards to its technical descriptions. Whether posing online as a porn king, a loving husband and father, or an electronics design expert, Entwistle (who no doubt hung out with Enterpoint people in the Malvern tech crowd) was a copycat, slavishly modelling himself on his elders and betters in the field.

This accords closely with what’s known of his boyhood. The son of a former miner, now the Labour councillor for East Worksop on Bassetlaw District Council, and a dinner lady at a Worksop school, Entwistle was intelligent, well-mannered and conformable. The family were said to keep themselves very much to themselves. As such dull but clever children do, Neil shone at school: his teachers at Valley Comprehensive remembered him as ‘an amenable, nice, approachable young lad … an ideal pupil’, while several of his classmates called him ‘shy’.

Throughout his televised trial, the Entwistles – his father, Clifford, his mother, Yvonne, and his brother, Russell – sat immediately behind Neil and his defence counsel, bringing a microcosm of respectable, working-class England to the court in Woburn, Mass., where they exuded an air of tortured dignity and fortitude in the face of impossible odds. When gruesome video evidence from the crime scene was played to the jury (it was shielded from the press and TV cameras), Clifford Entwistle escorted his wife from the room. She was reported to have ‘broken down’, but I saw no more than her slightly quivering shoulders and hand raised to her mouth. Mr Entwistle, ramrod-straight in a Sunday suit, looked more like a figure from the 1950s than from the 21st century, one of those withdrawn and stoical breadwinners who haunt period TV drama. He conjured the lace-curtain world of appearances kept up, stiff collars, the vegetable plot in the narrow backyard, the union card, the party membership, the second-hand Hillman Minx, hand-washed and polished every weekend without fail. In the America of 2008, he looked like a perfect anachronism.

Neil, in his turn, looked like his father’s son. His dark suits were better cut, and he had his mother’s big hair, centre-parted in a distinctly outmoded do that was a credit to the artistry of the jailhouse barber. But he too maintained a demeanour of close-buttoned gentility throughout his trial, looking more like a poker-faced juror than a man accused of double murder. The American press found the entire family spooky and ‘psychotic’ in their apparent absence of emotion, but what I saw was four old-fashioned people from northern England, trying to put their best face on the unspeakable, in a show of grimly punctilious deference and good manners.

Strict adherence to convention appears to have ruled Neil Entwistle’s life from the beginning, and in Worksop and York his amenability seemed to guarantee success in a conventional world. It was a coup for him to gain admission to York University, which is highly selective and as upper-middle-class in tone as any English university outside Oxford or Cambridge. Ever the conformist, he joined the boat club – without, so far as I can discover, previous rowing experience. But he’s powerfully built, and became a fine oarsman, stroking university fours and eights. For a child from Valley Comprehensive, it was an achievement to be, in effect, the captain of a racing shell packed with young men from schools like Radley, Shrewsbury, Westminster and St Paul’s.

It was at the boat club that he met Rachel Souza, the American girl who was at York on her junior year abroad from a college in Worcester, Mass. As Neil reported in the potted biography he wrote for friendsreunited.co.uk in 2003:

Did lots of A-levels.

Worked at IBM

Got an M.Eng(Hons) in Electronic Engineering with Business Management from York.

Rowed throughout my degree – proud to be that white rose. Showed those public school $%^&’s how to do it properly.

Making bombs and other stuff for a living – would tell you more but I’d have to kill you. [A reference to his work for QinetiQ.]

Getting married to the most amazing woman in the world this summer: Rachel. We met through rowing. She was my cox, I her stroke! She’s from the good ol’ US, Boston to be more specific, Plymouth (the original landing site) if you’re really curious.

Living south of the Birmingham border is my only complaint in life.

It was a shock to hear him speak in court. Entwistle never took the witness stand, but two long taped conversations between him and an American police officer, recorded just after his return to Coleridge Road, were played to the jury. His accent was pure Worksop. He said ‘coom’ for ‘come’, ‘becoss’ for ‘because’, dropped his aitches and left a lingering hard g-sound at the end of participles like ‘going’. I found it hard to square the man with this mild, vague, homely voice on the transatlantic line – a voice that might never have gone near a university or travelled to the United States, but was rooted to its working-class birthplace. Expressing bewilderment at the murders of his wife and child, he said: ‘Things like this just shouldn’t – just don’t ’appen. We picked ’Opkinton becoss it doesn’t ’ave any crime. It’s not like we were stook in the middle of a roof a-rea.’

At 18 or 19, most university students modulate their voices to fit in with their new surroundings (Tony Blair learned to talk in Estuary when he was deep into his forties). Yet Entwistle, an instinctive mimic in every other aspect of life, an internet chameleon, an earnest social climber, had not managed to retrieve a single missing aitch or shorten one long northern vowel. There was no trace in his voice of the years of clubhouse time spent in the company of ‘those public school $%^&’s’. In anyone else, one might assume stubborn defiance in this attachment to the sound of home, but Entwistle was a born pleaser and adapter, and his failure to change his accent weighed heavily with him. His mother-in-law, Priscilla Matterazzo, told the police in an affidavit that Rachel had said to her that Neil had wanted to move to the US on the grounds that he ‘would never amount to anything in England because of his accent: he was obviously a coalminer’s son from a working-class background.’ That may sound archaic, but Neil, for all his new-technology expertise, seems to be a throwback to the class-bound England of his father’s generation, and perhaps the University of York and the boat club only helped to remind him of his lowly standing on the hereditary class ladder.

Rachel Souza – and it’s one of the great virtues of Americans that they tend to be deaf to the nuances of the class system – saw him, as her mother said, as ‘an English gentleman’, her ‘knight in armour’. Petite, just five feet tall, though a bit too plump to be an ideal cox, she fell for the guy between whose outstretched legs she had to plant her feet as she steered the boat with a loop of string. Having been a cox myself, of a house four when I was 12, I know the peculiar intimacy between cox and stroke: the rub of leg on leg, the intense eye contact, the piping, double-entendre cries of ‘One … away! Two … away!’

Rachel, unlike the $%^&’s, heard England in Entwistle’s voice, not Worksop and Valley Comprehensive. He was stroke, and therefore the natural superior of Shrewsbury, Radley and all the fellows sitting on sliding seats behind him in the boat. No wonder he saw her as ‘the most amazing woman in the world’: she was probably the first girl he’d ever met who didn’t immediately place him by his accent.

At the end of her year abroad, she went back to Massachusetts to finish her degree; graduating in 2001, she returned to York to be with Neil for the final year of his master’s, and to get a Cert. Ed. to qualify her to teach in British schools. When Neil found a job with QinetiQ at Malvern, she found one as a teacher of English and drama at a Catholic high school for girls in Redditch, and they set up house in a rented three-bedroom one-bathroom semi in Droitwich Spa, roughly midway between their places of work. No. 119 Swan Drive is in a new development, the Hanbury Park estate, on the outskirts of Droitwich, and is strikingly similar to the senior Entwistles’ house in Worksop. As Coleridge Road is one of more than a dozen streets named after writers and poets, including Browning, Kipling, Thackeray, Tennyson, Macaulay and Masefield, so Swan Drive runs past Heron Place and Mallard Place. The house was so elaborately wired that, when the Entwistles and their baby daughter left it in the summer of 2005, the landlord had to call in BT to assist in the removal of Neil’s spider web of cables.

From his bird-themed address in Droitwich, Entwistle moonlighted as an eBay merchant of XXX sex cartoons, Adult Games, Vend-o-Matic Software With The Ebook Creation Toolkit, The Big Penis Manual and all the rest of his unsavoury inventory of get-rich-quick potions and notions. After their marriage, in August 2003, Rachel was registered as the co-director of SR Publications, though it’s impossible to tell how deeply, if at all, she was involved in Neil’s schemes.

In Droitwich they should have been able to live comfortably within their means. The current value of a Swan Drive semi is around £156,000, and their monthly rent – to judge by a recent price on that road – would have been roughly £500, easily affordable on their dual income. Neighbours remember them as an attractive young couple, with Neil proudly wheeling his infant daughter along the bank of the River Salwarpe, a hundred yards from the house. His ‘only complaint’, about ‘living south of the Birmingham border’, was clearly more about class than geography: too many public schoolboys with blah voices in Droitwich and Malvern. Even on the Hanbury Park estate, home to many of Droitwich’s jobbing plumbers and electricians, he proclaimed whenever he opened his mouth – or imagined that he proclaimed – the social disconnect between his York degree and his professional work for QinetiQ, and his Worksop childhood. But in cyberspace, his natural element, he was anonymous, accentless, free to live inside his steadily multiplying range of personae. It’s curious that this man, so conspicuously lacking an authentic self, evidently regarded his single most authentic feature as a curse and a stigma.

After Lillian Rose was born in April 2005, Rachel grew homesick and Neil, whose weakness for shopworn slogans is abundantly on display on his websites, embraced the idea of moving to the ‘good ol’ US’, land of opportunity, the melting pot, the classless society. In July, he resigned from his Malvern job for ‘domestic reasons’, as a QinetiQ company spokesman said in January 2006. Rachel and Lillian flew on ahead to Boston; Neil followed them a few weeks later, leaving a growing pile of bills and letters from collection agencies. From September through to the first week of January, the Entwistle family lodged in the house belonging to Rachel’s mother and stepfather in Carver, Mass., a small town of relatively modest means, fifty miles south of Boston.

English people fresh to the United States are often shaken to find themselves in hyperreality. The landscape, so familiar in two dimensions from television, movies and print, suddenly, unsettlingly, takes on a third. From my own first visit, which happened to be to Massachusetts, in 1972, I remember the hallucinatory character of the experience: my first three-dimensional armed cop, my first American rental car, a boatlike Chevrolet (and this was the season of Don McLean singing ‘American Pie’), my first phone booth, my first cocktail in the bar of a three-dimensional Howard Johnson’s, my first freeway exit, my first white-shingled house with picket fence. Living the movie, I was in that peculiar no man’s land, half-fact, half-fiction, where I remained for weeks, and where I can occasionally still find myself after 18 years of permanent residence here. No other country in the world has quite this disorienting effect on the British visitor or immigrant, this capacity to induce a semi-permanent jet-lagged high in which the newcomer feels himself to be standing at a slight but constant tangent from reality.

Neil Entwistle had visited the United States before (his wedding took place in the Second Parish Church of Plymouth, Massachusetts). But his new life in America had from the beginning the flavour of the hyperreal. His behaviour in Carver was that of a man floating adrift of his moorings in the real and living in a virtual world of his own. His in-laws found him puzzling. He was, as newspapers would later describe him, ‘an unemployed computer programmer’, but he appeared to have mysteriously invisible means. Rachel talked vaguely of money held in ‘offshore accounts’. Although he’d brought his own laptop, Neil spent much time upstairs, working on the family’s desktop computer, apparently managing his affairs at Embedded New Technologies, understandably the only site he showed to the Matterazzos. He combed the internet for IT jobs and had phone interviews with recruiters, but his qualifications, though impressive, never quite matched a specific position. Nevertheless, he was always ready with credit cards, and the in-laws gained the impression that he might be employed by the British secret service.

The phrase ‘perfect gentleman’ crops up again and again, used by the Matterazzos and by Rachel’s girlfriends (who admitted to finding Neil a bore). Unfailingly polite and complaisant, he came across in much the same way as the amenable boy at Valley Comprehensive. Certainly the Matterazzo menfolk liked him enough to drive him off to the Old Colony Sportsmen’s Association in Pembroke and teach him how to shoot the Colt .22 revolver that Joe Matterazzo kept in a locked gun safe. Wearing headphone-style earmuffs, he practised on the club’s indoor range, and, according to Rachel’s uncle, ‘handled the firearm well’.

It’s an iconic American scene, male bonding over the pop-pop-pop of spent cartridges, and to Entwistle, who’d never used a gun before, it must have been a solemn initiation rite into the New World. The symbolism of the Colt revolver – that old staple of Saturday morning cinema in England – holds a peculiar magic for Englishmen, as I found a dozen years ago, when filming a segment of the South Bank Show in eastern Montana. I was with a Seattle friend whose family had farmed a homestead in the area, and he had brought his brother, a retired Air Force general, along for the ride. The general had brought his Colt. After a long morning of filming, the LWT crew took the afternoon off, and the general taught them all to shoot in the yard of a long-abandoned farm. It was the highlight of their trip. We were deep in the sagebrush of the far West, and this was gun play with real live rounds of ammunition: John Ford, John Wayne, Henry Hathaway and the Colt, legendary instrument of masculine power and decisiveness. The general’s impromptu movie was a good deal more exciting than the twenty-minute one that we were actually filming. At dinner that evening, everyone, including the director’s female PA, couldn’t stop talking about their new-found prowess with the revolver.

For an Englishman as impressionable, and as imaginatively dim, as Entwistle, feeling the surprising heft of the Colt in his palm and the ease of dispatching a bullet on its trajectory with a gentle squeeze of the finger – like clicking on a mouse – was likely to have been a moment of pure Americana as toxic in its effect as any controlled substance, and it’s no wonder that he noted where Joe Matterazzo kept the key to the gun safe.

During this time, a poorly documented dribble of income from his eBay transactions appears to have been Neil’s only continuing means of support, and his funds from the years spent at QinetiQ were fast evaporating. On another ‘Mark Smith’ site, moneyhound.biz, registered to the York address, he announced: ‘We run this site without profit. We are making such serious money, using just the methods listed on these pages, that we don’t need anymore.’ Moneyhound, which linked to millionmaker and srpublications, promoted spam, or ‘paid email’, as Entwistle called it, as the quickest online route to riches. ‘For just 15 minutes work a day, you can expect returns starting from $1500 a month.’ There’s no evidence to suggest that he ever made more than pocket money out of pornography, spam or any other of his wheezes: the best example I can find of his business acumen is that once, at least, he managed to sell on eBay a copy of OpenOffice, the open-source, free software programme, for 99¢.

From Carver, he regularly updated rachelandneil.org, the rosy, sentimental fiction of his domestic life, with new pictures of Lillian. ‘Lillian’s first Halloween’ showed the seven-month-old in a skunk costume and was soon followed by a series of photos titled ‘Lillian getting ready for Christmas’, including one of Lillian crawling on Neil’s stomach, with the caption: ‘I love my Daddy.’ So long as he was sitting at the Matterazzo computer, he was a tycoon of sleaze, a technological wizard (he once boasted that he was one of only three people in the world who knew how to perform a certain digital operation) and a devoted family man; and it seems probable that, lost in the afflatus of composing and revising his many sites, each of his personae was as sincerely inhabited as the others. With no daily commute to make to Droitwich, he was employed full-time in virtual space, and when he made the trip downstairs, it took him to America – a country which, for Entwistle, might as well have been named Cockaigne for its absence of realistic constraints.

Wanting a car, he took over an existing lease on a white BMW X3, a show-off sports utility, suitable transport for the successful CEO of Embedded New Technologies, SR Publications and all the rest. Here, one constraint did emerge, when Joe and Priscilla Matterazzo declined to countersign the lease, precipitating a row with Rachel. But Neil got his car anyway, at $400 a month, a rate that seems surprisingly cheap. The BMW took the Entwistles on tourist weekends to the coast and on househunting expeditions in the Massachusetts interior.

They lit on Hopkinton, an hour’s drive north-west from Carver, an up-and-coming IT town. EMC Corporation, Massachusetts’s biggest technology company, has its headquarters there, and a number of satellite software outfits have gathered around EMC. In a crook formed by the intersection of I-90, the Massachusetts Turnpike, and I-495, the semi-circular road that skirts Boston at a distance of about thirty miles, the Entwistles found a house for rent in yet another new development. Cubs Path, like Coleridge Road and Swan Drive, has the ring of a whimsical made-up name, coined, perhaps, by the developer’s wife or daughter, and meant, in this case, to conjure life in the wild (it’s off Roosevelt Lane, which leads to Rough Rider Ridge and Bullmoose Run). In fact, Cubs Path is part of an estate of four and five-bedroom houses, or mini-mansions, vinyl-clad, top-heavily gabled and vaguely ‘colonial’ in style, all set back from the road in open wooded yards, and all within earshot of the oceanic roar of the two freeways. No. 6 Cubs Path, the Entwistle residence, appears to be the only house on the street without its own swimming-pool.

With its four bedrooms and three bathrooms, it was vastly grander than the Swan Drive semi – a house in which nothing less than a BMW X3 would look comfortable in its built-in garage. Rent was $2700 a month, and Neil managed to produce $8100 (in the form of two cashier’s cheques, signed by Rachel) for three months in advance, even though by then the Entwistles’ credit cards were rapidly maxing out. To furnish their new place, Neil and Rachel did not, as they surely should have done, haunt weekend yard and estate sales with a borrowed pick-up truck, but drove to Worcester to patronise the new bedding and furniture stores there. The canopy bed in which the bodies of Rachel and Lillian would be found was an item of pretentious bad taste before it became part of a crime scene.

While the Entwistles shopped their way through their dwindling resources, something odd was happening on the internet. Until 30 December 2005, Neil’s feedback on eBay had been consistently positive: ‘Super quick delivery – Good Ebayer’; ‘Great communication. A pleasure to do business with’; ‘Prompt delivery. Good product. Recommended seller. A++’; and several hundred similar messages. Then, from 6 January 2006, his customers turned furious: ‘Complete Scam, Ebay users beware!’; ‘Rachel Entwistle is a thieving Liar do not buy here!!’; ‘Sharp practice? No product, no contact, no respect!!’; ‘Do not do business with this individual as he does not exist!!!!!!!!!! (THIEF)’. Within days, eBay suspended SR Publications from further trading.

Sometime after Christmas, it appears that Entwistle simply logged out of his life in e-commerce, leaving a crowd of would-be purchasers of The Big Penis Manual or 600 Famous Cheesecake, Fudge and Truffle Recipes in the lurch. It’s hard to believe that, as several reporters suggested, this was a deliberate scam; more likely that he suddenly lost interest in his online schemes, and, this being virtual reality, chose to switch them off. When the abusive mob showing up at your door is just a scroll-down page of silent messages from strangers, displayed on a screen you need not visit, it’s very easy to cancel other people from your consciousness with a click. My best guess is that, for whatever reason, sheets11, spud383, prodogsports, maggiemoola, soupcam70, sweety4027, wilmslowwarrior and the rest of his angry complainants had abruptly become unreal to Entwistle and so he wiped them out by the simple expedient of opening a new window. Soupcam70, who advised eBayers not to ‘do business with this individual as he does not exist’, had a point: existence on the internet means something very different from existence in Worksop or Droitwich.

Back in what virtual-worlders call the ‘actual environment’, Neil remained the English gentleman in America. The family made the move to Hopkinton on Thursday, 12 January. On Sunday they were visited by Pamela Jackson, Hopkinton’s self-appointed ‘welcome lady’, who made it her business to greet newcomers to the neighbourhood. On the witness stand, Ms Jackson gushed, the word ‘adorable’ peppering her testimony. Lillian was ‘adorable’, ‘a conversation stopper’. The Entwistles were an ‘adorable, cute couple’. Neil ‘absolutely beamed’ every time he looked at his daughter. ‘It was adorable. It seemed he’d been away in England for some time and missed the baby terribly.’ ‘It was just a lovely family.’

Neil went out of his way to tell her that he owned a BMW (it was presumably hidden inside the garage), said that he was self-employed in the ‘insurance industry’, and inquired about schools and country clubs. The lie about working in insurance seems oddly gratuitous, but by now he seems to have become so ensconced in the hyperreal that touches of merely decorative fiction were coming naturally to him. Insurance sounds more solid than IT, and perhaps Neil needed to give her – and possibly himself – the impression that he was more grounded in everyday reality than was the case.

Working on his laptop in the Hopkinton house, he indulged himself in a world of banal fantasy, Googling escort agencies and swinger sites. He took a trial membership of Adult Friend Finder (motto: ‘Join today and make love tonight’), where he posted the ungracious message:

I am an Englishman just moved over to the US. I am looking for 1-on-1 discrete relationships with American ladies and always aim to make all experiences ones to remember. I’m looking to meet American women of all ages. I need to confirm what friends have told me that you are much better in bed than the women over the ocean, as from there. We both want the same thing so there is little point dragging it out here.

Accompanying the message was a photo of himself, naked and with penis erect. (This was disallowed as evidence in court because the defence argued that it was impossible to prove that the body in the picture was Entwistle’s.) He also Googled ‘quick suicide method’ and ‘how to kill with a knife’.

These forays were damaging to him at his trial, but the hard-drive record of most people’s Googling and net-surfing would suggest that a severely disturbed mind had been at work. The average search on Google takes between a tenth and a fifth of a second, and the operation is so easy that it’s impossible for an outsider to tell the difference between the determined pursuit of an obsession and the gratification of a momentary whim. Even in the light of what happened later, it’s quite conceivable that, at this stage, Entwistle was only toying, lightly and vicariously, as adolescents do, with lurid thoughts of murder, suicide and extracurricular sex.

What’s hardest to understand is the two-hour round trip on the 495 freeway to retrieve the Colt from the Matterazzo house in Carver, which Neil made on Friday, 20 January. Until now, his adventures in the virtual had generally failed to translate into the actual (as, for instance, no meeting with a real woman transpired from his adultfriendfinder.com activities, though he did exchange emails with one). But on the freeway, at the wheel of the BMW, he became the killer in a noir movie with a characteristically defective plot.

As Eliot said of Hamlet, there was a glaring lack of an objective correlative for Entwistle’s actions that day. He and Rachel were in debt, but only to the tune of about $30,000, including her modest college-tuition loan of $18,000. Their sex life lacked lustre. In America, he missed his parents (among his January dealings on the internet was an apparent plan to fly them out to Hopkinton in April). He was having difficulty finding a job. None of this should add up to more than an excuse for a glum morning of self-pity. As a motive for killing his wife, child and/or himself, it’s pathetically inadequate, and his two hours on the road gave him ample time to see the absurdity of what he planned to do. Every exit on the freeway offered him the chance to change his destination and drive to Logan airport and a flight back to England and reality. There’s been speculation that Rachel might suddenly have happened upon his password-protected ‘secret life’ online, and that his various façades had collapsed around his ears, but even if that were true the obvious escape from his failed American experiment beckoned at regular intervals as he drove south along 495.

I have the weather data from the nearest airport to Entwistle’s route that day. At 10 a.m., the sky was cloudless, and the temperature, at 48 °F, was warm for January in Massachusetts – perfect weather for an outing. In Carver, the Matterazzos were out at work for the day. Neil let himself into the empty house and found the key to the gun safe.

On his websites, he’d shown himself to be a prisoner to his illogical grammar, crappy writing, flights of vainglorious unrealism and beggarly imagination; nothing he’d done on the internet was as crappily written as this lame American scenario, in which the solution to a very ordinary predicament was a Colt revolver and a box of ammo. His latest scheme bore a strong generic resemblance to all his others in its combination of technical competence and human cluelessness.

He was in the grip of another of his tall stories. I doubt that there was anything strange about his driving as he got back on the freeway and returned to Hopkinton. The sequence of necessary actions was mapped out for him, and he carried out each one with mechanical proficiency.

At Cubs Path, Rachel and Lillian were still dozing in the master bedroom. From the way their spooned bodies were discovered, it’s probable that they never heard Neil’s entry, Colt in hand. The killings were done ‘execution style’, with the muzzle of the revolver touching, or nearly touching, its target. Rachel was shot in the top of her forehead, Lillian Rose in her abdomen, with the bullet passing clean through the baby’s body and lodging in the flesh of Rachel’s left breast. It took just two clicks. Then, if the prosecution’s timeline was right (it was never challenged by the defence), Neil went downstairs to the living-room, where he logged on to his laptop at 12.29 p.m.

The district attorney’s theory required him at some stage – in the bedroom, immediately after the killings, or, minutes later, in the living-room – to turn the muzzle on himself. Perhaps he did, and found his cowardly forefinger incapable of making the third click. Or perhaps his resolution simply died on him as he began travelling through the familiar, calming territory of cyberspace. Whatever happened in the hour following the murders, it’s difficult to imagine that his next movements were part of his original scheme.

He drove back to Carver and replaced the revolver in the gun safe, leaving, as Joe Matterazzo’s son would later notice, the safety-catch in the off position, then struck north for Boston and Logan, where, at around 8 p.m., a new window opened on him. Airport surveillance cameras showed him looking composed, ambling patiently from cash machine to cash machine, scraping together a total of $800. The clerk at the British Airways customer service desk, where he booked himself on a one-way flight to Heathrow, departing the next morning, reported that she’d had a pleasant conversation with him, and that she’d spotted nothing out of the ordinary in his unhurried and amiable good manners.

BA flight 0238 leaves Boston at 8.20 a.m. and arrives at Heathrow at 7.40 p.m. That Saturday evening, Neil rented a car at the airport, then drove 800 unexplained miles, stopping at an unidentified hotel along the way, and showed up at his parents’ house in Coleridge Road on Monday morning. Eight hundred miles in 36 hours, including a night at a hotel and meals along the way – in England? No evidence was produced in court to suggest that he met anyone on this hectic journey, more an American road trip than a British one. Perhaps he was just trying to get his story straight as he ate up the miles. If so, it was time and petrol squandered. Late in the afternoon on Monday, he took the first of the two long recorded calls from Trooper Manning of the Massachusetts state police, and told a weird, vague, cockamamie tale of coming back from the mall on Friday morning to find his family slain in bed.

He couldn’t explain why he hadn’t thought to call 911 and report the murders: ‘Looking back on it, I don’t know why I did things the way I did,’ was all he could say. His first impulse on discovering that Rachel and Lillian were dead was, he claimed, to kill himself. ‘I got the knife, and – and I couldn’t do it. I knew it would hurt.’ He’d flown to England without telling anyone about what had happened because ‘I got to the point where I just needed to be with someone.’ But there’s a note of candour in one exchange:

‘I haven’t even cried yet.’

‘You haven’t even cried?’

‘No, not properly. I think it’s because I’m here. It almost doesn’t seem real. It’s just a void.’

Becoss I’m here. It’s understandable that to Entwistle, in Coleridge Road, surrounded by furniture known since childhood, what had happened in America appeared to him as a bizarre and jumbled fiction. It was as if the events in Hopkinton had transpired in the interactive, gothic landscape of games like World of Warcraft and The Dark Age of Camelot, where the players’ avatars engage in bouts of online slaughter. On the phone with Trooper Manning, his bafflement – ‘I just … I just don’t understand how this could come about’ – sounds genuine, and, back in Worksop, almost certainly was.

But another kind of unreality engulfed Coleridge Road as jostling platoons of cameramen and reporters, many of them American, besieged the Entwistles’ house, where the curtains were drawn and whole days passed without the door being opened. One rare visitor, importuned for a quote, snapped at an American reporter: ‘We’re a very private people in England. You should all go away.’ After two weeks of this, Neil took a train to London, to hang out with two fellow Old Blades, as former members of the York boat club call themselves: Benjamin Pryor, a hedge fund manager, and Dashiel Munding, a music producer.

He stayed in Munding’s flat in Notting Hill. The friends ate out, watched a video of the Jim Carrey film Fun with Dick and Jane, in which a couple facing bankruptcy turn to crime, while Neil exaggerated his money problems, saying he’d bought, not leased, the BMW, and had taken out a 100 per cent mortgage on the house in Hopkinton. ‘He wasn’t himself,’ Pryor said on the witness stand. ‘He was very upset. He was playing with his wedding band. He wasn’t the happy-go-lucky guy he’d been in the past.’

On 9 February, a Thursday, and the third morning of his London visit, his father called from Worksop to say that Scotland Yard had issued a warrant for his arrest. Wanting to hand himself over from Coleridge Road, Neil got his stuff together and prepared to take the train to Worksop. Munding walked him to Ladbroke Grove tube. ‘I said my goodbyes to Neil, shook his hand, slapped him on the back, tried to wish him well.’ At Royal Oak, two stations past Ladbroke Grove, the police stopped the train and took Entwistle into custody.

A man faced with certain imminent arrest might be expected to rid himself of incriminating evidence beforehand, and a Borough of Kensington rubbish bin would have been the best place for two of the three documents found in Entwistle’s travelling bag. The first was a one-page eulogy to Rachel, perhaps meant as the text for the final home page at rachelandneil.org. It began: ‘Rachel only knew how to care for others. Selfless to the end. As a husband I could never dream for more. She was my soul mate and my very best friend.’ Its most striking sentence was: ‘We believed that true love was not about gazing deeply into each others eyes, but staring out together in the same direction, the desire to reach those common goals being the strength that would drive us forward.’ This turns out to be a mangled version of an internet-famous quote from Saint-Exupéry. Always imitating, copying, cribbing, Neil could never resist the lure of the readymade, whether inaccurately plagiarising Saint-Exupéry or committing a slipshod version of an American movie murder.

The second document was the beginning of a scripted phone call that he apparently intended to make to editors of the London tabloids:

Good afternoon, my name is ____________

I am a close friend and confidant of Neil Entwistle. I am approaching you because I feel that Neil is in a frame of mind to tell his side of the story. What is of interest to us is what price you would be willing to pay for exclusive rights to the full story? There is no loyalty to any particular paper because all have printed slanderous comments, so we are leaning it goes to the highest bidder.

It was another of his millionmaker wheezes. The third document was a page torn from Wednesday’s Daily Sport, advertising the services of prostitutes and escort agencies – adultfriendfinder in hard-copy form.

The contents of his bag were like his online life, as he flipped from screen persona to screen persona, switching identities and avatars on his internet journeys. By the time of his arrest, all that seems to have been left of Neil Entwistle was the accent of the Nottinghamshire mines, nearly all now abandoned; a polite, bemused and childish voice, speaking, as if on echo, from a past England.

Entwistle is now spending 23 hours a day in solitary confinement in the maximum security wing of the state correctional centre at Shirley, Mass., where he’s said to pass the time ‘losing himself in books’. An automatic appeal against his conviction is pending. The lead prosecutor in his case, Michael Fabbri, was recently interviewed by the MetroWest Daily News. Asked what possible motive Entwistle could have had for doing what he did, Fabbri, who must have studied the murders in more detail than anyone on earth, said, with commendable philosophy: ‘Sometimes you just don’t know why … No “why” would really explain this. There is no why.’