When Truman Capote was looking for a news story to turn into what he called a ‘non-fiction novel’, he was initially concerned that such an event might date very quickly, that it might not have the ‘timeless quality’ he was looking for. Eventually, he settled on the killing of a farming family in Kansas, telling himself that ‘the human heart being what it is, murder was a theme not likely to darken and yellow with time.’ Since In Cold Blood, murderers have been a staple of the non-fiction novel, from Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song to Gordon Burn’s horribly fascinating books about Peter Sutcliffe and Fred and Rosemary West. Andrew Hankinson’s new book dramatises the last days of Raoul Moat, the Newcastle bouncer and bodybuilder who in July 2010 shot his former partner, Samantha Stobbart, her new boyfriend, Chris Brown, and a traffic policeman, David Rathband, setting in motion a massive manhunt. You Could Do Something Amazing with Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] is written in the Capote tradition, and Hankinson mentions Gordon Burn in his acknowledgments.
The basic strategy of the genre, as Tom Wolfe put it in ‘The New Journalism’, is to recount actual events using the dramatic techniques of the novel: reconstructing the story scene by scene, ‘resorting as little as possible to sheer, historical narrative’; using lots of dialogue and thick local detail, often taken from tapes or interviews or letters or diaries. But where Capote and Burn generally emulate the classic realist novel, with an omniscient third-person narrator and quasi-Victorian touches, Hankinson has chosen a different model: a snazzy second-person narration, of the kind used by Jay McInerney in Bright Lights, Big City. He has also chosen – this seems to be his own innovation – to rely heavily on square brackets. The story proper begins with Moat’s release from Durham Prison, where he was serving a short sentence for assaulting a nine-year-old relative:
They release you from prison at 10.55 a.m. The North East is bright and sunny [as it often isn’t]. Your mission [as you explained it to another prisoner] is to get the gun, shoot Sam, shoot her new boyfriend, shoot Sam’s mum for trying to split you up, shoot the social worker who pissed you off, shoot the psychiatrist for giving you a negative report [though you can’t remember their name] and point the gun at the police until they shoot you.
At its best, it’s a striking effect. The address is both direct and rhetorically bizarre, like that ‘[You are Raoul Moat]’ in Hankinson’s title; the final chapter is entitled ‘[DEAD]’. Moat left, by the standards of homicidal criminals, considerable written remains: six suicide notes, a 49-page confession and a series of tapes he made on the run, as well as a Facebook status update that was widely reported at the time: ‘Just got out of jail, I’ve lost everything, my business, my property and to top it all off my lass of six years has gone off with the copper that sent me down. I’m not 21 and I can’t rebuild my life. Watch and see what happens.’ Hankinson also attended various trials and inquests, and got hold of a questionnaire that Moat filled out for the Regional Department of Psychotherapy. He has listened to the recordings of Moat’s calls from prison, his taunting 999 calls (‘Hello, this is Raoul, the Birtley gunman. Are you taking me serious now? Are you taking me seriously?’) and his hours-long final conversation with a police negotiator. He has stitched these together, adapting the raw material ‘for legal and editorial reasons’, to create an entire book in a largely seamless approximation of Moat’s tone: self-pitying, self-justifying, sentimental, with strong undercurrents of violence – like one long Geordie country and western song. ‘The aim,’ Hankinson writes in his author’s note, ‘was to stay within Raoul Moat’s mind.’
So we follow the events of early July 2010 from Moat’s perspective, in a series of chapters counting down to his death on 9 July – the titles are ‘You Will Die in Eight Days’, ‘You Will Die in Seven Days’ and so on. After getting out of jail, Moat got a gun and a haircut ‘like Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver’, and he repeatedly called Sam, who had broken up with him when he was inside; she rejected him. On the night of Friday, 2 July, he was driven to Birtley, where Sam lived, by his friend Karl Ness. He tracked Sam and her boyfriend down to a friend’s house, where they had gone after a visit to the pub. He apparently crouched under the bay window and listened to them bad-mouthing him for some time. When the guests started leaving at 2.40 a.m., Moat shot Brown in the chest, and then in the head, killing him. Next he shot Sam through the living-room window, injuring her critically.
Moat then went to ground in Rothbury, a Northumbrian village he had often visited, camping out in the corner of a field with Ness and another friend, Qhuram Awan, known as Sean, who he unconvincingly claimed were his hostages. On Saturday afternoon he called 999 to declare war on Northumbria Police, accusing the force of persecuting him. Soon afterwards, he shot PC David Rathband, a traffic policeman, at a roundabout on the A69. (Rathband was blinded and hanged himself in February 2012.) On Sunday, Moat wrote an eight-page letter to Sam along with a get-well-soon card – a poorly monkey with a thermometer in its mouth. On Monday, he robbed a chip shop in the nearby village of Seaton Delaval, and celebrated with a McDonald’s in Ashington. By Thursday, he was on his own in the woods, being hunted by police, dogs, helicopters, even a jet. On Friday evening, the police finally found him. After several hours of negotiations, officers believed he was about to shoot himself, and fired a long-distance taser device which hit him in the arm but failed to immobilise him. Moat ‘yelped’, then shot himself in the head.
The first difficulty posed by cleaving so closely to Moat’s viewpoint is that he was an inveterate liar, and perhaps genuinely deluded and paranoid. So, sensitive to the possibility that he might be misrepresenting events or glorifying a murderer, Hankinson intersperses his text with his bracketed additions, not just to explain and give context, but also to correct Moat. Moat seems to have been wrong about nearly everything. He was convinced that he hadn’t assaulted his relative. (‘And I never hit that little kid [you were found guilty in court].’) He thought he treated his girlfriend Samantha reasonably well (‘I did give her a few clips, but always with an open hand, never with a fist, and she hurts me more with her mouth than I hurt her with my fist [she said in court that you stamped on her and dragged her by the hair and throttled her]’). He was convinced that there was a police conspiracy against him (‘I had 184 traffic stops in 2005 and not much less in 2006 [Northumbria Police recorded you being stopped 14 times between 2000 and 2010]’). Even when he wasn’t lying to himself, he had been misled on various crucial points. He thought his father was a French farmer; in fact he was a Birmingham man. Sam fatefully told him that her new boyfriend was a policeman, presumably to discourage Moat from bothering them; he was actually a karate instructor.
The second difficulty is that Hankinson has had to leave out many aspects of the wider story: ‘If an event took place that Moat did not know about,’ he explains, ‘it did not go into the book.’ So the media circus surrounding him is excised. We don’t hear about the Facebook page ‘RIP Raoul Moat You Legend!’, with its tens of thousands of likes and endless supportive comments, such as ‘you have won the hearts of reall people,’ or ‘police = scum’. There is no Paul Gascoigne, appearing well-refreshed in Rothbury, claiming to know Moat and offering to negotiate: ‘I want to go in there,’ he told a local radio station. ‘I’ve got a jacket, I’ve got a dressing gown, I’ve got some chicken, I’ve got some bread, I’ve got a can of lager, I’ve got a fishing rod, erm, I’ve got my fishing rod, and I’m willing to sit down, to shout: “Moaty, it’s Gazza!”’ There is no Ray Mears, joining the police team to lend his services as a tracker. At a less knockabout level, Josephine Moat’s widely reported comment that her son was ‘better off dead’ does not feature. There is only an oblique reference to it in the final scene with the police negotiator, in which Hankinson writes: ‘You ask what your mum said to the papers. He doesn’t know.’ The scene-by-scene reconstruction also conflicts at times with the author’s dedication to documentary methods. As he concedes at one point: ‘[Nobody really knows how you spent your time while on the run.]’ And at the end, Hankinson seems to lose faith in the narrowed perspective: a final chapter fills the reader in on subsequent trials, inquests, inquiries, and some family background.
Where the approach does pay dividends is in the painstaking re-creation of Moat’s worldview. In this, it is powerfully and claustrophobically effective. Stripped of the tabloid-friendly elements, you’re left with a cry-baby wife-beater concocting an unlikely story in which he is the tragic hero, ‘shafted and shafted and shafted’ by the police, the council, by his one true love. If the two poles of reaction to the Moat story were Gazza and David Cameron – Gazza said that he was a ‘lovely bloke’ and ‘someone must have wound him up,’ while the prime minister instructed the nation that ‘there should be no sympathy for him’ – then Hankinson walks a well-judged line between the two. He generates just enough sympathy and pathos to make sense of the saga, but no more. We learn that Moat was raised by his grandmother after his mother rejected him; that he tried to make a go of his landscape gardening business Mr Trimmit (‘If you’ve got it I’ll Trimmit’) after deciding that working on the doors was no life for a family man. We hear about his love of Mr Bean and Reggae Reggae sauce, and his fear of having ‘nobody to cuddle into’. But you are constantly reminded of his history of violence. Moat even seems to have convinced himself that by shooting Samantha Stobbart he had ‘provided for’ her: the compensation would set her up for life.
On the back of the book Will Self writes that Hankinson ‘does the commendable job of demystifying evil yet again, and showing us the rainy-Tuesday-afternoon dullness and grinding frustration that can leave some unbalanced people to topple into the abyss’. This is quite true; on the other hand, it doesn’t necessarily make for an enjoyable book. One has the feeling that Hankinson, for honourable reasons, has rather talked himself out of a story. The ‘Geordie Rambo’ turns out to be a depressed, brutal loser lurking in the bushes. The media hoo-ha conceals a textbook murder-suicide, just another dose of grim male violence. You Could Do Something Amazing with Your Life is always competent, and parts – such as the tense, sad final sequence with the police negotiator – are exemplary pieces of documentary writing. But, all in all, Hankinson has not alchemised his material sufficiently to justify our spending quite so much time in Moat’s company.