Sweet Fifteen

James Campbell

  • Bad Blood: A Family Murder by Richard Levine
    Hutchinson, 351 pp, £8.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 09 152360 5
  • The Glasgow Rape Case by Ross Harper and Arnot McWhinnie
    Hutchinson, 259 pp, £5.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 09 151731 1
  • Notes from a Waiting-Room by Alan Reeve
    Heretic Books, 203 pp, £3.50, May 1983, ISBN 0 946097 09 7

‘I couldn’t get in touch with my feelings,’ Marlene Olive remarked one day after it was all over. ‘Lots of times I thought my dad was still alive.’ This must be deemed a serious failure of perception on her part, since with Chuck Riley, her teenage boyfriend and co-star in the true story of Bad Blood, Marlene murdered her parents in an act of astounding brutality. ‘Spaced’ on LSD, Chuck embedded a hammer in Mrs Olive’s skull with such force that it required his full strength with both hands to remove it. Pumping four bullets into Mr Olive a minute later was charitable by comparison. Although she spent the next hour soothing, reassuring and sexually flattering Chuck, Marlene could not evade her unease. For months she had talked about killing her parents, plotted it, and finally bullied Chuck into striking the blows, only to find herself strangely unconvinced. As far as her mother was concerned, it was good riddance, but almost immediately she felt the death of her father as a genuine loss and wished him back. It is with morbid amusement that the reader finds her writing to Chuck complaining of loneliness a month after they were separated by confinement: ‘I have no family and no real friends.’

The murders took place in Marin County, California – ‘the golden land’ – in 1975, and many of those whom Richard Levine talked to claimed to have seen it coming, since it was well-known that Mrs Olive and her adopted daughter hated each other. Being a minor at the time, Marlene served only three years in a Youth Authority institution, and, now at liberty, has already fulfilled the ambition she cherished most, next to bumping off mom and dad, by becoming a prostitute. Chuck, on the other hand, having been reprieved on death row, expects to be inside for another twenty years. Mr Levin’s documentary account of their lives and deeds is well-written and compelling. It is in some ways more dignified than Capote’s In Cold Blood and Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song because it does not fancy itself a ‘novel’.

America has an appetite for murders and murderers which surpasses that of every other Western nation, and it even contrives on occasion to make heroes out of this material. Mailer has gone so far as to suggest that the most famous cold-blooded killer of recent years, Gary Gilmore, is a likely candidate for future sainthood. The case of the Olive family is treated with sympathetic and intelligent detachment by Levine, but the assumption behind his book is that this is a truly American tragedy, which could not have occurred in quite the same way anywhere else. Marlene and Chuck appeared to be a couple of ordinary kids from respectable homes in a ‘racially homogeneous’ – which is to say, white – neighbourhood. However, their toys included guns, fast cars and cocaine, and the murder of Marlene’s parents was an extreme form of their play.

The parents had their own games, and must share the blame for the values inherited by the children. Professional status, for example, preoccupied Naomi Olive above everything else, except whisky. Disapproving of Chuck, she once phoned his mother to express disgust that Marlene should have any interest in a boy from ‘a lower-income area’, when so many ‘influential’ families lived near at hand. Mr Olive, on the other hand, liked Chuck at first: ‘a real go-getter’ was how he described him, which was complimentary coming from a man who admired nothing so much as ‘a winner’. To his sister he wrote that Marlene was ‘being a fifteen-year-old successfully’. Marlene was, like Chuck, a public and private wreck. Their daily intake of drugs, even during school time, began with a ‘wake-up snort’ of cocaine, and included thereafter grass, acid, and almost everything in between – sometimes comprised in a random bag of pills called ‘rock’n’roll stew’. She was a habitual and nifty shoplifter (when she was caught, Jim Olive would buy her a dress to calm her nerves); her sexual fantasies included taking a starring role in a pornographic film for which she even had a title, To Die of Love, while her practice alternated between masturbating with a loaded pistol and asking Chuck to tie her up and then ‘rape’ her at knifepoint. By the time of the murder, however, these charades were losing their novelty.

After the murder, she and Chuck had sex, then fed the cats to keep them out of the blood-soaked room, and went off to the beach with friends. Being under instructions to return home early at night, Marlene phoned from a restaurant and told the silence at the other end that she would be back by ten. She may have been trying to fool her friends, but the trick was aimed at least as much at herself: it was as if she hoped her father would stop pretending to be dead and pick up the phone. Levine reveals that that night was the first time she displayed any physical fondness for Chuck in public.

Apparently Chuck now has no proper memory of killing Mrs Olive (Levine persuades us that he has no reason to lie about this); Naomi herself seldom touched Marlene, more often taunting her with reminders that her real mother gave her away and was ‘a whore’ (she was not); Jim Olive never talked to outsiders about his hellish family life, and was respected as someone trying to hold it together ‘with a smile on his face and all ten fingers in the dyke’. No matter what was happening, it was absolutely imperative to go on looking like ‘a winner’, ‘a real go-getter’, ‘a fifteen-year-old successfully’. It is possible that he would have chosen his dreadful fate in preference to the dispelling of these illusions, that he could not have survived without them.

Naomi Olive’s last words to Chuck before she died for his love of Marlene were: ‘I can’t understand kids today ... they never learn responsibility.’ It seems to have been one of her few insights into her daughter’s life. Marlene eventually cleared herself of responsibility for what had happened, blaming Chuck. Earlier she seems to have felt that what they had done was like ‘part of a bad movie’, and in her childish way she expected the actors to come back to life at the end. Chuck was hardly closer to a sense of what had happened: to him, the Olives were not people, merely obstacles in the path of his desire for their daughter.

During the trial, much was made of Marine’s ‘Satanic’ connections: she liked to think she was in league with some evil force, which took a form remarkably similar to something she had seen in The Exorcist. However, her claim to possess evil power was not entirely false: her fellow creatures were not real to her. If there is evil in the world, this may be where it starts from. At the same time she wrote poetry which is freshly expressed, and may have been the antidote to the ‘bad movie’ of her life.

Marlene’s rape fantasy was reality for the wretched Carol X, victim in the Glasgow Rape Case. On her way home from a Gallowgate pub one evening, she was accosted by a couple of schoolboys, taken into a scrapyard, and subjected to a ‘line-up’. Afterwards, the oldest boy, Joe Sweeney, took out a barber’s razor and slashed her face ‘until it was literally falling apart’. Most of the action took place while Carol was unconscious. The case became more than a routine horror story when it was revealed in the Daily Record that, in spite of full confessions and the evidence of one of the accused turned prosecution witness, the case had been dropped because a psychiatrist held that Carol was unfit to give evidence, the implication being that the more severely a victim is injured, the less chance there is of prosecuting the attackers. Finally, the court was persuaded to allow Carol to mount a private prosecution, an extreme rarity in Scotland, where the Lord Advocate is in charge of all prosecutions. Records of the past three centuries are thick with failed attempts by individuals to take private proceedings, but Carol succeeded where most others had not. The case resulted in her attackers being punished and Solicitor-General Nicholas Fairbairn MP being forced to resign.

McWhinnie, the journalist who pursued the case, and Harper, the woman’s lawyer, have written a readable, unfussy account of the story and its implications for Scottish jurisprudence. Anyone who wishes to learn where and how Scots law differs from English will find this book useful. Where it falls down is in failing to provide fuller social and psychological backgrounds for the protagonists, especially the accused. The novelistic technique of Bad Blood is hinted at – ‘the shrilling telephone shook Fairbairn out of a deep sleep’ – but not sustained.

‘We have the phenomenon of a juvenile delinquent brought up in reform schools who stabs another [boy] to death, takes drugs when he can, reads books in Maximum Security for five years until he can hardly stand, and then, like Marx, tries to perceive the world with his mind and come back with a comprehensive vision of society.’ The writer is Norman Mailer and the subject this time is not Gary Gilmore but Mailer’s ill-fated protégé, Jack Henry Abbott. However, the description – with my substitution of ‘boy’ where Mailer had ‘prisoner’ – fits Alan Reeve exactly. Notes from a Waiting-Room is a confused, anguished account of Reeve’s relatively short, troubled life up till the time two years ago when he shot and killed a Dutch policeman while on the run from Broadmoor. The unusual conditions of the book’s creation give it a certain fascination; it is most successful when Reeve leaves behind his half-boiled Marxist analyses of his captors and the system they represent, and gets on with his terrible story. He portrays himself as highly sensitive and highly intelligent, foresees ‘a bright communist future’, loves ‘the people’, and provides frank accounts of his numerous trespasses against the individuals who constitute that abstraction. He claims to be a political prisoner, but since none of the murders for which he is being held (he admits to two out of three convictions) had a political motive, it is not hard to see why this status has been refused him.

Following a string of petty thefts, Reeve’s first major victim was Barry Richards, whose offence was to make some disapproving remarks about borstals, unaware that his acquaintance was newly escaped from one. ‘I didn’t see him as a person any more, just as an enemy ... Several times I hit him with my knife, finally stopping only because I’d stabbed him in the neck and it took considerable pulling to retrieve the weapon.’ Afterwards, he felt relaxed – like Chuck and Marlene, whose act bestowed on them a new physical frankness – ‘free of all pressure, very loose’. It was as if the murder ‘had occurred somewhere else’. During the shoot-out in Amsterdam, which began when Reeve stole some whisky, he involved a female passer-by by throwing her to the ground in the path of the police. By mistake he falls with her, however, and the police continue to shoot at him. ‘I could feel the woman’s body shaking as she screamed,’ he writes with what is meant to be a mixture of pity and outrage: ‘the police were so intent on shooting me that they were indifferent to her life.’

This is a painful book to read and to write about: Alan Reeve, now in Dutch solitary, has enough to worry about without unfavourable reviews, but it is hard to ignore the bad faith controlling his testament. Like other celebrated prisoners – Genet, Gilmore, Abbott, Jimmy Boyle, each in his own way – he conceives his destiny as that of martyr and saint: ‘It was Easter,’ he writes, describing a rooftop protest, ‘and I horrified many onlookers by stretching my arms over the cross on the church roof and hanging myself into space.’