In his 1946 article ‘Decline of the English Murder’, George Orwell formulated the tabloid reader’s ideal homicide case. The culprit should be a suburban professional gentleman, the crime should be motivated by a guilty passion for a colleague’s wife, and the murder weapon ‘should, of course, be poison’. The public’s appetite for such stories suggested to Orwell a pervasive hypocrisy at the heart of English life: the need to explain violence away as the defence of middle-class stability. Cathi Unsworth’s Weirdo rejects most of Orwell’s prescriptions. The murder case at the centre of the novel does not concern a respectable mortgage holder but that nemesis of suburban mores, the teenage goth. The case unfolds in a very different archetype of English space: the faded seaside town. Rather than fortifying bourgeois values, the killing in Weirdo is testament to their frayed irrelevance. Yet, like Orwell, Unsworth is fascinated not only by violence but by the stories we tell about violence, or rather, the kinds of violence we are moved to tell stories about.
Set in the fictional but familar Norfolk coastal town of Ernemouth, Weirdo revolves around Corinne Woodrow, a teenager convicted of the ritualistic murder of a classmate in the mid-1980s. Two decades later, private investigator Sean Ward is hired to probe new DNA evidence suggesting that Corinne was not alone on the night of the killing. The novel is at once a telling and a retelling as chapters alternate between the weeks leading up to the murder in 1984 and Ward’s journey to Ernemouth to reopen the case in 2003. We learn, through Ward, that the newspapers dubbed Woodrow ‘the wicked witch of the East’ and turned her conviction into a story about the pathology lurking behind the kohl-lined eyes and black hair dye of 1980s teens. Weirdo is at once an attempt to rescue goth culture from such caricatures and a challenge to the conventions of crime reportage, which, Unsworth reminds us, are always political.
As Weirdo progresses, the centrality of the headline-grabbing murder dissipates and more everyday kinds of violence emerge from the shadows—the violence of parents, of the police, of institutional authority in all its forms. Unsworth’s approach to the crime genre is reminiscent of The Wire in its ability to sustain the high-suspense of a whodunnit (I read the book in one sitting) while disrupting received ideas about how we recognise, define and respond to crime. The novel is particularly satisfying in its ironic take on the scapegoating of pop music by politicians and the media. The media representation of Woodrow as the dark heart of goth culture recalls the treatment of Marilyn Manson after the Columbine shootings or David Blunkett’s attack on rap.
With each chapter named after a record from the 1980s, Weirdo might initially seem to be making the same kind of link between pathology and pop culture as the likes of Blunkett. In fact, Unsworth, an ex-Melody Maker writer, simply takes teenagers seriously: not as icons of youth or vehicles of nostalgia but as subjects whose psychosocial experience is meaningful and often neglected. The sounds of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Echo and the Bunnymen and Crass seem to pulse behind the words on the page, but Unsworth avoids empty reminiscence by weaving these sights and sounds into a moving evocation of the pains and attachments of adolescence. Weirdo reworks its nostalgia into a fierce energy, ever-alert to the explosive potential of stories to shape the way we think.