Monday, August 24, 2009

Review of Harold Shipman: Prescription for Murder by Brian Whittle and Jean Ritchie, Sphere (2005)

Harold (Fred) Shipman was convicted in January 2000 for the murder of 15 patients and one count of forging a will. The subsequent public inquiry into his death, headed by Dame Janet Smith, concluded that Shipman had killed at least 215 people, and was suspected of killing an additional 45 people, between 1975 and 1998. The overall total will never be known, and different sources provide slightly varying totals – Whittle and Ritchie attribute 284 deaths to Shipman’s hands, the first in 1971. One thing is certain, in terms of confirmed victims, he was the world’s most profilic serial killer. Over 80 percent of his victims were women, and the vast majority elderly. None of his victims were sexually assaulted or mutilated in any way. Shipman killed by injecting sufficient morphine to induce an overdose. While family and friends were shocked at the death of what in many cases was a seemingly healthy person, Shipman used his status as a doctor and in particular his crafted persona as someone with a particular interest in the well-being of elderly patients to cover his murders. While there were suspicions concerning the unusually high death rate amongst his patients prior to his arrest, he was caught because he altered his modus operandi, forging the will of his final victim so that he was the sole beneficiary of her estate. He pleaded his innocence right up to his suicide in Wakefield Prison in 2004 at the age of 58, taking to the grave the true extent of his crimes. In passing his sentence, Judge Forbes, stated:

‘Each of your victims was your patient. You murdered each and every one of your victims by a calculated and cold-blooded perversion of your medical skills for your own evil and wicked purposes. You took advantage of and grossly abused their trust. You were, after all, each victim’s doctor. I have little doubt that each of your victims smiled and thanked you as she submitted to your deadly ministrations.

‘None realised yours was not the healing touch, none knew in truth you had brought her death, death disguised as the caring attention of a good doctor. The sheer wickedness of what you have done defies description. It is shocking and beyond belief. You have not shown the slightest remorse or contrition for your evil deeds and you have subjected the family and victims to having to re-live the tragedy and grief you visited on them.’

I only rarely read true crime books. This one was sent to me by a friend and I’m glad he did (and I've read it now because I'm heading to Glossop, near to Hyde where Shipman killed most of his victims, tonight). Lucidly written and avoiding sensationalisation, Whittle and Ritchie’s book provides a fascinating account of Harold Shipman’s life and his crimes. The extensive research underpinning the account is clearly evidenced throughout including: numerous interviews with the family and friends of victims, former colleagues and patients, and the various agencies involved in the case such as the police and victim support; documentary sources such official testimony and the letters that Shipman sent from prison to supporters; and accounts of the court case. Well structured and paced, the book carefully balances historical narrative with human stories and associated facts. To the authors' credit, the tone is restrained and appropriately sensitive and compassionate with respect to family and friends, never losing sight of the fact that the Shipman murders involved real people and that there are many people still grieving and asking questions.

Harold Shipman: Prescription for Murder is an excellent but deeply troubling and unsettling read about a man that many people trusted with their health but who liked to play god with their lives.

No comments: