BY ANDREW MOODY
True crime is a popular genre for budding writers to put their efforts into. Unlike a novel, true crime tales must fit into the structures of truth, and the very best are achievements of determined, self-righteous and deeply researched journalism. There are hundreds, if not thousands of true crime books that fill the shelves in Waterstones, or, more commonly, the bargain bins of post offices and newsagents, most do not understand the importance of accuracy, and coast on grotesquerie and inaccurate pop psychology.
Newly published is Stockton Heath’s Imagining a Murder: The Cartland Case Revisited.
On Monday, 19th March 1973, John Basil Cartland’s abused corpse was discovered in the wasteland near the town of Pelissanne, in the South of France. He and his son Jeremy had been caravaning across the continent. An axe, a knife and a pillow case with a concrete block were found near the flaming wreck of the caravan, burnt to the ground. Jeremy was found with superficial wounds, his father had been found with his pyjamas around his ankles in the thick weeds, apparently, as the French say, about to faire des boissons.
Jeremy was the first suspect on the French police radar, and the story soon hit the media, first in France, then in England, and finally worldwide. Jeremy became, as Heath notes: “As famous as Suzy Quatro.” His father had been a more mysterious figure than the ‘Brighton Headmaster’ that newspapers first described him as. John Cartland “had lived and worked all over the world and spoke several languages fluently including French, Italian, Arabic, Urdu and Pashto. Whilst studying in Worcester College he had won a coveted Gibbs’ bursary for outstanding scholarship…during the war, it was whispered, he had worked with Free France…amongst his acquaintances it was said he counted British prime minister Ted Heath and former French president Charles de Gaulle – a signed portrait of whom took pride of place in the dead man’s office.”
Rumours of Cartland’s possible covert MI6 role were floated, the idea that he had been executed by foreign spies, but most of the suspicion fell on his son Jeremy, a wannabe writer who it transpired was desperate for a literary career. Even so, the horrifying premise of a motive of patricide, a son killing his father for reasons that lay tantalisingly out of reach, became the focus for the case. That neither Jeremy or his sister Elizabeth attended the funeral of their father contributed to whispers and suspicions of his artistically frustrated son, and the bizarre family dynamic that stoked the fires of the newspapers.
Imagining a Murder, like the best of true crime books, They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper by Bruce Robinson, The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, or Helter Skelter, by Charles Manson prosecuter Vincent Bugliosi is driven by the author’s obsession. Ever since Heath as a child had seen a BBC documentary in 1980 on the case, he had been haunted by the murder and its unresolved nature.
Heath had been convinced before discovering the story that a caravan was a safe, happy place for families to enjoy themselves and each other. Seeing footage of the caravan ablaze and being hit with the traumatic motive of patricide inspired a lifelong desire to untangle the conflicting stories, and to both find peace with the case and with his own driven moral compass.
A compelling, eloquent detective story, and a fascinating exploration into an unsolved murder, Imagining a Murder meets the bench mark of the very best in True Crime literature, and, as such, this compelling journey down a little known rabbit hole is well worth your attention.