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What happens when parents set the tone

CHILDREN WHO KILL: profiles of pre-teen and teenage killers. By Carol Anne Davis. Allison amp; Busby pound;17.99.

Who will buy this book, and why? These are important questions, given the sensational subject matter, and that the treatment of it occupies a curious no-man's land, halfway between a slight and a serious read. Carol Anne Davis, a writer with an MA in criminology, has trawled the literature to assemble a series of vignettes of the lives of British and American child killers, the crimes they committed, and what happened to them afterwards. On one level it's a gruesome catalogue of stabbings, shootings, smotherings, drownings, mutilations and sexual deviancy. The writing is plain and accessible; the jaunty song-title chapter headings ("Riders on the Storm", "Born to Run") have an air of pandering to the prurient, and making money from our unhealthy interest in such dark deeds.

But Davis has a serious agenda. Her aim is to show that, without exception, these children suffered lives of appalling mental and physical cruelty, and that in most cases, this, and this alone, was what most likely led them to kill. She does her job well. As she makes plain, the crimes these children committed are at least matched, if not overshadowed, by the things that were done to them by their parents and carers.

The mother of Mary Bell, for example, several times tried to poison her daughter, gave her away to a stranger, then later - when she was four - involved her in sado-masochistic prostitution by holding back the girl's head so clients could ejaculate into her mouth. In the light of such an upbringing, it isn't entirely surprising that by the time she was 11, this deeply disturbed girl had murdered two boys.

And the pattern is unvarying. William Newton Allnutt, born in 1835 in east London, was raised in a violent and alcoholic family and poisoned his tyrannical grandfather with arsenic. A century-and-a-half later in Mississippi, The mother of Luke Woodham was so cruelly and obsessively protective and controlling that he smothered and stabbed her, before shooting students dead at his school.

It is hardly news that terrible deeds are handed on down the generations, but as Davis points out, these kinds of backgrounds are often glossed over in court, while society prefers the myth that "bad blood" will out. When a child kills, she notes, the family will close ranks to deny any abuse, juries may well side with parents, and the media will point the finger at easy scapegoats such as porn videos, single parents and violent rap lyrics, rather than dig beneath the surface to detail what, exactly, has led the child to the dock.

Where do schools feature in all this, given that all these young killers were in the classroom shortly before they did their deeds? All too often it seems that teachers failed to pick up warning signs, even when they were being waved under their noses. But even when teachers have blown the whistle, welfare agencies have not followed up, or intervention has made matters worse. No one knows how many killings have been prevented by prompt and compassionate action from teachers and others, but any teachers who finish this book are likely to be watching their pupils like hawks for signs of sexual disturbance, cruelty towards animals, or obsessive interest in Satanism.

If this is the outcome, then all well and good. And if the book helps people see that dehumanised killers such as Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, who murdered the toddler James Bulger 10 years ago this week, are not monsters but vulnerable children who have been dealt such a poor hand in life that all they know how to do is pass it on, then that, too, must be a laudable result. But if, as seems likely, most readers pick up this book for titillation and cheap thrills, then all Davis's soberly assembled arguments will have come to nothing.

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