FEBRUARY 19, 2018
IN THE UNITED STATES, where we average seven mass shootings a week, gun control advocates often look to countries like Great Britain as examples of gun-free societies. Following several massacres involving lawfully licensed weapons in the late 1990s, Britain strengthened its gun control laws to be among the tightest in the world. It worked: since 1997, the United Kingdom has seen just one mass shooting.
So unusual are “active shooter” situations in Britain that a 2010 manhunt for a gunman named Raoul Moat created an American-style media circus, complete with television interruptions that recalled O. J. Simpson’s famous freeway chase. Andrew Hankinson’s 2016 book You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] tells the story of the shooter’s seven days on the run in rural Northern England, after taking aim at three people in two days with an unlicensed sawed-off shotgun.
Moat, 37, a bodybuilder and nightclub bouncer, had emerged from prison with a lethal vendetta against his 22-year-old ex-girlfriend, Samantha Stobbart, who claimed to have left him for a younger man, a police officer. A Facebook message written by Moat revealed a man on the brink: “I’ve lost everything, my business, my property and to top it all off my lass of six years has gone off with the copper that sent me down.”
Written entirely in second person, and drawing extensively upon Moat’s written confessions, audio recordings, and telephone recordings, You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life is one of the most original true crime books to emerge from Britain in the last decade. It begins: “You will die in eight days,” and continues in that intense manner for 200 pages. The effect feels like a “first-person shooter” — a type of video game in which the player experiences the action through the eyes of a protagonist:
They release you from prison at 10.55 am. The north-east is bright and sunny (as it often isn’t). Your mission (as you explained it to another prisoner) is to get the gun, shoot Sam, shoot her new boyfriend, shoot Sam’s mum for trying to split you up, shoot the social worker who pissed you off, shoot the psychiatrist for giving you a negative report (though you can’t remember their name) and point the gun at the police until they shoot you.
On July 3, 2010, Moat crept up to the home of Stobbart’s parents in Birtley, where he shot and killed her new lover, Chris Brown, who was not really a police officer but a karate instructor. He shot Stobbart too, but she survived. The next day, Moat dialed 999, Britain’s emergency telephone number, and threatened to shoot a random officer. Just 12 minutes later, Moat spotted an unarmed policeman sitting in his vehicle and shot him in the face. David Rathband, a married father of two, was blinded. “Shooting that copper the other day felt like some kind of Doom game,” Moat confessed, after taking two “hostages.” These men were actually two bungling friends who were later jailed for helping Moat evade the law. Together, they camped out with him in the woods, burning sausages and scarfing down ice cream.
A tradition in British crime writing is to begin with the shootout and then whizz back to the perp’s childhood to pore over clues that might explain his behavior. Instead, Hankinson keeps us in the eye of the storm — creating what Hollywood calls a “contained drama” that confines the reader inside the protagonist’s unhinged mind. The result is devastating: we see how Moat justifies his actions and ignores those who try to help, with no pesky analysis to interrupt the events.
While the author does deftly fact-check Moat’s unreliable narration with clever parentheses, his immersive second-person approach was a brave storytelling decision that has won the book awards in England. Yet this unified perspective causes some roadblocks: for example, it affords no detailed descriptions of the victims, including Stobbart, whose character is conveyed no further than her unfortunate choice in men. Basically, Hankinson has decided to omit anything Moat did not personally see. This includes the main thing most Brits remember about the case: the shocking appearance of an alcoholic soccer star, Paul Gascoigne, who arrived at the scene of Moat’s standoff with police clutching a can of lager and a fishing rod, telling a local radio show: “I guarantee, Moaty, he won’t shoot me.” Other books will probably emerge to cover all this background, though the average reader — especially in the United States — may never see them.
Despite these concerns, there is much to enjoy in Hankinson’s account, such as the masterfully late revelation of Moat’s backstory — his troubled childhood and experimentation with mood-altering steroids (including Ephedrine, Nandrolone Decanoate, and a “black-market counterfeit version” of Testosterone Cypionate). This substance abuse, Hankinson suggests, could have inspired Moat’s paranoid terror just at the pivotal moment, as the police closed in on their fugitive by the River Coquet. After a seven-hour stalemate, the officers tried to zap Moat with a taser but failed. He thereupon shot himself in the head.
Like other notably disaffected men who “go postal,” Moat left behind a sprawling manifesto. At 49 pages, it is considerably shorter than those of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian man arrested for the murder of at least 93 people (whose screed runs to 1,500 pages), or Ted “Unabomber” Kaczynski, whose 35,000-word diatribe was published by the Washington Post. Hankinson was mindful to include 22 pages of transcription from three dictaphone tapes Moat left behind and a 10-page letter. During these confessions, Moat explained that he had tampered with the gunpowder in the rounds he fired at his ex-girlfriend, hoping only to maim her and make her rich from insurance compensation (and they say romance is dead):
At least she’ll be able to sell her story. There’ll be books written about all this, and you’ll be made out to be some crazed fucking maniac, but she’ll be set for life…. She’ll make a fortune off this.
Following his death, Moat’s legacy became a point of contention in the United Kingdom. While some complained that the police spent too much money tracking him, others crafted Facebook pages in his honor, and some fans arrived to pay their last respects at his funeral. Prime Minister David Cameron felt compelled to make the following statement: “I cannot understand any wave, however small, of public sympathy for this man. There should be sympathy for his victims, and for the havoc he wreaked in that community; there should be no sympathy for him.”
And so Moat will be fittingly immortalized in this grim, high-definition, virtual-reality portrait — from his strange answers on a mental health questionnaire to his fondness for Toffee Crisp candy bars. The range of materials and sources Hankinson drew on for this book makes one wish for a bibliography and notes, which the author has decided not to provide (but then, neither did Truman Capote for In Cold Blood).
Instead, a coda discusses the use of the police taser aimed at Moat — presumably a major issue in the United Kingdom at the time but hardly a significant matter in the United States, where police often simply shoot perpetrators. The only bullets fired in the whole seven days covered in this book were from Moat’s unlicensed weapon; even the police refused to fire. American readers are also likely to wonder what Moat might have achieved if he had enjoyed our citizens’ ready access to semi-automatic weapons. Ultimately, what was a shocking story in Britain may come across in this country as rather quaint.
Jeff Maysh is a British-American journalist based in Los Angeles. His nonfiction writing has been listed in The Atlantic’s “100 Exceptional Works of Journalism” and anthologized in Best American Sports Writing 2017.