Thursday 23 November 2017

Review: Crime: Let This Be Our secret by Deric Henderson

Gill & Macmillan, €14.99

By his bedside in his comfortably appointed cell at Maghaberry jail, born-again killer Colin Howell will doubtless have a special place reserved beside his Bible -- and his porn stash -- for Deric Henderson's new book about him, his demons and his demonic deeds.

It tells the still scarcely believable story of how Howell, aided and abetted by fellow Christian -- and his mistress -- Hazel Stewart, callously killed their spouses and buried the truth for 18 years by making the deaths look like a suicide pact.

In a Troubles-hardened province that had thought itself shock-proof to any new barbarities, the courtroom revelations last year about the depravity of Howell and Stewart caused a sensation and a talking point in virtually every home, office and pub.

From the outset, award-winning journalist Deric Henderson suspected the saga of betrayal, sex and murder in the Bible belt was a best-seller waiting to be written. And he was right.

Howell, the pornography-obsessed and greed-ridden Ballymoney dentist who was the very antithesis of the Christian faith he so proudly espoused, once boasted he would write his own book. His way. Which is very definitely not Henderson's way in Let This Be Our Secret.

Howell, now serving 21 years for the killings, refused to co-operate with Henderson and he'll probably take exception to much of what he's written.

But he can hardly argue with his depiction as a self-centred monster who carefully planned the deaths of his wife Lesley and his lover's husband Trevor Buchanan by gassing them in their Coleraine homes in May 1991.

Despite his disdain for the book, people who know the one-time wannabe missionary say that the egotistical Howell will love seeing his name in the headlines again. A couple of months ago, a prisoner in Maghaberry told me that Howell was revelling in his notoriety, especially in the aftermath of his sensational testimony in the witness box of Coleraine Crown Court against Hazel Stewart.

The inmate said that, most days, Howell strutted around the jail but he was even more puffed-up than usual on the evenings after he gave his evidence, knowing that his fellow prisoners had been following television reports of his 'performances', which sealed Stewart's fate.

Her attitude to Henderson's book will be unequivocal. The former Sunday school teacher -- who still sees herself as more sinned against than sinner -- despises anything that portrays her as Howell's willing partner-in -crime

Particularly damning is the contribution of another man who shared her life for eight years. In his interview with Henderson, Trevor McAuley would only refer to his ex-lover as Buchanan. And he branded her cold-hearted and materialistic, a woman whose dark moods could only be lightened by spending money. His money.

Friends say it's possible Stewart may not even read the book, preferring to live in the sort of denial that Henderson says has been her trademark from the time she first had sex with Howell but bizarrely didn't believe they'd actually consummated their relationship.

For relatives of the innocent victims of this sordid tragedy, the book obviously can't be anything but a painful re-awakening of the savagery and deceit that not only ripped their families asunder but also prolonged their agony after the cloud of suicide hung over the deaths until Howell made his startling confessions to murder in January 2009.

But what's striking about the book is the humanity and compassion in its telling. I've known and worked with Deric Henderson for nearly 40 years and he's never been a man to underplay a good story by ignoring a punchy turn of phrase to hammer home a powerful point.

But in Let This Be Our Secret, he deftly veers away from the temptation to titillate or to sensationalise, clearly keen to ensure that the trust placed in him by the victims' families in opening their hearts to him was not misplaced.

Indeed, in the book, Henderson, a veteran of four decades of reporting the worst of Northern Ireland's terrorist-related obscenities, shares an excruciatingly harrowing moment that he says topped anything he had experienced during the Troubles. It came as Trevor Buchanan's brother Victor was telling Henderson how, in 1991, his father, clearly accepting Howell's lie that his policeman son had indeed taken his own life, reached into his coffin and held him in his arms, crying out that he could have helped him if only he had told him about his emotional turmoil.

Henderson had to walk away to compose himself.

In recent months, Henderson -- in his day job as the Ireland editor of the Press Association -- has already written tens of thousands of words about the court appearances by Howell and Stewart and about what led them to the dock, which left many of Henderson's sceptical colleagues wondering about what more could be said in a book.

But while even Henderson concedes he isn't pulling any eye-popping revelatory rabbits out of the hat, his book is an important and definitive account of love lost and lust found by the mendacious Howell and Stewart.

And all this set against a backdrop that rarely comes under the spotlight here -- the happy-clappy and oft-times impenetrable and world of Protestant religious sects more used to puritanism than the pure evil personified by Colin Howell.

Henderson may have been left with few major surprises to impart to readers who've followed every twist and turn of the courtroom dramas. But it is the Omagh-born writer's meticulous attention to detail about the ostensibly ordinary lives of Colin and Lesley Howell and Hazel and Trevor Buchanan that makes the book impossible to cast aside.

Of course, the murders themselves still defy belief no matter how many times they're re-told.

I read Henderson's book just after returning from a two-week sunshine break where I devoured a veritable library of whodunnits and thrillers. But none of the fictional plots came even close to the reality of Henderson's gripping narrative.

And my bet is that Henderson's book will be turned into a TV or big-screen film, with actor Jimmy Nesbitt surely born to play the role of Howell who lived and executed his killings on the Cold Feet star's very doorstep in Coleraine and Castlerock.

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