Serial killers/The Fall

We need a good reason to watch the stalking and slaughter of women, endlessly. And for this reviewer, Alan Cubitt didn't provide one.

Beatrix Campbell
16 July 2013

We need a good reason to watch the stalking and slaughter of women, endlessly.  The Fall, BBC 2’s serial killer latest, didn’t provide one – despite creator Allan Cubitt’s defence that he wants viewers to feel the pathos of the victims, and explore aspects of violence against women. [i]

What Cubitt didn’t say, however, was that he wants his fascination with serial killing to illuminate men’s violence per se.

The Fall is located in Belfast. But it has squandered a contemporary twist that could have re-directed our gaze away from the tired ‘ripper’ trope, away from the bodies of women to the bodies of men and some of the most prolific serial killers of our time.

The serial killer genre plays on the terrain of vulnerability and danger, on the difficulty and the genius of detection – and around these islands nowhere yields such alarming narratives more than Belfast.

Coincidentally, that cruel history appeared in a cleansed incarnation only a month before The Fall was screened in Ireland and in Britain.  A ghostly presence appeared in the throng of thousands of loyalists, parading to the beat of 40 bands, to celebrate the centenary of the founding of the Ulster Volunteer Force: Eddie McIlwaine.

He was one of the Shankill Butchers: serial killers who were a Belfast unit of the UVF, who between 1975 and 1977 murdered at least 19 people and are believed to have tortured and wounded many others. Their mission was to spread terror among Catholics.

They were stopped only after one of their victims, left for dead, survived and identified his attackers. Several members of the gang were convicted and sentenced to 42 life sentences.

That was during the first decade of the armed conflict in Northern Ireland. During the last decade in the 1990s, the north of the city was terrorised by Mount Vernon UVF. Their leader Mark Haddock was a British agent. He was paid almost £80,000 by the security forces – indeed he was still on the payroll in 2003, five years after the conflict was terminated.[ii] The trail of serial killing in Mount Vernon was only disclosed – and stopped - after the father of one of their victims took his case to the Policing Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan. In 2007 this heroic woman published a scalding report into a knot of killing and criminality perpetrated under the eye of the state. (A magisterial model of intrepid investigation – Miss Marple with a to-die-for part for Anderson).

A mural in support of the Ulster Volunteer Force on the Mount Vernon estate, Belfast. Wikimedia Commons/Keresapa. Some rights reserved.

The mission of these Belfast serial killings, their exorbitant brutalism and their disorienting impact on the landscape, was, of course, specific to Belfast’s sectarian ecology, but there are some parallels between serial killers, sexual sadism and paramilitary murdering.  Masculinity, for a start. 

Cubitt too easily conflates rape and serial killing. Quoting the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin he reminds us that rape is about power and control. But he doesn’t cite the radical feminist scholars Deborah Cameron and Elizabeth Frazer who take us further by showing that serial sex killing does misogyny differently. 

Stella Gibson

The Fall is scheduled for a second series. Maybe they could keep Gillian Anderson’s Stella Gibson, the top cop in The Fall, in the city and bring her unflinching intelligence to these calamities.


Gillian Anderson. Demotix/Phillippe Farjon. All rights reserved.

For sure, her creators need to do something to save her from the spectre of Paul Spector.  At the end of the first series Spector escapes. He must strike again. And he has Stella in his sites; is he going to find her before they find him?

The Fall’s frisson derives less from the menace than its splendid performers.  Anderson is bewitching: her cool is unsettling - it is so attention seeking; her apparent indifference, a kind of pre-emptive self-defence, is alarming and alluring.  But is this armour too close to cliché?  And is The Fall’s formula at risk of parody? Beware the Fiona Bruce treatment…. some comic somewhere will surely do that empty stare and and cruel lip.

The questions are not gratuitous, they derive from the conceits of The Fall itself:  the ice maiden’s bleak routine of work, dry cleaners, heartless sex and functional food, is set against the lived-in narratives of the victims. She is buttoned up while they are too, too exposed.

She and we are witness to the eroticized destruction of one young woman after another; they are under surveillance when they are alive and again when they are dead. They are desired and doomed.

Serial sex killing is a specifically modern genre: it is a death and detection coupling that the scholars Deborah Cameron and Elizabeth, in their classic study, Lust to Kill, date from the fabled Jack the Ripper murders of the 1880s. For Cameron and Frazer, serial sex killing is particularly menacing and meaningless; the uniquely masculine modus operandi of sexual killing is murder that is, itself, eroticized.

The victim is the ultimate object: killed not as an individual but as a stereotype.  It is a fiction brought to order, made intelligible, by the work of investigation.

Now a new protagonist enjoins the genre: the woman investigator. The fatal objectification is mediated by a reversal:  women watching men who watch women to kill them.

Cubitt cites, in his defence, the great series The Killing and Spiral, but perhaps for the wrong reason: The Fall, like The Silence of the Lambs, Nordic Noir and the French series, shows these female forensic examiners operating in a man’s world that is foxed by extreme masculinity.

Stella Gibson belongs to the invention of womanly resistance to women’s destruction.  

The woman investigator was heralded by the greatest sleuth of all, Miss Marple: she first pokes her nose into the murder business in the 1920s, but she is an amateur - women weren’t allowed to join the police in those days.

Miss Marple triumphs whilst masculine intuition fails. Her resource is personal not professional – the bush telegraph, gossip, and her presence in local society constitute the source of her intelligence.    

Only after World War II were women admitted to the Police Federation, and even then women police officers were quarantined among women and children. Only in the last three decades have women – very few, it must be said - gained the keys to the forensic professions.   

In the fiction of serial killing, typically they, too, are at risk in landscapes where violence is always on women’s horizon. The challenge that confronts the woman investigator is both to interpret landscapes that have no meaning or maps, and also to survive them.

Stella Gibson – like Jodie Foster’s Agent Clarisse Starling in Silence of the Lambs - belongs to a world that is unable to protect women, and will be unable to protect her, too.

This is because serial killers elude capture. It’s inscribed in the genre. Not even the vaunted intelligence of Gibson, the multi-lingual, overqualified vamp, adds any value to the masculine intuitions of the police.

Gibson’s reputation is that she’s a bit of a magician.  She gets it about the misogyny of serial killers. She gets it about the necessity of empathy and the value of the victim as a resource. She gets it about the indispensible craft of good colleagues – Niamh McGrady as Constable Danielle Ferrington and Archie Punjabi as pathologist Paula Reed Smith. And she gets it about ‘local’ knowledge.

But none of this advances the investigation. What has happened to her mystical powers? Gibson was terrific responding to a cop killing himself, awesome at propositioning a bloke she fancied, brilliant at parrying sexist mores about sex, but useless at catching the killer.

What, after all, did she detect?

In The Fall, Gibson, the killer’s nemesis (or is the relationship the other way around?) repeats the banal inventory of the psychological profiler, whilst we, the viewers, become both his audience and his mind’s eye. What we see is focused through his aperture. But what we scarcely see is anything that makes sense, still less evidence.  

The formulaic mutual surveillance of hunter and hunted is inevitably sexualized, and The Fall takes this a button too far: during Gibson’s appearance in a televised police appeal to the public, her blouse becomes undone. Her horrified PR person is watching, helpless. We are watching. The killer, too, is watching. What are we supposed to feel?  Dread? Desire? His desire? 

Although the killer Paul Spector (played by Jamie Dornan) is pretty, he isn’t actually interesting, nay credible. He is seen being normal, whether going about his work or plotting his next conquest, yet he is unrevealed: we watch him, but without insight.

The novelty of a man under a woman’s scrutiny, pairing an omniscient killer with a magical investigator segues into just another display of women trapped and terrified.

Serial murder

What we know about the phenomenon of serial murder is that it is not usually the transcendent imagination or genius detection that stops the killing.

The Moors Murders only ended in 1965 when a witness told the police: Ian Brady groomed 17-year-old David Smith as a potential participant. He was married to Maureen Hindley – the sister of Brady’s accomplice Myra. Brady enlisted him in the killing of another 17-year-old, Edward Evans. Smith told his wife who forced him to tell the police.

Peter Sutcliffe, aka the Yorkshire Ripper, was only arrested, despite being interviewed by police nine times, after a constable stopped his car, found he was using false number plates and took him in for questioning. It was during the interrogation that  the constable remembered something: when Sutcliffe had been stopped, he’d asked the officer to let him go for a pee among some trees. Police returned to the scene and searched it: there they found Sutcliffe’s knife, hammer and rope. He made a confession.

Denis Nilsen was only stopped from killing young men when in 1981 Dyno-Rod was called in to clear his drain and reported suspicions to the police: small bones found there were discovered to be human.  Nilsen was living with the dismembered remains of several young men in his flat.  He made a confession.

Fred West only stopped when he and his wife Rose were arrested: one of their daughters talked to a friend about sexual abuse at home. When the children were taken into care, terror of being ‘buried under the patio’ was followed up by the assiduous Detective Constable Hazel Savage. Bodies were indeed found under the patio.

Belfast’s serial killers were interrupted not by detection but by survivors and their loved ones.

The mis en scene is always somewhere and someone known and yet not known: cityscapes, bodies, boundaries and histories.


In The Fall, Belfast’s sectarian history bends the light shone on ‘ordinary’ sex and violence: a divided city dramatises a perpetrator’s modus operandi as he sneaks in the intersections between territory and identity, sanctuary and discovery, secrecy and surveillance. 

Belfast is most particular. There is no city in the United Kingdom that has been so divided, so bloodied, and yet, of course it is a city of industrial grandeur and wastelands and water, of municipal triumphalism, thrill-seeking and diddy domesticity, with garden gnomes and pansies.

Belfast Peace Line

A so-called "Peace Line" separating a Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods in Belfast. Wikimedia/Geograph.org.uk. Some rights reserved.

Yet it is still – as the UVF reminded everyone in April - a grid of unmarked borders that frame the movements of all its residents – including serial killers.

We glimpse this when Paul Spector the killer inadvertently finds himself lost in a loyalist enclave and, when he is challenged by heavies and plucks an excuse for being there. He’s visiting a client, he says. He gets out of trouble, only to get back into it when his visit is exposed: he has compromised the reputation of the hard man husband and the professional etiquette of counsellor.

This provokes a crisis: he has trespassed across discrete borders – political and professional – in a place that does not afford the pleasure of anonymity, where so much is under scrutiny, where nowhere and no-one is neutral.

That’s why it was smart to locate The Fall in Belfast. It gives us the shock of the killer’s fright when he is lost.  But the moment is compromised when Paul Spector pressures the client to dob her violent and loyalist husband. Implausibly, she does, just like that.

What The Fall did with Belfast was just be there.  Why bother?



[i] http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2013/jun/07/the-fall-allan-cubitt-women-violence

[ii] Chris Moore, the journalist to whom loyalists first revealed the evidence of protracted and pervasive collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and British Army and security services and loyalist in 1989, writing in The Detail, 19 December 2011. 

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