Book Review: You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life by Andrew Hankinson
After being released from Durham Prison on July 1, 2010, Raoul Moat became the subject of the largest police manhunt in the last several decades in the UK. On July 3 he shot his ex-girlfriend Samantha Stobbard and her boyfriend Chris Brown; she was hospitalised and survived the shooting while Chris Brown’s wounds were fatal. The next day, Moat shot police officer David Rathband, who survived the wounds but was permanently blinded as a result. Northumbria Police was immobilised across the county of Tyne and Wear and the county of Northumberland, and the manhunt ended on July 9 in Rothbury, where police surrounded Moat. After a six-hour negotiation attempt, Raoul Moat shot himself in the head. The case was widely publicised at the time, becoming the centre of attention across the country. Andrew Hankinson book on the matter attempts a new format of true crime, using all available information to construct a second-person narrative that puts the reader in Raoul Moat’s shoes and explores the case from that perspective. Due to this unusual and often unsettling approach, You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life is a unique experience for readers, as it ultimately raises the same questions that all good true crime literature does, but gets closer than most books dare.
Despite the popularity and wide-coverage of the case, with a number of books being written about it, Andrew Hankinson main draw is the style of writing. In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, he points out that while writing, it became clear to him that the story was about Raoul Moat, and he proceeded to leave out any detail that Moat would not have been aware of from his perspective. A common pitfall in true crime is ending up sensationalising (although that’s too often done intentionally) or coming off as too empathetic with a murderer. In this case, the risk is even higher than usual because, while this pitfall is usually there because of an intrinsic interest of the genre to explore the darkest sides of the human psyche, You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life’s second person narrative is actively involving the reader in the events. The title itself includes a quasi-subtitle: [You Are Raoul Moat].
The back cover includes a fragment from the opening chapter which ends with: “You will be called a monster. You will be called evil. The prime minister, David Cameron, will stand up in Parliament and say you were a callous murderer, end of story. You have nine days and the rest of your life to prove you are more than a callous murderer. Go.” The risk is visible: when you stop thinking of Moat as a monster and engage with a narrative that assigns you his actions, you might go too far in understanding the events and circumstances that led to the shooting of Samantha Stobbard, Chris Brown, and David Rathband; you might begin to think Moat was right in committing these crimes. At the time of the events, this was already happening – a number of people supported his war on the police and hailed as a bit of a hero.
Not only does this prelude engage the reader but it also adds urgency to the situation, something that work towards accelerating through the shock of being put in the shoes of Raoul Moat and pick up the pace of the narrative. It begins when Moat is released from prison, quickly moves to the nights of the shootings, and follows him throughout the manhunt. When the external action is low, the narrative is heavy with Moat’s internal monologues regarding Stobbard, their breakup, his conviction that the police had been unjustly harassing him for years, as well as the phone calls he made to 999 and the tape recordings he left behind to ensure his side of the story was heard (he intended to send those to the media, but didn’t manage to). These materials, along with letters, a variety of official documents, reports, the recordings from the negotiating officer’s dictaphone during the final standoff, and Moat’s estranged father and his half-brother allowed Hankinson to build the narrative for the book.
While Hankinson is clear in his intention to stay as close as possible to the perspective of Raoul Moat and immerse the reader in it, the aforementioned problem of over-empathising with him is handled with the use of the same materials. There are countless examples where Hankinson uses square brackets to include facts relevant to what Moat is saying or thinking. Sometimes these add to the accuracy of his statements and add useful background information, in the form of case notes: “It’s 11pm. You call Anth [Anthony Wright; you met him at a gym fourteen years ago and worked on the doors together; now he owns a garage in Byker; you earn money by using your recovery truck to drop off vehicles there; he’s thirty-four years old]” (p. 13).
Other times, more importantly, they serve to ground the reader in the reality of the situation, so that you don’t get carried away in Moat’s distorted thinking. At times even he understands that his actions are not acceptable, even by his standards, and he has sought to find help with his anger issues in the past, but never committed to dealing with his issues. Most of the time, however, his account of his relationship with Stobbard and his trouble with law enforcement contradicts not only other people’s accounts but also straight-up facts. In this regard, the bits in square brackets give the reader a hold on reality when Moat’s rationalisation of his situation becomes dangerous:
Ultimately, with the inclusion of these square-brackets facts and the last chapter which describes the events that followed Moat’s suicide, Hankinson manages to present a narrative that stays close to Moat without either demonising him or justifying his actions. It gets to the ugly side of his psychology that led him to hurt his victims, but doesn’t excuse him. You’re along for the ride, but it’s neither a fun nor a sensational one. You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] pushes the boundaries of true crime literature by examining the questions that always fascinate readers of the genre in a new way. A truly compelling read for those of us interested in the dark side of the human condition, particularly in its most mundane environment.
BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.