Picks and Pans Review: As If: a Crime, a Trial, a Question of Childhood

updated 10/20/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/20/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Blake Morrison

On a Friday afternoon in February 1993, two 10-year old boys in Liverpool, England, were playing hooky ("sagging") when they decided to kidnap 2-year-old James Bulger in a shopping mall. After battering him senseless with bricks and an iron bar, they then left him to die on railway tracks. The trial of the juvenile miscreants, both found guilty, settled the "how" of the murder. In As If, Blake Morrison, who covered the case for The New Yorker, raises the "why."

Morrison calls the incident "a new superlative in horror," an odd phrase that rings true. Was it a truant prank gone wrong? A bloodstained battery was discovered near the toddler's lifeless body. Had he been sexually assaulted? The cooler of the two defendants, Robert Thompson, had grown up in a violent household. Had Robert bullied Jon Venables, his cohort, into the crime? Was the victim a surrogate for one of Robert's siblings? Robert, denying his part in the slaying, chillingly told the police, "If I wanted to kill a baby, I'd kill my own, wouldn't I?"

As If powerful and compelling, is at its best when Morrison reconstructs the crime and examines the boys' confessions and their background. The book could do with a little less of the author's introspection, yet this is not so grave a fault. Morrison ponders the horror as if he himself were on trial. Maybe he was; maybe we all were. (Picador USA, $21)

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