cover image As If: A Crime, a Trial, a Question of Childhood

As If: A Crime, a Trial, a Question of Childhood

Blake Morrison. St. Martin's Press, $21 (209pp) ISBN 978-0-312-16777-6

In February 1993, two-year-old James Bulger was abducted from a Liverpool shopping mall and bludgeoned to death. As disturbing as the crime was, the identity of the criminals made it even more so. Though they were tried as adults, the convicted murderers, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, were only 10 years old. Morrison, who covered the case for the New Yorker, tries to answer the question of what drove them to murder. But he also throws the moral dilemma posed by trying two boys as adults into sharp relief: the protesters outside the courtroom, he says, ""had come wanting to kill the kids who'd killed the kid, because there's nothing worse than killing a kid."" In his attempt to answer the question of the boys' moral responsibility, he examines myth and philosophy, the culture of Liverpool, the influence of movies and other forms of entertainment as well as the boys' families. His insights into the rationality of children, grounded in his own experience as a father, are piercing: his son, ""doesn't know the meaning of tomorrow... Don't tell me four-year-olds know right from wrong. And eight-year-olds, ten-year-olds? They understand the difference better, but can they act on that understanding?"" Despite his fluid and often haunting prose, Morrison lacks focus. Too many of the story's threads don't help readers out of the labyrinth: his musings on his own marriage and childhood; his early discourse on the Children's Crusade; and the ill-defined ""as if"" concept to which he returns throughout. Still, even with its rough patches, Morrison's work manages to take this horrendous child crime out of the barbaric and into the heart of the ""answer to the question that everyone wanted answered: Why?"" (Sept.)