Bentley and Craig (review)

To Encourage The Others DAVID YALLOP £4.99 Corgi (paperback)
Let Him Have It, Chris M.J.TROW £12.99 Constable


Derek Bentley was nineteen, Chris Craig sixteen. Both were illiterate. Bentley had a mental age of 10. In November 1952, more for a lark than for profit, Craig persuaded Bentley to help him rob a butcher's shop in Croydon. But the butcher was in.

So they shinned up the drainpipe to the roof of a warehouse instead. They were seen instantly, and surrounded by police. Bentley surrendered immediately, upset by Craig's revelation that (as usual) he had a gun.

In the succeeding half-hour, Craig winged a detective, and shot a constable, Sidney Miles, between the eyes. At the trial, two policemen swore that Bentley yelled 'Let him have it, Chris!' A third constable, most peculiarly, heard this but would not identify Bentley's voice.

Upshot? Craig, as a minor, was imprisoned (and released in 1963). But Bentley, despite a public furore, was hanged as having incited the killing, even though he was under arrest at the time.

The five words allegedly called by Bentley (he denied uttering them, Craig denied hearing them) were the case against him, although he also had the establishment on his neck. The Lord Chief Justice, Goddard, who makes Lord Lane look like Harry Corbett, had a political bone to pick. Capital punishment - this is often forgotten - was suspended in the forties while a Criminal Justice Bill was debated. The murderer of one policeman did not therefore die. Bentley's death was revenge.

Not until David Yallop's book appeared in 1971 was the furore rekindled. In its revised form, it now appears - incredibly, for the first time - in paperback. It is tenaciously argued, and, but for one name, meticulous in its attention to detail. Yallop does not merely chronicle the affair on Bentley's behalf, however. He thinks P.C. Miles was shot by a police bullet, and that Craig was also innocent. Craig (a Bedfordshire plumber when The People found him last year) thinks he shot Miles, however, and it does seem merely chance that several weren't hit.

Yallop repeatedly points to the mysterious absence of testimony by three policemen called to the warehouse. The spelling of one of their names is the error M.J. Trow spots. Yallop has called a P.C. Brigden 'Bugden' for 20 years. It is not clear to Trow - who indicates that Yallop is possessive about 'his' case - why Yallop never pursued the three. I'd have thought it obvious that they refused to have anything to do with it.

Trow's trump is the testimony of one of the missing three, now eighty, P.C. Claude Pain. How did Trow stumble on it? Pain's son was Trow's wife's driving instructor! Trow has become understandably obsessed by the case, but, as he acknowledges, it is upon Yallop that all depend. Trow, not unreasonably, dismisses the police bullet, but proposes an equally unlikely theory that Craig was firing warning shots.

Trow's scoop was partly predicted by Yallop. What even Yallop did not foresee was that Pain was not only in the vicinity, but on the roof. Indeed, he was the first to Miles's body. And P.C. Pain never heard the words 'Let him have it, Chris!' either. As Yallop and Trow demonstrate, the phrase 'Let him have it' is lifted from a somewhat similar case in 1940.

Yallop has the jigsaw, Trow the final piece. But Trow's discovery is 38 years too late for simple-minded Derek Bentley, whose execution is surely the most flagrant miscarriage of justice this century.

From New Statesman