Sometimes, as one reads, the struggle to understand feels at odds with a reflex moral outrage. You might want to retort: “This story doesn’t excuse it!” (Whatever “it” might be.) But The Devil You Know is not a book of excuses. It persuades us that it is only through understanding why horrific crimes happen that mental health services and the judicial system can have any chance of being improved. This revelatory book encourages us to see that it is our responsibility to consider the worst of humanity – and of ourselves. And while we are at it, it urges us to hang on to Adshead’s most powerful imperative: “the duty of hope”.
There is so much sadness in this book that it may turn many readers off all those true-crime TV programmes. Yet there is hope here too: some of Adshead’s patients do recover. Her message is that we can heal even some of the most disturbed minds, so long as we as a society believe they are worth the effort.
For much of that time, Adshead was based at Broadmoor hospital, which has housed many of Britain’s most violent offenders, including Frankie Fraser and Peter Sutcliffe. But you won’t find any recognisable figures in the 11 portraits of her patients that Adshead (with the help of co-writer Eileen Horne) sketches in The Devil You Know — for legal and ethical reasons they are all composites, with potentially identifying details obscured.