Signs of Murder

David Wilson

Sphere, £20

Review by Alastair Mabbott

At 7.52pm on 5 July 1973, Margaret McLaughlin left her parents’ home in Carluke to catch the train to Glasgow. The station was only minutes away, across a wooded patch called Colonel’s Glen. Her body was found the next morning a short distance from the path with 19 stab wounds.

Six days later a suspect was charged. George Beattie, who was known in the town as a compulsive fantasist who had been kept back for two years in primary school, was tried, found guilty and served 20 years.

David Wilson, the criminologist, grew up in Carluke. He remembers George Beattie, and can still conjure up a mental image of him standing on a railway platform taking down train numbers. Like many people from the town, he has always harboured serious doubts that Beattie was guilty. Wilson went on to become England’s youngest prison governor, later founding the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham University. His autobiography, My Life with Murderers, was shortlisted for the Saltire Prize in 2019.

But, throughout his life, the case of George Beattie has nagged at him. Margaret’s murder, followed by Beattie’s conviction, sent a double shockwave through his home town, and finally he has brought his criminological skills to assessing the crime. Wilson admits he’s strictly an amateur on this case (“I cannot gain access to the records of the original investigation”), but he investigates to the best of his ability, going through all the available evidence for signs of a miscarriage of justice.

He finds many, and they lead back to one man: Detective Chief Superintendent William Muncie, who was himself from Carluke and took charge of the investigation. Muncie was by this time dubbed “Scotland’s top detective” and had become convinced that he had a special intuition for sniffing out the guilty. Wilson builds up a strong case that Muncie’s faith in his instincts left him particularly vulnerable to confirmation bias, and that, having fingered Beattie as the culprit, he refused to back down for fear of losing face.

Having demolished the case against Beattie, Wilson attempts to work out who the actual culprit might have been, tramping the streets of Carluke and holding meetings in the town’s Bake House Café with residents who remember the case. “They became the heat that brought this cold case back to life.” His enquiries throw up a name, which presents the ethical quandary of what to do with this information. Wilson doesn’t name his suspect, “but, of course, if the police ever want to re-open this case all of my research is available to them”.

There’s an elegiac quality to Signs of Murder which can’t just be attributed to the length of time that has passed since Margaret’s murder and its prominence during the author’s teenage years. Time and again, Wilson returns to the widespread feeling in Carluke that Beattie had been wrongly convicted but no one dared express their misgivings publicly. He sees the justice system’s failure of George Beattie as symptomatic of an elite which closes ranks and refuses to admit mistakes, and this is reflected in the inability of “a community to find its voice and express itself in defence of the common good”.

Wilson sees value in solidarity and collective action, lamenting how it has been eroded and how small towns have been overlooked. “What happened in Carluke,” he writes, “is simply a microcosm of what happens in towns all over the UK; a creeping dismantling of community and those who once served it.”

Not only an enthralling and very personal account of the pursuit of justice, Signs of Murder is a moving testimony to the value of communities and the tragedy of their decline – a book that will leave true-crime readers with a lot more to ponder than they bargained for.