About a Son by David Whitehouse review – murder, and what comes after

Most weeks, I’m in the habit of looking at a trial list that details the cases at the central criminal court. It’s called “What’s on at the Old Bailey”, as if it’s a section in a listings magazine. For a while, some years ago, nearly all the trials were terror-related, foiled Islamist bomb plots or hate crimes. Recently, however, as in all criminal courts across the land, the listings have returned to their single depressing theme: young men stabbing and killing other young men on Britain’s streets.

One of the most shocking details in David Whitehouse’s harrowing and sensitive account of one of those murders, of 20-year-old Morgan Hehir in Nuneaton in 2015, is the lack of surprise. When Colin Hehir, Morgan’s father, emerged from Warwick crown court the following year, having seen his son’s three killers convicted, he’d prepared a statement for the press, imagining a scrum of flashbulbs and TV cameras. On the court steps, however, there were no media to greet him, no one at all to deliver his statement to. It seemed yet another stabbing was no longer news.

Whitehouse writes in a spare style reminiscent of Gordon Burn, with a pathological attention to the vacancy of murder and grief

Colin, a lorry driver, was determined that his son’s murder had to matter more than that. He’d never written anything much more than a letter or an email since leaving school, but in his anger and grief he wrote an account of it, and all that followed, 164 pages of anguish. A local journalist sent that manuscript to Whitehouse, a novelist, winner of the 2012 Betty Trask award for his first book, Bed. Whitehouse had grown up in Nuneaton, he knew the people and the places that Morgan had known, and having read the diary worked with the family, particularly with Colin, to produce this book, part memoir, part true crime story.

The book is written through Colin’s eyes, in the second person present tense, as if the terrible events it describes are happening in real time to someone else. That’s how it felt. The facts are these: on Halloween night in 2015, Morgan, who worked at the local George Eliot hospital and played in a band, was walking across the nearby rec, between pubs, with a few of his mates. Some were in trick-or-treat costume, one as Marcel Marceau in white face paint; Morgan had on a priest outfit. They attracted the attention of three young men drinking on a balcony of a block of flats, who first shouted abuse at them and then ran down into the park and viciously assaulted them. Morgan was kicked and punched to the ground and stabbed several times by one of the men with a steak knife. While he lay bleeding to death, another passerby stole his wallet and his mobile phone.

Colin and Morgan Hehir at home. Photograph: courtesy of the Hehir family

Colin, his wife, Sue, and their two other sons were called to the University hospital in Coventry where their new, terrible life of seeking justice for their murdered son began. Waiting rooms became a big part of it. And tea and unanswered questions and almost incomprehensible bureaucracy. In the first of these rooms, they were told by a police officer that they were not allowed to go to see their son, who had just died in the adjacent trauma theatre, because “he is a crime scene now”. If they tried to insist, the officer told them: “I will have to arrest you.”

The unspooling detail of the next few days and months as the family, like hundreds of families up and down the country, tried to understand the unfathomable pointlessness of the violence of that night, brings their love for Morgan to vivid life. Whitehouse writes in a spare style reminiscent of Gordon Burn, with a pathological attention to the vacancy of murder and grief, the fact that mundane life must go on. Colin attends a football match at Nuneaton Borough where a huge banner with his son’s face is held up; he takes to riding his son’s bike, fast, downhill; he goes round the town photographing Morgan’s graffiti tag; he hugs the woman who stops putting the local freesheet through his door for fear of adding to his horror. He will forgive most clumsy attempts at condolence, but he will never forgive “anyone who thinks, even for a second, that Morgan must have had it coming”. He is tormented by powerlessness, not least in a long, fruitless campaign against Apple, which cruelly refuse to help the family – or the police – unlock Morgan’s MacBook to access his music and his photos, because it breaches its terms and conditions.

And all the while he and Sue are drip-fed information about his son’s killers: two brothers, Declan and Karlton Gray and an older acquaintance, Simon Rowbotham, who was once featured in a Channel 5 documentary, Benefit Life: Jailbird Boys Going Straight. They are derailed in this process by the discovery that Declan Gray, 21, who subsequently admitted the stabbing, had six years earlier beaten and killed another man, Adrian Howard, 38, after Howard refused to give him a cigarette. And then that Gray, having been released on licence from a young offender’s centre after four and a half years for that crime, had subsequently been arrested three times over allegations of serious violence but somehow never returned to jail for violating the conditions of his licence.

Gray was eventually given a life sentence with a minimum 23-year term for Morgan’s murder; the other two had six- and eight-year sentences for manslaughter and were released in nearly half that time. The Hehir family’s battle to prove that the police and probation services had been disastrously negligent in allowing Gray to be at liberty to kill for a second time meanwhile – a dispiriting, predictable process in which “every department of the institutions designed to protect you will lay claim to changing or having changed, to learning or promising to learn, to having been wrong but not being wrong again” – lasted longer than the latter two jail terms.

About a Son: A Murder and a Father’s Search for Truth by David Whitehouse is published by Phoenix (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply