Francisco Garcia on the dark urban legend of Bible John

In his new book We All Go Into the Dark, the writer unpicks the sensationalised serial killer story that gripped Scotland.

There’s a bit in Francisco Garcia’s latest book, We All Go Into the Dark, that epitomises the way we tend to think about true crime in contemporary culture – as entertainment, all tied in up a neat bow, with clear-cut people to point fingers at and a self-satisfied feeling that we were right all along.

I’d been thinking about how every classic crime legend needs its avenging angel somewhere in the mix,” Garcia writes. Its incorruptible force for good to set against the crush of darkness. The misery and pain. And how reality can never really conform to these storybook conventions.”

Following his brilliant 2021 debut, If You Were There, this second release is a non-fiction account of the urban legend around Bible John, who’s said to have murdered Patricia Docker, Jemima MacDonald and Helen Puttock between 1968 and 1969 in Glasgow. He was never identified or caught, and it’s never been proved that the murders were linked, but the case provoked an intense public reaction in Scotland.

In We All Go Into the Dark, Garcia overhauls the journalist-solves-crime tropes in favour of something more nuanced and complex. Instead, he explores how the dark shadow of a figure borne from fear, imagination and press-induced hysteria retreated into Glaswegian folklore and took on a life of its own.

Garcia’s reappraisal of the case doesn’t necessarily seek answers. Rather, he offers an anthropological study of the city at a specific crossroads: both in the throes of one of Scotland’s most extensive manhunts, before deftly pulling us back into the present day. What does our collective obsession with true crime tell us about ourselves? Why did Bible John leave such an indelible mark on the country’s psyche? And who deserves to be remembered?

The author started working on the book in 2018, while on an assignment to write an unrelated piece in Glasgow. He had just wrapped up If You Were There, a fascinating exploration of what it means to go missing, part-inspired by Garcia’s own search for his estranged father.

When I was in Glasgow, I got talking to someone in a pub, as you do,” he says, Zooming in from his home in South London. He mentioned it was coming up to the Bible John case’s 50th anniversary’ – I thought it seemed odd to talk about such an objectively horrifying story in that way, like it was a pop culture anniversary.”

Having lived in the city while studying, Garcia was already familiar with the case, but this odd exchange captured his attention good and proper. After writing an article about said anniversary”, he had a nagging sense there was more to uncover. It never really let me go after that,” Garcia continues. I’d amassed so much research and I felt dissatisfied. I thought, why not? If not now, when?”

The reason I was really interested in this story in the first place was because it had become so much more than the fact of itself. It became an enormous part of Glasgow’s recent history”

Would it be fair to say you saw your exploration of the mythology surrounding Bible John is more of a human interest story than a true crime breakdown? Or a bit of both?

I wouldn’t consider myself a true crime fan. [But] I think everyone has a grain of interest in these macabre, horrifying stories because they’re a part of human nature. I don’t believe people when they say they aren’t interested in these things because we all are to some extent – it just depends how far you want to go down that road and acknowledge how strange that interest is, right?

With that said, why were you interested in the story?

The reason I was really interested in this story in the first place was because it had become so much more than the fact of itself. It became an enormous part of Glasgow’s recent history. I thought it was a great way to examine a time of upheaval in the city, and at the same time, examine the social and mass media history of the phenomena of true crime. Also, the classic true crime caper would be that of the obsessive reporter trying to solve an unsolved crime. I never had that idea in my head, and I wasn’t interested in it. I know interrogating the true crime genre by essentially writing a true crime book might sound like having your cake and eating it, but it’s what I tried to do anyway.

Were you able to keep your sanity intact in the process of writing?

I think so. What’s interesting about this story is that it exists in a really odd space. It’s old enough to feel quite remote – it was half a century ago. The news footage to do with it is in black and white. But it’s also recent enough that it exists in people’s living memory, and plenty of them remember the hysteria and panic surrounding the story, for sure. And I felt very involved in it, completely fascinated and captivated. But maybe that’s the unique thing about writing a non-fiction book, which can be a really lonely experience.

Has We All Go Into the Dark changed your relationship with Glasgow at all?

I think maybe yes. It’s an amazing, uniquely fascinating place for me, where the history and contemporary life are so rich. Right now, though, I’m on a break. I’ll go up there to have a laugh, see some friends, have a fun time, maybe climb a hill or something. I wrote most of the book in the Mitchell Library in the city centre – it’s a massive Victorian building and basically the equivalent to the British Library. I love that place. But it’s been quite a transitory thing, writing this book, staying in an Airbnb here, a friend’s flat there. It feels a bit like you’re a wandering ghost. How do you explain you’ve spent hours knee deep in archives about youth violence in the 60s to people who ask how your day’s going? I digress! I love Glasgow just as much as I always have. If anything, I know it better now.

It seems seductive to think of a dapperly dressed, red-haired killer called Bible John who disappeared immediately into Glasgow folklore”

There are similarities between this book and your previous one, about what makes people worth searching for, paying attention to and what compels authorities and the public to care. Often, the worst people in these scenarios end up being mythologised. Would you agree with that?

Yeah, 100 per cent. It certainly wasn’t a conscious choice, but I suppose it’s what I’m interested in. I’m always a bit careful in calling Bible John a myth” or construct”, even though he is, to an extent. Bible John, the idea of a scripture-quoting serial killer, that’s a myth and a construct. But the facts are that three women were murdered. By who, or whether they were linked, we don’t know. There are certainly people who are coming out of it 40, 50 years later valorised when they aren’t worth valorising. Particularly Joe Beattie, the police officer who oversaw the initial investigation that was tinged with weirdness and hysteria.

With these true crime stories, particularly those that involve unsolved crimes, conform to a certain genre type. There’s the angelic victim (and sometimes not, but in this case, one of them was a nurse). There’s also an underlayer of revulsion, a thrilled sexual revulsion. These women were alleged to have been sexually assaulted, but there was no evidence of that – it’s almost as though people wanted it to be true. There were a lot of clichés surrounding Beattie, but when you peeled them back, he sounded like a completely inflexible individual. It seems seductive to think of a dapperly dressed, red-haired killer called Bible John who disappeared immediately into Glasgow folklore, because it’s a great story. But it’s also a slightly farcical one.

What would you like for readers to take away from the book?

I’m wary of speaking that into existence, because I don’t really know. That’s for readers to decide. What I’ve tried to do is, I hope, offer some kind of critique on true crime, true crime stories, the way that they’re told and the way they sort of calcify into myths. As for bringing the victims’ lives back to attention” – that would be a creepy thing to say. That’s for their families to decide and not a random journalist or writer. Sometimes, the most merciful thing is to let the victims be grieved privately. What I would like, if anything, is for people to gain a more sophisticated understanding of why we’re so compelled by crime, and certain kinds of crime. I’m not sure whether or not I’ve been successful in that, and these are eternally complicated questions to which we can never really know the answer. But we can try.

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