Belfast Telegraph

Kind, decent, dead: let's not forget poor Trevor and Lesley

By Gail Walker

Deric Henderson's brilliant book Let This Be Our Secret, serialised in this newspaper, is of course the story of murderers Colin Howell and Hazel Stewart.

They stare out from its cover. She's a bit brassy, with that slash of blood red lipstick and bleached blonde hair, her black dress plunging to reveal an ample embonpoint - a world away from the Baptist women I've met. He with the nondescript face of countless Ulster bank managers or estate agents, all neatly trimmed beard and harried expression. The pair are captivating in their amalgam of ordinariness and notoriety, like so many before them ... Ian and Myra ... Fred and Rose ... now Colin and Hazel.

Is that too strong? Because their victims weren't children? Because they just killed two people? Because it seemed like a crime of passion? Because you feel sorry for their grown-up kids?

Think again. Though Howell and Stewart's motivations, modus operandi and sheer cunning form the chilling narrative to Henderson's masterpiece, what lingers longest in the memory are their two innocent victims.

In trying to comprehend the killers' callousness, we almost lost sight of Trevor Buchanan and Lesley Howell.

Their photos parked them in another era, their smiling faces mercifully absolved of the dreadful fate that awaited them. Like all the long time dead, they existed chiefly in the heads of those who knew and loved them. To the wider public, they only had walk on parts to the main players.

Meeting them properly for the first time is a heartwrenching encounter. Decent, dependable, kind Trevor, who wanted to make something of himself. As a teenager desperate to meet the 5 feet 8 inches height requirement for the RUC, he'd hang by the legs from the door of his bedroom. Hazel was his first serious girlfriend and he worshipped her, even though, as they say in these parts, you couldn't fill her with money. She craved the best of everything - furniture, clothes, holidays - but, as his sister Valerie notes, when it came to looking after her hard-working husband, he had to make do with a tin of soup for his lunch. He cut back on his drinking, quit smoking, anything to make Hazel (below) happy.

There were acts of quiet heroism, too. When Trevor was stationed at Castlederg, police received a tip-off that Dominic McGlinchey was planning an attack.

An SAS man waiting for the terrorist's arrival stood inside the military sangar while Trevor was outside, stopping cars.

McGlinchey never appeared, but had he done so, brave Trevor was ready to be tested in the line of fire. And when his wife broke his heart by betraying him with Howell, he gave the marriage another go, no doubt for the sake of their two children.

Lesley Howell, too, comes alive once more. A young woman who loved animals, rescuing a pregnant sheep drowning in a bog. A born nurse loved by patients, going out of her way to make one lady's dying days as comfortable as possible. She wasn't that smitten by Howell at first and it emerges that Hazel wasn't the first woman Howell betrayed her with. There's a new photo in the book of Lesley laughing with her bridesmaids, full of the joy that Howell went on relentlessly to drain out of her.

It is a sad reflection of the human condition that we find evil more fascinating than goodness.

Perhaps that's because of its very grotesqueness - Henderson brings home how intimate the killings were, Stewart diligently burning the hosepipe as Howell lugs her dead husband from the marital bedroom. And how sustained the deceptions were afterwards, how cold-blooded and bold-faced the cover-ups.

Consequently, the lives of victims get overlooked. Who remembers the names of those killed by Peter Sutcliffe, Denis Nilsen, the Wests?

But we should remember that Trevor Buchanan and Lesley Howell stood head and shoulders above their murderers. Why dwell upon Howell's narcissism or Stewart's duplicity? They are the flaws of stunted people, unworthy of their spouses.

It is to Deric Henderson's credit that his account of one of Ulster's most horrifying murder cases never loses sight of this fact.

So let's make a conscious effort to remember Trevor and Lesley and their stolen lives. And leave Howell and Stewart to the anonymity of their cells.

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