May 14, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

The recent spate of school killings has raised the excruciating question, Why do children murder? In this acutely insightful portrait of Mary Bell, England’s notorious ”bad seed,” journalist Gitta Sereny comes perhaps as close as one can get to the answer. In the spring of 1968, the pretty, clever 11-year-old strangled two young boys, ages 3 and 4. She was tried as an adult and imprisoned for 12 years, in part due to her apparent lack of remorse. From Sereny’s penetrating interviews — with relatives and prison authorities as well as the first ever with Bell, now a mother herself — we see the devastating effects of severe child abuse (which Bell suffered at the hands of her mother) and of an adult community — lawyers, teachers, psychologists — ill equipped to handle extremely disturbed children. When Cries Unheard: Why Children Kill came out in England last year, it incited angry public debate; Sereny’s critics interpreted her even-toned narrative as an attempt to mitigate Bell’s crimes. But Sereny, who covered Bell’s trial in a 1972 book, The Case of Mary Bell, makes it clear that her purpose here is not to exonerate Bell, but to extrapolate the crucial warning signs that could prevent similar tragedies. A

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