No Service in the Club
by ELEANOR MORROW
creator Stuart Urban
The secret in The Secret is as follows: a God-fearing Christian man named Colin Howell grows tired of his wife and takes up with another man’s beloved, a woman named Hazel Elkin. At a public pool in Northern Ireland he strokes her legs and thighs underwater. She has been desired, but not recently, and not in so open a fashion. Many women do not wish for worship, but those who do find it relatively intoxicating.
But this is not a secret for long. They are too open about their adultery — isn’t it awful how people who commit indecent acts on some level wish to be caught? The shame is twice as uneasy as the act itself. This is not something religion instills in us, we bring it with us to our faith, or lack thereof.
In any case, they are spotted and Colin’s priest comes to him with an accusation. (This is all a true story, or at least as much of it as we can stand.) Colin denies the allegation, but altogether not fervently enough. When Hazel is approached by the priest, she confesses immediately.
So at some point Colin gets in his head that if his ungrateful wife Leslie and his girlfriend’s meek husband Trevor are still standing in the way of their love, instead of fading away as seems appropriate, it might be time to murder them. The real Colin Howell, it emerged recently, watches The Secret from his prison cell in Co Antrim. He can probably be proud of the performance James Nesbitt gives in his stead.
At first it seems like The Secret is just having a laugh at the expense of persnickety zealots. This is untrue, and potentially damaging to Colin’s current reputation in prison. You see, Colin did hide his murder of his wife and his girlfriend’s husband, but he never lost sight of what God wanted for him. (Police amazingly believed it was a double suicide.) And which is more important, really?
The first indication Leslie had that something was wrong was the money she found in the pockets of her husband’s athletic gear. He used it on a payphone to call Hazel during his runs. In order to prevent their late night phone conversations from being recorded on the telephone bill, each lecherous conversation between Colin and Hazel was kept to a period of nine minutes, the perfect length for anything.
After Colin was caught out the first time, he insisted that he had never consummated the relationship. The spouses and their church believed them — what else could they do? Leslie Howell considered suicide and took a trifling overdose without success. She spent money on new clothes, dieting to become more appealing to her husband. After her father died, the inheritance was enough to pursue a new life. After she died, her killer took that money, some quarter of a million pounds.
The night of the murders, Hazel mixed a strong sedative into her husband’s food. Colin blocked his children’s doors with a hockey stick so they wouldn’t walk in on things. He planned to gas Leslie quietly as their children slept, but she woke in her last moments, and he had to smother her with a quilt to finish off the murder, as she cried out for her son. For this murder, he will serve nothing close to life in prison: just twenty-one easy years.
Instead of turning Colin into an uncaring sociopath — he isn’t a mass murderer after all — Nesbitt portrays him as a twitchy cautionary tale. His singing and guitar playing in church is solid if unspectacular. As a father he was kind to children who had to live without their mother, and has six more kids with his second wife Kyle. As a doctor he committed more crimes, touching female patients when it suited him. This is a person who maybe only has a few things wrong with him, but they are the worst possible things.
Maybe the wildest part of Colin Howell’s story is that he was free and clear of murder charges but that he felt guilty enough to confess decades later. The Secret itself, despite being a retelling of a well-known true crime story, is still sensitive enough a subject to inspire secrecy.
“We have been left trembling in the wake of it,” said one of Howell’s daughters about the television production. “The insensitivity of this intrusion is in direct proportion to the trauma that it causes.” The fact of a failed marriage is the real secret, the disastrous life that led to the killings. These Christians believed as a corollary to their faith that unhappiness must be concealed, hidden. This misery should have been abandoned by any of the participants, but since they knew no other reality, they kept on living their nightmares.
Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan.
“Dear Brother” – Nadia Nair (mp3)