Early on the Sunday evening before last, a walker came across a Saab convertible parked in a tiny lane in Newton Stacey, near Andover in Hampshire. Next to it were three bodies: those of Michael Pedersen and his two little children. Ben was seven and Freya just six; both had been stabbed by their father before he killed himself.
Michael Pedersen, once famous for surviving the IRA nail bombing in Hyde Park in 1982 with his "hero horse" Sefton, is now infamous. He has joined the ghastly roll-call of "family annihilators": men who kill their families and then themselves. In despair and rage, out of revenge and shame, with monstrous narcissism, he destroyed what he loved the most, and killed the very people who had most right to trust him and turn to him for protection. Why?
The months leading up to that autumn Sunday have a depressingly familiar narrative. Pedersen's marriage had broken down. In August he and his wife had separated (he had apparently witnessed a drunken stolen kiss at a party; it has been reported that police were called to the house more than once because of their arguments), and she was now suing for divorce. Pedersen's Facebook messages during this time are angry, lonely and self-pitying.
But life is full of uncountable drunken kisses, hundreds of thousands of acrimonious marital arguments and broken marriages. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows how a desire to hurt the other, to win a wrangle, can be like a red mist obscuring all good sense and human decency - for a while. The baffling question is what turns a horribly ordinary tale of failure and loss into this extraordinary horror, this family carnage.
Almost all family annihilators are men - an estimated 95 per cent. They are usually white and often middle-aged. There's a grim similarity in many of their stories. Last month, Graham Anderson killed his two boys in his flat, and then hanged himself. In July, Ceri Fuller murdered his three children before throwing himself from a cliff. Last December, Richard Smith throttled and stabbed his wife to death, before stabbing his children and starting a fire that killed him. (The inquest found this week that the incident occurred almost exactly four years after the couple had been forced to abort their third child.)
In 2009, the flower salesman Hugh McFall bludgeoned his wife and 18-year-old daughter to death and then took his own life. (He left a note behind, saying, "I hope I rot in hell".) In 2008, Brian Philcox drugged his three-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter before driving to a beauty spot with them and gassing himself in his car. In the same year, Andy Copland shot his ex-partner and their four-year-old daughter Maisie before turning the gun on himself; and Chris Foster, knowing that he was facing financial ruin, killed his wife and daughter and all their pets, and then torched their mansion before killing himself.
The list goes on relentlessly, a grinding catalogue of collapse. The photos accompanying the stories are almost always taken from happier days - father and mother proud beside their smiling children. These murders aren't usually spontaneous but are planned in advance and seem more like executions. Smothering, cliffs, drowning, drugs, knives, guns, ropes, mallets.
There seem to be two recurring factors. Sometimes - as in the case of the millionaire Chris Foster - the annihilation appears to be a perverse act of protection: he was facing ruin, and was unable to endure the public humiliation. In killing his family, it was as if he was saving them from the loss he couldn't bear. It was a scorched earth policy, torching everything he possessed - unfortunately, his possessions included his beloved family. He was well-known as a devoted family man.
But more often, there's an ex-wife or a separation in process, as with Michael Pedersen. Often, too, the fathers are described by those who knew them as loving, protective characters. When they lose their partners, they are also losing their children. Relegated to weekend father, Pedersen was driving his children back to his estranged wife that Sunday, having visited his own father. The toxic combination of loss and anger fuels this obscene form of revenge. The fathers who feel they've lost everything can exert a final act of control over the women who have betrayed them.
Can there be a greater vengeance than to kill your lover's child? It's like the final howl of unfairness, a heightened form of the game that many divorcing couples play, using their children as pawns in a battle for supremacy. It's horribly easy to get blinded by a sense of injustice and the desire to punish the other, and to forget that in winning, you lose everything.
The ultimate thing that a couple share is their children. They create them together, love them together, raise them together, make sacrifices for them together, and together share hopes, disappointments, agonies and joys. This is a bond that binds far tighter than any mortgage or marriage vow.
When the relationship fractures, the bond is cut. And, in some cases, it seems that the children are no longer seen as people in their own right, with their own hopes, disappointments, agonies and joys, but as a continuation of the grandiose self. Pedersen stabbed his children and then stabbed himself, in an excess of hatred, self-hatred and ruined love, as if the boundaries between his own life and theirs had crumbled.
A sense of livid shame and failure lie under these stories. Most of the men who kill their families have either lost something as great as their livelihood or their marriages have broken down, which threatens their whole culturally formed, anxiously defended identity as the strong and protective father-figure, the provider and the carer, the rock.
Dr Charles Patrick Ewing, a psychiatrist in Buffalo, New York, says that these men are, if anything, "over-invested in their families... They view their families as somehow an extension of themselves, and strive to make them fit some romanticised ideal."
Among the photographs that accompany the story of Michael Pedersen, there is a touching one of him with Ben. Father and son. They look very similar, although Pedersen is smiling and Ben is not. He looks watchful, slightly anxious, as if he sensed trouble.
Or perhaps this is just the cheap wisdom of hindsight. For while it is simple to see a pattern in these men once their violent paroxysms of narcissistic rage have been turned against their children, it is impossible to see the signs of real danger at the time. If you ask which of us have felt shame, rage,
distress, loss, a burning sense of unfairness, a despair for the future, half the world will put up their hands. These family annihilators are just the ghastly outliers of a culture in which failure batters at the sense of self, and in which shame can trump love.
In the meantime, Ben and Freya are dead. Two small children, lying beside a Saab convertible in a country lane, because their father couldn't bring himself to take them back home.