A Mount Everest Of Research

No doubt writers like Val McDermid and Ian Rankin know all this stuff backwards and don’t have to mug up who’s who in the police hierarchy, or which offenders get bail and why, or what procedures suspects undergo in a police station. And I’m sure they don’t need to pore over sentencing-guidelines, or recent changes to the Probation system, as I was doing, with increasing bafflement. Yet, looking back after three hard-at-it years (the longest it’s ever taken me to write a novel, although Born of Woman comes a close second, in that I changed the entire plot halfway through!), it now seems utterly worthwhile. Not only did I learn what any halfway intelligent citizen needs to know to understand his/her own society, I also met a galaxy of interesting and erudite people in the process, and gained access to experts and places I’d never otherwise have encountered.

First of these was David Zinzan, to whom the book is dedicated, in recognition of his invaluable help on all police matters. Despite being a VIP in the force – ex-Deputy Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall and, before that, Head of Serious and Organized Crime at the Met, and then Area Commander South-East London, responsible for 6,000 staff – he was mercifully tolerant of my ignorance. I frequently visited him at home in Tadworth, enjoying the domestic scene – jacket-potatoes heating in the oven, lordly cat purring in its basket, aged but affectionate dog laying his head against my thigh – all a far cry from the violent issues we were discussing. And, when I’d finally written the last chapter, David was kind enough to read not just the police sections, but the entire 380 pages, to ensure I hadn’t included any errors.

Equally generous were the criminal barristers, Beth O’Riley and Sam Thomas. Despite the demands of her job and family, Beth was never too busy to help, gradually initiating me into the subtleties and refinements of the Law, and even allowing me to watch her in action, a truly impressive experience. Sam, for his part, often sacrificed his precious lunch-hour to meet me in the Pret a Manger closest to the Old Bailey, and then followed up our soup-&-sandwich discussions with a wealth of emailed material. This sometimes left me baffled – and often thanking my lucky stars I’m a writer, not a lawyer! Later, he took me on a tour of the Old Bailey, so I could see the actual courtrooms where my protagonist would stand in the dock. I quickly made a sketch-map and jotted down the details, since such truthful observation can lend a novel authority. In fact, it’s the way I always work, whether staying in a nun’s cell in a contemplative convent, to research my novel, Devils For a Change, or spending a day at a Nevada brothel, for Sin City – two completely different locations that nonetheless had surprising things in common.

Once I’d investigated the forces of Law, I turned my attention to those they’re up against, interviewing some half-dozen ex-prisoners, whose offences ranged from fraud, perjury, larceny, dangerous driving and drug-dealing to Irish terrorism. The terrorist in question had been hospitalized after a lengthy hunger-strike, which brought him close to death. His personal story illuminated a tragic chunk of past Irish history, yet also showed me a man willing to suffer almost anything in the service of what he saw as his ideals

I already knew something about the prison system, having briefly taught Creative Writing at High Down, where I was deeply touched by the inmates’ desire to tell and share their life-stories. I’d also introduced the subject into my 16th novel, Broken Places, whose librarian protagonist, Eric, runs the Reading Group at HMP Wandsworth. To make this scene more convincing, I asked my friend and fellow-writer, Simon Brett if he would stage a real-life event for this Group, so that I could incorporate it into the novel. Again, this added vivid detail and allowed me to make notes on the atmosphere and setting, record Simon’s talk, and observe how the various book-club members reacted to it. (The first member I spoke to told me cheerily that he was in for double murder!)

By this stage of my research, I’d read masses of prison literature – accounts by ex-offenders, prison-officers, prison-reformers and ex-Governors. Far from believing, as does my brother, that no way could he ever be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, I have always felt that I – or indeed almost anyone – could land up in gaol, given the combination of adverse circumstances that put so many behind bars. A disturbingly high proportion of offenders have been in care, mostly because of absent or inadequate parents (addicts, alcoholics or mentally unstable), and many have grown up on sink-estates, gone to sink-schools, and never been given any discipline, role-models or encouragement. I had no such disadvantages to excuse me, yet I once attacked my husband’s mistress with my bare hands, maddened by jealous rage, and, had he not been a Rugby Blue who pushed me off his beloved, so saving her from harm, I could well have been banged up for criminal assault. So surely it’s understandable that those without my long indoctrination in turning the other cheek and maintaining self-control should sometimes give vent to their violent impulses. Indeed, certain genes actually predispose to violence and impulsivity, especially in those abused in childhood, which should give us pause before we judge them too harshly. It goes without saying that their victims need them brought to justice – and often incarcerated long-term, for the safety of society – but they themselves are frequently in need of help.


Illustration by Freepik

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