The local weirdo

Corrupt police officer

Another important strand of The Grave Digger’s Boy (due out in about three weeks) is what happens when the police imprison the wrong person.

Not only is justice left undone but also a new injustice compounds the original evil.

The detective who acts on unerringly correct gut feeling is a standard trope in crime fiction. They’re plagued by bureaucrats and do-gooders who insist on the following of due process, or let creeps walk free for the trivial reason that there’s no real evidence.

In extreme examples, they bend or break the law to achieve justice – a fascist fantasy, essentially, in the Death Wish or Dirty Harry school.

I’m sure that in real life, police officers who falsify evidence or bend the rules often think they’re doing the right thing. But sometimes, it’s just about ticking a box, getting promoted, or fame.

That’s what I wanted to explore in The Grave Digger’s Boy with reference to some real life cases.

Though my book is primarily set in Devon, one important touchstone, for example, is the case of the New York City detective Louis Scarcella.

During the crack boom of the 1980s and 90s, Scarcella planted evidence, coached witnesses and forged statements to convict people for crimes they didn’t commit with the primary aim of advancing his career. In particular, he convinced one woman, a drug addict, to give false testimony in case after case.

When the truth emerged recently, every conviction he had achieved was thrown into doubt. At the time of writing, fourteen people have had their convictions overturned and about another 60 are still under review.

There’s a fantastic account from the perspective of one of the men Scarcella framed, Derrick Hamilton, in this 2016 article by Jennifer Gonnerman from the New Yorker:

The detective, Louis Scarcella, then thirty-nine, reminded Hamilton of the actor Joe Pesci, as he swaggered about the room, brandishing a cigar. But what Hamilton remembered most clearly, he says, is that Scarcella told him that “he didn’t care whether I did it or not, because I didn’t serve enough time for my previous case, and I would be going back to jail.”

Another story I find awfully fascinating is that of Colin Stagg – the ‘local weirdo’ who was the obvious, easy suspect in the murder of Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common in 1992.

Based, we now know, on little more than guesswork, flawed psychological profiling and prejudice, the police tried and failed to convict him. They used desperate measures, including getting an undercover police officer to flirt with him, encouraging him to confess to the murder and give details under the pretence that she found it arousing.

Even after the conviction collapsed, so convinced were police they’d had their man that they failed to relaunch a proper investigation. That left the actual murderer, Robert Napper, free to continue offending for more than a year when he was imprisoned for a different offence, and Stagg spent a decade being treated by the press as a murderer who had ‘got away with it’. His name was only cleared when Napper was convicted in 2004.

There are lots of instances of the police latching on to ‘local weirdos’ – Stefan Kiszko, Christopher Jefferies and Barry George (Bulsara) are other notable examples – and they’re depressing for various reasons.

First, they reveal how little tolerance our society has for people who are developmentally challenged, mentally ill or just a bit different.

How many of us can say honestly that when we saw Christopher Jefferies on TV during the investigation into the murder of Joanna Yeates we doubted his guilt? The police seemed sure; there was something unnerving about his manner; and the story seemed to tie up so neatly.

But he didn’t do it. He was just a man who fit our collective idea of what a murderer might look like, and who was in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Secondly, then, what makes these stories worrying is the same thread Alfred Hitchcock so often pulled upon – how many innocent people are in prison right now?

And what must it be like to be The Wrong Man?

If they really wanted to, could the police make you look and sound like the kind of misfit who might murder someone? A particular hazard for crime writers, I suppose: “He obsessively read about murder, closely followed police investigations and even kept notebooks with the details of how people were killed…”

Things are further complicated by people like Levi Bellfield. He was convicted for the murders of three young women, including Milly Dowler, between 2002 and 2004.

Bellfield is thought to have murdered and abducted many more victims from around 1980 which is why when he confessed to the 1996 killings of Lin and Megan Russell, police took it seriously.

If he was found to have committed that crime it would have meant that Michael Stone, imprisoned since 1998, was innocent.

But investigators concluded that Bellfield couldn’t have done it and that his motive for confessing was probably to cause pain to the families of the victims.

What The Grave Digger’s Boy explores is the difficulty of ever really feeling sure that anyone is innocent or guilty. It also shows how quickly and easily we turn what we know into a narrative, filling in any gaps with assumptions and imagined details.

Humans are programmed to discern patterns and narratives. Unfortunately, sometimes, the conclusions we draw mean that innocent people go to prison while the guilty walk free.

Start with a corpse

Start with a corpse.

Ed McBain, author of the long-running series of 87th Precinct police procedurals, was once asked how he devised plots. His answer was: “I usually start with a corpse.”

McBain (a pseudonym for Evan Hunter) was talking about the seed of a story rather than literally about how to structure a book but, still, pick up ten crime novels and look at the first pages and the chances are most of them will contain either a dead body, or the promise of one.

Devouring crime fiction as a teenager, and reading how-to manuals such as Hillary Waugh’s On Crime Writing, I’d absorbed this rule and stuck to it throughout the first few (unpublished) detective stories I wrote.

But The Grave Digger’s Boy, which is out in a few weeks, doesn’t start with a corpse – it begins with the absence of one.

In fact, this is the second novel I’ve written with that as the seed. The other, a manuscript that lurks in a virtual desk drawer, was called Fears Grow for Missing Sam and had an entirely different plot, setting and cast of characters to The Grave Digger’s Boy.

What both share, though, is a grim fascination with the idea that without a body, those left behind are stuck in a kind of purgatory, unable to move on. Sometimes, this awful suspension last for decades.

All murders are sad. Murders that never resolve, that hang in the air, are the saddest of all. The fuel for much of the best crime writing is, I think, the probing of these emotions.

One tangential influence on my novel – though influences are hard to pin down in the memory – is the ongoing subplot which runs through the series of books Arnaldur Indriðason’s wrote about the Icelandic detective Erlendur. Over the course of several novels, we learn that Erlendur’s brother disappeared in the snow as a child, leaving Erlendur obsessed not only with that case but also disappearances more generally.

In the real world, I find myself haunted by the disappearance of Suzy Lamplugh, whose parents died without knowing what had become of her. News coverage of that story ran at intervals throughout my childhood and every now and then her face appears on TV or in the papers when some new lead emerges and, inevitably, dwindles. Another search was carried out just a few weeks ago and new witnesses occasionally come forward.

There’s also the case of Helen McCourt whose disappearance in 1984 led to a notable example of a murder conviction in the absence of a body. Her murderer, Ian Simms, was convicted using DNA and to this day refuses to reveal where or how he disposed of her remains.

And, of course, it’s hard not to think of 12-year-old Keith Bennett, who was killed by the moors murderers in 1964, and is yet to be found. Or, rather, whose whereabouts has been concealed out of pure malice.

It’s unlikely anyone reading The Grave Digger’s Boy would guess these or the other real criminal cases I had in mind because by the time they’ve been through the blender of my brain, all that’s left is a sort of essence – the mood rather than details.

Crime writers, awful carrion creatures that we are, are drawn to these cases, yes, by the sheer emotional power they hold, but also because of the complexity they instantly bring to the plot of a novel.

After all, stories that start with a missing body provide two mysteries for the price of one – a whodunnit, and a where-is-it.

Or is it three? With no body, it’s hard to say for sure whether a character was actually murdered. Or maybe it’s four: can we even say for sure they’re really dead?

Becoming a novelist

Illustration: a dead body.

With my first novel, The Grave Digger’s Boy, being published by Bloodhound Books next month, I’ve been reflecting on how I clawed my way to this point over the course of several decades.

The first step, I think, was when I wrote a story that took up eight pages of my creative writing book in Miss Morris’s third-year class at junior school in Bridgwater.

The story was about aliens fighting Saxon warriors at Stonehenge and each page had about 20 words (bottom half) and a pencil drawing (top half).

When I reached three pages and the story still wasn’t done, other kids started to gather round: “He’s going on to a fourth page!”

I decided to aim for six, smashed through it, and by page seven everyone was willing me on.

They cheered when I wrote THE END and I was famous for a day or two after.

Then at secondary school – a comprehensive lurking at the bottom of the league tables – Mrs Newton, an English teacher who expected a lot of us regardless of our backgrounds, decided we were all going to write novels during the summer holiday.

Mine was a cliched sci-fi piece, probably amounting to 5,000 words, about a city under a dome.

I’ve a feeling the US Navy turned up at some point, too, because I’d been reading a lot of Tom Clancy. I typed every word on a word processor on my Commodore 64 and printed it on a whining, chattering dot matrix machine.

(That printer, long-gone to landfill, was important. Once I’d told my parents I wanted to be a writer, they spared no expense or effort in helping me realise it, even though we were, frankly, poor and have never doubted that I’d make it one day. The same goes for my very supportive little brother.)

After school, there was a long stretch in which I wrote dissertations, poems, short stories, sketches, sitcoms, and the opening chapters of about 375 different novels, all the time getting a bit better at the business of putting words together in interesting ways.

The next milestone was non-fiction: in 2006, a few years out of university, 30,000 words on The Beatles.

I invented this project to release the pressure of the day job and to test myself – could I, for once, actually bloody finish something substantial? I did, and got interviewed on US radio, and reviewed in Rolling Stone. I felt my spirit expanding.

Next, it was back to fiction, via NaNoWriMo. This once-a-year exercise in getting-to-done isn’t without controversy and won’t work for every writer but, crikey, did it ever work for me.

I hammered away at my project before work, during my lunch break, and on the commute home – 800 words here, 500 there, adding up to 1,600 every day.

A stream of consciousness historical-horror-fantasy was the output – absolute rubbish, but 50,000 words of rubbish. And if I could manage that, why not 80,000?

So, approaching 30, I started writing crime novels in earnest. It wasn’t much fun. In fact, it was torture.

I’d have an idea, get excited, and then decide I hated it by chapter five. But with NaNoWriMo in mind, I didn’t give in – I finished them anyway, like a runner pushing through the pain barrier.

The first one was bad, I think, but it was 75,000 words long, and had a decent plot. The second, Fears Grow for Missing Sam, was better. The third… Well, Local Man Found Dead, I think, had something about it and I there were entire stretches of which I felt proud. A couple of publishers expressed interest, albeit not quite enough. I’d like to revise it again one day and maybe see it in print.

Meanwhile, I’d slowly been turning my way with words into a living, writing papers, letters, speeches, leaflets, articles and so on, in central government. I was getting paid to exercise my writing muscles, essentially – absolutely priceless.

When my partner, Jess, got a job in Cornwall, the chance to write more of what I wanted to write presented itself. I wrote and edited full time for six years, sometimes to contribute to the rent, sometimes with a view to getting published, but always at my desk from 9 to 5. One way or another, I turned out 2,000-5,000 words most days.

During all this, I co-wrote with Jess several non-fiction books on beer and pubs, which won awards and garnered general acclaim, further boosting my confidence. I started to think of myself not as ‘someone who does a bit of writing’ but as A Writer.

From being A Writer to being A Novelist is only a short hop. Between corporate blog posts, magazine articles and rewriting other people’s books, I used my time in Penzance to write and rewrite five novels, including The Grave Digger’s Boy.

Now, it’s being published, and I can’t tell you how excited I am – it feels like the end of a long slog with a heavy load.

In the coming weeks, I’m going to indulge myself by sharing some insights into how it came to be – the real life crimes and personal experiences that inspired it, my connection to the settings, and how my study of crime fiction over the years influenced its shape and structure.