Published by graham on Fri, 05/11/2012 - 08:14
Backstory is a book-length companion piece to the Pompey-based D/I Joe Faraday series. Think "Extra Features" on a movie DVD. I wrote Backstory in response to trillions of conversations and e-mail exchanges with readers keen to find out more about the books. Where did they come from in the first place? Why do they feel so real, so authentic? How do you get to invent characters like Joe Faraday and Paul Winter? And what does it really take to turn the small print of sharp-end CID work into page-turning drama? I'd like to think that this is a must-read for anyone touched by the Faraday series. Plus a practitioner's guide to making any kind of living as a writer. Price? A very reasonable £2.47.
Here's the first chapter, just to let you know what you might be in for....
Yonks ago, when I was still in my twenties, I spotted an ad in Screen magazine. The ad had been placed by a company called Crawford Productions, in Australia, and they were looking for writers to join their long-running series, Homicide. At the time, I’d just spent a year or so making TV documentaries – one film every three weeks – and I fancied a break. I posted off some TV drama scripts I’d done, attended an interview in London, and got the job.
By mutual agreement, the contract was for six months. Crawfords flew me out to Melbourne, found me an apartment, and assigned me a desk on their production floor. The salary was generous because umpteen people were waiting on your script but if you got to final draft a week or two early, you scored a handsome bonus. That was fine because I happen to work very fast but the real challenge was the so-called “super bonus”. This was a prize that awaited the scriptwriter who came up with a totally novel murder. After five hundred plus episodes, it was reckoned that Homicide had pretty much exhausted all the available options.
And so I spent a very happy couple of months sitting on the tram into work trying to fathom how to kill the guy, or the woman, or the child across the aisle in a way that had so far eluded dozens of Homicide screen writers. This turned out to be a tougher assignment that you might expect but then I met a Kiwi my age who’d just returned from three years in the jungles of New Guinea, working as a patrol officer. We got drunk one night and he started telling me about the Sanguma Palm thorn.
Despite industrial helpings of Guinness, I knew at once that this was the super bonus. It works like this. One tribe falls out with another. The feud centers on a particular guy. His enemies invite him to a feast, get him blind drunk on spirits distilled from wood bark or piri-piri fruit or whatever else they drink in New Guinea, and then – while he’s sleeping it off – they insert the needle-like thorn of the Sanguma Palm tree in that little triangle of softness at the base of the neck. The thorn is so thin it leaves no entry mark. Over the coming weeks, it works its way deeper and deeper into the chest cavity until it punctures the lung. Infection sets in. Nothing can be done. Days later, your enemy dies in agony. Perfect.
Next morning, hung-over, I headed for Melbourne’s botanical gardens. From documentary-making, I knew already that nothing resists the determined researcher. I made friends with one of the gardeners who led me to a Sanguma Palm tree and lent me his ladder. The thorns, as promised, looked like the business end of black hypodermics. I broke one off, wrapped it in a page from my notebook, and headed back to work. Six weeks later, Upcountry went into production. The super bonus, sadly, turned out to be Oz street rumour.
This, as it happens, was my first real encounter with crime fiction but it happened on the other side of the planet. As a writer on Homicide you stepped into a ready made cast of characters and dreamed up ways of keeping them busy enough to sustain the umpteen commercial breaks that punctuated every hour. It was a deeply pleasant introduction to Oz but it always felt like a fantasy. There were proper cops out there in the Melbourne ‘burbs but it never crossed my mind to try and meet any. Homicide went down really well nation-wide at prime time on a midweek night. Fans knew exactly what to expect. Why bother with the real thing?
After my six months were up, I returned to making documentaries in the UK. Since I can remember I’d always wanted to be a writer, and had five mercifully unpublished manuscripts in my bottom drawer to prove it, but television is the sweetest of temptations and it didn’t take much to succumb. Then, a decade later, came another interlude. I found myself afloat on a converted Hull trawler in the middle of the Atlantic, trying to find the wreck of the Titanic. We did it in the end, and made a decent film as a result, but the assignment lasted weeks and weeks before we could get down to business and those long days of dragging a black and white camera across an empty seabed took me back to the typewriter.
The result was a submission for a six-part TV drama series called Rules of Engagement. It was fun to write, and offered a rich contrast to the world of documentary-making, but the best news of all was a two-book contract from Pan Macmillan. The first of these tomes, naturally enough, was the novelisation of the TV series.
More contracts followed. By the time I finally left TV, in 1991, I had four titles on the shelf, and just enough bookshop cred to try and turn novel-writing into a full-time occupation. In publishing-speak, these were “international thrillers”, big fat stand-alone paperbacks you might buy at an airport if you had a long flight ahead of you and nothing better to read. Each book offered a new cast of characters and a satisfyingly blank canvas. As a writer I could take these pretend people anywhere I chose. I set them tests by means of a plot and spent weeks at my PC wondering how they’d cope as the fictional pressures mounted. Some sank without trace. Others stayed afloat. Some even made it to the final page. It was control freakery gone mad and I loved it.
After seven outings with Pan/Mac, I accompanied my editor – Simon Spanton – to Orion. They offered me a two-book contract which I happily accepted. Both these stories were voiced by female characters, a fictional liberty I much enjoyed, and Orion seemed happy enough with what they were getting. Then came a summons to London.
Simon was at the lunch and so was Orion’s managing director, Malcolm Edwards. I was out of contract at this point, and was pitching for another two stand-alones. I’d already written 50,000 words of the first one. The working title was Fastnet, and both Simon and Malcolm had had plenty of time to read it.
It takes time to get round to business at lunches like these. Finally, I asked them about Fastnet. This was a thriller spun around the yacht race from Cowes, to the Fastnet Rock (off southern Ireland), and thence back to Plymouth. The plot involved a murder, a savage storm, a capsize, and a complex investigation (roughly in that order). This time round, it wasn’t narrated by a woman.
Malcolm answered the two key questions. Yes, he liked it. No, Orion wasn’t going to publish it. This, as you might imagine, was a bit of a blow. I’d always imagined that authors with a sizeable backlist could swap publishers with gay abandon. To date, I had eleven published titles to my name. Selling Fastnet elsewhere, therefore, shouldn’t have been a problem. Wrong. If Orion didn’t intend to publish the thing, any new suitor is going to want to know why. And it’s at this point that the difficult conversations would begin.
Malcolm, though, hadn’t finished. Both Nocturne and Permissible Limits had achieved decent sales but he felt Orion could do better by re-positioning me in the marketplace. Lately, they’d built a very healthy sales record in something he described as “the fastest growing sector in commercial fiction”. With American authors like Michael Connolly and Harlen Coben, plus home-grown talent like Ian Rankin, Orion had become a regular presence in the Top Ten. My heart fell. Malcolm was talking crime fiction.
I wanted to know exactly what he had in mind. A three-book contract, he said (normal contracts are two-book), set in Portsmouth, the city where Lin and I had been living for more than a decade. Pompey, as the locals call it, has few fans in the tight little world of London publishing but Malcolm – with some courage – had decided to try and turn this distaste to our mutual advantage. He spelled out the challenge. I was to invent a home-grown cop. I was to root him in the city I loved. I was to build at least three books around an ensemble of characters. And I was to try and deliver the kind of readership that had taken Rankin’s Inspector Rebus to the very top of UK crime fiction. No pressure.
That afternoon, I sat on the train back to Pompey wondering what on earth I was going to do. Despite my adventures in Melbourne I didn’t much like crime fiction, and I certainly didn’t read it. The fridge, on the other hand, would empty very fast without a new contract and I had a limited appetite for going back to making TV documentaries, the only other job for which I was remotely qualified.
A number of my ITV ex-colleagues were still in the game but the reports they brought back from the front line painted an ugly picture. Everything had been casualised. Documentary-making had become a business. The queues for face-time with the all-powerful commissioning editors extended around the block. The editors themselves were barely out of their teens. Production budgets had been slashed to the bone. Something called “Reality-TV” was the hot genre, an industry-wide codeword for cheap. In short, the race to the bottom had begun.
Did I want any of this? I didn’t. Would they ever have me? Highly unlikely.
Lin and I went to the pub that night. By now, I’d concluded that if we were to live with a fullish fridge, I had two choices. On the one hand I could descend on the library, borrow an armful of titles, and bury myself in other peoples’ crime fiction. This prospect filled me with gloom. Not only did I not want to read this stuff but if I did I’d probably end up writing crap pastiche, exactly what Malcolm Edwards didn’t want.
The other option was more beguiling. As a documentary producer, I’d always loved the first stage in the production cycle: getting alongside people, winning their trust, finding out what makes them tick, exploring the kinds of lives they’d made for themselves. This, in essence, is exactly the business of the working novelist and over the past decade I liked to think that research for TV documentaries had taught me a thing or two about listening, and watching, and trying to imagine life as someone else. What if I spent some time with working detectives? Tried to figure out what made them tick? Tried to understand the world they’d made their own? Lin and I had a third pint and raised our glasses to Option Two. Game on.
But how to open the door to the magic box marked “CID”? This was never going to be easy. The only sharp-end detectives we really knew were a pair of fellow-quaffers, Pughie and J-R. They formed part of a tight knot of drinkers who gathered at the Wine Vaults, in Southsea’s Albert Road, every Monday after work. Lin and I would wander down there sometimes and the evenings were a noisy mix of gossip, slander and multiple wind-ups. We drank a lot of beer, and had a fun time.
Both Pughie and J-R were seasoned detectives and were on intimate terms with the darker parts of Pompey but very little of this stuff ever surfaced on Monday nights. We were there to talk amiable nonsense, get bladdered and have a laugh or two. So how on earth was I going to finesse these piss-ups at the Wine Vaults into the kind of comprehensive research I needed to launch a cutting-edge crime series?
The only answer was to come clean. Detectives are canny, especially these two. They knew I wrote books and one or two of their mates had even read some but so far they’d no idea I was about to abandon international one-off thrillers and barge into their tight little world. I suggested a drink at another pub on another evening. Just the three of us. The pub was called the Eldon Arms. At six fifteen in the evening it was practically empty. The clue lay on the table between us. My notebook. And a pencil.
These two guys, between them, had maybe fifty years experience in the Job. Pughie had been a decent footballer and in certain lights, with his Italian good looks, he could still pass muster as a veteran from Serie “A”. J-R was a hard-core Dylan fan and in his spare time he was beginning to make headway as an R&B promoter on the local music scene. He wore his hair long, tied in a pony tail, and had the good detective’s knack of being able to tease a conversation out of pretty much anybody. Years later, when all the controversy kicked off about u/c officers going native with women from the protest movement, a lot of the mug shots of these guys reminded me of J-R. Was he u/c? I never found out. U/c, in case you’re wondering, means undercover.
That first night in the Eldon wasn’t easy. The moment we started talking it was obvious that the rules of engagement had changed. We were still mates but this was no longer a social occasion. They wanted more detail. They wanted to know that this thing was really going to happen. I assured them that it was but when I broke the news that all three books were to be rooted locally, here in Pompey, there was an exchange of looks. No one was using the word trespass but this very definitely wasn’t Monday night at the Wine Vaults.
I knew from other people that both Pughie and J-R had led colourful lives. More importantly, I’d sensed that their years at the coal-face in CID had bridged the gap between old-style detective work and a whole new culture of rights and responsibilities that, to put it mildly, could be a pain in the arse to can-do guys like these. And so that evening, I set out to explore the fault line between these two very different worlds. A generation ago, as I knew from a couple of documentaries I’d made, Pompey had been full of spirited detectives who’d regularly bend the rules in the hunt for a quick result. This process left lots of today’s boxes completely un-ticked.
In that pre-PACE era, unrestrained by tightly-drawn new rules about evidence gathering, detectives didn’t care a stuff about Risk Assessments or the Human Rights Act, largely because neither existed, and the notion of political correctness would have made them laugh. They were there to pot the scrotes and the low life. They worked an army of informants, laid elaborate traps and did their business in locked cells. None of this stuff necessarily guaranteed a totally fair outcome but they got results. Whether or not this made Pompey a nicer place to live in is not for me to say but the point is that it seemed to work. Some of these D/Cs became legendary thief-takers, as did some of their bosses. They also won themselves, amongst Pompey lowlife, a considerable degree of respect.
As it happens, I had a little hands-on experience of this myself. Back in the early seventies I’d regularly turned out for the Southern Television football team. One year we’d played a side from Southsea CID. Their centre forward was a detective called Dave Hopkins and my job that afternoon was to try and stop him scoring. Marking Dave Hopkins, it turned out, was a nightmare. He’d kick you to death when the ref wasn’t looking. Most of his many goals were blatant off-sides. He had the sharpest elbows on the pitch and absolutely no time for the rules. Yet afterwards, in the bar, he was the nicest, funniest, warmest guy imaginable and hours later, still nursing your bruises, you’d be wondering exactly how he managed to pull off a trick like that.
Dave Hopkins, I later discovered, was a D/C in the Pompey Drugs Squad. He worked under a D/S called Alan Russell, a quiet, reflective, hard-working skipper who in most respects was the reverse of his bandit D/C. Dave and I got to meet again because I was making a film about young junkies who’d got into serious trouble with heroin. It turned out that Dave had nicked pretty much all of them but what was truly remarkable was the fact that they all ended up thinking the world of him. Dave’s MO, on and off the football field, was the same. It was means and ends. You laid traps, threatened, charmed, pressured , made promises, broke them, then kissed and made up. In short, you did everything that was necessary and got a result. Months later the stars of my little film were all banged up and tidied away yet they still loved him. Just how, once again, did Dave do it?
Twenty five years later, I found myself putting this question to Pughie and J-R in the Eldon Arms. We were only on our second pint, and I was only too aware how cautious they were still being, but mention of Dave Hopkins seemed to take us to a different place. By now Dave was dead, a victim of cancer, but they both agreed that his passing was a double shame, not simply because he’d gone before his time but because he was one of a certain kind of sharp-end detective for whom the Job would soon have no room. In this, they pointed out, we were all losers. Pughie and J-R because some of the colour had gone out of their professional lives. And us punters because – when push came to shove - the likes of Dave Hopkins truly did the business.
Some of that buccaneering spirit had clung to both J-R and Pughie and after I’d brought Dave Hopkins into the conversation they began to open up. I still have my scribbled notes from that evening. Morale at the coal face, they said, was shit. Zero resources, zero back up, and everything driven by performance targets. Handcuffed by umpteen procedural diktats, the odds were stacked against nailing the guys who really mattered.
The serious money in Pompey, they said, came from narcotics. By now they’d started giving me names I recognised, people I’d either met personally or heard of through mates. These were guys for whom Pughie and J-R were Filth but the odd thing was the degree of grudging respect that both these detectives had for their MO. The top guys in the supply business organised themselves sensibly. They were sharp. They were canny. They paid for the best legal and financial advice and when it came to something more robust they relied on blokes they regarded as brothers-in-arms. These relationships extended city wide and had often been forged in the days of the notorious 6.57 crew, a bunch of hard-core scrappers who followed Pompey Football Club to away games the length and breadth of the kingdom. Now middle-aged, the guys who’d made it to the top were enjoying the proceeds from years of canny investment, mainly in cocaine and property. Against this, Pughie and J-R implied, the Filth didn’t have a prayer.
This was more than interesting. J-R was nearing the end of his CID career. He’d nearly done his thirty and the more he talked, the more I realised he couldn’t wait to get out. He’d had enough of stroppy line managers, evil budget-holders, huge piles of paperwork, risk-averse bosses, and endless grief from a long list of hate figures including local politicians, Home Office civil servants, clueless graduate recruits, vindictive journos, carping wives, and a huge army of council tax payers – “customers” for fuck’s sake - who couldn’t wait to get stuck in about pisshead kids and all the other aggravations of the night-time economy. Was this why he’d become a copper? To get dicked around by the great unwashed?
At the end of the evening, out in the street, I asked him what he was going to do with the rest of his life. He peered at me under the lamplight. Was this a serious question? I said it was.
“Easy, mate.” He grinned. “Has to be drugs, doesn’t it?”
“Zero chance of getting caught.”
I spent a long time thinking about that answer. J-R was talking about the guys at the top of the supply chain, not the low-life who pushed the stuff at street level, or the young junkies I’d met through my documentary work. He was describing a bunch of home-grown Pompey lads who’d tasted the money to be made from ecstasy in the late eighties rave scene and had sensibly traded up to the laughing powder in the hunt for even fatter profits. I knew what cocaine had bought these guys. I’d seen the houses, the cars, the flash motor cruisers. I’d heard about the freebie invites to Premiership directors’ boxes and the wild excursions to Marbella and Dubai. This was the kind of material that might find a place in my forthcoming crime novels. Not least because it felt so real.
That evening at the Eldon was a great start. I’d glimpsed what we scribes call a narrative arc – an on-going battle between the beleaguered forces of law and order and the teeming chaos out there in Pompeyland. But to do the coming three books proper justice I had, somehow, to find out a great deal more about the police. How their machine worked. The extent of its authority and reach. And how widely shared were the frustrations I’d picked up from Pughie and J-R. Only then could I go back to these two guys and squeeze them for a little more.
A couple of days later, I took a call from a voice I didn’t recognise. He turned out to be the secretary of the local branch of an organisation called Common Purpose. I’d met this lot before. It’s a charity with branches all over the country. Every year, they chose a cohort of thirty six men and women, selected in equal thirds from the public sector, the private sector and the voluntary sector. They meet for one long day each month for roughly the period of a year. Each of these days is themed – it might be economic affairs, or law and order, or education. Top speakers arrive from the four corners of the kingdom, address the delegates, and invite debate. For two or three years I’d been part of the Common Purpose Culture Day, talking about documentary film-making, but now the secretary had something else in mind.
“We’ve had someone drop out”, he said. “Do you fancy coming on board with next year’s lot?”
He meant as a delegate. I said that sounded fine. He said there was a price involved: £5,000. This enrolment fee, of course, is normally paid by your sponsoring organisation – IBM, say, or the Royal Navy – but I had neither an employer nor five grand. The secretary wasn’t convinced.
“Are you sure?”
I laughed. He obviously thought all authors were rich. When I confirmed there was no chance of me giving Common Purpose a cheque for £5,000 there was a brief silence. Then he said they might be able to offer some kind of scholarship as long as I paid something upfront. I asked how much. He wondered whether I could manage fifty.
Every Common Purpose year begins with the new boys (and girls) gathered at a local hotel. Ours was the Post House at the top of Hayling Island. The first morning was devoted to various ice-breaking exercises. One of them involved all thirty six of us sitting in a circle. You were asked to bring a small item of some personal significance, chuck it down there on the carpet, and then spend ten minutes or so explaining why it mattered so much.
My keepsake was a boarding card from Ethiopian Airways. A couple of years earlier, thanks to an invite from Oxfam, I’d spent some time in Angola, researching life amongst the minefields. Ethiopian Airways was by far the cheapest way of getting to Luanda. Hence the boarding card.
My time in Angola was all too brief but it made a huge impression. The country was in the middle of a vicious civil war and both sides were sowing minefields with gay abandon. Most of the victims out in the countryside were innocent civilians working the fields and many of them ended up in the country’s capital, legless and sometimes armless, trying to beg a living amongst the gridlocked traffic. In a number of respects that experience of Angola had changed the way I looked at life, as I tried to explain to my new chums in one of the hotel’s function rooms.
An hour or so later, I found myself in the restaurant, queuing for the buffet lunch. The guy ahead of me – tall, soft Canadian accent – turned round. He wanted me to remind him of the title of the book I’d written as a result of my Angolan adventures. It was called The Perfect Soldier, the squaddies’ nickname for your average anti-personnel mine (never sleeps, never gets pissed, always works first time).
“The Perfect Soldier?”
“It’s on my bedside table. I’m halfway through it.”
I resisted the temptation to inquire how he was getting on. Instead, I asked him what he did for a living.
“I’m a copper,” he said, “a uniformed superintendent. I run the northern half of the city.”
“Here? In Pompey?”
We became friends. His name was Roly Dumont. He was, by common consent, a total one-off, highly unusual, one of those inspired gambles a bureaucracy can sometimes find itself making. As the top cop in Pompey North, Roly could open virtually any police door in the city. He had a keen, sceptical intelligence, and a teacher’s gift for making complicated issues seem simple. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, so you had to keep up, but he was passionate about crime fiction. If I was looking for a near-perfect introduction to my new fictional world, then here it was.
Over the following weeks, Roly offered me a senior copper’s view of the city that was, though I didn’t know it at the time, to sustain more than a million words of crime fiction. Whenever I stumbled over something I thought interesting, he’d make a phone call and arrange an introduction. Thanks to Roly, I began to understand about the importance of so-called passive data, anything from forensics to CCTV, from mobile billing to cell-site analysis. With each new twist in the plot came another door, another office, another face, and another hour of note-taking. A lot of this research was simply factual, me making sure I had the right bits of the jigsaw in the right place, but with this sensible emphasis on procedure – the grammar of policing - came something subtler. Conversation by conversation I was slowly becoming aware of what it really felt like to be a working copper.
Pughie and J-R had been right. They’d never spelled it out, probably because they thought it too obvious, but policemen lived in a bubble of their own making. By definition, as law enforcers and gatherers of evidence, they’d staked out their own patch of territory slightly removed from the rest of us. The culture was indeed changing – both inside and outside the force – and as a direct result it was impossible not to pick up a whiff of paranoia.
These men and women had circled the wagons. Already, in three brief years, New Labour had brought in hundreds of new laws. Each had to be understood, interpreted, enforced. This might not matter to you or me but Blair’s incessant courtship of the media filtered down through top Home Office civil servants and resulted in constant changes of tack out there on the street. One month the targeted offence might be domestic burglary. The next, vehicle theft. Then a Daily Mail leader would send countless uniforms in pursuit of infant shoplifters, or crack dealers, or rogue asylum seekers. Everything had to be logged, counted, analysed, gently spun, then despatched via force HQ to the honchos at the Home Office. Blair might have been enjoying the party of his dreams but at every level in the force it was impossible not to detect a sense of growing disenchantment. Whose tail was wagging whose dog? And how come these guys from London are pissing all over Pompey’s lamp posts?
This isn’t stuff that figures hugely in prime time cop drama. And neither should it. But it very definitely begun to shape itself as a sub-plot in my own little take on what contemporary policing was really about, not least because all these procedural changes – a direct result of New Labour’s legislative incontinence – had begun to change the nature and the feel of the Job. This was daunting enough but its corollary was an even bigger challenge. Whoever my fictional lead-guys turned out to be, they had – in some small or large way – to reflect that change.
By now it was late spring and I was beginning to map the wiring diagram that kept Pompey’s CID operation together. Most enquiries, generated by so called “volume crime”, were handled by teams of detectives at divisional level. These were the D/Cs that occupied large open offices and spent most of their time juggling a number of jobs as the tide of petty crime ebbed and flowed around the city. A typical caseload might include shoplifting, minor assaults, housebreaks, vehicle theft, and a whole range of drug-related offences. These sharp end detectives reported to Detective-Sergeants, or “skippers”, who in turn did the bidding of a Detective Inspector, or D/I.
Already, after a number of conversations, I’d sensed that this was the desk my series hero would have to occupy, largely because it offered me – and hence my readers – a useful overview as the plot developed. A D/I on division was where the investigative buck stopped. This was the guy with his thumb in the dyke when it came to somehow containing the swamp of volume crime. This was the poor bastard who had to cope with all the bollocks about performance indicators and risk management while trying to put an ever-lengthening queue of delinquent kids and sundry low-life in court. If I was after someone on the edge of a nervous breakdown, I need look no further.
Major crime, on the other hand, was infinitely more sexy. Force-wide, there were three Major Crime Teams and the one responsible for the eastern part of the force area was based at Pompey’s Kingston Crescent police station. Major crime was defined as murder, kidnap and stranger rape and I was gladdened to discover that our patch had generated no less than 12 killings over the past year and a half. The guy in charge was a Detective Superintendent called Steve Watts and Roly thought he’d be happy to see me.
I’d already heard about Steve Watts. J-R was a big fan. Wattsie, he said, was a detective’s detective. Led from the front. Didn’t put up with any crap from anyone. Lots of experience. Fair but tough as fuck.
I made a call and we arranged to meet. Steve occupied a big sunny office on the third floor of a block behind the police station. This was the heart of the Major Crime Team. There were photos of his kids on the window sill behind the L-shaped desk and a conference table with space for eight chairs suggested a lot of meetings. A poster for Kosovo hung on the wall beside a couple of flip charts and a bookcase held bound copies of the Criminal Law Review. Steve himself sat behind the desk, shooting regular glances at his P/C screen. He was a big man, physically imposing, with a dry sense of humour and a taste for exquisite suits. His voice was low and he disliked having to repeat himself. If you were wise, you listened hard and wrote everything down. J-R was right. This wasn’t a man with time to waste.
Our meeting that morning, the first of many, was central to my understanding of the way CID works. It turned out that my suspicions about the treadmill of volume crime were spot-on. The blokes on division, said Steve, had his fullest sympathies, especially the D/I in charge. Everything that was complicated, everything from child protection issues to the management of informants, ended up on his desk. He worked ball-breaking hours for very little reward. His only guarantee, the only thing he could be absolutely sure of, was that so-called “vol crime” would never go away. It was like the weather, or gravity. Pompey scrotes would never give up. Never. You could depend on it. Yet this same luckless divisional D/I was expected to drive the PI stats ever upward and somehow put a shine on the city’s face.
The PI stats, of course, were the dreaded Performance Indicators, a set of yardsticks the Home Office used to benchmark individual forces. This was the cross that uniform and CID both had to bear, part of New Labour’s determination to quantify and measure absolutely everything, but to Steve Watts’ quiet satisfaction neither murder nor rape were subject to PIs. This I found puzzling. Why on earth not? Steve looked briefly troubled. Twat question. How on earth do you quantify evil?
For the next hour, he gave me a feel for the Major Crime machine. How the Major Incident Room down the corridor worked. The kind of difference the HOLMES 2 software had made, keeping tabs on a fast-expanding enquiry. How the Senior Investigating Officer’s best friend was his Policy Book, a record of every decision he made. What the Receiver, and the Statement Reader, and the Actions Allocater did. How an enquiry’s Intelligence Cell was constantly scoping the forward radar, looking for promising lines of enquiry, constantly squeezing the orange until there was nothing left to know. How the theory and practise of interviewing came together in the PEACE formula (Preparation, Encounter, Account, Challenge, Evaluation). And why, at every stage of an investigation, everyone had to be thinking court. “We’re evidence gatherers,” he said. “And every single particle of that evidence has to be lawyer-proof.”
Coming away from an interview like that, priceless in all kinds of ways, it was impossible not to be aware of the sheer size of the challenge I seemed to have taken on. For the first book, to kick off the series, I fancied putting my D/I on division. That way I could expose him to the rough and tumble of Pompey life, already a major feature of the books I had mind. Pressure is the working novelist’s best friend and the D/Is I’d met for real had to cope with lots of it. After a couple of books, though, the development of the series might warrant a step upwards, into the world of Steve Watts, where a murder or a stranger rape might offer a little more in the way of job – and maybe plot – satisfaction. Either way, though, it was very obvious that I had to get the procedural small print right. Otherwise these conversations would be over.
It was at this point that I began to develop an interest in bird watching. Roly was a passionate birder. By now I was getting to know him a bit and I think I understood why. He had an innate gift for analysis and tabulation – getting things in the right columns and the right order – and this served him equally well in the office during working hours, and out in the field at weekends. He also had a talent for understanding the bigger picture: how a tiny detail can shed light on something important though apparently unrelated.
The appearance of a super-rare Long billed Murrelet in South Devon, for instance, can signal immense jet stream disturbances high in the stratosphere thousands of miles away because this little bird is a native of Eastern Russia and Japan and has no business to be chasing fish off Dawlish beach. These linkages fascinated me, as did the sheer depth of his knowledge. At dusk, in the depths of the New Forest, he could pick up the distinctive churring of a night jar at extreme ranges. Likewise, the briefest stir of movement amongst the reeds at the edge of one of the ponds on Milton Common would alert him to the presence of a family of coots. How did he know all this stuff? And how could he remember it?
By now, I was beginning to get a fix on the kind of detective I wanted to spend my next three working years with. He needed to be someone reflective, someone solitary, someone a little abandoned by life. At work, he’d be harassed and pressurised as everyone else in the Job and as a direct result – like many coppers I’d got to know – he’d make sure he did something completely different in his spare time. Football wouldn’t be my guy’s game. Neither would rock-climbing or jet skiing or any of the countless contact sports favoured by younger detectives. Birding, on the face of it, felt like a bit of a steal but the more I thought about buying my man a pair of binos or a decent scope, the more it made sense.
Cops, after all, are the world’s prime witnesses when it comes to all the symptoms that badge the disintegrating bits of our society. Whether it’s family breakdown, or alcohol abuse, or Class “A” drugs, or poverty, or simple ignorence, crime is often the consequence. And where there’s crime, you’ll find coppers. My guy, like so many detectives I’d begun to meet, would be wearied by the sheer volume of human debris that washed up at his office door, by the broken lives and hopeless prospects, by the pissed young mothers and their absent partners, by the unthinking cruelties we so often inflict upon each other in the name of getting even. And so, as often as practically possible, he’d need to turn his back on all this mayhem and get away. And what better solace than to find himself a perch on the foreshore at Keyhaven, or at the Farlington RSPB site, or on a cliff top on the Isle of Wight, and spend a couple of hours peering into another of nature’s hierarchies, untainted by stolen welfare cheques or a bellyful of Stella?
One afternoon, on yet another birding expedition, I put this notion to Roly. At last I had a name for my cop. He was to be called Faraday, partly after the discoverer of electricity (the bringer of light, ho-ho), but mainly because the name sits so well on the tongue. I broke this news to Roly. Faraday, I said, was going to be a birder.
“Because that’s his way of staying sane.”
I tried to explain about dipping out of one world and into another. Birding, I said, would offer a gentler take on the difficult business of trying to trying to conjure order from chaos, of trying to stay sane in the face of increasingly impossible odds.
Roly shot me a look, not a good sign.
“Have you ever seen a kittiwake pushing other bird’s young out of a cliff top nest?” he inquired. “Do you know what a peregrine falcon can do to a pigeon?”
I said I didn’t. And that, in any case, it didn’t matter. I really liked the contrast. Really, really, liked it.
He shook his head, reached for another bacon sandwich.
“Pure fantasy”, he said. “I thought you were better than this.”
I wasn’t. The next piece of Faraday came from another friend, a poet called George Marsh. I’d decided by now that I was going to give Faraday a deaf-mute son, a lad he’d been bringing up as a single parent for the last twenty years. A back-story like that struck me as both distinctive and potentially interesting. The problem was I knew nothing about deaf kids.
George occupied an interestingly cavernous house in Southsea, cooked like an angel, and penned great haiku. He also had a grown-up son called Jessie who’d been severely deaf since birth. George had been a single parent for most ofJessie’s life and – early on – had faced the challenge of establishing some kind of contact. He’d achieved this immense task in a variety of ways, including a robust insistence – against the prevailing wisdom – of the importance of sign and gesture. For George, the key to communication was getting through and if a raised glass successfully signalled are you thirsty?, then so be it.
George had also kept a kind of diary through the long years of Jessie’s youth, and he was generous enough to let me see it. Entry by entry I tracked his battle to bring fatherhood into the near-silence of Jessie’s world. This enterprise became a shared journey, and as the relationship between them deepened it I knew that Faraday would have been through something like this. Maybe birding might have provided the bridge into his young son’s life. Maybe they started with books, with images, with wild life movies on TV, then stepped into the real thing, planning expeditions together, consulting maps, dreaming up picnics, building a shared fortress against the bafflements of the world outside. By now, Faraday had a Christian name: Joe. His boy, Joe Junior, became J-J.
Stepping away from detailed background research and trying to people this new landscape with characters of your own invention is the strangest process. To date, writing one-off thrillers, I’d welcomed the annual challenge to turn months of reading and dozens of conversations into fictional flesh and blood. The plot itself, that web of circumstance which would put my guys to the test, dictated various combinations of vice and virtue. Molly Jordan, the mother in The Perfect Soldier, determined to find out what really happened to her son in the Angolan minefields, must have a rock-like determination to nail the truth. While Todd Llewellyn, the ageing poster boy of a top-rating TV current affairs show, must be equally determined to sprinkle a little stardust on his flagging reputation. The tension between these two characters, with the addition of a carefully chosen supporting cast, had to power the novel from page to page but if I got these people wrong then the damage would be limited to a single book. Now, with a three-book contract on my desk, that escape lane was well and truly closed. I was going to be living with these people for at least three years. I had to get them right.
So Faraday became ever more important, the key to a door that might unlock Pompey and shed light on untold fictional goodies. What was the rest of his back-story? Where did he live? What did he eat? What kind of car did he drive? How come had to bring J-J up single-handed? And – most important of all – what was he like as a bloke?
A fellow scribe once told me that the working novelist can – literally – play God. He was, of course, right but all that creative freedom comes with a big fat health warning. Your hero has to work on the page. He (or she) has to be credible. And they have to carry a sizeable readership to the very end of the book (or, in this case, series). So what was I going to do about Joe Faraday?
I went for lots of walks. I tried to picture this man, tried to put him in one of the countless offices I’d visited over the last couple of months, tried to imagine him in management meetings, in the interview suite, in bed. With J-J grown up and gone, how would he resume a private life he’d neglected for the past two decades? Where might that lead him? Who would he invite into this suddenly solitary life of his?
As the questions piled up, I became less and less certain of the answer. Then, one lunchtime, as I was leaving Kingston Crescent police station, I held the door open for a middle-aged man in a grey suit who was stepping in off the street. I think he was a detective but I can’t be sure. I don’t have a name and I’ve never seen him since but I knew at once that he was Faraday.
He was maybe a stone overweight. He was about my height, 5’11”. He had greying hair and a full beard. He moved with that hint of caution that suggested a lower back problem. His grey suit badly needed a press. He looked a little bruised by life. But when he spared me a glance and a nod of thanks for holding the door open there was something in his eyes that spoke of gentleness and a sense of amused detachment. This was someone who’d been around a bit, someone who’d found a perch on the very edges of life, someone who knew how to watch, and listen, and draw the appropriate conclusions. In some respects, this guy was very CID. In others, he was anything but. But, from where I was standing, this was very definitely my man.
Next I had to find somewhere for him to live. The guarantee of a decent selection of birds took me to the city’s eastern shore, where Pompey peters out into the tufty semi-drained marshland that fringes Langstone Harbour. A footpath skirts the mudflats the whole length of the island on which the city is built and at the southern end I found the perfect house.
It looked Victorian. It was a two-storey construction, red brick with white clapboard. It had a usefully-sized garden and – from the big upstairs windows – an upper circle view of the gleaming silver-gray spaces of the harbour. At once, I could see Joe Faraday up there, seated behind his telescope, tallying the birdlife as it came and went. This would be his refuge, his sanity. This was where he and his son would have turned deafness into something briefly magical before the stroppiness of adolescence began to put the boy beyond reach. This was where Faraday turned his back on the city and the Job, closed the door, and became a human being again.
In real life, the house is called Beach Lodge. A couple of hundred metres south are a pair of lock gates that once offered access to the canal that linked Langstone Harbour on one side of Portsea island to Portsmouth Harbour on the other. This masterpiece of Victorian strategic thinking, linking to more canals inland that would take shipping north to London, was designed to protect precious military cargoes from the marauding French out in the English Channel. Within a decade it had been overtaken by the coming of the railways but the lock gates and traces of the canal itself still survive. Sensing already that I’d be wanting to tell bits of Pompey’s story, as well as Faraday’s, I seized on this tiny fragment of history. Thus Beach Lodge became The Bargemaster’s House.
But books like these – indeed, any books – have to be credible. The Bargemaster’s House wouldn’t be cheap. At the time I needed Faraday to move in – a year or so after J-J’s birth – he’d still be in his early twenties. So how on earth would he afford a place like this? And, equally important, what had happened to J-J’s mum?
This turned out to be the perfect example of one plot problem solving another. Already I knew that I wanted Faraday to have been a bit of a rebel and a bit of a romantic. In the sixth form at his Bournemouth comprehensive he scores good “A” levels in English, History and Economics. A place at university is his for the asking but instead he blows most of his savings on a cheapie air ticket to New York, works his way from illegal job to illegal job, and ends up in Seattle on the west coast. There, he celebrates his nineteenth birthday by meeting a woman called Janna in a downtown bookshop. Janna, at 27, is feisty, big-boned, strong-minded, full of appetite, and already making her name as an art photographer.
A passionately reckless love affair results in almost instant pregnancy. Janna and Faraday return to UK, at first camping out with Joe’s parents who have sold up in Bournemouth and moved to Freshwater on the Isle of Wight where Faraday’s mum is now running a modest B&B. Faraday gets himself a seasonal driving job delivering fancy goods and other knick-knacks to seaside outlets. This income, plus a £350 parental loan, secures Janna and Faraday the rental deposit on a damp, draughty, mice-ridden rented bungalow in Freshwater Bay. They guard their new privacy with fierce delight.
Four months later, Joe junior is born. Within weeks, Janna is diagnosed with an advanced tumour in her left breast. This turns out to be her second tussle with cancer, a medical detail she’d never shared with her lover. By the year’s end, she’s dead.
Faraday, as a single parent, now needs a proper job, plus regular help with the infant J-J. His mum offers to do whatever she can but – independent to the last – Faraday is keen to find some other solution. He makes inquiries about a career in the police with the Hampshire Constabulary. He does well at the interviews. But his two-year induction as a probationer will have to take him back to mainland. At this point, fate intervenes in the shape of Janna’s parents. They like what they’ve seen of their son-in-law and they adore J-J. They also have serious money and insist on Faraday accepting a sizeable cheque plus a regular allowance. This pays for both the Bargemaster’s House and a daily nanny for J-J.
Serendipity? Well, yes. But the plot needs this kind of bend in Faraday’s road and it sets him up nicely for the kind of guy he’s got to become. How many other fictional cops have spent the last twenty years bringing up a child who turns out to be deaf? And how many of these guys have devoted the best parts of themselves to a shared passion for birds?
At this point in the development of the series, I was beginning to get excited by the prospects. In the shape of my hero-protagonist, I seemed to have come up with someone genuinely distinctive. Twenty years on from J-J’s birth, this is a man who knows how to cook a decent meal, who drives a clapped out Mondeo, who has a commendable indifference to material goods (apart from his precious Leica Red Dot binoculars), who grows a fine row of tomatoes, who knows a thing or two about Brent Geese, and who can do serious damage to a bottle of Cotes du Rhone.
My months of research, thanks to an ever-expanding circle of police contacts, had also given me a feel for the realities of police work. This, to no one’s surprise, wasn’t the world of serial killers and endless car chases. On the contrary, most of the guys I’d got to know spent a great deal of time chasing feral kids, stoned single mums, and a small army of walking wounded who simply couldn’t cope with daily life. Back at the office, knackered and probably empty-handed, they could expect a four-hour stack of paperwork before clocking off.
This was emphatically crime in the minor key, hopelessly real, but once again the challenge lay in trying to turn a problem on its head. I was aware by now that I faced serious competition out in the commercial market place. Half of the UK, it seemed to me, were penning crime fiction. A lot of it was taken straight off the telly – serial killers, car chases – so if I was to fence off a bit of this precious turf I had to do something radically different. And what bolder move than to try and turn the minor key into major sales figures? To try and write crime fiction so real, so procedurally accurate, so in keeping with what the Job had become, that any working cop would read the stuff and shudder at its accuracy?
As a mission statement I was aware at once that this might not win me many friends amongst my fellow scribes, or even in Orion sales conferences. The marketing honchos in mainstream publishing love what Hollywood call “high concept”. Bring on the barbecue killer and the paedo who feasts on babies’ heads. Use any colour on the fictional palette as long as it’s black. Make the stuff darker and darker until you’ve out-yukked everything else in the marketplace. There’s an undeniable commercial logic behind all this. No author ever lost money by making people lock their doors at night.
So what would the likes of Malcolm Edwards make of a mission statement like mine? An invitation to share the world of a bunch of deeply paranoid coppers trying to cope with an impossible job? To be frank, I’d no idea but I also knew that I had little choice. Luck had brought me Joe Faraday and the realities of his working world. All I had to do now was write a book.