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Serendipity

 

 

The Gods of Opportunity rarely come calling twice in one week (see Monday’s post) but here’s another slice of luck.

 

Research on Book Three is progressing well.  The plot centres on three generations of a massively dysfunctional family sharing a huge Victorian pile by the river Exe in a picture-postcard village called Topsham.  84 year old Rupert Moncrieff is the brooding presence at the top of the tottering pile of misfits, alcoholics, divorcees, and the serially disappointed.  Moncrieff is very rich, very mean and very manipulative.  On page one he’s also found very dead.  You start to get the picture.

 

As Operation Amber cranks up, it falls to D/S Jimmy Suttle to explore the victim’s past in order to nail anyone with an interest in battering the old monster to death.  Suttle unearths trillions of promising enemies but the richest line of enquiry leads to Moncrieff’s role in the brutal suppression of the Mau-Mau uprising in Fifties Kenya, then still under British rule.  Researching this important sub-plot has been the work of many months but is now complete.  The darkest of days.  Perfect for what I have in mind.

 

But the editorial team at Orion came up with an additional challenge.  Jimmy Suttle, they felt, needed a little more depth, a little more motivation, a little more anger.  After an in-depth discussion with Oli Munson, my agent, we decided they were right.  But to make this piece of character-tuning work, something needs to have happened between Book Two (Touching Distance – to be published in hardback and e-versions next month) and Book Three.  Spelling this out would be the all-time spoiler but here’s a clue: it involves a mad person (or should I say, an individual with serious and on-going mental health issues).

 

As it happens, my youngest son has just completed a long stint on the front line with various Mental Health teams and he paints a grim picture of budgets cut to the bone, of over-worked staff going bonkers by the minute, and of a safety net that has simply disappeared.  This would make perfect sense in a world beset by three years of Osborne economics but can this kind of collapse in provision really lead to the fictional trauma that I have in mind?  To be sure, I needed to talk to the police.

 

A couple of days ago, again thanks to serendipity, saw me accepting one of the prized annual invites to attend an exercise involving the Devon and Cornwall PSUs (Public Support Units).  These are the guys in the full Ninja kit who rock up when the EDL come to town to prevent the crazies turning a modest demo into a full-scale riot.  The exercise took place on a fog-shrouded airfield in deepest Cornwall.  I and a handful of other guests were tasked to bombard the Ninjas with blocks of wood and binfuls of baton rounds.  Bliss.

 

On the way down to Cornwall I shared a car with Paul Netherton, an old mate from the Hampshire force and now one of Devon and Cornwall’s Asst Chief Constables.  He enjoys the books and asked about the next one.  I explained about the mental health issues that are suddenly critical to Jimmy Suttle’s fictional future and then popped the key question:  just how does the seeming collapse of mental health services affect the police?

 

Paul rolled his eyes.  a huge chunk of police time, he said, was occupied not with the Bad but the Mad.  Why?  Because real provision for these guys is becoming very hard to find.  Police arrest someone who has medication problems and has kicked off big-time.  In former days they could have sectioned him (or her) but this has become problematic because bedspace is very hard to find.  Banging them up in a custody cell rarely helps their state of mind.  A&E don’t want to know.  Local Mental Health teams do their best but are fighting a rising tide of serious psychiatric trauma.  Which leaves the arrestee in exactly the kind of spooky vacuum that might have made them crazy in the first place.

 

I pressed Paul further.  So why should we be worried?  He obliged with a recent story that had already made it into the media but was news to me. 

 

It happened in sleepy Sidmouth, a genteel seaside town in East Devon.  An elderly man is sitting in a local on darts night.  He’s peaceable, no threat to anyone, just minding his own business.  Also in the crowded pub is a younger man.  The younger man eyes him for a while, then gets up, produces a bayonet,  kills the old guy with a single thrust, and returns to his table to finish his drink.  Mad.  Totally bonkers. And – as it turned out - extremely dangerous.

 

This, it seems to me, is the tip of a particularly menacing iceberg and amply serves to confirm that we live in an altogether more volatile world than even crime writers can imagine.  As so often happens, real life outstrips fiction.  By some calculations, mental health issues affect 10% of the UK population.  And amongst them, as a victim, will be Jimmy Suttle.

 

And here’s another ironic twist.  Back on the airfield for the Ninja exercise, I spent a happy afternoon in the thin Cornish drizzle pretending to be the EDL.  I and my buddies pelted the coppers with baton rounds and watched them edge forward behind their perspex shields as instructors added a pile of petrol bombs to the challenges they had to overcome.  The EDL, under leader Tommy Robinson, are due in Exeter next month.  Hence, to some degree, the exercise.

 

We sped back to Devon.  On the six’o’clock news, that same Tommy Robinson announced that he had discovered the miracle of democracy.  No more angry demos for him.  Henceforth it is to be social media, letters to his MP, and whatever other forms of gentle lobbying he can dream up.

 

When I got home I passed on the news to Lin.  She wondered about the Ninja guys on the airfield.  Would they be gleeful? Disappointed? Or what?  Excellent questions.  To which I don’t have an answer.