Guest Post - The Study of Murder
Research is not only important when you’re looking to write a book, it can also be a hugely enjoyable experience. When you write crime fiction you not only get to learn about police procedure and the basic mechanics of criminal investigations, but also you need to understand how specific crimes are committed, plus of course the impact of them. For me, research has been a real learning curve and I have been fascinated by it.
One the policing side you need to understand (as much as possible) how an investigation proceeds, who the main players are, the different ranks and their roles, as well as the influence of the pathologist, which is far greater than many people might think. Recently I actually queried whether a Detective Inspector would be a Senior Investigating Officer in a major murder enquiry, because recent TV documentaries have suggested that Detective Superintendents and Chief Inspectors would normally take up that role. It was interesting to me how something like that might actually depend on where in the country it took place, and which members of staff were available at the time.
For my book Bad to the Bone, released recently by Bloodhound Books, in addition to the procedural stuff I also did a great deal of research into anthropology, archaeology and palaeontology, because the storyline revolves around the discovery of human bones which have been in the ground for many years. The book is set in Peterborough, UK, and as I live in the city I used a bit of local knowledge and included a character who was currently working at the Flag Fen Bronze-Age dig.
For my next book, Degrees of Darkness, due to be released on 28 September this year, my specialist research was taxidermy. I actually called a taxidermist and spoke to them for about an hour or more, furiously making notes as I went along. Again, whilst the end result of taxidermy is, for me, a little creepy, I was absorbed by the process itself.
Works in progress have had me researching the National Crime Agency, the Los Angeles police department, FBI, San Quentin prison, the death penalty system in the USA, as well as native American institutes, reservations and casinos. An awful lot of work went into all of that, I can tell you.
Yet with all that research done, the secret of using it in your writing is more about what not to use and when not to use it. Some readers may well be as captivated by the information as you were when researching, but others will want you to get on with the story. So you need to weave it into the story, not just do massive info dumps in order to reveal how knowledgeable you are about the subject. Info dumps are useful at times – but you do need to work on the how and when, and that takes experience. Have I included too much of my research in my first two books? I guess the readers will be the judge of that, and certainly as far as Bad to the Bone is concerned, no one has complained about it, whilst others have mentioned how much they enjoyed it.
One final thing about research: writers of fiction expect a little leeway when it comes to their work. It is fiction, after all. However, I think today’s more sophisticated and knowledgeable readers increasingly demand factual consistency, and so it is incumbent on us as writers to ensure that we do our due diligence when researching. That said, I still fall back on the fact that it is a work of fiction, and therefore if I can’t find out the true facts about something then I have the right to just make it up. Just as someone out there who does know the truth has to the right to call me on it.
At the end of the day, I think if you want to write about murder then you should also be willing to study it a little. Hopefully, you’ll end up enjoying it every bit as much as I do.
Q) You mention researching various criminal cases, which has been the most shocking you have come across?
A) One that fascinated me was a case in New Hampshire where in 1985 a metal drum containing garbage bags was found by a hunter, and inside the bags were two bodies – a woman and a child. They had been beaten to death, and although police speculated they were mother and daughter, they were never identified. Fifteen years later, a cop assigned to the cold case revisited the site and found another drum not far from the site of the first. Inside were two more bodies – both children. It was later revealed that one was related to the first two bodies, but the other one was not. To date, these bodies have still not been identified. It’s a shocking case, made worse by the fact that this woman and three young children had dropped off the map so much that their murders were never linked to identities.
Q) The impact of crime is something, not always covered in media or films. What influenced the decision to feature that point of view?
A) Usually you have the murder victim, the murder(s) and the police investigating. But what about the families of those who were murdered? Their grieving, their emotions, are often seen as little more than a by-product. But when the dust has settled, it is they who have to endure that unbearable loss. Their stories are often lost in the mix.
Q) You researched various USA police agencies, what was the most fascinating theme within the American justice theme?
A) I think it was the Californian death penalty. There are around 3,000 on death row right now, of which almost 750 are in California. All male death row prisoners are in one prison – San Quentin. But despite the death penalty still being legal in California, the state has not executed anyone since 2006. That was Clarence Ray Allen, who was also the oldest person executed there at the age of 76.
Q) how does American justice differ to the UK systems?
A) The sheer volume of different law enforcement agencies for one. The legal procedures are also labyrinthine, and people can be behind bars for years before their cases ever reach court. One serious factor is the use of private prisons, and there have been several companies responsible for buying off judges in order to increase the local prison population.
Q) Taxidermy, I am frightened to ask, but I must! What have you learnt in your taxidermy research? and in particular regarding human taxidermy?
A) And you’re right to be frightened…but seriously, the difficulty factor is enormous even with small creatures, let alone the larger human form. Essentially, you have to peel off the skin, remove everything that can rot, boil the bones, pad it out to create a natural form, and then pop the skin back on. Easy peasy…would you like to give it a whirl?