I have a confession to make. There’s a mistake in my book. Not a spelling or grammar error, although there might be. I spent four days reading through an e-pub and pdf versions of my debut novel and you never know what you’re going to miss. No, this is a big clanger of a mistake and shows I didn’t do enough research.
I’m writing a police procedural series set in Wiltshire and Last Seen is my debut novel. My protagonist is DI Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Noel, a former Met officer transferred to police headquarters in Devizes for her own safety. Of course, I’ve already set myself up to fail by writing about cops. There are a lot of rules and regulations around policing and rightly so. Getting it correct in fiction is never going to be easy.
If I wrote a story in the same way that an actual investigation took place then it would be an incredibly long book with periods of time when not a lot happens. So authors have to cut corners and perhaps bend the facts to fit the fiction. We see this all the time on TV crime drama programmes where results come back in minutes or witnesses are allowed in court before they give evidence. You can’t get away with pushing it too far though and your police officers have to behave authentically and correctly.
One way to get things right is to read books by police officers, both former and currently serving. Some of those writing fiction are Clare Mackintosh, Rebecca Bradley and Lisa Cutts. They subtly weave the procedure in without it standing out so as a reader you don’t really notice it. Other former officers, like Stuart Gibbon, have produced reference guides for writers to use. Forensic experts such as Professor Dame Sue Black, Professor Angela Gallop and Dr Richard Shepherd have shared their expertise in their respective fields of forensic anthropology, crime scenes and pathology.
Watching TV crime dramas about real cases, especially those viewed from the police angle, are another good source. Two excellent examples are Manhunt and more recently, The Pembrokeshire Murders. Manhunt told the story of DCI Colin Sutton and his team as they investigated and then arrested Levi Bellfield for the murders of Amelie Delagrange and Marsha McDonnell and the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy. He was later convicted for the murder of Milly Dowler. As I live in south west London I remember those cases well, particularly Milly Dowler. The Pembrokeshire Murders, which aired earlier this year, looked at the cold cases of Richard and Helen Thomas in 1985 and Peter and Gwenda Dixon in 1989. The senior investigating officer was Detective Superintendent Steve Wilkins. His dogged determination to find the right evidence eventually paid off and John Cooper was arrested, charged and the successfully prosecuted.
Although TV crime dramas based on real cases are good, factual programmes about the police and forensic services give a better insight into real life policing. 999 What’s Your Emergency? and 24 Hours in Police Custody are great to watch to see how people are arrested, booked in at custody and then questioned. You also get to see how the officers find evidence through various means and build the case. Forensics: The Real CSI demonstrates how to collect evidence properly and then the painstaking work at the lab afterwards that will hopefully get the results needed.
So, what is my mistake? It’s to do with Crimestoppers. If you haven’t heard of them, they’re a charity you can contact completely anonymously to give information about a crime. I’ve seen the number many times on Crimewatch or on the news so I knew what it was all about. Wrong. In Last Seen, I have it that the police officers know the anonymous call came from a pay phone. This would never happen. Whether you ring or use the website, not only do Crimestoppers not give out contact details to the police, they don’t know it themselves. There are protections in place both on the telephone lines and on the website.
How did I discover my mistake? Towards the end of January this year I did an online workshop with Graham Bartlett, a former Chief Superintendent with Sussex Police. It was a chance remark he made about Crimestoppers never giving out contact details to the police. I have to say, my heart sank at that point. Just a week before I’d handed in my final proofs for Last Seen. No more changes could be made. So here I am, owning my mistake. I had asked advice from former police officers but not on this specific point. I could say that I had to bend the fact to fit the fiction but had I known, I could have found a way round it. Thankfully, I got a lot of information from Graham that will help with book two in the series. Although I may still have to use some artistic licence and be a bit ‘flexible’. Fiction is fiction after all.
(c) Joy Kluver
You can find Joy’s blog at joykluver.wordpress.com
About Last Seen:
‘A little girl is missing from under her mother’s nose. She’ll be scared and vulnerable – if she’s still alive. But no one is helping us search. No one wants to give us information. No one even seems surprised. What’s going on?’
Detective Bernadette Noel came to this quiet rural corner of south-west England from London to lie low after a high-profile prosecution led to death threats against her family. But she has barely settled in when the call comes. A woman’s voice, shrill with terror and thick with tears: ‘Help – it’s my daughter, Molly – I only had my back turned for a minute… She’s gone!’
A child abduction is about as far from lying low as it gets, and her boss wants to assign a different detective. But there’s no way Bernie’s not taking the case – she can’t miss this chance to prove herself.
Five-year-old Molly Reynolds has been snatched from the playground in the village where she lives. Normally in cases like this the community is an asset – eager to help search and full of local knowledge. But although Molly’s mother Jessica is in anguish, the other villagers don’t seem to want to know.
As details emerge, Bernie discovers a possible link to a shocking crime that has never been solved, and which the locals have never forgotten. But what exactly is the connection to Molly’s abduction? Cracking a cold case is the only way to find out – and meanwhile time is running out for Molly.
A dark and compelling crime thriller that will have you reading late into the night. If you like Val McDermid, D.S. Butler or Angela Marsons, you’ll love Joy Kluver.
Order your copy online here.