Fear Not the Details … by Paul Gitsham
One of the scariest things about writing contemporary police procedurals is the attention to detail that is necessary. To write a modern police investigation that feels authentic requires some insight not only into how the police approach such an enquiry but also an understanding of modern forensics and a working knowledge of the relevant criminal law. You can be forgiven for a bonkers plot or a maverick lead detective, but the armchair DCIs do love a good procedural cock-up to grumble about on GoodReads…
My background is in research science and most recently teaching. I know a number of retired police officers and have a helpful tame CSI. However, most of the senior police officers I know retired over ten years ago and my CSI friend is an expert on crime scene interpretation but has little knowledge of the workings inside a CID Unit. I take what I see in TV dramas with a pinch of salt, because as recent high-profile dramas have demonstrated, accuracy can be sacrificed on the altar of dramatic licence – taking procedural knowledge from such shows and using them to inform your own work can be a bit like a game of Chinese Whispers.
Furthermore, my solicitor friends moved out of criminal law into family law and conveyancing a few years ago. Of course, whilst this is less than useful for me, it’s hard to begrudge them the change, given that even the most difficult mortgage negotiations rarely result in a 3am phone call.
Therefore, this all means that I have to research police procedure from scratch, and it’s a fast-moving, dynamic field. Get it wrong and your readers love to let you know about it… However, Google, Wikipedia (don’t laugh!) and some helpful beta-readers willing to cast an eye over any chapters that I am worried about, mean that over the years I have, touch wood, largely gotten away with it.
But that wasn’t always the case.
“No, it’d never happen like that.”
And so I find myself recalling a rather awkward conversation that I had one New Year’s Eve early in my writing career:
“No, it’d never happen like that.”
My stomach tightened. The scene that my friend was objecting to was one of my favourites in my then work in progress.
DCI Warren Jones has brought in a suspect for questioning. He wants to know where he was at the time of the murder and the suspect is trying to explain his whereabouts. I’m describing this scene, of which I am rather proud, to my two favourite solicitor friends.
“He wouldn’t say anything. The evidence isn’t strong enough,” my mate insists.
“But he’s trying to explain his whereabouts,” I explained, “he’s denying everything.” At this point, I figured my learned friend had just misunderstood the scene (it was gone midnight and the beer fridge was almost empty).
“Doesn’t matter, he should keep his mouth shut.”
“But he wants to explain,” I persevere, a pivotal scene unravelling before my eyes.
“I’m sure he does, but if he was my client I would insist that he simply ‘No comments’.”
Dan’s wife, also a former defence solicitor, joins in. “He’s right, I wouldn’t let my client say anything. You don’t have enough and he’ll only end up incriminating himself.”
I was gutted.
All the drama, the tears and key revelations from that scene would be destroyed. How boring is a man just sitting there saying “no comment?” How frustrating for the reader. How frustrating for DCI Jones. How frustrating for the suspect, who is certain that he can clear everything up with a short explanation, but is prevented from doing so by an over-protective lawyer…
The following day I rewrote the scene. Five times my suspect says “No comment”.
I emailed the chapter to a non-lawyer friend who had already read the previous version.
“Wow. I already liked the scene, but this is ten times better.”
Don’t fear the details
To mangle a much-loved cliché ‘truth really can be more dramatic than fiction’. Whether it’s the fact that everybody who enters a crime scene signs a clipboard (you rarely see that on TV), the obvious precaution that officers who aren’t wearing white paper suits and gloves keep their hands in their pockets to avoid touching anything by accident, or the fact that suspects usually keep their mouths shut in interrogation, these details add authenticity.
But when one of these rather inconvenient truths rears its ugly head and contradicts your original vision, it can make you despair – you can feel cornered. But my advice is don’t fear the details, embrace them! See it as a challenge; as a way of forcing you to work your way around it. Crime fiction, above all other genres, is famed for its ingenuity. To our characters, a setback is merely an opportunity to show how clever they are; to come out of that corner swinging. And are we not the puppet masters in charge of our characters?
Paul Gitsham is the creator of the DCI Warren Jones series. The next novella, At First Glance, is due out in March in ebook from HQDigital (HarperCollins). The 6th full-length novel, A Price to Pay, will be available in June in ebook, with paperback and audiobook in August.