Category Archives: Research

The Trolley Problem

A runaway streetcar is hurtling down a track and will kill a group of five unsuspecting people in its path. If you could pull a lever and divert the trolley onto a track where only one person will die, would you do that?

Or would you do nothing?

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Alternatively, if your only other option was to push a very large man off a bridge into the path of the trolley, knowing that he would die but the trolley would stop, would you do that in order to save five people?

Most people say they’d pull the lever but not push the man off the bridge. But is that the right decision?

And what if the five people were children and the large man very old: would that make a difference?

The ‘Trolley Problem’ is a philosophical problem originally devised in 1967 by Oxford philosopher Philippa Foot and developed further by Judith Thomson at MIT. Among many questions it raises, it asks whether, if moral decisions are about outcomes, we need worry about the manner in which we achieve them; whether a passive decision is less culpable than one requiring action; and whether we take certain decisions because they are ‘right’ or only because then we feel better about ourselves.

The Trolley Problem is an excellent exercise for a crime writer, and expresses the kind of dilemma that DI Grace Fisher has to resolve in my new novel Shot Through The Heart.

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On the naming of names

Beginning a new novel means dreaming up new characters. Some will play very minor roles, others may evolve to carry the heart of the story, but they all need names.

This will be the third book in a series featuring Detective Inspector Grace Fisher, following on from Good Girls Don’t Die and Shot Through the Heart (published March 2016). When a name for a new character popped easily into my head, but then felt rather too familiar, I realised that I needed to make a list of all the character names I’ve already used – and was amazed to find there are already well over fifty on the list just for these three books.

If I look back over five novels and almost fifty screenplays for film and TV drama, that’s a lot of people I’ve dreamed up. Enough to populate a small village.

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Some I can barely remember. Others still feel as vivid as friends or colleagues I’ve lost touch with but who nevertheless remain a part of my life, of me.

Naming characters is an odd business. Often a name just doesn’t sit right, which seems to prevent the character quite coming into focus. When that happens, finally hitting upon the right one feels satisfying and important.

When the police have to name an operation, they apparently consult a list compiled from dog breeds, American rivers, English coastal towns or exotic birds. I have used names connected with Shakespeare’s Globe or Victorian watercolourists, and also, when setting something in Manchester, pulled out a class list for a long-ago school reunion. Once, when requested, I named a character in memory of a friend’s mother: it took a while to find a minor character whom I felt really deserved her name.

Quite often I’ll look at lists of pop, movie or sports stars who were in the news the year a character would have been born – the kind of associations meaningful to my character’s parents – and choose something that helps me to keep in mind the world they were born into, the style and aspirations they were brought up with.

As Alfred Hitchcock is said to have remarked, you have to know what your characters keep in their cupboards (dead bodies, skeletons and all). Their name is what has to be written on the door.

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A conversation with an about-to-be-published author

A young woman about to publish her first novel recently asked me if I still got excited – as excited as she clearly was, and jolly well should be – whenever I receive a copy of my latest book. I answered honestly that, while I can clearly remember the physical thrill – like a lightning bolt – I felt in the moment when I first saw my name on a book I had written – non-fiction – in the window of Rizzoli’s in New York thirty-odd years ago, I don’t anticipate the same buzz as I write my tenth book.

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I immediately regretted that my reply might take the shine off her pleasure, and tried to explain that it doesn’t mean that I don’t love writing or publishing any the less. The writing itself gets harder, more complex, more challenging, more deeply satisfying. And – I suddenly realised – what really gives me a thrill, thanks to Twitter, to Amazon reviews, to taking part in literary events, is the connection to an individual reader.

It’s also what I loved about journalism. When I wrote features for newspapers and magazines, once in a while an article would garner a response that showed it had hit a nerve, communicated, shared, perhaps even comforted.

Knowing that, once in a while, one of my novels does the same is very, very exciting.

So thank you for reading!

Ask an expert

Accurate research is a vital part of writing crime fiction. I am spoilt rotten in that I have a recently retired Home Office pathologist in the family. He is incredibly patient and generous about answering my questions, which means that I do try very hard not to ring him up every other sentence. However, I did ask him to read the chapter in Good Girls Don’t Die in which the police and a forensic pathologist attend a murder scene. He talked me through exactly what he would do, and was quite happy for me to omit or bend the procedure for dramatic purposes, but he had one total and absolute sticking point: there was no way the pathologist would drive a Volvo.

When my brother was at his busiest, with sometimes only two forensic pathologists covering several counties, he spent far too many hours in his car, sometimes arriving home past midnight from one job only to get another call and immediately have to drive a further hundred or more miles to another crime scene, and then home again, on his own, eating a service station sandwich and working out what would go in his report, what he’d have to think about when he started the post mortem, and what cruelty or tragedy he’d just seen.

So I rewarded my fictional pathologist with a gold Porsche Panamera.

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I’ve been privileged, writing television crime drama, to have hung out with quite a few serving and retired police officers, from a former head of the Vice squad to beat officers, from detectives on a dedicated ‘burglary artifice’ squad to Jackie Malton, the DCI who inspired Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison. I’ve been out in vans responding to 999 calls and followed officers into people’s homes; been out in the area car that would have been the first on the scene (and I mean, the first) should there be any kind of incident in Downing Street; I’ve watched proceedings in both a coroner’s court and the Old Bailey (even lunched with the judges); played the ‘criminal’ in a CID interview training exercise; and visited an identification parade suite.

And yes, I learnt an enormous amount about process and vocabulary and how things work, but the most valuable lessons lay in gleaning some understanding of what makes people in such professions tick.

Although writing fiction seems horribly trivial in comparison to the responsibilities that those who work in frontline services face every day, nearly everyone has been kind, patient and open-minded. Only once did I witness how easily one bad apple can generate untold mistrust and resentment within a south London community.

What has really helped me feel that I’m writing with some vague authenticity is not so much the accuracy of the physical details as the jokes, the attitudes to life, the food, and the everyday frustrations, like finding a parking ticket on an unmarked CID car. Frontline humour is shockingly black – far blacker than it would ever be possible to reproduce when the context is merely fictional – and so is the intense and apparently bottomless empathy for victims.

Years ago, when I was writing half-hour, stand-alone episodes of The Bill for ITV, I grabbed a story from one of the full-time police advisors on the show. A fairly hard-bitten retired sergeant who quite enjoyed making the writers’ lives difficult, Malcolm told me about a night when an old man on a Zimmer frame had been brought in. The old man had had a suicide pact with his wife, killed her but lacked the physical strength to finish the job on himself. It had been Malcolm’s role as custody sergeant to lock him up and then check on him every half hour.

The story for me was not the old man’s, poignant though it was, but that of the cynical custody sergeant who, by the end of his seemingly endless night shift, could no longer hide his emotion. For me, that story said everything about The Job, about the protective armour that officers grow and about what it takes to pierce it.

Which is why I understood why it was important for my fictional forensic pathologist to drive a flash car, for reasons both obvious (speed, comfort, safety) and more subtle – a different kind of safety, perhaps, a protective cocoon both on the way to a scene and on the way back?

Growing up as the only non-medic in a family of four hospital doctors, I’ve always been interested in what attracts people to frontline jobs, and in how the rules, values and responses to the pressures of such exceptionally intense professions gradually become an unconscious part of who they are. So, while it’s been amazing to have experts willing to explain the nuts and bolts of ballistics, DNA or the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, I’ve also realised that such details are seldom of primary interest to them. I always try to watch out for the ‘tells’ that explain what is in it for them, why they first decided to do what they do, what it takes to be the job, and how they feel about the effects of their work on their everyday lives and their families.

So when you talk to an expert, never mind the facts: find out what car they drive, or get them to tell you a joke. That’ll show you what they really do.

 

This piece first appeared in Red Herrings, the members’ magazine of the Crime Writers’ Association.

Wishes and beliefs

I have just finished reading an excellent piece of journalistic non-fiction, Our Guys by Bernard Lefkowitz. Subtitled The Glen Ridge Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb, it chronicles how the inhabitants of an affluent New Jersey town rallied around not the victim but the high school football ‘heroes’ who inserted a broom and baseball bat into a girl they’d known since childhood, a girl with a mental age of eight.

The rape took place in 1989. With recurrent gang-rape cases involving athletes (all too often footballers) both here and in the US, nothing much seems to have changed in a generation.

What such cases have in common with how the BBC or Chetham’s School of Music or the Catholic Church have all handled allegations of sexual abuse is what Lefkowitz calls ‘a corruption of decent intent’.

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The greater the ‘decency’ of the institution involved, the harder it becomes for those tasked with upholding that decency to trust fragile, uncorroborated, immature, distasteful testimony, and the more reluctant they become to perceive sufficient cause to wound the reputation of a beloved ideal with which they themselves identify. Those who work for a prestigious institution – or cherish the image of a community like Glen Ridge – want it to remain good and unsullied. Wishes become beliefs: victims easily become unreliable, undeserving, predatory, while abusers become tragic victims of a momentary lapse, a witch-hunt, ‘boys will be boys’.

The reason such boys regard themselves as omnipotent is that an institution confers special status on them. The footballer, charismatic music teacher, priest or charity fund-raiser is encouraged to see their own aggressive dominance as heroic; the more they get away with it, the more they internalize the right to dominate.

The symbiotic relationship between institution and abuser means that disowning a hero, one of ‘our guys’, appears to damage or shame the beloved institution. Then the institution appears frail, in need of protection, requiring its leaders to vigorously defend it by attacking the suddenly powerful source of the threat against it. In Glen Ridge – for example – the ‘powerful’ threat was a local schoolgirl with a mental age of eight who couldn’t say no to the gang of ‘jocks’ she idolized. Very few people in that ‘all-American’ suburb spoke up in her defence. Their wish to protect their psychological investment in their beloved ‘institution’ overcame their own vaunted morality.

Winning at any price?

Arnold Pistorius has issued a statement about his nephew, saying that “… this is only the beginning of a long road to prove that, as we know, Oscar never intended to harm Reeva, let alone cause her death.”

Oscar Pistorius’ defence, however, is that he did unquestionably intend to harm someone and cause their death – but merely that that someone was not Reeva Steenkamp.

For Pistorius, the debate is about what kind of murderer he is.

Pistorius’ family have amended his official website to include this statement: “The Pistorius family and Oscar’s management company have been inundated with messages of support and condolences for Oscar and for the family of Reeva Steenkamp from all over the world.”

Condolences for Oscar.

Three days after the killing of ‘Oscar Pistorius’ girlfriend’, his coach Ampie Louw gave a statement saying “I am looking forward to the day I can get my boy back on the track.”

It appears that Oscar Pistorius, his family and management company can all live with an image of him as a man who deliberately set out to kill an unseen and unverified intruder (the hero protecting himself, his property and his woman from however unspecified a threat) and see his lethally violent mistake as a tragedy for their boy.

What is clearly unbearable to him is the self-image of a man who used four bullets to shoot dead a defenceless and possibly terrified woman who was trying to hide from him.

If his account of why he shot to kill is genuine, then of course that is unbearable. (Though he still set out to kill someone who was already cornered.) But if he’s lying, then is his traumatised denial of unbearable reality – that he cannot bear to see himself, or be seen, as that kind of murderer – further evidence of the kind of narcissistic rage that may have fuelled the killing?

In which case, at what point did a family’s laudable aim of raising a disabled child to believe himself capable of any achievement, and their celebration of his amazing Olympic prowess, roll over into such fatal narcissism?

And at what point does the (largely male) discourse of world-class sport all too commonly roll over into such an unhealthy cocktail of self-obsession, entitlement and tunnel vision that it, too, is blind to such narcissism?

Killers often remain in a shocked state of denial about what they’ve done, but I can’t help wondering what part the well-intentioned construction of such narcissistic personality traits has played in both the crime and – regardless of who he intended to kill – the denial of what Oscar Pistorius has done?

Writing with Jimmy McGovern

Shots Crime & Thriller ezine kindly invited me to contribute a guest blog post about writing an episode of the BBC1 series Accused, and working with the series creator, Jimmy McGovern. You can read it here.