Monday, April 06, 2015

Real Life Detection

I am just back from the Crime Writers Association's annual conference which is solely for members. It's always a particular pleasure because this is the only time when authors get together and don't have to perform or try to sell their books.

It's usually held in an attractive place and the venue this time, Lincoln, was no exception. It is a medieval city set on a hill, with cobbled streets descending steeply (and ascending even more steeply, or so it seems) to the town below.  Sung Evensong in the glorious cathedral was a highlight of the weekend, with wonderful music and even the classic small choirboy in his frilled white ruff with spectacles just slightly askew.

It's great to see old friends and the bars do brisk business for the two nights. But the other great thing about the conferences is the lectures that give us those professional insights from insiders into the topics we write about, which are often very difficult to come by in other ways.

We were well-placed this time. The member who organised it was a former policeman and judging by the amazing goodie bag gifted by local businesses he must have known where all the bodies were buried and didn't hesitate to use the information when it came to extortion. He was also able to persuade local coppers, lawyers, a forensic expert and even a High Court Judge to come and talk to us as well.

The talks were all absorbing and often very funny – as when the young lawyer told us about her nervous, early faux pas: 'Is that the same nose you broke when you were young?' 'How close were the two cars when they collided?' – and hugely informative as well.

For me the most fascinating one was a horrific case of torture and murder. The Detective Superintendent who pursued it for over two years was quietly-spoken and undramatic, and he told us his watchword was Attention to Detail. But when he said, 'I'm not obliged to take the first answer I'm given – nor the second one either,' I did feel glad that I wasn't the criminal he had in his sights.

His job, of course, is not down and dirty on the crime scene. He directs the operation and in this case, with no forensic evidence at all in the house where the murder took place, it was a question of slowly and remorselessly piecing together the circumstantial evidence until the jigsaw made a picture and he got his men.

There is a tendency to dismiss this, particularly among defence lawyers, as 'merely' circumstantial' evidence.  Forensic evidence is certainly the gold standard but after that eyewitness accounts are highly-valued – despite the fact that numerous studies have proved how totally unreliable these can be. But in collecting circumstantial evidence there are no shortcuts and the Detective Superintendent's painstaking investigation was a masterclass in how you could build a plot.

'If you find out how he lived you'll find out how he died,' he said. He had expensively-gathered evidence he didn't use because it was a complicating factor and wasn't rock solid and could weaken the case. He said that every so often he would step back from involvement and take the long view – 'What are the strengths and the vulnerabilities?' There is a jury at the end of every investigation.

I scribbled pages of notes and I'm putting in a lot of work this week in applying some of his principles, clearing less than effective scenes and assessing the strength of the plot, in the hope of a favourable verdict when it comes before my jury – the readers

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