I remember covering a particularly grim murder in a wealthy area of Edinburgh a few years ago. The dismembered body of a former history teacher, who had been jailed for sexually abusing pupils, was found wrapped in a carpet beneath a pile of rubbish. He’d been hacked in to six pieces.
There were several remarkable things about this story, which is why it sticks with me 10 years later.
Firstly, the details of the murder were unusually shocking, so much so that it could have been the plot for an Ian Rankin book.
Secondly, hang on a second, the crime scene was on the next street along from Ian Rankin’s home.
Thirdly, Ian Rankin turned up at the scene to have a look!
It was almost unbelievable!
But the most remarkable part of the story, as far as I was concerned as a budding author who had just finished his first draft, was that Rankin said it was the first time he had been to a real murder scene.
I vividly remember reading the copy our Edinburgh reporter filed to the news desk in London.
Rankin said: “I received a phone call this morning and was told there had been a murder just around the corner. Obviously I could not believe it. This is not the sort of area you expect this sort of thing to happen.
“It’s almost better than fiction to have this kind of thing happen on your doorstep. I took a walk down and saw police removing the wheelie bins outside and tagging them for evidence.
“It was also extremely interesting to see how many police were there and what they were doing. While I write about murders in the Rebus novels I’ve never been to a real murder scene before. Watching the real thing will make the books even more realistic.”
Now, I’m a huge fan of Ian Rankin. The Rebus books have been inspirational to me. Let me make it absolutely clear that nothing I say from here on is in any way a slight on him. That would be absolutely ridiculous from someone in my position. In my opinion, he is the rarest of talents, the best crime writer of his generation and the shelf-full of his books in my living room have plot lines to die for.
The point of this blog is that it got me thinking about whether it is essential to have experienced everything you write about. As Rankin said on his visit to the crime scene, first hand experience can leave an indelible mark on you. Obviously you need a good plot and strong characters, but for a first time writer, the experience of reporting from dozens of crime scenes gave me confidence in what I was doing.
There’s a certain atmosphere at the scene of a murder – a bit like how Christmas Day somehow feels different to any other day. It’s difficult to put your finger on why, but there’s a certain serenity, a definite finality. You can feel it in your bones, your soul.
There’s all the comings and goings by all sorts of police officers, pathologists and forensics. It’s fascinating to watch. Then, of course, there are the journalists, photographers and camera crews to add their own black humour to the occasion.
Beyond the crime scene, there are the interviews with grieving friends and relatives. As a journalist and a human being there are few less appealing jobs than knocking on someone’s door in the days after their loved one’s murder and asking for an interview. Why would anyone let you in? Of course there are valid reasons for doing it beyond filling column inches and TV news bulletins. Some people find solace in a public tribute and some use it to appeal for witnesses. Either way, the process is extremely difficult for all concerned. I’m not ashamed to admit I fought back tears during my first successful “death knock” as a man told me the tragic story of his young wife’s death on their honeymoon. If you’ve ever sat in death’s living room and listened to someone recount the last moments of their loved one’s life, you cannot come away unmarked.
After the interview there is the inquest and the inevitable court case. Hours of evidence comes out about the last known movements, injuries, post mortem examinations and forensic tests. It’s methodical and fascinating. To follow a murder investigation through from the first report of a missing person, to a conviction in a criminal court is a journey like no other.
So in SNJ, when I write about a crime scene, the journalism and the police process, I do so with a deep experience. At times, it’s a very personal and emotional experience as you’ll read in the first chapter. It doesn’t need imagination. There is enough drama there already.