I recall being at a forensics event where my good pal the crime writer Alex Gray was speaking. It was a few days after the spree killing in Cumbria where Derrick Bird had killed 12 people. Bird had shot his twin brother eleven times then drove to the office of the family solicitor and killed him also. Derrick was a taxi driver himself when he opened fire on four other taxi drivers, killing the only one he actually knew. The police considered them targeted shootings, but Bird then went on a random spree killing another nine people.
Bird was a granddad, described as a popular and quiet man. There have been many reasons speculated, a family feud over money, he had just been rejected by a Thai girl he had met on holiday and three of the dead had worked at the Sellafield power plant where Bird had been accused of stealing wood, found guilty and received a twelve month suspended sentence.
Against that background, Alex had to stand up and promote crime fiction to the police and forensic staff who deal with these tragedies day in and day out. It was a tough call.
She started her speech by saying that she wasn't that proud to be a crime writer on that particular day. I understood what she meant but it's not something that has ever troubled me in particular. Real people commit real crimes. We write stories that amuse people waiting in airports and in dentists' waiting rooms. We set puzzles for people to solve. The two things are miles apart.
But thinking about it, I realise that I do have some reservations about a crime writing friend of mine who openly admits that all her fiction is based on fact. She cuts stories out of newspapers, changes the name, sexes them up a bit and hey presto there's a new novel. So much that the real people involved are recognisable in the fiction. I also remember listening to a TV scriptwriter who said that she bought stories from victims of crime to use in her TV series. Big ones to base the series on and smaller stories to act as background. (I think she called the little ones stringers). I then watched the TV show, the story was based on the murder of a four year old child who had been killed and put in a drain pipe. I knew it was based on a true story - and I couldn't watch it.
I can watch true documentary of crime as long as they are well made, but not drama based on fact...because at the end of the day it is entertainment based on the tragic death of somebody's son, somebody's daughter. Even in fiction, I think it is a big turn off for the reader when the murder becomes a technical exercise, with it having no emotional effect on anybody, especially the investigative team.
It's a line I think we all have to draw somewhere.
However to balance that I do believe that crime writers have a chip of ice in their heart, as do most medics. You need to have an investigative mind. As soon as the empathy is over, the investigation begins - the what if's, and the why's, and all the other questions.
I've thought a fair bit about including this case in this blog, as it is close to the bone. If I had read it in a fictional novel, it is fascinating, reading a factual account would be interesting
but as it happened in the last week, not to somebody that I know, but somebody who is a friend of a good friend it's a bit raw but also serves as an example that we should be aware of the tight rope that we walk sometimes.
Margaret and Nicola
This case raises all kinds of questions, something that we might never get to the bottom of. It is a tragedy in every sense of the word.
It concerns a mother and daughter, two very normal people from Paisley. Margaret was 52, a nice, happy woman, committed politically - she had stood for the Lib Dems in two local elections - a hard working woman, mother of five grown up kids, foster mother to another two. She was divorced but on very good terms with her ex husband.
Her daughter Nicola was 23, a graduate in social work and was working for a local charity.
Then last week something went drastically and horribly wrong.
On Thursday at 9am, Margaret dropped off one of the children at nursery in Paisley. She is then seen with Nicola in Balloch at about 11am. The 17 hours after that are confusing. At 2pm Margaret fails to pick up the child from the nursery, the staff alert the family, the police pay a visit to the family home at night as a routine call. But it's not in Margaret character to fail to turn up where she was expected. There are now concerns about their welfare.
Premier Inn, Courtesy of The Daily Record
Later it was discovered they had driven to Greenock and checked into the Premier Inn (which is a respectable motel type of place ideal for short stays for business men, overnight stays for early morning flights etc)
On Thursday night, they are both spotted in Linwood and Paisley, before returning to the Premier Inn somewhere between 12.30 and 1 am.
The last known movements- courtesy of the Scotsman
The tragedy unfolds at 7am the next morning, when a guest of the inn walking along the corridor discovers Nicola, lying badly injured in the hall. Her mother is found in a nearby room. The wounds have been described as slash wounds.
Both are rushed to hospital, the mother is critical, the daughter is serious. Margaret died later in hospital. Nicola held onto life for two more days, her dad holding a vigil at her bedside. Then she too passed away from her injuries.
The local papers are all screaming blood bath.
But it has to be noted that the police, very early on said that they were not looking for any third party. Vague sources (who refuse to be named) say that there may have been a suicide pact between mother and daughter and that an amount of paracetamol was found in the room. As yet the police do not have the results of any tox screen.
The police are still very keen to find out why they were driving around the area back tracking on themselves, why book an inn less than twenty miles from where they lived? And so the questions go on, so the chip of ice eats away. And I'm sure it is eating away at their family and friends more than anyone.
The police as yet have given no indication as to cause of death, but they have confirmed that the family was not known to them.
The whys and the what ifs - the strange drive, the last few hours, what was going on in that room, why did nobody hear, why did nobody help, could anybody have helped... we just don't know... and we may never know.
Maybe at the end of the day it is none of our business.
It's all very sobering and a reminder that we do have some responsibility in what we write, and that we shrug off that responsibility at our peril. But I'm sure that some crime writers take comfort in trying to make sense of such heartbreak.
Here's Nicola in happier terms, a clever, bonnie lassie with everything in life ahead of her. Like I said, a huge tragedy.
Caro GB 17/05/2013