Sunday, April 6, 2014

Guest Blogger: Melanie McGrath––"Prison Letters."

Every other Sunday is our day for Guest Author Postings by mystery writers who base their stories in non-US settings.  We think it a great way of introducing our readership to new experiences and places.  We’re honored to have with us today award-winning journalist and best selling novelist Melanie McGrath.  Melanie’s first novel, Motel Nirvana, won the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize for Best British and Commonwealth Writer under 35. As MJ McGrath she is the author of the Edie Kiglatuk series of Arctic mysteries, the first of which, White Heat, was longlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger. The third title in the series, The Boneseeker, will be published this year by Penguin US. The series has been translated into 18 languages and is currently being developed for TV. Melanie is the judge for this year's HG Wells short story award.

Welcome, Melanie. And thank you.

I write to this kid in prison. I say kid, but he’s actually 23. He’s doing a longish stretch – 8 years – which probably feels like a lifetime for someone his age. Right now he’s about half way through. I like this kid. I liked him the one time we met, when I went to his prison in Oxfordshire at the invitation of the librarian, must have been nearly three years ago now.

There was this skinny, sullen youngster sitting next to me who mustered his courage to make a contribution to the book group, which must have been a tough call not only because the book in discussion was mine, but because it had been chosen by what might well be the world’s only oversized swastika tattoo to incorporate a nose and mouth. On the other hand the kid is from Liverpool and in my experience it takes more than a close encounter with mortal danger to faze a Scouser.

A few weeks later a letter arrived from the kid via my publisher. He didn’t get too far in school, his spelling is medieval, but he’s articulate and keen to learn more about the world and, more importantly, about himself. I thought enough of him to reply. Soon, I began to look forward to his letters. Every so often I’d send him a book I thought he might like: Justin St Germain’s Son of a Gun, a son’s struggle to deal with the shooting death of his mother and Alexander Masters’ wonderful Stuart: A Life Backwards, a memoir of the author’s friendship with a homeless junkie.

We began to bond over our mutual love of ridged potato chips and barbeque chicken. One time he sent me a picture of his dog, a fancy French breed with a weaponised head and teeth like a mammoth, which he described as a Cheyenne, his inventive interpretation, as it turned out, of the word chien. His tone was polite, deferential and, strange to say, rather innocent. Pretty soon he began to sign off his letters ‘love’ instead of ‘best wishes.’

At Christmas he sent me a sweet home made card of the sort your 10 year old might drum up in craft class. The envelope was sprinkled with drawings of butterflies. My partner began to worry that the kid might be developing a crush, but it was rather that we were both grateful for the connection to someone beyond our usual frames of reference. I guess, too, that for me there was an amount of guilt assuaged. Here I was making a living from crime, so to speak, the least I could do was to put something back into a criminal.

About eighteen months into our correspondence my friend, as I now thought of him, was moved to Grendon Prison in Buckinghamshire. The unit was first opened in 1962 as an experimental psychiatric facility to treat offenders with personality disorders and it now operates as Europe’s only therapeutic prison. Offenders have to apply to do their time in Grendon and they have to fulfil certain criteria, including having committed a serious violent offence with at least 24 months to run on their sentence and a commitment to remain drug-free. Grendon currently houses around 238 inmates in six wings, each of which operates as an autonomous therapeutic community. In the mornings prisoners attend group therapy sessions; in the afternoons, the regime is that of a Category B high security prison. Grendon is not a soft option. As the kid very quickly discovered, it’s harder on the heart to have to face your demons than simply act them out.

As we continued our correspondence, I began to notice a marked change. The young man started questioning things, including his own behaviour. In psychobabble parlance, he began to grow. Around Christmas last year, about six months into his time at Grendon, a thick envelope arrived at my agent’s office, a sort of reverse care package. Among its contents was the kid’s criminal assessment report. I’d always known the young man I was corresponding with had a track record of serious violence, but here for the first time I was confronted by the raw details of his crimes. The people he’d attacked were dope fiends and dodgy geezers, but his deeds were ugly, stomach-turning crimes which sucked the breath out of me.

Why had he sent me the report? He didn’t say, exactly, but I guessed it was a line in the sand. Most of him wanted me to step right over, another part feared I wouldn’t. Homemade cards were all very well, but he was now asking me to go deeper. The way I saw it, this was nothing less than an appeal to the authenticity of our relationship.

Writing crime and living in the shadow of its tooth-and-claw reality are rather different things. For a few days I felt very shaken up and, even as I detected a move on the kid’s part towards taking responsibility for his crimes, I questioned both my motivation for continuing the correspondence and my feelings, which had become fond. How to reconcile the crazed attacker who’d meted out mindboggling violence upon his enemies with the gentle kid who crafted birthday cards? It was a while before I understood that the question itself made no sense. Crime fiction throbs with evil monsters, but in the real world, if monsters exist at all, they’re as rare as raisins in a miser’s muffin. Human nature’s too wild and wiry to be smoothed out and patted down. It likes to keep us on our toes.

Once I’d calmed myself, I penned a reply, thanking the kid for the report and reassuring him that I’d read it. I sent it back because, as I told him, it’s his history not mine. Pretty soon a response arrived; six pages, densely written, everyday stuff about life behind bars, the envelope covered in golden dragonflies. In the letter’s tone I could feel a palpable relief and a tender gladness in our continuing correspondence. We both sensed that I’d stepped over the line only to discover it didn’t really exist. At the end of his letter, before the sign off, he wanted me to know that his next assessment’s due at the end of this month. He has promised to send me the report. This time, he says he’s keen to know what I really think about it.

Guest Blogger Melanie McGrath—Sunday



  1. Sounds like both of you grew as a result of this. And I suspect, in some form, this young man will show up in your future writing. Thank you, a lovely essay.

  2. Thanks Melanie. Makes we wonder where he came from, what was it in his life that forged that path for him. It sounds as though he has a good chance of following the right road now.
    I know a 'lifer', he runs 12 miles a day to keep 'his aggression down' (his words). He has spent so much of his life in various intuitions, he really struggled to cope. Until he cut himself off from all his old connections and got addicted to exercise. Running free as he calls it. He's a witty, bright, perceptive individual. A cheeky chappie.
    Eight years on, everyday is still a struggle for him I'm sure, but he's doing well. In a relationship now, has an anchor for the first time and well, he's flourishing.

  3. A very moving tale, Melanie, thanks for sharing!

  4. I admire your taking this on, and how you dealt with him. His story is fascinating and truly show how he has grown in his personality and how he is feeling now. A really remarkable post.

  5. Your young friend has a hard road before him; recidivism rates here (Canada) are estimated at over 50%. Difficult to get out of jail but even harder to stay out. I wish him well. And thanks for the books; I’m looking forward to the third Edie Kiglatuk mystery.

  6. Melanie, I hope you will update us in the future. You have painted for us a vivd picture of person I too now hope will make it. Once at an Edgar Week symposium in New York, we had a speaker who had spent many years in jail. He recounted his childhood in abusive foster homes. He eventually became a counsellor for ex-convicts. Someone in the audience asked him if in all his years in jail or as a counsellor he had ever met a violent offender who was not abused as a child. He thought it over and said he never had. For the rest of the day, the audience asked every speaker (a parade of NYC cops and FBI agents, etc.) if they had ever met a violent criminal who had not been an abused child. They all thought for a moment and said no--all the criminals they had met had been abused as children. No all abused children become criminals, of course, but it seems that violent crime is often, if not always, born in brutality inflicted on children.

    1. I am currently working with a leading forensic psychiatrist who specialises in the worst violent offenders and who told me that she'd never met a violent offender, including the psychopaths she works with, who hadn't encountered violence as a child.

  7. Thanks again, M.G., for coming on board with a post that made us all think. Looking forward to meeting up with you soon.

  8. The pleasure is all mine. Thanks for all your comments. I will indeed keep you updated. Fingers crossed. I know it's going to be a hard road ahead but I'm hopeful.

  9. Beautiful post, Melanie, I really enjoyed it. I hope you keep us updated on this kid. I'm rooting for him.