Kate London discusses the background to her crime thriller Post Mortem.
‘You have the intelligence of a gnat!’
The woman was driving a large Mercedes and was incandescent at my preventing her from driving down her own street. I was in the first weeks of my service as a uniformed police officer standing at a road closure put in place as part of the safety measures for a premier-league football match in central London. Just before she had arrived at the junction, the sergeant in charge of the closure had warned me not to let anyone down the road.
‘In the event of an emergency, this is the main route for ambulances,’ he’d told me firmly, before going to check the other closures. ‘I don’t want to see any civilian vehicles going down it. No exceptions.’
‘But other officers let me drive down!’ the woman protested.
I tried to explain. She interrupted. ‘But I can see my house.’
After calling me a ‘horrid little jobsworth’, she went on to tell me that she was personal friends with my borough commander and that this was ‘not the last’ I would hear of it.
Surprising and more alarming to me than the diatribe itself was the returning sergeant’s response to hearing of it. The same man who had told me only minutes earlier that I was not allowed to make any exceptions frowned anxiously when I told him about the posh woman’s threat. ‘Did other officers let people drive down?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ was the reply. Apparently they had. ‘Well, you better write it up,’ he said. ‘Make a note in your pocket book.’
In October 2006, I joined the Metropolitan Police Service. Since graduating from Cambridge, I had been working in theatre. I had toured internationally with my own company and had acted, directed and written for the theatre. However, as my youngest child reached the age of four, I found myself casting around for a new direction. My touring wings had been clipped by my young family, and I felt a bit adrift. I needed something new, something purposeful and enlivening. I had been serving as a non-executive director on a statutory body, the Housing Ombudsman Service. The chair of the board, Paul Acres, was a former chief constable. He and I got talking. ‘I always secretly wanted to be a police officer,’ I confessed. ‘But people from my background just don’t join.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ he told me. ‘You should join. You’d love it. You’d be great.’
Within a year of that conversation, I was policing the streets of London as a uniformed constable. I had a team that was diverse in all the ways I can think of. (We called ourselves, with some self-mockery, ‘The Rainbow Team’.) They were great fun to work with and threw very good parties. Every day was different. One minute we could be called to a forlorn lost Basset Hound who snarled at our approach and had to be tempted into the van with chips, and the next, locating a high-risk missing person who had fallen four storeys. The shifts were hard, and the job was demanding, but it gave me a buzz, and, every so often, I was rewarded with the secret satisfaction that we had maybe done what I had joined to do: make a difference.
But the writer will out. There was a world here: different to the world of crime dramas, but just as gripping and full of decisions that contained moral complexity and consequence. The question was, how to capture this?
I came across the ‘routine activity theory’ developed by American criminologists Marcus Felson and Lawrence E. Cohen sociologist – this is the theory that three conditions are needed for a crime to occur: a likely offender, a suitable target and the absence of a capable guardian. But more than the theory itself, it was the name of the theory that stuck with me and began to pose a challenge. How could I capture the drama of ‘routine activity’ that originates not in serial killers and maverick police officers but in the gritty day-to-day life of policing the streets of London?
Marcus Felson’s brilliant and readable book Crime and Everyday Life begins with nine fallacies about crime. The first is the so-called ‘dramatic fallacy’, which states that the most publicised offences are far more dramatic than those commonly found in real life. A lot of people, Felson points out, make a lot of money talking about crime. The press picks up on the grisliest murders and makes money out of them. Crime dramas on TV depict criminal acts as complex and extremely violent or perverse. Murder is over-represented, and the types of murders portrayed are exceptionally rare. Sherlock Holmes, he points out, would not have been interested in the majority of the 16,929 murders committed in the US in 2007. Only 10 were poisonings. Only 134 were by strangulation. By far the largest category was ‘miscellaneous arguments’: you get in a stupid fight, you die.
Perhaps my favourite of Felson’s nine fallacies is the ‘organized-crime fallacy’. Basically, he argues that effective organised criminal groups are rare and commit only a tiny percentage of crime. As Felson remarks, ‘There’s no point being a criminal if you have to go to long meetings.’ Lowest down the scale, even in America, are the teenage gangs. The reality is very different from the TV image of ruthless, organised, juvenile-crime syndicates. Instead, young people ‘fade in and out’ of loose associations, and most of the time being in gangs is ‘extremely boring’.
But there is one of Felson’s fallacies that doesn’t entirely sit with my experience: that is that police work is ‘by and large mundane’. The tasks themselves may be often mundane, but my experience on the streets of London is that police work resonates with life: with the unique rhythm of the city, with people at their most real, their most vulnerable, their most brave and their most mistaken. Police officers constantly have to make decisions that affect themselves and others in profound ways.
I hadn’t joined the police to write a book, but I couldn’t stop myself, and I knew I wanted to write something that in some way reflected my experience, albeit fictionalised.
Various factors began to shape into a story.
One was how the people that, I admit, I might have underestimated before I joined ‘the job’ could evidence surprising heroism, intelligence, compassion and wit. These sometimes fat, usually white men could disarm a violent situation with a joke or show unforeseen understanding to victims of rape and domestic violence. But of course, they somehow remained always themselves: human, susceptible to error, given to bad jokes and more than capable of making a liberal feel awkward with an opinion.
Another experience I wanted to capture was how just about everyone escalates. It is truly astonishing to witness how, time after time, when you offer someone a reasonable way out of a situation, they turn it down and opt for something catastrophic. I dealt with a plainly guilty suspect, a professional man, who could have accepted a caution but opted instead for crown court, paid for a QC and got himself nothing but a criminal record and costs running into the tens of thousands. It’s amazing how the smallest incident can develop and snowball into a disaster for a person who won’t back down.
And, as I came to love my team, I realised how I had begun to feel immensely loyal to the officers in it. While the city slept, we stayed awake all night patrolling its streets. We helped each other out, survived the fights and the difficult arrests, dealt with the miserably cold crime scenes, the dead bodies, the bereaved parents. A loyalty developed that was beyond anything I’d experienced in any other professional context. The problem is that, of course, this loyalty is in danger of positioning itself against what feels very often to be an adversarial world. How do you challenge inappropriate behaviour if there is no way to do this that is private and if you know the consequences can be catastrophic for the individual? The big things are easy, of course, but what about the little things, the little mistakes that in another world would be without serious consequence?
And the actions of police officers can have immense consequences for the people they interact with. Bad behaviour needs challenging. We all know the horror stories, but what about the smaller day-to-day indignities? I remember stopping a driver who had committed a moving traffic offence. The car was occupied exclusively by young black men, all in education, all polite. The driver immediately assumed my motivations were racist. ‘You’ve ruined my evening,’ he said. His anger and humiliation seemed genuine. I was truly sorry. He had committed the violation, but what did I know of experiences and history that made him feel so bitter and humiliated about a routine traffic stop?
I have always been struck by the unintended consequences of small actions. In Louis Malle’s film Au Revoir les Enfants the eventual betrayal of the Jews who are hiding out in a French boarding school results in part from the lead character’s swapping of his mother’s jam for rare stamps with Joseph, who works in the school’s kitchen and trades on the black market. The key here is the context. Where else could selling jam have had such a terrible result?
The police force is definitely a venue where similarly things can get out of hand. My book hinges around a single, short conversation in a hallway and the complaint that ensues. Could an officer really fear serious consequences from such an apparently minor incident?
The only way I can perhaps convince you about this is to draw your attention to the circumstances of former Police Constable Gillian Weatherley, on duty on Wednesday 19 September 2012 at the gates to Downing Street.
That day, significantly for police, at least, was the day just after two female police constables, Fiona Hughes and Nicola Bone, had been murdered in Manchester. Officers were in a state of shock, reminded horrifically of their own vulnerability to violence and genuinely saddened for these women, who had been cruelly tricked, ambushed and murdered in cold blood. The press reports on Fiona and Nicola made them appear so young and both, in their different ways, so idealistic, so committed to the British style of unarmed policing. Fiona and Nicola, we all seemed to feel, had not been the faceless ‘police officers’ you may see, but truly us, at our best.
It was in this context that politician Andrew Mitchell (then Chief Whip) told Gillian Weatherley to open the main gate for him so he could leave on his bicycle. When they refused, he said, by his own admission, at the very least, ‘I thought you lot were supposed to fucking help us.’ Of course, a lot has been made of the word ‘pleb’, which he was alleged to have used too. The Sun, with its unerring instinct for the sensational, stuck the word on its front page and set the ‘Plebgate’ bonfire going.
But the line which most drew my attention was not about plebs. It was this other one: ‘You haven’t heard the last of this.’
This was the thing, I believe, that turned Mitchell’s condescending rudeness into something else – a threat. If nothing else, it may have been the thing that made PC Toby Rowland and PC Gillian Weatherley sit down and make notes. You haven’t heard the last of this. This is the ever-present threat to police officers. Suspects make it. Middle-class people make it freely – my lady on the road closure was just one of numerous examples I experienced. Lawyers make it. It’s there on the street every day with people recording on video, and it’s certainly present in the courtroom. Misconduct in public office is a criminal offence. Just about every police officer fears something going wrong that they hadn’t anticipated. Every police officer knows that if you really screw up you’ll go to prison.
Civilians usually think of police as invulnerable. Police think of themselves as in all sorts of danger.
In the brouhaha and high emotions surrounding the plebgate incident, PC Gillian Weatherley shared a photograph of an email reporting the incident sent by PC Toby Rowland with a colleague PC James Glanville. She made no contact with the press herself, and both she and former PC Glanville say she was unaware that he had gone to the press. When interviewed as part of Operation Alice, she said that no one else had had ‘access’ to the email. For these offences, she was in the words of Justice Mitting ‘summarily dismissed despite 24 years of unblemished service and glowing testimonials from colleagues and superiors’.
My book begins, like many crime novels, with a dead body. Two dead bodies, in fact: a fat white male police constable with 27 years’ service and a teenage girl, Farah Mehenni. But it’s not a serial killer who’s done this. The origins of this incident lie in ‘routine activity’: a simple crime report for criminal damage. The question at the heart of the novel is, how did that lead to this? The book investigates the answer to this question from shifting points of view. As one of the characters remarks in the novel, the side you are likely to sympathise with may depend largely on your own already set point of view.
Kate London is the author of Post Mortem, which we serialised for The Pigeonhole app and web reader in partnership with Atlantic Books. Other ebook editions are available via retailers including Amazon, Kobo, iBooks and Google Play. Learn more about Atlantic and Post Mortem here.