I’ve been away and out of contact with the internet again, but at least it has given me enough time to read some books and to do some thinking about my next novel. I’ve written the first 22,000 words so a long way to go on that. As far as the reading, I found a copy of The King of Torts by John Grisham and read it in a couple of days. It’s an awful title but seems to derive from the way class actions are brought in the USA. The protagonist is Clay Carter, a youngish lawyer working for the Office of Public Defender in Wasington DC. He is assigned the case of Tequila Watson who, inexplicably, has become a killer and murdered an acquaintance known as Pumpkin. Carter begins to explore Watson’s backgound and is puzzled by the lack of motive and the absence of any history of violence. Watson is a drug addict who has been in a rehabilitation program and when Carter makes enquiries at the project he is not convinced he is being told the whole truth.
Overworked and underpaid, Carter is ripe pickings for Max Pace who tells him a major Drug Company is willing to pay compensation to Pumpkin’s family and his legal fees if he is acting on their behalf. The secret he must keep is that Watson along with others were treated as guinea pigs with a drug that ‘cures’ addiction but has a side effect in about 8% of the addicts that makes them a killer. Carter quits his job with the Office of Public Defender and earns himself about $15 million. He justifies his actions to himself by arguing that Watson has no defence to the charge of murder. I don’t know if that would be the case in the US but I think under English Law he would have a defence to murder of not to manslaughter. If the drug that turned him into a killer was given to him by the staff at the rehabilitation project as part of his care program then he would be able to claim his mental state was not self-induced and therefore he was not responsible. I had a similar case when Diego Cogolato killed the dress designer Ossie Clark, under the influence of a combination of illegal drugs and prescribed drugs that made him believe Clark was the devil and he heard voices telling him to kill.
Carter is then told about another drug that is widely prescribe and has the side effect of causing growths in the bladder. He files a claim against the Pharmaceutical Company and advertises for other users to contact his law firm so that a large number of complainants are joined in the same action against the company, a class action. These actions enable lawyers involved in the proceedings to earn large sums of money. The novel describes the way these proceedings take place and the dangers in them. I won’t say anymore because it will spoil the story. In the UK these type of actions are rare although the courts can give consent for what is called a Group Litigation Order but the proceedings are controlled by the Judge. Also cost capping orders are made which limit the amount lawyers can earn. There are no juries in civil cases of this type in England so exemplary damages are rarely given. Although there are proposals to have this kind of collective action in certain cases at the moment any move towards that is very slow.
This book perhaps under scores why American writers of legal thrillers have so much more to write about as the US system provides more drama than the UK one. I was certainly told that it was very difficult to sell a legal thriller/mystery to the publishing industry and that only John Grisham can write them. Are there any writers using the English Criminal Justice System as Grisham uses the US one?
I wasn’t able to attend the whole of the weekend but on Sunday afternoon I spent an enjoyable few hours in the company of some fantastic writers in a very unusual venue, the Salem Chapel in East Budleigh, Devon.
The speakers were Graham Hurley who writes thrillers and crime novels. He told us how he spent six weeks with the police in Portsmouth where he then lived to try and understand how policing really works, before writing his Faraday novels beginning with Turnstone. Perhaps just as interesting was his description of how publishers operated and how little input an author often has in the production of his novel. ‘We know best’ is the mantra they trot out when the author says he wants a different cover for example and apart from the editor none of them will have read the book. Graham is an Essex boy (I’ll say no more) educated at Cambridge and was a scriptwriter and then a TV director making documentaries but all the time harbouring a desire to write novels. He has certainly had his dream fulfilled
This was followed by some heartfelt poems by John Payne on the theme of nature and farming. The poems sounded with his own experiences of the world he grew up in and his regret at the changes our modern world has brought about.
Rosemary Smith who is the inspiration behind this weekend, it’s organiser and, I suspect the general dogsbody as well, has written a number of romantic novels set in and around Budleigh Salterton. Some extracts from one of her published novels were read by one of her appreciative supporters and friends. They recall a bygone era when life was more gentile and were written in a manner consistent with that period.
After tea and biscuits and what Sunday afternoon would be complete without it, Mal Peet talked about his novels which, for marketing purposes are described as Young Adult, a description he deplores. His novel ‘Tamar won the Carnegie Medal. He began writing at the age of 52 about things he says he knew nothing about- ‘writers make things up -don’t they.’ He too was critical of the way publishers try to take charge of the book, and like Graham had changed his publisher in order to find someone more sympathetic to his writing.
All of them were upstaged by CL Raven, actually twins called Cathryn and Lynsey who write comic ghost stories and much more. They read sections from their doom laden apocalypse story and had the audience laughing all the way to oblivion and back. Their clothes were fantastic, just like their imagination.
A librarian friend commented that he thought the plot of my novel Crucial Evidence was ‘dodgy’ because he couldn’t see why the police had arrested Barker for the murder of Shelley Paulson and why they were so convinced he was guilty just on the basis of a witness identifying him as the killer. It’s an interesting comment and I have questioned myself as to why he thinks that is a fault in the plot. Is it because when a reader opens a crime novel they expect it to begin with a murder followed by a detective following up clues which lead to the identification of the killer and his arrest? Of course that is what many crime stories do, but I wanted to write something different and my story begins after the investigation has finished and at the point where lawyers have been instructed to represent Barker and the trial is about to begin. It is written from the point of view of the barrister, Cassie Hardman and she would not be concerned with why Barker was arrested only whether there was enough evidence to support a prosecution.
Do crime novels present an unrealistic view of policing and of their powers of arrest? Don’t police officers act on anonymous tip offs and informants whose names they don’t reveal? They would be criticised if they did not and programmes like Crime Watch would have little or no part to play in investigation. An identification of the perpetrator of an offence is good evidence and if the accused has admitted he was close to the scene of the murder it seems reasonable for the police to believe he is the killer. Again on the basis of that evidence the relatives of the deceased would expect the accused to the prosecuted and let the jury decide, wouldn’t they?
Colin Stagg the man accused wrongly of killing Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common was arrested because they had information he frequented the common. They arrested him and decided he was rather strange and therefore he must be guilty. There was virtually no evidence against him apart from a forensic psychologist’s assessment made on the basis of letters written to an undercover policewoman offering sex if he admitted to the crime. He did not make any admissions, but was charged with the murder because the police were convinced he was guilty. I remember well the TV shots of Rachel Nickell’s grieving parents as they were interviewed outside the Old Bailey, saying if only the jury had heard the whole story, They were clearly convinced their daughter’s murderer was walking free, and that conviction can only have come from their conversations with police officers.
Is truth stranger than Fiction?