The highlight for me was the talk by crime writer Sophie Hannah. Her talk was entitled The Nuts and Bolts of Crime Writing and she did indeed talk about her own writing techniques. She starts with an irresistible plot hook, usually some psychological obsession. There is often a strong component of real life. Her latest book Did you see Melody came about because of an incident when she was given the wrong room in a hotel which was already occupied by someone else.
Details matter, such as choice of names for characters. As the new novel is set in the USA she chose a name which was pronounced differently in the UK. The inspiration for the book came as a result of a case which was reported widely in the USA but not in the UK.
She is a great planner and writes the whole book in note form before she does her first draft. Provided the events she describes can happen at least once she was ready to use that for her plot. She described how when she was searching for an agent and publisher, she received advice about how unlikely her plots were and she was almost ready to give up when her husband suggested she tried a man who would just say yes or no. So she did. He said yes and sold the book before she’d signed anything.
She wasn’t interested in cataloguing urban crime. She didn’t like red herring, but preferred the reader to mislead themselves. There are those Poirot books as well and she told us how she came to be asked to write those by Agatha Christie Ltd. Perhaps that’s another post.
She was an interesting speaker, her talk highlighted by personal reminisces, often very funny.
Perfect Remains by Helen Fields
The book opens with a body being burnt on a remote Highland mountain so that all that remains are the victim’s teeth and a fragment of silk. The body is believed to be that of a successful Edinburgh female lawyer. The murder is the first investigation lead by DI Luc Callanach who has just joined Police Scotland from Interpol. When a second woman is abducted, this time a cleric in the Church of Scotland, the investigation is hampered by a criminal profiler who insists they are searching for a sex offender
The identity of the killer and his motives are known throughout the book. It is the question of whether he can be identified and caught before he kills anyone else that creates the suspense.
The character of Callanach is well developed as we learn about his background, half Scottish, half French and the reason for his leaving France and Interpol. His relationship with his fellow officers is explored with real insight, particularly that with his fellow DI Ava Turner.
It is difficult to say more about the book without giving away the turning points in the story line. I certainly enjoyed reading it.
At the start of the trial, the QC representing the older man and the QC leading me for the younger one made applications to sever the trial. The Judge was not having that. In some ways it was less of a disadvantage to us than it was for the co-defendant, because if his counter allegation of blackmail succeeded it was unlikely the jury would convict our client. What emerged during the trial was that the young woman had gone home and told her family what had happened, her father and brother had then gone to the Hotel and confronted the two men, threatened them and demanded a very large sum of money, my recollection is something in the region of £25000 with the promise the allegation of rape would not be reported to the police. The family members just happened to all have criminal convictions for armed robberies and a previous for extortion, which lent some credibility to the older man’s story.
Some payment was made and again the defence for the older man could prove that on the day the family members had visited the Hotel and gone up to the suite, a sum of money was drawn on cash from the elder man’s bank account. He said he told the girl’s family he needed time to raise the rest of the cash.
One of the facts that may have supported that was the delay of a few days before the rape was reported to the police. From the prosecution point of view it meant that there was no forensic medical evidence to support the allegation. For example blood samples did not reveal the presence of any drugs. The interval between the offence and it being reported allowed the defence to argue the delay was to see if they would get the rest of the money they had demanded. Instead of trying to raise the extra sum the elder defendant left the Hotel and was arrested at Heathrow on his way back to the Middle East. My client had no such opportunity to escape and was arrested the next day. During interviews the older man chose not to reply to any questions he was asked by the investigating officers. My client would have done better to do the same, but he chose to answer questions insisting the sexual intercourse was consensual.
The trial lurched from problem to problem, as the evidence was given before the jury. The young woman maintained they had both raped her. Her father and brother both said they had been to see the two men; they said with the intention of a revenge attack but then thought better of it. The elder man’s reluctance to say anything about his unsavoury business didn’t help anyone. The two defence Silks were continually arguing and attacking each other which allowed the female Silk prosecuting to have a field day. The favourite phrase was ‘It’s like trying to fight with one hand tied behind your back.’ Not surprisingly both men were convicted and were sentenced to seven years imprisonment.
Did the court hear the truth and nothing but the truth. I don’t think they did. I believe there was more to this, than any of the parties were prepared to admit. I know what I think, but has anyone else any thoughts on this case.
Walt was an interesting character, half American and half German. He had two older sisters. Their father was a GI serving in Germany. Walt told me the American Army were against marriages between natives and members of the armed forces. Nor were they interested in assisting immigration by families any soldiers had established in Germany. His father was sent back to the USA leaving his mother to bring up the three children alone in a war torn country.
His father kept in touch with the family but after a few years he wrote to say he had married an American woman, (shades of Pinkerton) and he wanted the children to come and live with him so they could have a better life. His mother reluctantly agreed, believing the USA to be some kind of promised land. The two girls went first and Walt joined them when he was seven. To his horror, he found himself taken to a wooden shack in the back woods of Mississippi, where he and his sisters were treated as little more than slaves. Their father’s wife instead of being a mother to them forced them to do a lot of the housework. There was no electricity, no running water and Walt’s job was to chop what seemed an endless supply of timber. They were forbidden to speak German together and were beaten when They were not given any education at all.
One day when he was about nine years old Walt decided to run away. He was fortunate in making it to the highroad where he was picked up by the local sheriff. The equivalent of our local authority was informed. The two girls were taken from their father and all three were placed in the care of the Local Authority. However the three siblings could not be kept together and they were adopted by different families. Walt ended up in Florida living with a quite wealthy couple who had no children. They encouraged him to speak German and he went to university. When they died he inherited their wealth. He said there was not an enormous amount but enough for him to come and live in the UK, buy a modest flat in London without having to find work. He did describe himself as a writer and poet.
After he moved to the UK, he began to search for his mother and his sisters and was able to locate his mother just before she died. His father he never wanted to see again. Just before the incident he had found his sisters and they had an emotional reunion in the States with the sheriff who rescued them. He showed me newspaper cuttings about their meeting.
The trial in the Crown Court took four days. We had sought discovery and had obtained the papers about the murder investigation which illustrated how close local police officers had become to the family. The Judge, probably on the basis that it could do no harm let the evidence about that relationship be given to the Court. Similarly, I was allowed to ask the sergeant about her connection with the family and to ask her about her bias in favour of the fish shop owner.
Walt gave evidence and admitted the threatening words in the witness box, but he was acquitted of the common assault charge. He wasn’t happy about that. I advised him he had no grounds to take the matter to the Court of Appeal and I thought he had accepted that. Then I started to get letters from him asking to see the notes I had taken at the hearing and a copy of my closing speech. I declined and he reported me to the Bar Council. Something every barrister dreads. When I explained the reasons for not letting him have my notes the Bar Council dismissed his complaint. Anyway, my writing was so bad I couldn’t read the notes of my speech, so I doubt they would have given him an assistance.
A four-star review on Amazon for Crucial Evidence
‘The author draws on her experience in the practice of law to create a realistically vivid portrayal of London’s legal system. The intricate detail of the various actors and roles provides a necessary solid (factual) foundation for the fictional account with the real-time, verbatim court proceedings stations the reader in the gallery of this tensely mesmerizing drama.’
Not many people have heard three women admit to attempts on their husband’s lives in the course of one afternoon, but this is what happened to me. It all began when I went to a seaside town to appear in the County Court seeking an injunction for a young woman to prevent her partner harassing her. The long, high hall that ran the length of the courthouse was heaving. There were young men waiting to be called: some alone, others in groups or with teenage girls clinging to them. A few children ran around in ignorance of the nature of the building. Dark suited solicitors, carrying large files, moved amongst the crowd, marshalling their clients, and bewigged barristers tried to take last minute instructions above the chatter and the sound of shuffling feet.
I threaded my way through the clusters of people until I found my client, Sharon Hurst, a young looking nineteen year old with long, wispy, blonde hair. There were three women with her who, I learnt, were from the Battered Wives Refuge. I needed to go through my instructions with Sharon so we went to look for an empty interview room, leaving the others behind in the hall.
The windows of the conference room looked out over the courtyard where the bare branches of a tree made a crazy paving pattern across the grey, December sky. I didn’t like these rooms: everyone passing from the offices and the robing room could see who was in them and although they could not hear what was said, i felt that the body language was sufficient to give those passing a hint of how well, or otherwise, a conference was proceeding. This one was not going well at all. Sharon was reluctant to confirm the events described in her affidavit. I persisted to ask questions about the allegation that Sharon’s boy friend, Colin Fenton, had been waiting for her, near to the Refuge, and had followed her back there most days for the last week.
‘You say here that he took your baby, Angelina, and ran off with her? You followed but couldn’t keep up so you went round to the flat you shared with him?’ I said.
‘Yes. I didn’t know what else to do.’
‘You went into the flat to get Angelina, but when you tried to leave he locked the door and you couldn’t get out?’
‘That’s right. I hadn’t any keys to the flat in my purse.’
‘How did you get out?’
‘He let me out.’
‘Just like that?’
‘Well, he’d gone on about me coming back so when I said I’d think about it, but I needed a day or two, he let me go.’
‘Anything else happen whilst you were there?’
Sharon looked away, trying to find something else to focus on so that she did not have to look at my face. Eventually she replied, ‘What you suggesting?’
‘I’m not suggesting anything, but you will be asked questions by Colin’s barrister about what happened at your flat.’
There was a pause. Sharon chewed on her lower lip and then said, ‘Nothing happened. Just an argument about me going back.’
I wasn’t sure that Sharon was telling the truth, but I couldn’t take it any further without calling her a liar, so I finished the interview by explaining that I anticipated we would have to wait most of the afternoon before we were called into court. Sharon went to get her three companions and they all returned to the interview room. They were anxious to give her advice and they were all smoking heavily, so I moved to one corner of the room and began to work on the brief.
As the afternoon wore on and work ceased in all but the closed family court, the place became silent. Daylight faded and, because nobody turned the light on in the room, the five of us were left sitting, waiting in the dim light to be called into court.
I noticed that the conversation of the four women became intermittent and finally ceased. The silence was almost tangible. The sound as I turned the pages of the brief was a loud crackle, the click of the lighter they used to light their cigarettes sounded like a tin drum. The small blue flame and the red glow from the tip of their cigarettes lit part of their faces, throwing the rest into deeper shadow.
I looked at them, curious about their lives. One of the women was about the same age as me, certainly in her thirties. She was dressed in a style I rather liked, not least because it was so different from the black suits I was compelled to wear. She looked rather artistic, as if she might be a potter or something similar. Her blue coat was hip length and underneath she wore a floral-print skirt, a white scarf was twisted round her neck. Her hair was a mass of dark curls that looked like they needed combing and her face was small with large dark eyes. On the ring finger of her left hand, instead of a wedding band, she wore a ring with a large green pebble-shaped stone.
I was beginning to find the silence uncomfortable when this woman began to talk in a low voice. There was an urgency in the tone that made me want to listen. I turned back to the papers on my lap, pretending to work and hiding my interest in the conversation. The woman was talking in a low voice and Anna could only just hear what she was saying.
To be continued.
The series continues with heightened drama but the representation of the legal process is corrupted by the story line.
In episode 3 the prosecution call DC Miller, the wife of the defendant, and while there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that; the law is that a wife is a competent witness against her husband, but she is not compellable. What that means is that her evidence is capable of belief but if she declines to give evidence she cannot be forced to do so. In the circumstances where she is known to have assaulted her husband, I think most barristers would be reluctant to call her. She added very little to the issues for the jury.
Episode 4 has a number of glaring errors in the trial scenes. It is a long time since a witness was allowed to make a dock identification. In a real trial, if that was to happen, the defence would ask for the jury to leave the court and make an application for a retrial. Actually it makes Justine look incompetent as she allows the witness to deviate from her witness statement by asking if she recognised the man. There was no need for the question; the witness had given the evidence about seeing a man already, although what evidential value that had was difficult to understand. If the judge ruled that the trial should continue, cross-examination would be much more rigorous. The witness would have been asked about her previous statement, the time she made it and why she had left out the name of the man she saw. It is one of the common mistakes that a witness makes to say I told the police but they left it out. The police officer who took the statement would then be called and would inevitably say that the witness had not identified the person they saw and the defence can then assert that the witness is at best unreliable or a liar.
I did like the part where the defence silk says to her junior who is convinced their client is guilty, ‘Don’t say that. We never know for sure. He gets his defence.’ The sort of comment a real barrister would make to a pupil, particularly one who is described by her opponent as a rottweiler.