I received the telephone call at about nine o’ clock in the evening. The police officer on the other end of the phone asked me if I could come to the station in Blackpool immediately. They had woman in custody and they thought she should speak to a solicitor. This was before the days of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and asking any lawyer to see a prisoner before they were interviewed and charged was unusual.
‘It’s a serious case. She’s stabbed her husband and he’s in surgery at the moment. If he dies….’ His voice trailed off leaving me to deduce she might be charged with murder.
When I arrived at the police station in central Blackpool, I was shown into a cell where I saw Eleanor for the first time. She was in her late thirties, dressed in a tweed skirt and a thin blue sweater. Sitting upright in the edge of the concrete shelf that served as a bed, she was twisting and turning a white handkerchief in her hands. Her wedding ring caught the light from the single bulb.
‘Is there any news,’ she said.
I shook my head and said ‘No, not yet.’ And before she could say anything I sat down next to her and introduced myself.
‘Yes, the solicitor. They told me you were coming.’ She continued to turn the handkerchief over. ‘I didn’t mean to kill him.’
‘We don’t know that you have.’ I took hold of her hand.
‘We had such a row. He’d come in late the night before. Playing football. More likely down the pub. I’d had his dinner waiting for him since six. He said he didn’t want it. He went to work this morning, whistling away to himself. I thought I’ll show you. He came home at midday and I gave him the meal I’d prepared the previous night. What’s this he said?.I told him, it’s your dinner. He went mad and was swearing at me, then he picked up the plate and threw it at the wall. I went over and grabbed his arm. He shook me off and ran upstairs, pulled my clothes out of the wardrobe and starting ripping them. I tried to get hold of him but he pushed me away and went back downstairs. I followed and he told me to get out of the house. He opened the front door and tried to force me to leave. I told him I wasn’t going and ran into the kitchen. That’s where it happened. We were struggling, throwing pots and pans at each other. He was shouting at me to leave and I was screaming. I was backed up against the table and I reached back and the bread knife was there. I picked it up and thrust it at him.’
She began to sob. ‘That’s when the police officers rushed in and they took him away.’
I had been told that two off duty officers had been passing when they heard the sounds of a fight coming from the house. They’d rushed into the house and seeing Eleanor’s husband with the handle of a knife protruding out of his stomach, had carried him to their car and while one drove to the Hospital, the other held the knife in place and tried to staunch the flow of blood from the wound.
Eleanor continued to cry and I sat and held her hand. A police woman brought us cups of tea as we waited for news. A little later another officer and came and gave us a couple of blankets. I still had my coat, so I tucked one round her legs and the other over her shoulders. From time to time she still shivered. I pulled my coat around me. Eventually in the early hours of the morning, the officer who had summoned me to the police station, came into the cell..
‘He’s out of theatre and he’s going to live,’ he said.
Eleanor who had stood up when he came into the cell, sank back onto the bed, bent over and began to weep. I picked up the blanket and wrapped it round her again.
‘I think I’ll get matron. Perhaps she can give you something,’ the officer said. ‘Miss Barnes will want to go.’
‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ I said.
Matron bustled in and took over. I left the cell with the officer and once away from the cell where I could not be overheard by Eleanor I said, ‘Will you charge her?’
‘Yes, Attempted murder. I assume you’ll be in court tomorrow.’
‘Yes.’ I said.
Eleanor was lucky. Not only did her husband survive the assault but after she pleaded guilty he pleaded with the judge for mercy and she was given a suspended sentence.
But I received no payment for the night I spent in the cells.
Eleanor was fortunate, her husband lived and what is more went to court to plead on her behalf
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?