Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"Honest, officer, it's only research," by Donna Moore

Research can get you into a lot of trouble. And it’s fraught with danger if you are a writer of comic crime fiction. If you write a serious police procedural series, you can telephone your local police station with worthy questions such as ‘can you tell me the length of a police baton?’ or ‘what do you use to shine your uniform buttons?’ that make people want to give you expansive, knowledgeable answers. I, unfortunately, don’t get the same reaction. I just don’t understand what’s wrong with calling my local police station and asking ‘can you tell me the best way to break out of one of your cells?’ or -- and apparently this is an even worse question -- ‘how easy would it be for an elderly woman and a teenage boy to storm the police station and take you hostage?’ If I can give you a spot of advice, I would suggest that you don’t bother asking those questions. They won’t tell you.

When researching Old Dogs (new from Busted Flush Press), I nearly got myself arrested in a local museum. I believe I was already being carefully watched by the security guards for spending more time peering behind or under the exhibits to see how they were secured. However, at the time I was oblivious to the fact. The museum in question is a lovely grand old building, and one of the features inside, in some of the interior walls are big, fancy metal grilles. I was peering through one of the grilles into a dark tunnel beyond when there was a cough behind me. ‘Can I help you... madam? There was a distinct gap before the heavily inflected madam. I’m sure he what he actually wanted to say was ‘Can I help you... you maniac?’

‘I was just looking through the grille. Why is it there?’

‘It’s where all the pipes are. There’s enough room for the workmen to walk through.’

Really?’ I said. ‘That’s fascinating. How would a person get in?’

He looked at me suspiciously. ‘I’m not sure I should tell you.’

‘Oh please tell me. I just want to know if you could hide in there when the museum was shutting, and whether the tunnels are interconnecting so that you could walk through them without getting spotted by the security cameras and... wait... why are you grasping my elbow so tightly and frog-marching me out of the museum...?’

So you see, when you have no skills or talents that would actually fit you for being a crime writer, it’s tough. Many of the writers I know have walked the walk -- police, FBI agents, lawyers, PIs, bodyguards, criminals and, in one case, possibly a spy (even though he doesn’t admit to it). They tell you to write what you know. Well, being a pensions consultant doesn’t quite make the grade (what am I going to do... bore someone to death by reading them a set of actuarial tables?)

That’s not to say I haven’t come into contact with the long arm of the law. But it’s always been on the periphery. Now, I don't know about you, but whenever a policeman turns up at my door and says "Are you Donna Moore?" I always start to panic. Of course, it's to be hoped that a policeman isn't going to turn up at your door and say "Are you Donna Moore?" That's an altogether different problem (and one for which you would have my sympathy). My immediate response is to think a) Oh my God, what's happened to everyone I love?, followed swiftly by b) What the hell have I done? and sometimes c) Has someone sent me a strip-o-gram?

Now, it just so happens that every single time a policeman has turned up at my door I've been on the decidedly underside of dressed.

The last time I had a brush with the law, it was early one Saturday morning. There was a knock on the door and it was a policeman who had come to interview my (now) ex and I. I was in my pajamas so he said he'd give me a few minutes and then come back. I must have looked pretty scary because he didn't turn up until half an hour later. When he finally arrived I said to him ‘Sorry if my appearance scared you so much that you gave me enough time to go out to the dancing.’

What had happened was that a couple of days previously an elderly man was knocked over in the street and he died. Complicating matters was that it was a police car which knocked him over, so, obviously, they have to do a really thorough investigation. The policeman said that it was like doing a murder enquiry, even though it wasn't a murder. He had to fill in forms for both John (my ex) and I.

He said, ‘We'll go to the first person first’ and turned to John.

‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘But who's to say he’s the first person?’

He looked a bit shocked but laughed and said, ‘OK, you can go first then... it's just that he was sitting nearest to me.’

Weak, very weak. He asked name, address, age, telephone number, where I was born (I bit my tongue before saying Newport Pagnell Gas Station -- pump 4, and just answered the county) and height. As he was writing down my height I said ‘Oh God, you're not going to ask my weight are you?’ Luckily he said no. Then he asked whether I was known by any other name. I didn't think that Badsville Broad was relevant, so I kept schtum. I hope I don't get hauled up for withholding evidence.

Then he gave me the form to fill in the next bit - you had to circle your hair colour, eye colour, build (oh God -- the ignominy of having to circle 'fat'; but 'pleasantly plump' or 'the tubby side of voluptuous' just weren't on the form. Skin type 'pale' (I decided not to go for 'spotty' even though a huge zit had appeared on my chin that very morning -- I just hoped that it would disappear in a couple of days and not be a permanent distinguishing feature). Then there was a question that asked for tattoos/piercings/peculiarities/ scars.

‘Do you have any extra sheets -- I can't fit all my peculiarities in on 3 lines.’

Then it was John's turn, or ‘Person number 2’ as the policeman called him from then on. I liked that. I used that from then on.

While person number 2 was filling in the form the policeman said ‘I'll now be able to go back to the Equal Opportunities officer and tell him that I did everything correctly.’

‘How humiliating.’ person number 2 said.‘Yes, you've learned a valuable lesson here today’ person number 1 said.

Meanwhile, person number 2 was agonising over his form: ‘Do I have light brown or dark brown hair? Is it straight, or short? Or straight and short?’

‘Is there a box for old-fashioned?’ I said. ‘If not, straight and short will do.’

And I could see him visibly sucking in his stomach when he got to the 'build' question. 'Slim' was the look he was going for I believe. I caught a glimpse of his form as he handed it back. God help the police if they ever need to search for John. They'll be looking for someone who looks remarkably like Johnny Depp, when Johnny Rotten would be more accurate.

Then the policeman's cell phone rang. Imagine this big butch bloke in a uniform (steady), and his cell phone's trilling away with Britney's 'Oops I did it again'.

‘How disappointing,’ I said. ‘I would have expected you to have the theme tune from The Bill or The Sweeney.’

‘I have. When the station rings it plays The Sweeney.’

So there you have it. If I ever come to write a story about a police investigation I have some background research. I'm not exactly sure that it's any use though. He probably went out of here thinking ‘Two dodgy characters if ever I saw them. Pale and Fat was a bit mad. Tall, Slim and Good-Looking is obviously a pathological liar. And what the hell were all those books with 'murder' in the title?’

But if you can’t walk the walk, then at least you can closely observe the people who do walk the walk, right? Wrong. I must be one of the least observant people on the planet. One morning, I went to catch my bus to work, only to discover that the bus shelter was already full. With about six police, and a bloke and a woman both looking slightly the worse for wear. So, rather than interrupt this cosy little chat, I stood next to the bus stop, waiting for my bus, while wondering what this guy had done. Maybe he'd dropped some litter? Daubed some badly spelled slogans on a wall? Been drunk in charge of a bus shelter?

Just before my bus arrived, one of the policemen came around the side of the bus shelter, looked at me funny, and bent over to pick something up. I looked down. There, 2 inches away from my feet was a saw. Apparently the guy had tried to cut his girlfriend's head off with the saw while she was sleeping. Luckily, she had woken up before he could get very far, realised that he wasn't holding the saw in order to put up a couple of shelves and had run out of the house, with him chasing her, still wielding the saw. Obviously sensing that this was not your normal DIY episode, a passer-by had called the police, who arrived mob-handed in double quick time, complete with riot gear. Enter your humble narrator to trample all over the evidence.

It’s a tough life doing research.


Donna Moore is the author of Go to Helena Handbasket, winner of the 2007 Lefty Award for most humorous crime novel. She has short stories in various anthologies, including BFP's Damn Near Dead and A Hell of a Woman. Donna runs the blog Big Beat from Badsville, which focuses on Scottish crime fiction. Her newest book is Old Dogs, about which Library Journal says, "The author's clever wordplay, irreverent humor, and vivid characters will please Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake, and Carl Hiassen fans, not to mention the Ocean's Eleven crowd."


nigel p bird said...

i recently raised a couple of eyebrows at blair drummond safari park when i asked him the size of bird that would be required to lift away a baby. i'm not sure he heard the bit i said about writing a story. in the end, he got it. a philipe, ball-sucking eagle. yippee. now the story is in the bag - shame the same can't be said about the baby.

Paul D. Brazill said...

Arf! Cracking stuff!

Ray Banks once said that he researched just enough to avoid getting caught out. Maybe he meant something else ...

Anonymous said...

Great post! The research paid off...OLD DOGS is a brilliantly smart and funny book.