Road trip – had to be a winner, right? As a kid growing up in the narrow streets of northern England, I knew America as surely as I knew the grey concrete of my own back yard. For years, I had a recurring dream; I was driving along a winding coast road – steep rocky hills to the right, clear skies above – and dropping away to the left, grassy slopes and a sea so blue it would break your heart. It was California – no question in my mind. The hardboiled language and differences in culture portrayed in film adaptations of Raymond Chandler’s and Dashiell Hammett’s novels fascinated me: guns and cars and whisky-drinking women, the paradox of claustrophobic cities, and vast empty landscapes. They influenced my first attempts at writing, and because Humphrey Bogart played both Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, he spoke the words in my head.
At that time, British crime fiction was written by a wealthy, privately-educated elite and aimed at an aspiring middle class. Murder was a polite affair, conducted off-stage and with the minimum of blood, to present a pleasing puzzle to readers. Poor, working-class folk featured only as servants, “actresses” of questionable virtue, and dodgy characters set to enliven a scene. In my teens I read some, enjoyed a few, but felt alienated by most of what I read. I was drawn to the mysteries and thrillers on my father’s bedside table – Hammett, Ross Macdonald and the hard, uncompromising world of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels. The thrill of all that unencumbered dialogue! For me dialogue is like music – it has a rhythm and tone, a pace and lyricism which is unique to each place. Writers like Dennis Lehane and Elmore Leonard have superseded those early influences, fulfilling my appetite for the kind of dialogue, which, as John Fowles put it, “perform(s) other functions.” Thomas Harris appeals to my gothic sense of the dramatic, while Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme series satisfies my inner geek (I am science-trained, and my novels feature a forensic scientist). Whichever way you look at it, American fiction remains key to my own work, so when my agent suggested setting a novel in the United States, I was eager to grasp the chance. I readily swapped Marlowe’s 1938 Plymouth for a Jeep Grand Cherokee, already dreaming of dusty roads and rodeos.
Professor Fennimore, one half of my fictional detective duo, travels the world as a consultant forensic expert. It was easy to move him stateside for a month or two, to the midwest, rather than California, because that was where my contacts were, but who cared – it felt like the writers’ equivalent of an invitation to kiss the Blarney Stone. It wasn’t a smooth ride, at least at first . . . A potential host dropped out after he was promoted to Police Chief. Then I fell and broke my hand – and I had meetings planned all over Oklahoma as well as the 400-mile road trip to St Louis – with me as the designated driver. My driver's licence, renewable subject to a medical review, was delayed. I couldn’t hire a car without it and I couldn’t get insured. The new licence, and the all-clear on my broken hand, finally came through just a few days before we were due to fly out.
Nothing – nothing – prepares a small islander for the scale of the U.S. Heading to a meeting with aDA in the rural town of Tahlequah, I drove by fields and more fields, stretching out over a wide, flat expanse that could fit England’s Great Cheshire Plain in its back pocket. Red and black Aberdeen Angus cattle wallowing in farm ponds echoed those at home, but what Oklahomans call a ‘pond’ we Brits would call a boating lake. Oklahomans dug more ponds and wells post-Dust Bowl than any other state and they need them. In early May, it felt almost arid, temperatures were in the 80s, and wheat was already ripening in the fields. I drove through Wagoner, Cherokee County, featured in Charles Portis's True Grit. It is flat and ferociously hot – totally at odds with my childhood dreams of winding coastal roads in California, with cliff-top ocean views and cool onshore breezes. But there were compensations: I was in Rooster Cogburn territory – Indian Territory – with a history and individuality to rival anything the West Coast could offer. In the 19th century, a saying went: “There is no Sunday west of St. Louis and no God west of Fort Smith.” The law has since exerted its influence, but this former haven for desperados still has its share of ne’er do-wells: methamphetamine cookers and pot growers skulk in the backwoods, and as one homicide detective put it, “It’s easier to hide a body than find one in Oklahoma.” All those ponds and hand-dug wells . . .
Of course, the Web is a great source of information, but there is no substitute for talking to real people, especially in trying to unravel the complexity of the U.S. justice system. Fennimore’s sleuthing partner is Detective Chief Inspector Kate Simms; admittedly a bit of a mouthful, but unwieldy titles aside, British policing is relatively simple in comparison with the US. We have just 43 police authorities across England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, most operate under the same laws and statutes as everyone else, and there are nationally-agreed procedures and protocols. Compare that with 77 counties in Oklahoma alone, each of which will have its county Sheriff’s Office, with its own quirks and traditions; then factor in differences in State legislatures, the FBI, State Bureaus of Investigation, Highway Patrols, State Police, U.S. Department of Agriculture Police, the Marshals Service, and you must surely pity the poor Brit trying to make sense of it all.
I know – it’s fiction – why not make it up? CSI-style TV gives an impression of forensic science conducted in sleek glass buildings, autopsies performed in mood-lit morgues. But until a few weeks before my visit to Oklahoma’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the gurneys were so old and battered they kept throwing wheels and unceremoniously dumping bodies to the ground. Not every corpse rolled into the morgue was X-rayed, because the OCME couldn’t afford to buy a digital X-ray machine, and they had to set aside enough film for the old photographic rig to last out the year. Film was expensive, and the ME told us, “When it’s gone, it’s gone” – and when it was gone, they would just have to do things the hard way.
You don’t get that from internet research. Face-to-face, you hear a judge telling high-falutin’ lawyers that they should address their comments “to the third row of the Bixby Rodeo.” You meet the Homicide Detective who revisited a Jane Doe case annually over his entire 35-year career; the District Attorney who explained “The Cockroach Defence”: If you’ve got the facts on your side, argue the facts. If you’ve got the law on your side, argue the law. If you’ve got neither, crawl all over the evidence . . . It’s one reason prosecutors despise defense lawyers. And then there are the Team Adam consultants: retired cops, FBI agents, and marshals, who dedicate their retirement years to finding missing kids. You laugh at their rambunctious tales, but you also see the sadness behind their eyes, their humanity, and compassion, and that is what lends truth to a story, colouring the monochrome images (and morality) of those noir films, adding a depth which could only be guessed at by a hardboiled film fan from across the ocean.
A.D. Garrett has written a day-by-day blog of this U.S. research trip for Believe No One. Start reading it here.
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A.D. Garrett is the pseudonym for the writing collaboration between award-winning novelist, Margaret Murphy, and forensic scientist, Professor Dave Barclay. Everyone Lies, published in the UK in 2013 to wide acclaim, was their first collaboration.