I’ve been a fan of good TV crime drama for decades – whether the classic, English Inspector Morse, the brutally realistic Law & Order franchise, or the sassy-scientific CSI stable. What I didn’t realise until very recently, is that, whether I knew it or not, I was actually doing was some extremely effective research for my much more recent career as a writer of murder mysteries. This probably won’t strike you as that odd—not, at least—until I tell you that my first book was set in 1811, at a time when England didn’t even have a basic police force, never mind specialist detectives or a murder squad. All my victim’s family could turn to was a hired ‘thief taker’—a professional bounty hunter who would undertake to track down the killer for a hefty fee. So what use could my encyclopaedic knowledge of Grissom, Benson, Briscoe, et al possibly be in those circumstances?
It wasn’t until I was a good way into my book – suspects nicely lined up, meaty motives assigned, corpse duly delivered – when I realised that my thief-taker’s investigation was starting to look eerily familiar. So here, with the benefit of hindsight, are three key things I learned from the TV cops…
‘When did you last see this woman?’: The power of the picture
England didn’t get a police force until 1829, but after 1748, London did have a semi-professional detective team. Known as the ‘Bow Street Runners’, and working out of the magistrates’ court on that same road, many of them were ex-thief-takers themselves, and gradually developed a number of detection techniques that sound surprisingly familiar. Like tracking criminals by their vehicle registration plates, or setting up ID parades.
One thing they couldn’t use, of course, were crime scene photos or mug-shots, like the ones you see the likes of Goren and Eames showing to their prime suspect, because there was no way of capturing images like that at the time. Or was there? In fact, Charles Maddox, my master thief-taker, goes to as much trouble as Robert Goren ever did to engineer the circumstances in which one of his principal suspects comes face to face with a likeness of his supposed victim. The conversation starts affably enough over a fire and a glass of good wine, and for a while it seems more like a conversation than a cross-examination. And if that’s sounding familiar, so it should, for just as in Criminal Intent, this nineteenth century suspect is all too easily lulled into a false sense of security, and it’s only then that he’s suddenly confronted with a portrait of the dead woman—a portrait he never even knew existed: “it was the very state of mind that Maddox had hoped to induce, and too fair an opportunity for a man of his stamp to decline…”
Cat and mouse: Playing the interrogation game
It’s Morse, based upon the novels of Colin Dexter, who comes to the fore for me here. I don’t go in for the ‘good cop, bad cop’ style of two-hander so beloved of most modern police procedurals, but I’ve obviously been influenced by the intellectual cut and thrust played out in a typical Morse interrogation. Maddox interviews everyone from the lady of the mansion to the under-servants, and just like Morse, he adapts his style to every tiny social nuance, and ruthlessly exploits weakness under cover of courtesy. And like Morse, Maddox relies as much on intelligence and intuition as he does on the physical evidence: as Morse himself might have said, “logic and observation, Miss Bertram, logic and observation. They are, you might say, the tools of my trade.”
Up close and personal: The post mortem
After the killing, the victim’s brutalised body is brought back to the house, and Mary Crawford, the central female character, takes on herself the gruesome task of laying out the corpse for burial. Having seen dozens of episodes of CSI and its UK equivalent Silent Witness, I found the scene unfolding before my eyes in almost exactly that format, as Mary carefully removes the clothing from the body, notes the colour and texture of the skin, and sees the exact nature of the injuries inflicted. So vivid are these images, in fact, that she’s later able to give Maddox the precise detail he needs to reconstruct the exact nature of the attack – the number of wounds, the type of weapon, and the fact that while the body was found lying on its back, there must – crucially – have been another, earlier blow that brought her down forwards onto her knees.
Mary plays the scientist here, to Maddox’s investigator, but as the plot unfolds they collaborate on a much more equal footing, and it’s only by working together that the crime is finally solved. So much so, in fact, that you might almost say they become – however briefly – the Benson and Stabler of the English Regency…
Lynn Shepherd’s ‘Jane Austen murder mystery’, Murder at Mansfield Park, is published by St Martin’s Press. Her website is www.lynn-shepherd.com, and you can friend her on Facebook or on Twitter @Lynn_Shepherd