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The Sirens of Suspense




Ex Army, retired cop and former Scenes Of Crime Officer, Colin Campbell is the author of British crime novels, Blue Knight White Cross, and Northern Ex, and US thrillers Jamaica Plain, Montecito Heights, Adobe Flats and Snake Pass. His Jim Grant thrillers bring a rogue Yorkshire cop to America where culture clash and violence ensue.


Find Colin on Twitter.



When I entered the bedroom, the man with the hunting knife was sitting up in bed. Even lying down he was big. The serrated knife he’d held to his ex-girlfriend’s throat while she performed on him was on the bedside cabinet. The current girlfriend had told us at the front door the big fella wasn’t home, while casting nervous eyes towards the bedroom. My partner waited at the bedroom door in case I needed help. The description had put the suspect at seven feet tall wearing bikers leathers and boots. Not to mention the knife. I smiled at the slumbering giant. I watched the knife. I nodded at the heavy studded boots with six-inch soles. That made him a more manageable 6’ 6’’. It wasn’t much more manageable.

There’s a saying among writers, “Write about what you know.” That’s fine as far as authenticity goes and I suppose should more accurately read, “Know about what you write.” That suggests researching what it’s like to be a candlestick maker if you’re not a candlestick maker. I remember Mark Billingham saying once, when asked about doing police research, “I just make this shit up.” True up to a point but having never been a police officer you can bet he had some friendly coppers giving him advice about procedures and mindset.

Ian Fleming wrote about Her Majesty’s Secret Service from the privileged position of having served in MI6, or its equivalent during the war. James Bond might have been a figment of his imagination but much of the machinations of the spy world came from the fact that, you couldn’t make this shit up. He dressed the set with real world facts and details, such as what kind of gun 007 used or what car he drove, to ground his stories before setting off on his flights of fancy. All helped by the fact that he was indeed writing about what he knew. When it comes to writing crime fiction it helps, but is not essential, if you were in the police. I was in the police.

There’s one more thing about writing what you know.

It invariably reads better than it lives.

The fat dead guy had bad feet. The feet meant he didn’t get out much. The smell meant he didn’t have many visitors. It wasn’t until the landlord called to collect the overdue rent two weeks later that he found him flopped in a chair in front of the fire. As cooked as a Sunday roast. I went in to photograph the scene. The curtains were closed. The room was dark. The fire was still on. I set up the tripod and loaded the camera, sucking on a mouthful of Polo mints and trying not to breath. I could hear a clicking noise like a thousand tiny knitting needles. When I turned my torch on him I saw that half his face had been eaten by maggots that were still crawling all over him. Flies buzzed around the room. The heat had bloated him out and his king-size Y-Fronts took the brunt of his voided bowels.

As writers we can describe a scene in all its gory detail but the one thing we can’t get the reader to experience is the smell. Some fragrances are easily relatable. Freshly cut grass. Bacon frying. Just baked bread. We can drizzle them into scenes to get a familiar response. Cracked leather and tobacco. The smell of a newly struck match. Our minds retain those smells and they bring pleasant memories. The smell of death is something you only experience once and then you forget the stench. Even I can’t recall the cooked man’s voided bowels. It’s a defence mechanism. Like not being able to remember pain.

The car sped into the cul-de-sac and stopped at the dead-end. Jill threw the patrol car round the corner and stopped right behind it. Both doors opened and I shouted into the radio that the car thieves were making off on foot. I got out, ready to give chase. Jill was halfway out of the driver’s side when the lads jumped back in and reversed into the police car. Jill had one leg on the ground. There was nowhere to go. The stolen car shoved the patrol car backwards and sideways against the wall trapping Jill’s leg. The door closed like the blades of a pair of scissors. The car slammed backwards. Jill cried out in pain. The door squeezed shut on her broken leg.

I’m lucky that I never experienced painful injury during my service but the policewoman driving that night did. She was off sick for months and never fully recovered. We used to joke that when they prized the door open she had Rover imprinted on her leg from the manufacturers plate. It wasn’t a funny joke.

As writers we can describe pain as graphically as we want but the reader will never experience what Jill felt. Pain and panic and fear. Writing what we know can only get you so far. But in the end you should be thankful it always reads better than it lives.



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