People often ask me are the Heck novels in any way autobiographical? Was I Heck when I was a copper? Did any of the stuff that appears in the Heck novels actually happen? The temptation is always to say: “Yeah, I was one of the senior investigators for an elite British detective unit dedicated to catching the worst of the worst.”
But alas, the truthful answer must be: “I wish.”
My own real-life contribution to UK law enforcement was very small compared to DS Mark Heckenburg’s. I cannot claim to be Heck in any way. But certain aspects of his character and the world he inhabits were informed by my own police experience. There is no denying that.
The weirdest contradiction of law-enforcement is that, first of all, it is a world like no other, and secondly, it’s a job. You do it every day. You become immersed in it; it becomes a key part of your life. But that isn’t to say it will ever become routine or, dare I say it, normal.
Things may have changed a little since my day, but whenever I went on duty, especially at night, my workplace was the backstreets of Salford. That was where the crime happened, so as a young copper that was where you needed to be. Not sitting in central-heated offices processing interminable paperwork, or cruising the streets in comfortable patrol cars (not that we had any such thing). And there was something else. Before your sergeant signed you off at the end of each shift, he didn’t want to know how many little old ladies you’d helped across the road or how many insecure premises you’d found. He wanted to know how many crooks you’d locked up. All that other stuff was important, but mainly it was for the public. In reality, whether you were uniform or plain clothes, you rose and fell in the job by the numbers of hoodlums you collared.
Of course, that was easier said than done.
I mean, those dingy backstreets could be intimidating.
Hopefully anyone familiar with the Heck novels will be able to picture the scene: endless brick, endless concrete, endless rain. Flats that are towering, faceless edifices. Underpasses that are more like doorways to Hell. And it’s always so dark out there, so eerily quiet. But you see, that’s to your advantage. Because though there are predators in this wasteland, you are one of them – the only difference is you have official status, you have a royal writ to hunt the hunters. That is why you wear black. It’s why your radio has a knob on it by which you can turn down the crackle of dead air; it’s why you are the only person outside the military legally empowered to carry weapons in public.
This is the essential experience of the successful thief-taker.
He prowls silently, ears pricked for those distant, telltale sounds – a drunken shout, a frightened scream, an explosion of glass. He’s in the heart of the city, but civilisation feels a thousand miles away. The bright lights and lively banter of the station canteen might as well be on another planet. But that doesn’t matter to him, because this is what he is here for … hounding and harrying those relentless villains of the urban night, going wherever they go, watching for them, waiting for them, stopping at nothing to ruin their plans.
Okay … this is all a touch melodramatic, as I’m sure you realise. Was that the way I worked night-turn when I was a police officer in Manchester? I’m saying nothing. But it’s certainly the way Mark Heckenburg worked it when he was.
When the Heck novels commence, he’s done seventeen years in the police, working first in Manchester, then down in London and finally at the National Crime Group, where he found his perfect role as a lead investigator in the Serial Crimes Unit. By now Heck, whose home life was so plagued by trauma that he took the job almost as a refuge, has become a complete creature of the police world. Has been absorbed by it totally. That is why he’s so good at what he does. It’s also why he is fundamentally messed up. He has no other life, no social set to mingle with, and no real romance outside the job. Sure, he goes to functions and gets drunk – but most coppers get drunk. He has sex too, but in Heck’s case it’s usually pretty quick and meaningless. The most important thing in his life is always getting back on the job and going after them … which, it has to be said, while it might bring him satisfaction, doesn’t always make him happy.
Of course, there are some good things in Heck’s world, and one of those is Detective Superintendent Gemma Piper. Gemma’s another top cop; she’s Heck’s former girlfriend – when they were both detective constables at Bethnal Green, they had a very hot relationship. Like him, Gemma has never really recovered from the break-up. She hasn’t married anyone else, or had any other relationship that amounted to more than a quick fling. As such, she’s thrown herself into the job too, though she’s managed to retain a little perspective, and as a result has risen fast. She and Heck still work together, but it isn’t an easy relationship. Gemma is the cool organiser while Heck is the instinct man. There’s a lot of friction between them, but also a deep if unspoken affection. Even if they won’t admit it, they draw constant emotional strength from each other. Could they ever live together again? It seems unlikely. But it seems even more unlikely they could ever live apart.
I reiterate that none of this was my personal experience. My wife of twenty-six years still works as a civilian for the police, and I draw plenty of emotional support from her. But thankfully she never had to go across the pavement with me. That would have been too awful to contemplate. So I leave all that to fictional heroes, Heck and Gemma, two cops just about holding it together in a floodtide of violent crime, neither willing, or able, to back down from a challenge that seemingly knows no end.
I’m so glad that wasn’t my life, but I’m gladder still I had a taste of it – so I could investigate it more fully, and of course a lot more safely, on the written page.
Hunted by Paul Finch
Pub: 7th May 2015
Available in paperback and eBook.