Former The Bill scriptwriter turned author, Paul Finch, tells us how his time working for the Manchester police force was the starting block for his passion of crime fiction writing. Read Paul’s second instalment into the killer reads diary…
There’s no question that my police service gave me an excellent grounding from which to write crime fiction. It’s not just about procedure, you see – it’s an innate understanding of the police officer’s role in society, and more importantly, the role the police may play in his or her life.
Being a cop is not like any other work. You can’t just put it away at the end of your shift. By its very nature, the job can alienate you from everyone you know. It can depress you, frighten you, outrage you. But by the same token it can empower you, and be massively rewarding. Above all though, it’s a weird occupation – where the complexity of experience can truly be stranger than fiction. And this air of the unreal is something I feel honour-bound to try and bring to my crime-writing, particularly in my forthcoming trilogy of cop thrillers from Avon Books.
But where does having actually been a cop leave you as a crime writer?
Well, as I say. I hope it means that I know what’s what. I definitely want to bring my readers that unique atmosphere of police life: a world of tough men and women doing a tough job; I want to evoke the ‘Fort Apache’ spirit of an inner city police station, but I also want to bring out the camaraderie and horseplay, and the unpredictable nature of the police officer’s average working day.
I spent my service in Salford, Manchester, my memories of which have now coalesced into a single brutal vision: of a grimy concrete wasteland; a post-industrial nightmare of grot, gloom, drunkenness, drugs, graffiti, gang violence and general-purpose villainy. The average police shift in Salford was filled end-to-end with incidents, and usually far overran the normal eight hours allocated. I recall one night when the two of us working the ‘area van’ made 24 arrests between us. That wasn’t because we were brilliant bobbies, but because wherever we went that night crime and disorder was happening in front of us. All we had to do was snatch the felons off the streets (though it was still a sobering experience to grab four burglars as they came one-by-one out of a council house window, and later discover the little old lady who lived there tied up inside one of her own cupboards).
Of course, Salford wasn’t the end of the world. There were good people living there as well as bad. But it was a high-crime area, which made it an ideal hunting ground for an eager-beaver cop.
But there I am going on about hardship and misery again, and that isn’t the whole police experience. It may sound unlikely, but the potential for comedy in police life – for horseplay, mickey-taking and general ludicrous incident – was endless.
I once attended a post mortem with a fellow officer who was notoriously squeamish. With the connivance of the mortuary attendant, we left him on his own in the room with the body under a sheet. He didn’t realise the body was actually one of our sergeants. While he was in there, nervously waiting, the body suddenly jumped at him. I swear … he almost had a heart attack.
One other time I was on a plain clothes operation, disguised as a tramp and sitting on a streetcorner to watch the bus stop opposite. I’d been there three days, and no-one had offered me so much as tuppence, which was good because I’d have had to refuse it to avoid committing deception. Then, on the last day, everyone wanted to give me money. Someone even offered to buy me a meal from MacDonald’s. I was getting more and more irate, trying to explain to these generous but puzzled passers-by that I didn’t want their cash. It was only then that I twigged it was a set-up. All these good Samaritans were TSG officers, who were also in plain clothes.
The real public could also be great. One night I chased this chap in his van; it was about three in the morning and he was driving erratically and wouldn’t stop for me. He eventually crashed on the banks of the River Irwell, tried to swim across and started drowning. I had no option but to jump in and pull him out, which was pretty difficult as he weighed about 19 stone. It transpired that he’d been driving under the influence of drugs, but he was so grateful to be rescued that he came peacefully. About five weeks later, one Friday night, I was struggling with a violent prisoner, whose mates had encircled me. I’d have got a real kicking had a bouncer from the nightclub across the road not intervened and helped. It was the same chap I’d pulled out of the Irwell. Clearly, he was still feeling grateful.
These are just a few little anecdotes of course, fun stories that hopefully illustrate what a strange world my police experience was, and give some hint of the strange but authentic flavour that I’ll be bringing to my new series of cop novels. With any luck, you folks will soon be checking them out for yourselves.
For a taster take a look at this Extract of Stalkers. I hope you enjoy it.