Crime fiction: when bitter rivalries get out of hand

The Sunday Times, 2 November 2014

Scientific controversy rarely features in crime fiction. The best-selling author Sissel-Jo Gazan proved it could be done in her acclaimed first novel, The Dinosaur Feather, which went on to be hailed Danish crime novel of the decade. Her second, The Arc of the Swallow (Quercus £16.99), translated by Charlotte Barslund, tackles another disagreement among scientists, this time about the possible side-effects of immunisation programmes.

A distinguished biologist, Kristian Storm, is found hanged in his office in Copenhagen after carrying out hugely controversial research in Africa. Storm’s observations in Guinea-Bissau appear to suggest that a widely-used vaccine might actually harm children in developing countries. His assistant, who is being treated for breast cancer, refuses to believe Storm has killed himself. Soren Marhauge, the tormented detective who featured in Gazan’s first book, agrees with her.

This is a terrific novel, involving bitter rivalries among scientists, so it is a shame that Gazan’s ambiguity about its relation to real life raises unanswered questions. She insists at the outset that the novel is ‘pure fiction’, but cites research from a controversial Danish research project in Africa which casts doubt on the safety of a particular vaccine. This makes for uneasy reading in the UK, where an unwarranted panic about the MMR vaccine has led to measles outbreaks.

It is more than two decades since Patricia Cornwell began writing novels starring Dr Kay Scarpetta, who has since become one of the best-known characters in crime fiction. In the beginning, Scarpetta was a completely-unknown medical examiner in Virginia, where she was called in to help the police with plausible crimes involving perfectly ordinary victims. These days Scarpetta is a celebrity and the change in her fortunes is evident in Flesh and Blood (Harper Collins £20), which opens with the most pretentious first paragraph I’ve read in a long time.

Scarpetta and her husband are at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, sipping coffees sweetened with ‘agave nectar’, when they begin to suspect they are being watched. Not far away, a music teacher is shot dead while carrying groceries into his apartment. At first it seems as though Cornwell is returning to what she used to do so well, pitting Scarpetta against the kind of apparently random killer who turns up so often in the US. But then it becomes clear that Scarpetta and her family are the real targets, exposing the narcissistic tendencies which have spoiled so many of the later novels in the series.

Dreda Say Mitchell’s new novel Vendetta (Hodder £6.99) has a classic opening scene: a man wakes in a seedy hotel room, with no memory of what he’s doing there, and discovers his girlfriend’s corpse in the bathroom. At first he’s terrified that he might be responsible, but then he realises that he has a head wound and someone – Russian gangsters, most likely – is trying to set him up. This is the first in a series of novels about undercover cops, but the cartoonish violence makes it hard to believe in either the plot or characters.

The murder of the Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme, is one of the great unsolved crimes of the second half of the 20th century. Palme was shot dead as he left a cinema in Stockholm in 1986 and the suspect who was convicted of the killing was later cleared. Now one of the country’s most admired crime writers, Leif G W Persson, has taken on the subject in a clever and sophisticated novel, Falling Freely, As If In A Dream (Doubleday £18.99), translated by Paul Norlen.

Persson is a psychological profiler and a professor at the National Swedish Police Board. Although this is fiction, he calls on his professional skills to analyse the evidence collected at the scene, using the pretext that a group of fictional cops has been tasked with reviewing the case files. It has the feel of a real investigation, carried out by convincing characters and shedding new light on this most perplexing of crimes.

Child abuse inquiry: children’s lives are destroyed by this culture of disbelief

Independent on Sunday, 2 November 2014

The fiasco surrounding the Woolf inquiry suggests that the Home Office still doesn’t grasp the size of the problem

How could this happen? Almost four months ago, the government announced a wide-ranging inquiry into explosive allegations of historical child abuse. Since then, two chairs have been appointed, both have resigned and the inquiry hasn’t even started work. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, will face uncomfortable questions from MPs when she makes a statement in the House of Commons tomorrow.

On Friday, the embarrassment spread to David Cameron when he backed Fiona Woolf, the current Lord Mayor of London, only hours before her resignation as head of the inquiry was announced. She lost the confidence of victims when it was revealed that she is a friend of the former Home Secretary, Lord Brittan, who was at the Home Office in the 1980s when, it is alleged, a dossier on child abuse compiled by a Conservative MP went missing. It emerged last week that a letter setting out her contacts with Brittan went through seven drafts.

The inquiry needs to be exceptionally wide-ranging, shining a light into just about every area of the establishment. Yet the Home Office seems not to have realised that the usual approach – announcing an inquiry and picking one of the great and the good to chair it – would be entirely inappropriate in this instance. Woolf’s predecessor, Baroness Butler-Sloss, had also faced questions about her connections to a senior political figure in the 1980s; her late brother, Lord Havers, was attorney general when reports of child sexual abuse were allegedly not examined properly.

It was Baroness Butler-Sloss, as it happens, who offered an insight into the process of setting up inquiries when she gave a lecture in 2003. When she was asked who instigated a previous inquiry into child abuse (which she chaired) in the late1980s, she made this off-the-cuff remark: ‘I think it was my brother actually as Lord Chancellor’. Butler-Sloss said her brother suggested a woman judge should chair the inquiry, and she was one of only three female judges at the time. The other two were unavailable so ‘I found myself doing it’.

The fate of that inquiry, which reported in 1988, offers a fascinating piece of background. It came about because a Labour MP in the north-east, Stuart Bell, was outraged by the number of children who had been taken into care in his constituency following diagnoses of child sexual abuse. Bell painted doctors and child protection professionals in Cleveland as fanatics who saw sexual abuse everywhere; he even compared their behaviour to the Salem witch trials. Butler-Sloss was critical of the mechanisms used to take the children into care, but a TV documentary later claimed that nearly three-quarters of the diagnoses were correct. The feminist author Beatrix Campbell described the Butler-Sloss report as ‘compromised by Establishment guile and bad faith’.

From the standpoint of today, the Cleveland scandal looks rather different. In the last two or three years, a series of investigations has finally begun to demolish a persistent and very damaging state of denial about the extent of child sexual abuse in this country. Jimmy Savile, Rotherham, Max Clifford, Rolf Harris, Rochdale, Cyril Smith: the names have become shorthand for scandals involving vulnerable children and teenagers.

The Elm guest house in south-west London is alleged to have been at the centre of network of paedophiles with links to Parliament and Buckingham Palace, and is supposed to have featured in the dossier handed to the Home Office by the late Geoffrey Dickens MP. He caused an outcry in 1981 when he used Parliamentary privilege to name a former diplomat, Sir Peter Hayman, as a member of the notorious Paedophile Information Exchange. Hayman came to the attention of the police in 1979 when they raided a flat he used in west London and found a mass of material, including images of abused children. Hayman was let off with a caution.

Suspicions of an establishment cover-up have been fuelled by the BBC’s failure to recognise that Savile was abusing children on an industrial scale. Then there is the case of the Liberal MP Cyril Smith, who received a knighthood even though allegations about his abuse of boys were in the public domain. Back in 1979, the Rochdale Alternative Paper revealed it had sworn statements from young men who claimed to have been abused by the MP in a hostel for homeless boys in Rochdale in the 1960s. Private Eye repeated the allegations but Smith never sued.

Since then, the staggering extent of child sexual abuse in the Catholic church has come to light, while the Anglican hierarchy is being rocked by similar scandals. Last week a former Archbishop of York, Lord Hope, resigned as an honorary assistant bishop after a report found ‘systemic failures’ in the church’s response to allegations against a former cathedral dean. But it is not just establishment figures who benefited from this culture of disbelief.

Three months ago, the Jay report into sexual abuse in Rotherham caused shock waves when it suggested that at least 1,400 girls had been victims of rape and sexual abuse. I suddenly remembered sensational headlines from 2001, when it was revealed that a 12-year-old girl had become pregnant in the town. A salacious detail – that five men aged between 16 and 26 were facing DNA tests because she did not know who was the father – put the spotlight on the girl’s supposedly ‘promiscuous’ behaviour. Thirteen years later, I can’t help wondering whether it was an early warning that vulnerable young girls were being targeted by predatory men.

Sexual abuse of children has been going on at every level of British society for decades. The victims are crying out for a fearless investigation. But this fiasco of an inquiry suggests that the Home Office, at least, remains in denial.

A bit of contrition would help, but appallingly behaved footballers barely see a problem

Independent on Sunday, 19 October 2014

As sexual violence against women increases, football’s authorities should take the same stand they have taken against racism

Professional footballers tend to be glamorous, physically fit and wealthy beyond the dreams of their contemporaries. Whether or not they are role models, many people are fascinated by their lifestyle. But there have been enough instances of appalling behaviour, often involving footballers on a night out, to suggest that the game has a serious problem with sexual violence. The latest case to bring this into focus is that of Ched Evans, the former Sheffield United striker and Welsh international who has just been released from prison after serving half of a five-year sentence for rape.

Evans’s release has triggered a fierce debate about whether he should be allowed to play professional football again. It coincided with publication of the latest figures for reported rapes in England and Wales, which show a rise of 29 per cent on the previous year. Overall, crime is falling, and there is a debate about whether the figure represents an increased incidence of rape or greater willingness to report it. But Evans’s absolute refusal to acknowledge that he did anything wrong offers a startling insight into outdated beliefs within the game about women and sexual violence.

‘We’re footballers, we’re rich and we’ve got money, that’s what girls like’, Evans bragged to police after his arrest. He is not alone in this view. ‘Don’t you know who I am? I’m a millionaire.’ That was the Wigan Athletic striker, Marlon King, responding angrily to a young woman who rejected his advances in a Soho nightclub. In 2009, King was convicted of sexual assault and actual bodily harm after he groped the woman and punched her to the floor. He was jailed for 18 months but it didn’t prevented him from playing again after his release, most recently at Sheffield United. (He is currently in prison again, this time for dangerous driving.)

Then there is the case of Tesfaye Bramble, who played for Football League clubs and is the brother of a well-known Premiership player, Titus Bramble. Three years ago Titus, who then played for Sunderland, gave evidence during Tesfaye’s trial for rape; he said he assumed that ‘when a girl’s coming back to a hotel after the club it’s for sex’. Tesfaye Bramble admitted climbing on top of his 19-year-old victim, who had fallen asleep in a single hotel bed after a night out in Newcastle, and deciding to ‘try my luck’. He was convicted of rape and sentenced to four-and-a-half years.

The most striking common factor in the Evans and Bramble cases is complete ignorance of the importance of consent. Evans went to a hotel room in North Wales in the early hours of the morning after getting a text from his mate, the Port Vale player Clayton McDonald, telling him he’d ‘got a girl’. He found McDonald having sex with the woman, who was 19 and very drunk, and decided to do the same when his mate had finished. (McDonald was charged with rape but acquitted.)

Evans said the woman ‘was moaning and groaning like she was enjoying herself’, apparently unaware that groaning is often a sign of distress. His self-absorption has not been dented by his time in jail, as a statement posted on his website makes clear: ‘Chedwyn Evans maintains his absolute innocence and his family, friends and many who know the true facts of the case believe that his conviction was a gross miscarriage of justice.’

Juries do not lightly convict men of rape: CPS figures show that the conviction rate was 60.3 per cent in 2013-2014, compared with an overall rate of 79.8 per cent in crown courts. Evans had his application to appeal against conviction and sentence turned down by three judges, who could see ‘no basis’ to interfere with the verdict. But he has engaged a new legal team and made an application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission. He has also promised to publish a ‘very personal and profound statement’ in the next few days.

When I asked the FA about Evans’s future, a spokesman said any club which signs an individual convicted of such crimes is ‘duty bound’ to liaise with the probation and prison authorities to identify what ‘rehabilitation work’ has taken place in prison. He said it is ‘also important to work to integrate the player back into the club and society’. But what if the player flatly refuses to acknowledge that he’s done anything wrong? The FA’s statement effectively gives the green light to clubs to sign players who are unrepentant about their crimes towards women, as long as they comply with probation conditions.

The FA also told me it is promoting the involvement of women in the game and ‘reporting procedures to women to tackle sexism’. But this is not just about sexism or behaviour on the pitch. It is about a footballing culture which trivialises sexual violence, as though someone’s ability to score goals is all that matters. Since Evans’s conviction, his supporters have repeatedly used social networking sites to abuse his critics, including his victim and a woman who collected more than 150,000 signatures on a petition calling for him to be blocked from returning to Sheffield United.

Football’s authorities have rightly adopted a tough line on racism. I can’t understand why they haven’t taken an equally clear stand on sexual violence, unless it’s the fact that the highest level of the game is a multi-million-pound business. The FA says rape and sexual violence are ‘appalling crimes’, so why doesn’t it tell clubs to bring in experts to educate players about gender equality and the meaning of consent? No matter how talented they are, men who don’t accept these basic tenets of decent behaviour have no place on the pitch.