The body in the lift shaft

Sunday Times, 7 January 2018


Eva Dolan made her name with a series of crime novels set in a police hate-crimes unit in Peterborough. Now she has come up with a terrific stand-alone novel, This Is How It Ends (Raven £12.99), in which she turns her attention to the secretive world of environmental activists and the cops who spy on them.


The story is set in and around a block of flats on the bank of the Thames in central London that has been the focus of a fight between the tenants and developers. Most of the tenants have now left, but a handful are holding out. One of them, Molly, a veteran activist, is suspected by the police of being involved in violent protests in the 1980s.


She has recently made friends with a young blogger called Ella, a rising star in the green movement. In a fast-moving series of events, Ella is attacked in one of the empty flats late at night and a body turns up in a lift shaft. Dolan doesn’t sugarcoat anything in this haunting novel about friendship, suspicion and betrayal.


Cara Hunter’s Close to Home (Penguin £7.99) is set on a new housing estate in Oxford, on the “wrong” side of the canal, a far cry from the mellow stone and green quads of the university. An eight-year-old girl, Daisy Mason, is missing after a barbecue and suspicion falls on her parents, an unsympathetic couple who turn on each other as the forensic evidence seems to point to murder. Like Dolan, Hunter has a keen sense of contemporary mores, providing a running commentary on the case from posts on social media. The most compelling thing about the novel is its portrait of a self-absorbed mother whose inability to love her children leads to a breathtaking denouement.


The Chalk Man by CJ Tudor (M Joseph £12.99) is also about troubling events in childhood, this time recalled from the standpoint of 30 years later. The novel’s slightly creepy narrator, now a teacher at a local school, is sent a package containing a crude drawing of a stick figure. It brings back memories of a game he used to play as a 12-year-old, when he used similar figures to send messages to other members of his little gang. But this childish game was played out against the murder of a local girl, and the anonymous sender seems to be suggesting that the killer is still at large. Tudor writes well about adolescent boys and this is a striking debut, even if she overdoes the gruesome details at times.


In a departure from her well-received detective series, the Irish writer Jo Spain has written a clever novel about the murder of a disgraced banker. The Confession (Quercus £12.99) opens with a man walking into the banker’s isolated home and attacking him savagely in front of his wife. The assailant claims he has no idea what prompted the crime, an assertion that Spain undermines in a series of flashbacks, gradually exposing a chilling history of dysfunctional families.


Oliver Bottini’s Zen and the Art of Murder, translated by Jamie Bulloch (MacLehose £16.99), is the first of his award-winning Black Forest novels to appear in English. It has an arresting opening image: a Buddhist monk with a head injury strides across the snowy landscape of the border country between Germany and France.

Bottini’s Inspector Louise Boni is a familiar figure in contemporary crime fiction, a middle-aged cop with a drink problem. But her attempt to befriend the monk plunges her into a surprising and genuinely shocking case involving child trafficking.


A month in prison for each woman John Worboys sexually assaulted: how is this justice?

Daily Telegraph, Friday 5 January 2018

Most sexual predators get away with their crimes. The notorious serial rapist John Worboys was very nearly one of them, remaining free to drug and assault women in his black London cab for more than a decade. More than a hundred women have told the police that Worboys attacked them, but only 12 of those cases ever came to court.

Now, in a move that has caused widespread outrage, it has been revealed that 60-year-old Worboys will be released from prison later this month. It is a slap in the face for his victims who learned about the decision, in at least two cases, via news bulletins.

But it is worse than that, sending a message to women everywhere that the criminal justice system is still failing in its approach to even the most egregious sexual predators. Worboys is from east London and in a matter of weeks he will be free to live in the same city as his victims, most of whom never had the satisfaction of seeing him held to account for his violence against them.

When the former cabbie was convicted of 19 offences in 2009, his crimes were deemed so heinous that he was given an indeterminate sentence, with a minimum tariff of eight years. Many of us believe he belongs in that small category of offenders who pose such a danger to women that he should never be released. Yet he is being let out after serving just under ten years – less than a year for each of the 12 women he was convicted of attacking.

The police believe that Worboys’s convictions, like those of other convicted rapists, represent only a fraction of his crimes. If the women who came forward after his arrest are included in his catalogue of offences, he will have served roughly a month for each victim by the time he leaves jail.

Some of his victims have said they are ‘absolutely sick and disgusted and shocked to the core’ by news of his impending release. A number of MPs, including the chair of the home affairs select committee, Yvette Cooper, have demanded to know how the Parole Board came to its decision. ‘There are many serious questions why this dangerous man has been given parole after serving such a short sentence for his attacks against women’, she said.

As a black cab driver, Worboys was in a position of trust, which he abused in a series of carefully planned attacks. He even prepared props in advance, including a bag of what appeared to be cash, to bolster his story that he had had a big win on the lottery or in a casino. When a woman got into his cab, he would invite her to have a glass of champagne spiked with a combination of prescription and over-the counter-drugs. His victims were so incapacitated that he was then able to rape and sexually assault them.

This is the modus operandi of a very dangerous man, who showed no remorse or sympathy for his victims. He was helped by the failings of the Metropolitan Police, whose botched investigation into the Worboys case was later criticised by the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

Some of his victims did report him, long before he was finally charged, but officers decided to believe Worboys on the grounds that a black-cab driver ‘would not commit such an offence’. They failed to search his home for evidence and made no attempt to corroborate the women’s accounts, leaving Worboys at large to target more victims.

The shortcomings identified by the IPCC report in 2010 exposed ‘systemic’ problems in rape investigations. Little did his victims know that they would be let down again, eight years later, by the Parole Board’s astonishing decision to recommend Worboys’s release. It will have taken into account only his actual convictions, rather than allegations which were not tested in court, but that raises two urgent questions.

Why does the board believe that a man who attacked 12 women with such a degree of calculation is no longer a risk to the public? And why was a decision taken not to bring further charges against Worboys, based on the huge number of allegations made after his arrest and conviction?

The criminal justice system is often accused of systemic failings in the way it deals with violence against women. Earlier this week Theodore Johnson, 64, pleaded guilty to murdering his former partner who was unaware, when she met him, that he had already served short sentences for killing his wife and another partner.

Now one of the country’s worst serial rapists is to be set free after serving an absurdly lenient prison sentence. Can we really believe that this country’s legal system is doing its job of protecting women from patently dangerous men?

We need a domestic violence offenders’ register. Theodore Johnson is proof


When Angela Best met Johnson, she didn’t know he’d killed two previous partners. New legal powers could help to save women’s lives

The Guardian, Wednesday 3 January 2018

Why aren’t women being warned before they form relationships with dangerous men? Earlier this week, there was widespread shock when Theodore Johnson, 64, pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey to the murder of his former partner, Angela Best. Best had no idea, when she first met Johnson, that he already had convictions for killing his wife and another partner. If ever there was an argument for a domestic violence offenders’ register, Johnson is it.

Many will wonder why he received such a light prison sentence (three years) when he was convicted of killing his wife, Yvonne Johnson, in Wolverhampton in 1981. He was convicted of manslaughter a second time in 1993 after he strangled his partner, Yvonne Bennett, at their home in north London. Two years later, after his release from a psychiatric unit, Johnson met Best and began a relationship with her in another area of London.

His short sentences are clearly a cause for concern. But the really important question highlighted by the case is why the criminal justice system fails to warn future partners about the record of convicted abusers. Here we have a man, with a documented history of lethal violence towards women, who was able to move from one area of the country to another, leaving knowledge of his crimes behind him. Best had no idea of his record until she found letters revealing that he had killed a previous partner.

This is a common pattern among extreme abusers, who deliberately move to a new area where they (and their crimes) are unknown. Best’s children described him as abusive and controlling, something that makes it all the more difficult for a woman to leave. Research confirms that women are most at risk of death or serious injury in the months after they leave an abusive man.

Best finally left Johnson in the autumn of 2016. In December, he asked her to meet him at his flat, where he attacked her with a claw hammer and strangled her with a cord in what appears to have been a copy of his second lethal attack. Hours later, Johnson threw himself under a train at Cheshunt railway station in Hertfordshire, losing both his arms.

A register for men like Johnson would go much further than Clare’s law, which allows women to ask the police whether a man has a history of abuse. Even abusive men know enough to be on their best behaviour at the beginning of a relationship, and many women feel uncomfortable about going behind the back of someone they have no reason to suspect.

A register would add a “right to know” to the current “right to ask”. Like convicted sex offenders, men convicted of domestic violence would have to inform the police of their current address, making it much harder for them to drop off the radar. Crucially, they would also have to tell the police if they have formed new relationships. Officers would then have a duty to warn the women concerned about the offenders’ criminal record.

The police support new legal powers on these lines and so does the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Critics say it would take up a great deal of police time at a moment when forces are already stretched, but that is an argument (which Khan and other police commissioners have already made) for ensuring they have the resources they need.

The other argument against a register, which was also made against Clare’s law, is that it offers no protection against men who have managed to avoid convictions. But officers already try to avoid creating a false sense of security, pointing out that the absence of a criminal record should not be taken as a clean bill of health. Those who do get a result, even if it is unwelcome, have a piece of knowledge that could save them from death or serious injury.

It is impossible to know what Best would have done if the police had been obliged to tell her, when she first met Johnson in 1995, that he was a convicted double killer. What is undeniable is that if she had been warned about his terrible history, she would have had choices – and she might still be alive now.

Britain’s Game of Thrones

New York Review of Books,

Saturday 2 December, 2017

It is the curse of the Windsor men: they can’t resist marrying women who are more interesting than themselves. The news this week that Queen Elizabeth’s grandson, Prince Harry, is engaged to an American actress has not exactly rocked the UK. But those traditional balcony photos—men in military uniform, women in weird hats—are going to look very different in future.

Back in the 1980s, Harry’s father, Prince Charles, was aghast when his shy bride, Lady Diana Spencer, transformed herself into the first global superstar. Meghan Markle isn’t that, not yet at least, but it’s clear that she has star quality. Unlike his elder brother Prince William, who made a safe choice when he married Kate Middleton, Harry has gone full Hollywood.

The engagement was announced at a moment when the United Kingdom is angry and divided, still suffering from the self-inflicted wounds of last year’s referendum on EU membership. Who cares if a minor member of the royal family has finally decided, at the age of thirty-three, to give up a mildly rambunctious bachelor lifestyle? By now, most Britons have forgotten the naked photos of Harry taken at a party in Las Vegas and the Nazi uniform he ill-advisedly once wore to a costume party. True, Harry’s great-great-uncle David married an American divorcée who, according to an FBI report, had an affair with Hitler’s foreign minister, but that is nothing more than coincidence. Great-great-uncle David—better known as King Edward VIII—is another example of a Windsor man who married interestingly.

All this matters for a simple reason, which is that the British royal family remains in place by consent. That can be withdrawn as well as given: plenty of European countries have got rid of their monarchies or scaled them down on the Dutch model of bicycle-pedaling quasi-commoners. You wouldn’t know this from the British media’s servile reaction to Harry’s engagement, which wiped everything else off the map. The corgis “took to her straight away,” declared the usually conservative Daily Telegraph, which will have baffled anyone unfamiliar with the upper-class habit of channeling the ancient wisdom of dogs.

Ordinary people are not so sure: a YouGov poll suggests that about half the British public is indifferent to the royal engagement, a figure that rises to 62 percent among male respondents. The poll also confirmed earlier findings suggesting that the younger royals are more popular than Prince Charles and his second wife, Camilla Parker Bowles. The Prince of Wales has never really recovered from the avalanche of bad publicity he received after Princess Diana’s death in Paris in 1997; over the summer of 2017, as the twentieth anniversary of the fatal car crash approached, his ratings plummeted again.

For decades, the public was not allowed to know the extent of the prince’s attempted interference in government policy, something that changed a couple of years ago with the release of the famous “black spider memos”—a small selection of his letters, so named because handwritten in ink, that showed Charles lobbying ministers on a wide range of subjects, from agriculture to education. He urged the health minister, for instance, to provide homeopathy, regarded by most doctors as a crank remedy, on the National Health Service. In another, he asked for public money to train teachers who would follow his deeply conservative ideas about the teaching of English and history.

In August this year, YouGov asked people which members of the royal family have made a positive contribution to the monarchy, a vague formulation that nevertheless offers some measure of whom they like and whom they don’t. Just over a third thought that Charles was doing a good job, down from 60 percent four years ago. This is most likely a reaction to an accumulation of episodes, from the 2002 revelation that he’d threatened to leave the country (and spend the rest of his life skiing) if fox-hunting was banned, to the moment when he was caught on mic a few years ago describing the BBC’s royal correspondent as an “awful man.”

There is no mechanism to prevent this angry, thin-skinned man from ascending the throne, but he cannot force his subjects to feel affection for him or treat him with the deference he thinks he deserves. Behind the scenes, anxiety has been growing for years about the prospect of his becoming king, even to the point of wondering whether the institution can survive the coronation of Charles III. As long ago as 2010, the historian and former newspaper editor Sir Max Hastings wrote a startling essay for The Daily Mail that argued that “this increasingly eccentric royal could imperil the monarchy.”

The YouGov poll in August pointed to one of several possible flashpoints, with only 14 percent of respondents saying they wanted Camilla to be Queen. Memories of the public anger that followed Diana’s death, culminating in her brother’s remarkably hostile funeral oration, remain raw in royal circles. It has been a long time since members of the royal family were booed in public—as happened to George VI in 1940 when he and his consort visited bombed-out parts of the East End of London—but the royal family’s popularity can never be taken for granted.

A republican movement has been growing, steadily but surely, in the UK. The emotional outpouring after Diana’s death did real damage to the royals, prompting the most searing criticism the Queen had experienced during her forty-five years on the throne for her frozen, unfeeling response to her subjects’ grief. She had already experienced what she famously called her “annus horribilis” five years earlier, prompted by her children’s failing marriages and a fire at Windsor Castle, and after 1997 the family kept a low profile for a while—even though the attacks on the Palace had been factional, not republican, in character. Charles eventually succeeded in overcoming public resistance to his marriage to his former mistress, but he remains a hostage to the Diana effect.

Kate Middleton has gone out of her way to avoid comparisons with the mother-in-law she never met, but that isn’t what the public seems to want. The women in their twenties and thirties I meet speak dismissively of Kate, complaining that she is dull, dresses like a woman twice her age and lacks ambition. But this same group warms to Markle, viewing her as the epitome of a modern woman: confident, outgoing and with a successful career, even if it is a legal drama called Suits that few British people have seen. Her being mixed-race has also been welcomed as evidence that the country has changed for the better, with a poll showing that nearly 70 percent approve of the idea that a royal might marry someone of a different ethnicity. But Harry is fifth in line to the throne and his marriage has little constitutional significance. The fact remains that, if everything goes to plan, the country will have white men as heads of state for most, if not all, of this century.

The Daily Telegraph described Markle as “a Hollywood princess,” a latter-day Grace Kelly in the making. Her prominence is the logical continuation of a process begun by Diana, whose lasting legacy was to turn the British royals from distant figureheads into worldwide celebrities. Charles doesn’t like it much, viewing himself as a weighty thinker, busily trying to solve the world’s problems and getting no thanks for it. It isn’t clear whether he or anyone in the family is ready for the change in royal family dynamics when a Hollywood star joins the line-up. In an interview recorded by the BBC to mark his engagement, Harry’s bulb seemed already to have dimmed in comparison to his fiancée’s mega-watt glow. She leaned forward, she laughed, she interrupted him, improving on the anecdotes he had begun to tell in his flat English accent. Without even trying, Markle may find herself upstaging her new relatives in ways that are bound to ruffle feathers in a family obsessed with status and protocol. Prince Philip once complained to the Queen that, unlike Charles, he had never received an Australian knighthood; it was an oversight his wife hastened to remedy.

The royal family are not The Royle Familya BBC sitcom about an unemployed family living in the north of England, but the addition of Markle to the cast moves them deeper into the territory of popular entertainment. The princes’ candid TV documentary this summer about losing their mother suggested a media savviness on the part of the younger Windsors that recalled Diana’s astute use of the intimate interview in her famous 1995 Panorama confessional. But the more we come to view the royals as a branch of the entertainment industry, the more cracks start to appear in what the writer Tom Nairn called “the enchanted glass” of monarchy.

The Queen and Charles were among the first major figures to face questions following publication of the Paradise Papers, which revealed that they (or their advisers) had avoided tax liabilities by parking their wealth offshore at a time when many working families in Britain must rely on foodbanks. Seventeen of the Queen’s relatives are supported by British taxpayers, despite years of austerity and cutbacks in public spending, and they don’t do much in return. In August, the Press Association calculated that Harry and William had each worked just forty-six days so far this year, although many royal engagements last only an hour, plus travelling time.

The royal finances are opaque, deliberately so, allowing Buckingham Palace to claim that last year the family cost every British citizen about sixty-five pence (less than a dollar). That sum derives from the Sovereign Grant, the Treasury’s direct payment to the Queen that was fixed at £42.8 million in the financial year 2016–2017. But the figure excludes the huge cost of royal security. The campaign group Republic, which wants to replace the monarch with an elected and accountable head of state, estimates that the real cost of the institution is around £345 million, about eight times more than the official figure.

In an era of unbridled populism, however, personalities matter more than arguments. The current heir to the throne was jealous of his first wife, resenting the attention she got during public engagements; now he will have to accommodate a glamorous daughter-in-law trailing photographers and camera crews wherever she goes. Charles hasn’t spent years planning his coronation only to discover that the only question on anyone’s lips is “What will Meghan wear?”


You’re wrong, Angela Lansbury – making yourself less ‘attractive’ doesn’t protect women against rape

Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 28 November 2017

Women have got used to not having allies, even among their own sex. Each time a well-known man faces credible accusations of sexual assault, from multiple witnesses, someone is bound to come along and ask whether they weren’t a little bit to blame for what happened. Tragically, that someone is quite often another woman.

Enter, stage right, the veteran actress Angela Lansbury. After weeks in which a stream of women have made allegations, including rape, against the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, Lansbury has waded into the furore with a series of breath-takingly ignorant and ill-informed remarks. (Weinstein has expressed remorse for his behaviour but denies allegations of non-consensual sex.)

‘There are two sides to this coin. We have to own up to the fact that women, since time immemorial, have gone out of their way to make themselves attractive,’ Lansbury told the Radio Times. ‘And unfortunately it has backfired on us – and this is where we are today.’

Taking a direct dive into the age-old practice of victim-blaming, Lansbury continued: ‘We must sometimes take blame, women. I really do think that. Although it’s awful to say we can’t make ourselves look as attractive as possible without being knocked down and raped.’

It is indeed awful to say that. It is also one of the most persistent myths about rape. Dame Angela may believe that women of her age – she is 92 – are no longer of interest to male sexual predators, but she is wrong.

Babies as young as six months have been raped, and so have elderly women who thought they were safe in their beds at the time of the attack. Were they targeted because of what they were wearing? Of course not.

No wonder campaigners against rape are outraged. ‘It is a deeply unhelpful myth that rape and other forms of sexual violence are caused or “provoked” by women’s sexuality or “attractiveness”’, declared a statement from Rape Crisis England and Wales.

Lansbury went on to say that the fault doesn’t lie with individual victims but she seems to have no inkling of why her views are so damaging. She doesn’t understand that they leave women with a lingering sense of guilt as outsiders – people who have no idea of the ordeal they went through – imply they could have avoided the attack.

Serial rapists are motivated by a desire to control and humiliate their victims, not to mention a deep-seated hatred of women. Victims describe the pleasure their attackers took in insulting them, and in forcing them to perform acts they found humiliating. It is ludicrous – and dangerous – to lead women to think they can avoid being raped by looking a bit less attractive, whatever that means.

No doubt people will say in Lansbury’s defence that her views reflect the age she grew up in – but that doesn’t excuse her saying it today, when we know so much more about sexual predators and how they operate.

When she says she didn’t suffer sexual harassment as a young actress in Hollywood in the 1940s, I can’t help thinking she was fortunate – and it doesn’t mean other young women weren’t coerced into performing sex acts against their will. A recent book about a notorious murder in Los Angeles, Piu Eatwell’s Black Dahlia, Red Rose, paints a horrific picture of sexual exploitation of would-be actresses in the 1940s – events that went far beyond the infamous ‘casting couch’.

Even if Lansbury was unaware of the dark side of Hollywood in her youth, the fact that she is recycling rape myths seven decades later is inexcusable. It also explains why so many women who have been sexually harassed or raped don’t come forward at the time. They fear they won’t be believed – or that even if they are, someone will pop up and suggest they were in some degree responsible for the violence against them.

It cannot be said too often: rapists are responsible for their own behaviour. Rape myths undermine that idea, tainting the criminal justice system and making it harder to get convictions. That is why we live in a world where the vast majority of rapists get away with it.

Lansbury has just finished work on a Disney film but this isn’t Mary Poppins Returns. As a public figure, she has a responsibility not to wade into debates she clearly knows nothing about. That’s especially the case when the most likely effect of her careless remarks is to make life harder for victims of horrendous sexual violence.


Is domestic violence really decreasing? Hold on a minute

Daily Telegraph, Friday 24 November 2017

Domestic abuse is seldom out of the headlines these days. It is talked about more openly than ever before – yet the latest crime survey suggests that the number of victims is at a 10-year low.

That isn’t the experience of organisations that work with victims, who are facing unprecedented levels of demand at a moment when public funding is being slashed. So what is actually going on here? Has the increased publicity really coincided with a decline in the prevalence of abusive relationships?

The first thing to say is that the round figure is still jaw-dropping – 1.9m victims, according to figures published on Thursday. But it has been going down since a peak of 2.8m in 2005/6, and the gender gap between male and female victims appears to be closing.

One reason for the discrepancy is that the figures released this week by the Office for National Statistics are estimates. They’re based on answers to questions in the Crime Survey for England and Wales – and experts agree that domestic abuse is widely under-reported. Crucially, this year’s estimates do not include the new offence of coercive and controlling behaviour, which came into effect in 2015.

New questions were introduced in April this year to reflect current definitions of what constitutes domestic abuse, but the responses won’t be reflected in the survey until next year – making an under-estimate of current levels of abuse highly likely.

Experts believe that the nature of domestic abuse is changing, possibly because there is now more overt disapproval of physical violence; relatives, friends and colleagues are more likely to ask about cuts and bruises than they were a few years ago.

At the same time, abusive men are now able to use technology to control their partners, using everything from tracking devices on mobile phones to the threat of publishing sexually explicit photos and videos. Other sophisticated forms of abuse, such as forcing the victim to have her salary paid direct into the abuser’s bank account, will only start to show up in the crime survey from next year.

There have been horrific instances of these kinds of abuse, including a recent court case where a woman discovered videos on her husband’s phone which showed him raping her while she was asleep. Anecdotal evidence suggests that men are more likely to use technology in this way, which will affect the gender gap between male and female victims.

Estimates of the number of male and female victims have narrowed in recent years – it currently stands at 713,000 men to 1.2m women – but inclusion of questions about coercive control are expected to reverse the trend. It is already out of step with crime statistics recorded by the country’s biggest police force, the Metropolitan police, which suggest that three out of four victims of domestic abuse are female.

National crime figures, as opposed to estimates, are hard to establish because they are recorded by 43 individual police forces in England and Wales. But the London figures are available and they don’t show a downward trend. Almost 145,000 incidents of domestic abuse were recorded by the police in the 12 months up to September this year, a modest increase of 1.6 per cent over the previous year. But the overall trend is dramatically upwards – back in 2012, the figure was just over 118,000.

Not all incidents of domestic abuse are recorded as crimes – the figure is about half nationally – but the same pattern emerges if we look at actual offences recorded by the police in London. They’ve risen from 46,393 four years ago to 76,297 – and almost a third involve physical injuries.

Growing awareness of the extent of domestic abuse has led to the police being given a raft of new laws and powers. New offences outlawing coercive control have been accompanied by domestic abuse prevention orders, which allow the police to protect victims by removing perpetrators from the home. But they are not being used as widely as expected, highlighting the contradiction that underlies government policy.

The prime minister, Theresa May, began introducing new laws to tackle domestic abuse when she was Home Secretary. No one doubts her commitment to victims but she has presided over the most dramatic cuts in police numbers in living memory.

Bringing in new laws is laudable. But they will only work if the police have sufficient numbers to investigate perpetrators’ bank accounts, mobile phones and social media platforms. Crime commissioners, including the Mayor of London, warn that resources are being stretched to breaking point.

Ministers often cite crime surveys to justify unpopular policies, but many experts are unconvinced that levels of domestic abuse are falling. New questions about coercive control may mean that next year’s crime survey looks very different – and that would be bad news for a prime minister with a very public commitment to tackling domestic abuse.