Getting in harm’s way

From rape inquiries to child abuse, reality is never far away in Joan Smith’s choice

Sunday Times, 13 May 2018

A quarter of a century ago, a young woman was raped and murdered on her way home from an evening out in Southend. Isabelle Grey’s haunting new novel, Wrong Way Home (Quercus £20.99), begins with good news when a DNA test throws up a match from this old, unsolved case. DI Grace Fisher is optimistic about a breakthrough and soon has a list of suspects, all from the same local family, but the man she’s looking for is a cunning predator who will go to any lengths to avoid arrest. In a nice twist, a true-crime podcaster shadows Fisher’s investigation, too inexperienced to realise he’s getting in the way – or the danger he’s putting himself in.

Going back over old files, Fisher realises the original investigation missed the fact that the rape was one of a series in the area, and dismissed crucial evidence from other victims who survived. Grey is one of the most intelligent authors of contemporary crime fiction, and she uses characters from her popular DI Fisher series to highlight long-running problems with rape investigations in this sympathetic, suspense-packed novel.

Belinda Bauer’s plots are never anything less than original and unsettling and her latest outing, Snap (Bantam £12.99), is no exception. It begins with three children one of them a babe in arms, sitting on their own in a broken-down car on a motorway on a hot summer afternoon. It’s 1998 and the family doesn’t possess a mobile phone, so their heavily pregnant mother has gone to call for help. She’s told her 11-year-old son, Jack, to look after his sisters but she’s been gone for almost an hour.  He eventually sets out along the hard shoulder, his sisters in tow, and walks into the middle of a grim murder case.

Three years later, Jack is struggling to care for his sisters, trying to conceal the fact that their father has disappeared. It’s a potentially tragic scenario, but Bauer plays it as a dark comedy until Jack manages to enlist a lugubrious detective in his quest to find his mother’s killer. Bauer is always inventive but it’s hard to avoid the feeling that her child characters behave with a degree of resilience way beyond their years.

Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s new novel The Reckoning (Hodder £16.99), translated by Victoria Cribb, also tackles the subject of damaged children, but she does it with searing emotional realism. When a time capsule is dug up in the grounds of a school in Iceland, it turns out to contain an unsigned letter predicting the deaths of a number of local people. Everyone hopes it’s an unpleasant prank until a series of gruesome murders begins. This is a very graphic novel about the long-term effects of child sexual abuse, and it’s not for squeamish readers.

William Shaw is the author of a fine series of detective novels set in London during the 1960s but now he’s begun producing crime fiction set in the present day. Salt Lane (riverrun £16.99) is the first in a new series featuring DS Alexandra Cupidi, who’s recently moved from London with her teenage daughter to an isolated house on the wide coastline around Dungeness. When a woman’s body is found in a drainage ditch, and a man’s in a slurry pit, Cupidi finds herself trying to interrogate immigrants who have no papers and are terrified of the police. In his earlier novels, Shaw displayed a sharp eye for period detail and now he’s turned it on the 21st century phenomenon of people-trafficking. There are some touching moments in this vivid novel, which recognises that decent people don’t always behave well.

Volker Kutscher’s wonderfully atmospheric novels set in Weimar Berlin have been made into a successful TV series. The latest, Goldstein (Sandstone Press £8.99), translated by Niall Sellar, opens in 1931 when homeless kids are robbing department stores and a professional hitman, Abraham Goldstein, has just arrived from New York. Kutscher’s detective, Gereon Rath, chafes when he’s ordered to keep an eye on Goldstein, instead of investigating a colleague suspected of murder, but the gangster’s presence shines a spotlight on antisemitism in the city. It sometimes feels as though Kutscher is juggling too many plot lines but the second half of the novel really takes off. 

John Worboys’ victims were afraid he wouldn’t give up the fight for freedom – and they were right

Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 9th May 2018

Back in March, when the High Court overturned a decision to release John Worboys, the black-cab rapist, the  nation heaved a sigh of relief. So the news that Worboys is considering a new bid for freedom will strike a chill into the hearts of everyone who cares about the safety of women in this country.

Is there no limit to what this man is prepared to put his victims through? Worboys is one of the country’s most prolific sex offenders, convicted of assaulting 12 women but believed to have attacked hundreds across London. His modus operandi was to crush sedatives in advance and persuade his victims to share a drugged drink with him, before raping them in the back of his cab.

He has served only nine years in prison, less than a year for each of the women he was convicted of attacking. Yet he is said to be talking to his lawyers in Wakefield jail, hoping for a new Parole Board hearing as early as this summer and ‘keeping his fingers crossed he will get the all clear’.

This is despite the fact that Worboys knows, perhaps better than anyone, what his victims have already gone through – the horror of the initial attack, the long struggle to be believed, the lingering fear created by the knowledge that he kept a notebook containing his victims’ addresses.

In January, some of those women learned of his impending release from the news headlines – the latest in a series of blunders which has turned Worboys into a symbol of failure at every level of the criminal justice system. The police botched the original investigation, believing Worboys instead of his victims, and the Parole Board made basic mistakes when it considered his application for release.

It emerged at the High Court that the panel looked only at the dozen attacks for which he was convicted, rather than an overall pattern of offending which suggested he had targeted many more. The judges imposed restrictions on any new hearing but it has to be said that almost no one, apart from the victims and their lawyers, came out of this protracted saga well.

Nick Hardwick, Chair of the Parole Board, resigned shortly before the High Court decision was announced, after being told by the Justice Secretary, David Gauke, that his position was untenable. But Gauke was rightly criticised for failing to challenge the Board’s decision himself, leaving it to two of Worboys’ victims to find the funds to launch a judicial review.

They always feared he would not give up his fight to get out of prison. They know he refused for years to acknowledge his guilt, finally making a limited – some would say tactical – admission in the run-up to his parole application. He has made feeble excuses for his offending, claiming it began after a relationship broke down, despite evidence that he already been attacking women for years.

The fact that Worboys has kept out of trouble in an all-male prison, working as a cleaner, will not comfort his victims one jot. They won’t be impressed either by his religious conversion, which may well be cited as evidence that he is a changed man.

They will fear that a new panel, keen to show its independence, will come to the same decision as the first. Worboys has few supporters, but some people will argue that he should not be treated more harshly because of the publicity surrounding his case

There is a more important consideration here, which is the responsibility of the criminal justice system to protect women. Everything we know about Worboys, from the planning that went into each of his rapes to the plausible face he presented to detectives, suggests he is a devious and manipulative predator.

Victims and their lawyers will ask whether such men ever undergo real change – and they won’t be impressed by any restrictions than the Parole Board might impose on his release, such as banning Worboys from returning to London.

It isn’t just his victims who believe that this dangerous man should stay in prison for a very long time, if not the rest of his life.

One famous man has been found guilty of sexual assault – but how many others are still getting away with it?

 Daily Telegraph, Saturday 28 April 2018

It was a shock verdict, we were told, one of the most famous men in the American entertainment industry found guilty of sexual assault. For many of us, though, the only shocking thing about the outcome of Bill Cosby’s trial last week was that it has taken so many years for him to face justice.

This was a man who had been accused by dozens of women – literally, dozens – of drugging and sexually assaulting them. In 2006 he paid Andrea Constand, the woman he has just been convicted of assaulting two years earlier, £2.4m to settle a civil case she brought against him after prosecutors declined to file criminal charges.

Five other women, whose allegations fell outside the time limit for bringing criminal charges, gave evidence in Cosby’s latest trial. Last year, a previous trial collapsed after a jury failed to reach a verdict in a case involving the same complainant.

In all, 13 years passed from the time Constand first went to the police in 2005 and Cosby’s conviction on Thursday. It did not emerge until 2016, when records from the civil case were unsealed in advance in advance of his first trial, that Cosby had long ago admitted acquiring powerful sedative drugs to give to women he intended to have sex with.

All of this raises the question of how many women have to come forward, each of them describing an almost identical pattern of criminal behaviour, before a wealthy, well-known man faces a substantial risk of prosecution and conviction. Clearly, in Cosby’s case, that risk was so low that he believed he could get away with it.

Let’s not forget what he has been convicted of doing to Constand. The basketball player went to his house in Pennsylvania in 2004, seeking advice about her career. She told Cosby she was feeling stressed and he gave her three blue pills, describing them as her ‘friends’.

She began to feel drowsy and he guided her to a couch. The next thing she knew, Cosby was penetrating her vagina ‘quite forcefully’ with his fingers. In graphic testimony, she went on to say he touched her breasts and placed her hand on his penis in order to masturbate. He has now been convicted of three counts of aggravated indecent assault.

Cosby’s conviction has been hailed as a triumph for the ‘MeToo’ campaign, which led to the downfall of one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers, Harvey Weinstein. He has always denied allegations of non-consensual sex but so many women have come forward that his career is now in ruins, and several criminal investigations are ongoing.

There is no doubt that the climate has changed where some powerful men are concerned. Women have discovered that there is strength in numbers, with several of Cosby’s accusers in court last week to hear the verdict.

But the Cosby case highlights just how difficult it is to mount a successful challenge to the myths that work in favour of men accused of serious sexual assaults. All the evidence suggests that very few rapists ever appear in court, let alone get convicted. Yet it is repeatedly claimed – without supporting evidence – that men like Cosby live in fear of malicious accusations from women trying to extort money.

This was precisely the claim made by his lead lawyer, Tom Mesereau, who tried to smear Constand with the claim that she was a ‘con artist’. His colleague Kathleen Bliss surely deserves a place in legal history for her use of misogynist stereotypes, describing a witness for the prosecution as a ‘failed starlet’ who sounded like she had ‘slept with every man on the planet’. The trial was, of course, about consent, not the sexual history of Cosby’s accusers.

His legal team evidently failed to realise that the public mood has changed somewhat since the success of the MeToo campaign. In theory, their 80-year-old client now faces the prospect of a lengthy prison sentence, although legal manoeuvres may delay sentencing.

But fact that his accusers were disbelieved for so long is a reminder that it takes courage and almost inhuman determination to bring sexual predators to justice. We’ve seen it in this country too, in horrific cases where girls told police and social workers they had been repeatedly raped by gangs of predators – and weren’t believed.

This climate of suspicion and disbelief has existed for a long time – and it is aimed at entirely the wrong people. Instead of reacting with shock to the belated conviction of one famous man, we should be asking how many hundreds and thousands of other men are still getting away with serious assaults on women.

Master of Invention

Sunday Times, 22 April 2018

A gripping tale of family secrets opens Joan Smith’s roundup

Michel Bussi is one of France’s most successful novelists, the winner of more than a dozen literary awards and the country’s second bestselling author. His latest novel, Time is a Killer (Weidenfeld £12.99), translated by Shaun Whiteside, demonstrates why he has such a hold on readers, combining an extraordinarily inventive plot and characters haunted by long-ago events. A middle-aged woman called Clotilde has returned to Corsica from northern France for the first time since the rest of her family was killed in a car crash 27 years ago. She was the sole survivor, glimpsing the bodies of her parents as she was pulled alive from the wreckage.  

Clotilde has never doubted her recollection of those horrific events. But she has barely arrived at the holiday camp where she stayed with her parents when she is confronted with one of those apparent impossibilities that Bussi revels in: a note in her mother’s handwriting, suggesting she might still be alive. Thrown into confusion, Clotilde goes over the days that led up to the crash, reluctantly recalling the breakdown of her parents’ marriage. In a novel packed with shocks, Bussi brilliantly evokes the rugged landscape of Corsica and the lethal family conflict it incubated.

Stella Darnell is the daughter of a Scotland Yard detective, now deceased, and one of the most original characters in British crime fiction. Darnell is both a private detective and the owner of a cleaning company in west London, offering her access to other people’s houses and their secrets. She has already appeared in several of Lesley Thomson’s bestselling crime novels, and she is offered the chance to investigate a bizarre cold case in The Death Chamber (Head of Zeus £18.99).

Two teenage girls disappeared in a Cotswolds town, more than 20 years apart. Police searching for the second girl discovered the body of the first, hidden in a Neolithic burial chamber, but the second victim has never been found. A local detective, now elderly and disgraced, is convinced he knows the identity of the killer and asks Darnell to prove it. A running joke about city types transposed to the countryside wears a bit thin, but Thomson’s plots are original and she draws her characters with genuine affection.

Blind Defence (Little, Brown £16.99) is the second novel by John Fairfax, pen name of the Gold Dagger-winning author William Brodrick. Fairfax’s protagonist, William Benson, is a barrister who trained as a lawyer while serving a prison sentence for murder. Benson’s ultimate aim is to clear his name but in the meantime he has to make a living, and his latest client is accused of a nasty domestic homicide. The novel dramatizes a familiar dilemma, forcing Benson to do his best for a defendant he heartily dislikes, but the novel too often slides into melodrama, especially in the brutal aftermath of the trial.

Vicky Newham is a new name in crime fiction and her debut, Turn a Blind Eye (HQ 12.99), doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects. Linda Gibson is the popular head teacher of a school in east London, where she is credited with having turned round the establishment after a critical Ofsted report. When she is found strangled, a former pupil – Maya Rahman, now a detective based in Mile End – is put in charge of the investigation. Just back from Bangladesh, where her brother recently killed himself, DI Rahman is disturbed to discover that Gibson’s murder may be connected to the suicide of a teenage pupil threatened with a forced marriage. This is the first in a promising series, featuring a female detective who has to negotiate cultural conflicts on a daily basis.

The crimes of Britain’s ‘first controlling girlfriend’ tell us so much

Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 18 April 2018

It isn’t easy to break the silence about domestic abuse, even if you have been a victim over a long period. Some people will be amazed to read that 22-year-old Alex Skeel was said to be ’10 days away from death’ when he finally got help from police and paramedics last summer – and even then it was a neighbour who called for help after hearing shouts from the couple’s home in Bedfordshire.

Skeel was too scared of his former partner, Jordan Worth, also aged 22, to go to the police, even when his injuries were so bad that he feared his limbs might have to be amputated. Earlier this week, Worth pleaded guilty to grievous bodily harm, wounding with intent and coercive control. The seriousness of her offences was reflected in the sentencing, when she was given seven-and-a-half years in prison.

It is believed to be the first time a woman has been convicted of coercive and controlling behaviour, which became a criminal offence only at the end of 2015. The new law has been in operation for just over two years and so far the number of convictions has been disappointingly low. It is easier to prosecute in cases like Worth’s where physical violence is present as well.

But Skeel’s terrible experience at the hands of his former partner tells us a number of things, and not just that women can be abusers as well as men. The fact that Worth was a personable young woman, a graduate who did voluntary work, seems to have deflected attention from her behaviour towards Skeel – she just didn’t look like anyone’s idea of an abuser. So, perhaps, did the fact that the couple were so young, only 16 when they met at college in 2012.

Abusers are often thought of as men in their 20s and 30s but research shows that teenagers are just as likely to become perpetrators. The abuse started behind closed doors when Worth and Skeel began living together and she embarked on what appears to have been a successful attempt to take control of his life.

In a classic pattern of escalating abuse, Worth told Skeel what he could wear and isolated him from family and friends. She broke his mobile phones and took over his Facebook page, creating a situation where he was afraid to seek help when – three years into the relationship – she became physically violent towards him.

Bullies seek out vulnerable victims and Worth turned on Skeel when he developed hydrocephalus, a build-up of fluid on the brain. Among a horrific catalogue of injuries, she blacked his eyes, stabbed him and scalded his arms and legs with boiling water, leaving him to cover the burns with clingfilm.

Skeel was often seen limping or with an arm in a sling, while neighbours heard arguments and the sound of objects being thrown inside the couple’s house. When one of them called the police in June last year, after hearing shouting in the early hours, the ambulance crew discovered that Skeel had second and third degree burns on his arms and legs.

‘I had open burns,’ Skeel said after the case. ‘I lost three stones in weight. I went from ten stones down to seven. It was awful. It was three years of mental abuse and then it turned physical.’

Outsiders may wonder why Skeel or any other victim of such severe abuse wouldn’t seek help on their own behalf. But this awful case demonstrates how perpetrators succeed in isolating their victims, turning themselves into the only conduit to the outside world. On one occasion, when Worth tormented Skeel by falsely telling him his grandfather had died, he believed her – and was too cut off from his family to discover the truth until Worth revealed she had lied.

This is how coercive control works, weakening victims and cutting their ties with the world until they are too terrified to tell anyone what is going on. It’s such a new offence that many people don’t know what it means and don’t understand, either, that it’s more likely to be a pattern of behaviour than a one-off incident.

Domestic abuse is more common than people realise and about a third of offences reported to the police involve physical injury. That poses a dilemma for the rest of us – friends, family, neighbours – who may suspect abuse is going on in a relationship but feel nervous about getting involved. Skeel’s experience is extreme – but the fact that his physical injuries were overlooked for so long should act as a wake-up call.