I’ve just delivered my new book Homegrown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists to my publisher, riverrun – look out for publication in May 2019.
Sunday Times, 5 November 2018
Over more than a dozen novels set in rural Quebec, the Canadian crime writer Louise Penny has turned the fictional village of Three Pines into a welcoming small community. But it’s also home to Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, until recently head of the Sûreté du Québec, whose job brings regular eruptions of violent crime into his peaceful neighbourhood. In Kingdom of the Blind (Sphere £19.99), Gamache is summoned to a mysterious meeting in an abandoned farmhouse by a letter from a lawyer who turns out to have been dead for six months.
The letter is about the will of a penniless elderly woman who claims to have inherited an Austrian title, embroiling Gamache in a family feud over an apparently mythical fortune that someone is prepared to kill for. The novel’s atmospheric opening in a snow-packed clearing is an apt metaphor, reflecting the bleakness Gamache feels during an internal inquiry over a drugs investigation that could end his career.
The Sentence Is Death (Century £20) is the second novel in Anthony Horowitz’s series starring himself as the sidekick to a prickly private eye, Daniel Hawthorne. The ex-Scotland Yard detective has designated Horowitz as his amanuensis, dragging him away from editing scripts for the TV series Foyle’s War to write the second volume in a three-book deal about Hawthorne’s cases. Horowitz is the author of two successful Sherlock Holmes pastiches and the temptation to cast himself as Watson to Hawthorne’s Holmes has clearly proved irresistible
The new novel begins with the murder of a well-known divorce lawyer at his modernist home in Hampstead; the chief suspect is a Japanese poet, the ex-wife of one of the lawyer’s clients, until it emerges that his oldest friend died under a train 24 hours earlier. Like the earlier book, The Sentence Is Death is full of jokes at Horowitz’s own expense as he endlessly jumps to the wrong conclusions about the case. But it’s also a smoother read, allowing the relationship between real-life author and his fictional character to develop into something more believable.
Mari Hannah’s award-winning crime novels are set in Northumberland, where a sweeping coastline provides a dramatic backdrop to her fast-paced murder investigations. The Insider (Orion £7.99) pits her detectives, DI David Stone and his passionately engaged sergeant Frankie Oliver, against a serial killer who is targeting successful women. Stone has taken over the investigation halfway through the case, as the body of a local lawyer is found at an isolated railway station, and he depends heavily on Oliver’s local knowledge. Hannah’s plots are original and modern, rooted in the fast-changing relationships between men and women, but Oliver’s frequent emotional outbursts are rather wearing.
Quintin Jardine’s Cold Case (Headline £19.99) features his urbane Scottish detective Bob Skinner, who couldn’t be more different from Ian Rankin’s Rebus. Jardine’s Edinburgh is a cosmopolitan place where Skinner, now retired, has a part-time career as a director of an Anglo-Spanish media company. Like just about every retired cop in crime fiction, he still does a bit of detective work to help out friends and now his old boss, Sir James Proud, needs a favour. A blogger has been in touch, demanding answers about a murder case from 30 years ago, and Proud seems to think the questions could wreck his reputation. If Skinner sometimes seems smug about his own achievements, the 30th novel in this popular series is full of shocks, forcing him to recognise that some of his most cherished beliefs can’t be trusted after all.
Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 7 November 2018
It’s a great time to be a woman with political ambitions in the US – as long as you’re a Democrat. People are rightly talking about the record number of women who have won seats in Congress in the midterm elections, but it isn’t across the board. There’s been a fall in the number of Republican women in the lower house, something that reflects the extremely polarised nature of American politics in the era of Donald Trump.
There’s no doubt that the President’s alpha male contempt for women has not just energised millions of women voters but encouraged many to put themselves forward as candidates. Yesterday’s elections brought two Muslim women into the House of Representatives, along with the election in Kansas of Sharice Davids, the first Native American woman in Congress, who also happens to be a lesbian.
But women don’t vote as a bloc, something that helped the Republican senator Ted Cruz retain his senate seat in Texas against the up-and-coming Democrat, Beto O’Rourke. The challenger’s lead among Latino and black voters was impressive, 63 per cent and 89 per cent respectively, but white voters kept Cruz in place. Crucially, according to exit polls, he won the votes of almost 60 per cent of white women, despite the fact that this one-time Trump critic has now re-joined the camp of the most openly misogynist President in American history.
This isn’t as surprising as it first appears. In cultures where men hold more of the power, women often identify with male interests even when it seems to involve acting against their own. Middle-class wives who have benefited from their husband’s status and success at work are alarmed by the #MeToo movement, which they see threatening respected figures who look like the men they live with. And they really hated the Democrats’ public display of support for Dr Christine Blasey Ford when she accused Trump’s supreme court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, of attempted rape. The Democratic senator Claire McCaskill, who has represented Missouri since 2006, lost her seat overnight after voting against Kavanaugh’s nomination. Her opponent, Josh Hawley, repeatedly attacked her for opposing Kavanaugh and suggested she was too liberal for the mid-western state.
The Republicans did better than expected in the Senate but the House results tell a different story. Turnout was way up on the last set of midterms, under Barack Obama, and it’s clear that huge numbers of women got involved because they despise Trump. They were one of the first groups to come out against the President, organising the largest one-day protest in American history only a day after his inauguration in January last year.
It’s clear from the midterm results that the contest between the two main parties remains ferocious and unpredictable. It’s too early to say what the midterms mean for the 2020 presidential election, but Trump’s decision to hold rallies for Republican candidates in hotly contested Senate seats seems to have paid off – for the time being. In the long-term, though, the demographics of 21-century America mean that the Republicans have more to worry about.
In the 2016 presidential election, a slight majority of white women voted for Trump. But cities likes Houston and Dallas are moving towards having majority non-white populations, one of the factors that made the contest between Cruz and O’Rourke so close in Texas. And while Republican support is holding up among older white women, it’s a different story in younger age groups. Back in August, polling among millennial women showed that almost 70 per cent support the Democrats – a finding that’s reflected in the party’s success in the lower chamber.
Trump is losing younger women voters by the shedload and the new House of Representatives, where 23 per cent of the seats are held by women, looks like the future. Over the next two years, the President will find it much harder to get his legislation through the House, finally providing some of the checks his opponents are desperate to see in place.
But the big story of the midterms is that there are now two Americas – one that’s young, ethnically diverse, intersectional and feminist, ranged against one which is old-fashioned, conservative and religious. Congress is starting to reflect the former, and a politics where feminism is no longer a dirty word.
Literary Review, November 2018
Eve Was Shamed: How British Justice is Failing Women, Helena Kennedy (Chatto £20)
It is a quarter of a century since Helena Kennedy’s book Eve Was Framed: Women and British Justice was published. A great deal has changed in that time, a circumstance reflected in the unequivocal title of this updated version. Eve Was Shamed: How British Justice is Failing Women leaves us in little doubt that Kennedy believes things have got worse since she first wrote about the way women are treated by the police, courts and judges.
There is a paradox here, because the numbers of women reporting rape keeps going up. The figure has been rising for years, suggesting that some women at least have more confidence in the police and hope they will be able to see their attackers convicted. But savage cuts to police and government budgets mean that it’s now taking up to two years for rape cases to get to court, dragging out the ordeal for both sides. Meanwhile strict new rules on disclosure are forcing complainants – but not, crucially, defendants – to provide access to mobile phones, computers, medical, college and school records. The degree of infusion is literally intolerable for some complainants, who fear hostile questioning in court about irrelevant matters such as abortions or a history of anorexia.
It’s one of several ways in which the situation has deteriorated since Kennedy, a human rights lawyer and Labour peer, first wrote about the criminal justice system. It bears out her proposition that women are being shamed and she is right to highlight the role of the tabloid press in creating the false impression that whole swathes of the male population are at risk of being wrongly accused of rape. The real scandal is that the vast majority of rapists are never prosecuted, let alone convicted.
Kennedy is good on the way on the way in which absolute equality doesn’t produce equal outcomes. ‘We argued for equality but treating as equal those who are unequal does not produce equality,’ she points out, citing the way in which the notorious bedroom tax unfairly penalised people with a disability or who needed overnight carers. (The Supreme Court agreed.) Real equality means recognising a daunting catalogue of sex-based disadvantage including the pay gap, unequal opportunities at work and and the fact that so many women live in fear of abuse and violence.
Eve Was Shamed opens with an autobiographical section about Kennedy’s experiences as a young barrister which, while deeply felt, holds up a narrative that goes on to deal with horrific modern phenomena such as sex trafficking and ‘honour’-based crimes. It is symptomatic of a lack of focus elsewhere in the book, where Kennedy writes at length about exhaustively-documented events such as the judge’s remarks about Mary Archer when her husband, Jeffrey, sued for Iibel back in 1987. Yes, Mr Justice Caulfield’s observations were ridiculous but it was a long time ago and adds to the impression of a book that could have benefited from editing.
Kennedy would have been better advised to concentrate on what has changed since she wrote the earlier book. Sex trafficking didn’t exist on its current industrial scale in the 1990s and it’s since become a significant way of controlling and exploiting vulnerable women. But Kennedy’s take on prostitution and sex trafficking is confused, at one point conflating the two as ‘trafficked sex workers’ when it is obvious that a trafficked woman is a victim of coerced labour or sex slavery.
She acknowledges that women are driven into prostitution by childhood abuse, homelessness, substance abuse and poverty, but she’s dubious about criminalising the men who take advantage of their vulnerability. The fact that the same men use prostituted and trafficked women isn’t acknowledged and Kennedy isn’t keen on feminists who argue for the sex-buyer law adopted in Sweden – where, by the way, a senior police officer told me that the legislation has almost eliminated sex trafficking into the country. Instead, in a telling aside, Kennedy says that sex workers (her phrase, not mine) ‘want middle-class feminists off their backs’.
It’s a cheap shot against women, including survivors of the commercial sex industry who’ve experienced violence and abuse firsthand, who regard selling women’s bodies as a denial of basic human rights. And it’s equally disappointing to find Kennedy arguing in a later chapter that the prison system ‘too often locks up transgender prisoners according to their genitalia rather than their chosen gender identity and often with tragic consequences’. I assume that the book was finished before Karen White, a transgender prisoner awaiting trial for rape, insisted on being moved to a women’s prison and immediately assaulted female inmates – something that feminist organisations had warned was likely to happen.
Twenty-five years ago, I liked Kennedy’s original version of this book. The new one feels like a rehash of Second Wave feminism with an uncritical adoption of some 21st century orthodoxies that are actively hostile towards it. And I can’t help feeling troubled by a book which is so casually dismissive of the legitimate concerns of contemporary feminists.
The Guardian, Tuesday 30 October 2018
The case of the 25-year-old estate agent, presumed murdered in 1986, still fills me with horror at the dangers women face
More than 30 years after her disappearance, police are carrying out yet another search related to the murder of Suzy Lamplugh. The news will send shivers down the spine of anyone who remembers the headlines in 1986, appealing for help in finding the missing estate agent. Smiling pictures of Suzy, a lock of brown hair falling over her forehead, were everywhere, but days lengthened into weeks and the woman herself was nowhere.
The fact that a 25-year-old woman could leave her office, head for a perfectly ordinary street in southwest London and never be seen again defied belief. On the day of her disappearance, she had been due to show a house to a client, a routine appointment none of us would have thought twice about in those days. It was only afterwards that the man’s name, “Mr Kipper”, started to look like an obvious pseudonym – and one that suggested a twisted sense of humour, assuming it belonged to her abductor.
The last sighting of Suzy was in a street in Fulham, where she seemed to be arguing with a man, and her white Ford Fiesta was found just over a mile away. Since then, nothing, not a single trace, despite police searches of various locations including a disused army barracks outside Worcester. Sixteen years after her disappearance, Scotland Yard named a convicted rapist and murderer, John Cannan, as the prime suspect in what had long been assumed to be Suzy’s murder. The latest search, using specialist forensic equipment, is in the garden of a house in Sutton Coldfield which used to belong to Cannan’s mother.
Even now, I can’t hear Suzy’s name without remembering the growing sense of dread I felt as it became apparent that the most likely explanation for her disappearance was murder. By the middle of the 1980s, many more women were breaking into previously male professions, but no one had given much thought to the fact that our jobs sometimes required us to be alone with complete strangers. I vividly remember being sent to interview a man whose wife was missing, walking into his house on my own and immediately having a gut feeling that he had something to do with her disappearance. I almost ran out of the house and it made me think much harder about the situations my job might take me into.
Suzy’s disappearance brought all our half-formed fears into sharp focus. As women in our 20s and 30s, we wanted to believe we could do our work on exactly the same terms as men, but the Lamplugh case was a terrifying reminder of the existence of sexual predators. The risk of abduction was small but Suzy’s disappearance highlighted gaps in legislation to protect women, including the fact that stalking wasn’t a specific criminal offence at the time.
To her huge credit, Suzy’s mother Diana understood from her family’s dreadful experience that personal safety was a significant issue for women. With her husband Paul, she founded a trust in Suzy’s memory to campaign for changes in work culture and the law. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust now runs the national stalking helpline and has become the country’s leading resource for women and girls who are suffering from harassment. Tragically, Diana Lamplugh died in 2011, followed by her husband in June this year, without ever finding out what happened to their daughter.
In 1986, there was a tendency to treat the disappearance of a young woman as if it was something out of a crime novel, a whodunnit with a neat solution on the final page. There was even some unpleasant speculation about Suzy’s personal life, as though the idea of a woman being targeted and abducted by a complete stranger was outlandish. I would like to think that most people know better than that now, and if Suzy’s remains are found, it will offer resolution of a kind. Even so, few of us who remember the summer of 1986 can read her name without a sense of foreboding and horror.
Sunday Times, & October 2018
Sara Paretsky’s crime novels could easily be a social history of America, showing how tumultuous political events affect the lives of ordinary people. In Shell Game (Hodder £18.99), she writes about payday-loan companies, undocumented immigrants living in fear of arrest and a group of archaeologists trying to save the heritage of war-torn Syria. Her detective, VI Warshawski, is plunged into this scary, unstable world when she’s asked to help a friend’s nephew, wrongly accused of murder, who appears to have become involved in stolen antiquities.
In a nod to #MeToo, she is also trying to find her ex-husband’s niece, who has disappeared in Chicago after returning traumatised from a luxury island getaway with executives from the world of high finance. The two cases appear to be unconnected, but Warshawski suspects that greed (for money, precious objects and young women) is the element that brings them together. Paretsky is brilliant at juggling strands, but the 19th Warshawski novel is also a panoramic vision of Chicago at a time when the city is so polarised that decent people don’t know who to trust.
Susan Hill’s The Comforts of Home (Chatto £18.99) opens with a shock for fans of her introspective detective Simon Serrailler. The near-fatal beating he suffered in his last case looms over the new book, delaying his recovery and forcing him to adjust in ways he never expected. A stay on a Scottish island appeals to Serrailler’s yearning for solitude, but he finds himself having to kick-start a murder investigation that has tragic consequences for the islanders. Back on the mainland, Serrailler’s formal return to work in Lafferton begins with an equally disturbing cold case. Hill’s cool observation of her characters doesn’t imply any lack of sympathy, and Serrailler’s struggle to come to terms with the recent past is thoughtfully done.
Ian Rankin retired DI John Rebus from the police, but not his fiction, several years ago. Rebus came back as a civilian employee for a time, and even now, suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) after a lifetime of smoking, he’s having to deal with awkward questions about old cases. The latest Rebus, In a House of Lies (Orion £20), begins with the discovery of a body in a car dumped in woods outside Edinburgh. The dead man is a private detective who vanished in 2006, when Rebus was on the force, and his angry family wants to know why he wasn’t found until now. It is an ingenious reason to bring Rebus back, but the book feels like a coda to the earlier novels, as though the author cannot quite bring himself to let Rebus go.
Ann Cleeves has taken a bold decision about her detective Jimmy Perez, announcing that Wild Fire (Macmillan £16.99) is the final novel in her Shetland series. Cleeves has put Perez though traumatic events in recent years, including the murder of his girlfriend, which left him to bring up her daughter. His latest case involves an English family who have recently moved to the island. At first glance, Helena Fleming is a successful knitwear designer, but she’s struggling to cope with a depressed husband and an autistic son. When their nanny is found hanging in a barn, Perez’s attempts to unravel the complex dynamics of the household force him to think hard about family loyalty — and his own future. This is an accomplished end to a fine series.
Daily Telegraph, Thursday 4 October 2018
It’s something most women know instinctively. The smearing of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s accusers shows how many men automatically assume that all women are liars – especially, but not only, when they accuse a well-connected man of sexual misconduct.
This week a Senate committee, no less, took part in the ‘shaming’ of a woman who came forward to support the testimony given by Christine Blasey Ford.Dr Ford gave evidence before the judiciary committee last week, graphically describing an alleged attempted rape by the Supreme Court candidate (who is hoping to get a job for life) back in 1982. Yesterday Republican members of the committee released a statement accusing Julie Swetnick, who is herself an alleged rape victim, of lying about Kavanaugh’s behaviour towards women when he was a young man.
The four-page letter also made lurid and uncorroborated claims about her sexual history. If you’ve ever wondered why more women don’t report rape, I suggest you look at what’s been done to Ms Swetnick and Dr Ford – and think again.
Ms Swetnick has contradicted Judge Kavanaugh’s sworn testimony that he drank just the occasional beer, claiming she saw him drunk at parties where women had their drinks spiked and were raped. She also alleges that Kavanaugh and his friends took part in what she describes as ‘gang rape’, and claims they were present at a party where she herself was drugged and raped.
This apparently prompted Ms Swetnick’s ex-boyfriend, if you can dignify him with the title when he dated her for all of two weeks in the 1990s, to issue his own statement. A former TV weatherman, Dennis Ketterer, insisted that Ms Swetnick had never mentioned Kavanaugh or her own rape in the course of their relationship.
It is just possible that she didn’t feel she knew him well enough after a fortnight to reveal such a distressing episode in her personal history. But Ketterer didn’t stop there. He gave a detailed account of her supposed sexual preferences, with the clear implication that a woman who enjoyed consensual sex in anything other than the missionary position couldn’t possibly be trusted to tell the truth about her own rape or other sexual misconduct.
This was the statement released by the Republicans on the Senate judiciary committee in a transparent attempt to discredit Ms Swetnick. They apparently can’t see the difference between a witness making allegations of criminal behaviour and, to put it bluntly, a pile of salacious gossip. While it is true that Ms Swetnick has contradicted some of the claims in her initial statement, she – unlike Kavanaugh – isn’t alleged to have broken any laws or assaulted anyone.
The proper authority to investigate her allegations against Kavanaugh isn’t the general public. It’s the FBI and it should have been done in private, by investigators who are used to conducting sensitive inquiries. Ms Swetnick’s treatment has uncomfortable echoes of the retrial of the Welsh footballer Ched Evans, who was acquitted after the judge allowed other men to provide evidence about the type of sex they claimed to have had with the complainant.
It isn’t just Ms Swetnick who has been smeared. On Tuesday evening Donald Trump, who praised Dr Ford last week, mocked her testimony in front of a cheering crowd at a rally in Mississippi. These public events are akin to expensive therapy sessions where the President sounds off against all his enemies, real and imagined, but this one marked a new low.
It also brought into the open something that usually goes on behind closed doors. Any woman who alleges rape or sexual assault can expect to be vilified by the accused, his friends and his defence team. In this country, under new rules on disclosure, every text or email she has ever written will be pored over, in search of supposedly damning evidence such as any occasion when she mentioned enjoying consensual sex.
I’ve never understood the assumption that a woman who agrees to have sex with one man should be assumed to have consented to have sex with someone else entirely, despite her denials. But then I’ve never understood the notion that women habitually lie about sex, randomly accusing men of rape, while men tell the truth at all times – apart from when they’re boasting to their mates, of course.
In the Trump era, the assumption that all women are liars is being openly expressed at the highest levels of government. The smearing of Dr Ford and Julie Swetnick allows us to see just how badly women who allege rape are treated, although we rarely get to hear about it.
This is not about justice or establishing the truth. It’s scare tactics, designed to protect powerful men who have seen their privileges chipped away by the #MeToo movement. Rape complainants don’t lie any more than victims of other serious crimes, and it’s the men who promote such baseless smears who should be ashamed of themselves.
Sunday Times, 9 September 2018
Literary Review, September 2018
Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain, Abby Norman (Nation Books, £20)
No matter how hard doctors try to measure it, pain is a subjective experience. None of us really knows what someone means when they say they’re in pain, given that what is agony for one person might be bearable for another. But it is clear from this memoir that Abby Norman has endured extraordinary levels of pain, forcing her to become an expert on a subject many people would shy away from.
The subtitle talks about trying to get doctors to believe in women’s pain but the book leaves no doubt that Norman’s own experience is real, long-lasting and excruciating. The book opens in 2010 when Norman was in her second year at Sarah Lawrence, the prestigious liberal arts college 15 miles north of New York City. She is from Maine and a family so dysfunctional that getting a place at Sarah Lawrence was a major achievement. Norman’s mother was anorexic, so absorbed in and ravaged by her own illness that she couldn’t care for her daughter; what she did do was impose draconian rules about food, leaving Norman perpetually hungry and forced to forage for scraps from other children’s lunches at school. She went to stay with her grandmother at the age of 12 but that didn’t work out either and she eventually moved in with a sympathetic teacher.
I hadn’t heard the phrase ‘legally emancipated’ until I read this book but it refers to a minor who has in effect divorced her parents, which is what Norman did in court at the age of 16. It isn’t a step many teenage girls would know how to take, let alone ask a judge to sanction, but it is clear from the early pages that Norman has a rare degree of intelligence and determination. After such a struggle to get to college, the fact that she was struck down with a mysterious and devastating illness during her second year, putting an end to her hopes of graduating, is nothing less than tragic.
Everything about her backstory is heroic but it worked against Norman when she became ill with endometriosis – a condition usually defined as tissue from the uterus growing in other parts of the body, principally the ovaries and fallopian tubes, and causing agonising pain. But it is clear from Norman’s own experience, and the mass of research she has done, that much about it remains mysterious. Endometriosis wasn’t even talked about much until fairly recently when a handful of well-known women, including the novelist Hilary Mantel and the actress Padma Lakshmi, began to speak and write about their own experiences.
Because it is poorly understood – and, as the books reveals in excruciating detail, doctors don’t always listen to their patients – some of the health professionals who treated Norman looked for other explanations of her pain. Hence the book’s title, which emerged from the frustration of being treated for psychological problems while she sometimes felt so physically ill that she thought she might die. At the same time, in the absence of a unified public health care system, she had to look for doctors who would accept her as a patient on Medicaid. Casual references in the book to threats from debt collection agencies speak volumes about living in a country where access to cutting-edge medical treatment depends entirely on money.
It’s understandable that Norman is interested in the history of medical neglect of women, although some readers might find that passages in the book about Freud’s theory of hysteria cover well-worn territory. But she writes about the experience of pain more vividly than anyone I’ve previously come across, so much so that there were times when I had to put the book down. ‘Bodily agonies that do not end beget a kind of forced intimacy with pain,’ she says at one point. Her book is unusually candid, giving readers a sense of what that terrifying and unsought intimacy might be like.