Crime round-up

Sunday Times, 20 October 2019

October 1961, Soviet scientists were preparing to test the world’s most powerful nuclear weapon. Its designer, Andrei Sakharov, took a last-minute decision to change a crucial component, fearing it might otherwise set light to the Earth’s atmosphere. These sensational real-life events are the backdrop to Black Sun (Bantam Press £16.99), an outstanding first novel by the distinguished foreign correspondent Owen Matthews.

The novel unfolds in Arzamas-16, a secret city in central Russia where the apparent suicide of a young scientist through a radiation overdose threatens the success of the test. Major Alexander Vasin, a KGB officer sent to investigate, is convinced the man was murdered, but the key witnesses display varying degrees of fear and hostility. Chief among them is Professor Yury Adamov, Sakharov’s “dark twin”, who sees Vasin’s arrival as a distraction from his vital mission. Matthews writes superbly about a closed, paranoid community where everyone is fearful of failure, the KGB and being denounced as a traitor.

The American author Rene Denfeld draws on first-hand knowledge for The Butterfly Girl (Weidenfeld £14.99), her hard-hitting novel about the murders of homeless children in Oregon. Denfeld lived on the streets herself as a child, and some of the most vivid passages are based on her memories. Homeless children have been vanishing for months when Naomi Cottle, an investigator who finds missing kids, turns up in search of her younger sister. The two girls were abducted as children, but Naomi escaped. Seeking information, she makes friends with Celia, a girl who has run away from home to escape her violent stepfather. In an atmosphere of dread, it becomes apparent that someone is stalking Celia, leading to a climax that exposes decades of murder and abuse.

Susan Hill’s crime novels are set in Lafferton, a fictional English town with a quiet cathedral close. Her main character, Simon Serrailler, straddles two traditions of the genre, resembling PD James’s gentleman-detective Adam Dalgliesh, but dealing with 21st-century crimes such as sex-trafficking. In The Benefit of Hindsight
(Chatto £18.99), Serrailler has returned as the head of Lafferton CID after losing an arm in a savage beating. When a gay couple is scammed by a ruthless gang, he doesn’t move quickly enough to warn local people, with fatal consequences. Hill is clearly very attached to her character and the murder investigation is overshadowed by this latest crisis in Serrailler’s career.

Elly Griffiths is best known for her detective fiction featuring a forensic archaeologist in Norfolk. But she’s also the author of an engaging series of crime novels set in Brighton in the 1950s and 1960s. In Now You See Them (Quercus £14.99), her stage magician Max Mephisto has reinvented himself as a Hollywood star and is on a flying visit to Sussex. He is catching up with his old friend, DS Edgar Stephens, when teenage girls start disappearing. Griffiths puts Stephens’s wife, Emma, a former police sergeant, at the heart of the investigation, recreating the stifling atmosphere of a period when women were expected to give up work on marriage. The novel is wry, emotionally intelligent and quietly satisfying.

I knew the Yorkshire Ripper tape was a fake. But I was just a woman.

Sunday Times, 25 August 2019

I will never forget the first time I heard the voice of John Humble, though neither I nor anyone else knew it  was his voice at the time, in June 1979. We didn’t find out until 2006 when Humble, whose death was announced last week, was exposed as the hoaxer who had fooled detectives into believing he was the serial killer known as the Yorkshire Ripper, with disastrous results.
By that summer, 40 years ago, 10  women had been murdered in the north of England and police seemed no nearer to catching the perpetrator than  at the time of the first attack, four years earlier. Then they made a sensational announcement: journalists invited to press conferences in Leeds and Manchester (where two of the women had been killed) were to hear “the voice of the Yorkshire Ripper”.
What I was to hear that afternoon, on a hissy homemade tape, was no such thing. But since the hoaxer had a Sunderland accent, Ripper squad detectives hared off in search of “Wearside Jack”, while the real killer, a lorry driver from Bradford called Peter Sutcliffe, remained free to continue his attacks.
It was almost three decades before Humble was finally convicted of perverting the course of justice. He got eight years and was released after serving four, even though, after he sent the Ripper investigation in entirely the wrong direction, Sutcliffe went on to attack five women. Three of them died. Humble’s sentence was less than half the 18 years handed down last month to Carl Beech, a paedophile fantasist who made unfounded allegations of child sexual abuse against  well-known men.
In 1979, not long before joining The Sunday Times’s Insight investigations team, I was a 25-year-old reporter on a local radio station in Manchester,  for which I had recently reported on  the killer’s latest victim, a 19-year-old building society clerk called Josephine Whitaker. When I arrived in Halifax in April that year, the white forensic tent was still in place at the site of the murder, hinting at the dreadful work going on inside.
A couple of months later, my news editor told me to get down to Moss Side police station in Manchester, where journalists would hear a cassette tape supposedly made by the killer. Immediately beforehand, in a crude publicity stunt, detectives had played it to local prostitutes, just in case any of them had unaccountably missed the fact that some — though by no means all — of the victims were women who sold sex for a living.
The prostitutes were leaving the station as I arrived. I went inside, carrying a notebook and the huge old Uher reel-to-reel tape recorder that radio reporters used to cart around. One of the most senior detectives in the room looked up.  “Sorry, love, you’re too late,” he told me. “The pros’ conference is over.”
I ignored the remark and took a seat in the front row, followed by my colleagues from the press — all of them men. “I hope we’re not going to catch anything from these chairs,” one of them called out, indicating the seats vacated by the women a moment earlier. “I kept out of their way, just in case,” a detective called back, grinning at the blokeish “joke”.
Moments later, Humble’s voice — presented to us as the voice of the man responsible for the deaths of 10 women — filled the room: “I’m Jack, I see you’re still having no luck catching me . . .”
I listened, incredulous. When the cassette finished, with an incongruous burst of pop music — a snippet from Thank You for Being a Friend by Andrew Gold  recorded earlier by Humble’s sister on the old tape he had reused — I immediately put up my hand.
“Is that the whole tape or has it been edited?” I asked.
I was told that nothing had been cut. I said in that case there was nothing to suggest the claims were genuine — everything on the recording was in the public domain and could be found easily by anyone familiar with the press coverage of the investigation.
The senior detective brushed aside my objection, saying that the same man had sent letters to the police  containing inside information about the case. He was wrong about both the cassette and the letters, but the police would spend the next 18 months dismissing suspects — including Sutcliffe, whom they interviewed nine times over the course of the investigation — because they didn’t have a Wearside accent.


Sutcliffe wasn’t caught until January 1981, when he was picked up by two traffic cops in Sheffield who noticed the fake number plates he had attached to his car.
Why did the Ripper squad detectives fall for it? Why didn’t they listen to witnesses such as Olive Smelt, who survived a horrific assault by Sutcliffe in Halifax in 1975 and always insisted her attacker had a local accent? I interviewed Smelt for The Sunday Times in 1980 and she told me how angry she was about not being believed. Other survivors provided  photofits that closely resembled Sutcliffe, but they too were brushed aside.
The answer, I’m afraid, is that casual misogyny of the type I witnessed during the investigation was widespread. Detectives and crime correspondents reflected their prejudices back at each other, predisposing them to fall for a melo­dramatic hoax. Even at the time, it struck me that the language on the tape and in the letters was curiously stilted, full of archaic exclamations such as “Lord!” and references to “old sluts”. It later transpired that Humble was obsessed with Jack the Ripper and had almost certainly drawn his vocabulary from letters supposedly sent by the Vic­torian killer.
Humble’s death at the age of 63 is a grim reminder of one of the most incompetent criminal investigations of the past half-century. It seems he understood the terrible damage done by  his hoax: he died of heart failure and the effects of alcoholism, having apparently drunk himself to death.
Last week’s announcement took me back to that afternoon in Moss Side police station when everyone but me seemed to be convinced by the creepy voice on the tape. That was when I realised that women had no role in the Yorkshire Ripper case, except as silent victims: we were just the extras in rooms full of men ­talking to each other about dead women.
Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men into Terrorists, by Joan Smith, is published by Riverrun at £16.99

Crime round-up

Sunday Times, 22 September 2019
In remote rural Texas, the descendants of freed slaves share their land with some of the state’s last Native Americans. Attica Locke’s magnificent new novel, Heaven, My Home (Serpent’s Tail £14.99), is set on the side of a lake where this small community struggles to survive, encroached on by angry white men who deal in drugs and stolen goods. Into this unstable situation comes Darren Matthews, a Texas Ranger from Houston sent to investigate the disappearance of a nine-year-old white boy. From the outset, the case is racially charged. The boy’s father is a senior figure in a white supremacist group, and Matthews knows his boss is playing politics by sending a black ranger to work with the local police. The slights he suffers are breathtaking, offering insights into what it’s like to be on the receiving end of calculated racism, and his loyalties are torn when the chief suspect turns out to be an elderly black man. Locke’s novel is set in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, and shines an unflinching light on an ugly side of contemporary America.
Val McDermid’s How the Dead Speak (Little, Brown £18.99) answers some of the questions left hanging over her popular characters, DCI Carol Jordan and the profiler Tony Hill, at the end of their last murder case. As Jordan licks her wounds at home, her old team has an inflexible new boss — and a case involving the discovery of a number of girls’ bodies in the grounds of an old Catholic orphanage. This plot runs parallel to developments in Jordan’s life as she tries to rebuild her friendship with Hill, who is struggling to salvage something from the ruins of his own career. It is a touching development in their relationship, but feels more like an interlude than a fully realised novel.
The Canadian writer Louise Penny faces a similar dilemma at the outset of A Better Man (Sphere £19.99). Her detective, Armand Gamache, has been demoted after a controversial drugs operation. He is also being mercilessly targeted on social media, where a doctored film of the drugs bust leads even some of his own officers to question his judgment. Penny handles the situation by forcing Gamache to return to a very different kind of policing, investigating the disappearance of a woman in rural Quebec. The case is far removed from the world of international drugs cartels, but no less compelling for that. Set against a backdrop of cataclysmic floods that threaten to destroy vital evidence, the novel is a sensitive examination of the everyday violence that ruins the lives of so many women. Gamache peels back layer upon layer of accusation, going beyond the obvious to bring the case to an unexpected conclusion.
The French novelist Johana Gustawsson writes novels of startling originality. Blood Song, translated by David Warriner (Orenda £8.99), begins with the murders of a wealthy Swedish family. The investigation initially focuses on irregularities in the family’s IVF clinic but Gustawsson has another story to tell, in the form of flashbacks to Spain in the 1930s. Her descriptions of the rape and murder of Republican prisoners are truly horrifying, as are revelations about a trade in their orphaned children. If she doesn’t quite succeed in bringing the two narratives together, she has to be admired for her ambition.