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.
Joan Smith Co-chair of the Mayor’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board
Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 28 August 2018
Why on earth wouldn’t the police believe rape victims? It seems mind-boggling, but plans are afoot by senior officers to abandon the national policy of believing individuals who report rape or sexual assault.
The proposal to abandon the policy – agreed by most chief constables, as well as Met commissioner Cressida Dick – would see the “belief” practice erased from the national guidelines and replaced with “the intention that victims can be confident they will be listened to”.
The whole thing is rightly causing controversy and has been criticised this week by victims’ commissioner, Baroness Newlove. In a powerful intervention, she has called the plan ‘a retrograde step’ for justice, warning that victims will be less likely to come forward if they think they won’t be believed from the outset. Lady Newlove highlights the risk of reversing the ‘great strides’ made in recent years by the criminal justice system, and she challenges the idea that police officers won’t be able to conduct a robust and impartial investigation if they begin by believing the victim.
This is the claim at the heart of the matter – and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that chief constables have confused two different things. Starting from a position of belief builds public confidence in the police and has undoubtedly contributed to the growing willingness of victims to report sex crimes. It doesn’t mean that a complainant’s claims won’t be investigated, just as someone reporting the theft of a car or a burglary would expect to have their account tested to see if it stands up to scrutiny.
The criminal charges brought against the disgraced producer, Harvey Weinstein, are a case in point. The #MeToo movement began with women telling their stories and now some of the key allegations are going to be tested, quite properly, in court. If they had had more confidence in the criminal justice system, it might have happened sooner – and the fact that one of his accusers, the Italian actress Asia Argento, has herself been accused of assaulting a 17-year-old actor, certainly doesn’t invalidate the whole #MeToo campaign.
The idea that the police simply accept everything a rape victim says, without carrying out an investigation, is simply ludicrous – and that’s one of the reasons why campaigners are so opposed to the proposed change in policy. They think this is more to do with embarrassment over a high-profile case that went spectacularly wrong, subjecting the Metropolitan Police to savage public criticism – and that it’s led senior officers to draw completely the wrong conclusion.
It all goes back to Operation Midland, an investigation into the lurid allegations made by a man known only as ‘Nick’. A senior officer described his claims about a paedophile ring at the heart of the establishment as ‘credible and true’ – but Nick was later charged with perverting the course of justice.
Operation Midland was always a highly unusual investigation, including the fact that the police took the very risky course of commenting publicly before they had finished testing ‘Nick’s’ claims. That was a huge error but it’s not usual practice in sex cases, and could easily have been avoided. Nor is it a good reason to change policy in relation to every single allegation of rape or sexual assault, risking the destruction of much of the confidence in the police that’s been built up in recent years.
Senior officers have clearly been stung by the remarks of Sir Richard Henriques, the retired judge who examined Operation Midland. He argued that officers’ judgement had been warped by the ‘automatic belief’ policy, even though it’s clear that this was a case in which they took it to unusual extremes. Automatic belief doesn’t preclude asking questions, looking for supporting evidence and keeping an eye out for inconsistencies. All of that already happens in rape cases, to a point where complainants sometimes feel as if their entire private lives are being picked apart.
Each year, the number of individuals reporting rape is rising, but that trend will be put in jeopardy if victims – the vast majority of whom are telling the truth – fear a return to the bad old days. For far too long, rape victims were met with scepticism and sometimes outright disbelief, based on the myth that there is a higher rate of false allegations in rape cases than in other serious crimes. There’s no evidence for this, as a study commissioned by the then Director Public Prosecutions, Sir Keir Starmer (now a Labour MP), pointed out.
But it created a situation where notorious predators like the black cab rapist, John Worboys, were able to go on attacking women with impunity even after some of his victims went to the police. It was scandals like the Worboys case, and the failure to properly investigate the crimes of Jimmy Savile, that led to the policy change in 2011 when the National Police Chiefs Council issued the instruction that victims should be believed.
It’s had a positive effect, as recorded crime figures show, but now it’s in jeopardy for all the wrong reasons. The NPCC is currently consulting on the change but leading figures, including Lady Newlove, are worried – and they’re right to be.
The problem of rape in this country isn’t too many false allegations. It’s that the vast majority of rapists get away with their crimes, a fact almost entirely ignored in this frankly demeaning discussion of whether victims deserve to be believed. Treating complainants as potentially dishonest from the outset will reinforce one of the most damaging rape myths – and set victims’ rights back by decades.
Sunday Times, 26 August 2018
London in the 1950s is a city of bomb sites and shored-up buildings, shrouded in fog. Ex-soldiers, refugees from Europe and small-time crooks mingle in Notting Hill, where a man called John Christie is offering to help women who have breathing problems.
Sunday Times, 5 August 2018
In an uncertain economic climate, the finances of even the most affluent couples may be more unstable than they appear. Mark is an investment banker, Erin a documentary-maker, and they’ve just booked their dream honeymoon in Catherine Steadman’s twisty first novel, Something in the Water (Simon & Schuster £12.99).Then disaster strikes: Mark loses his job and the couple face returning home from their luxury hotel in the south Pacific to a very uncertain future. They’re still trying to convince each other that everything will be all right when temptation floats into view, in the shape of a suitcase stuffed with hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Steadman, who is an actress with Downton Abbey among her credits, tells the story from Erin’s point of view but doesn’t spare either of her main characters. Erin and Mark believe they’re decent, hard-working people but they discover undreamt-of pockets of greed and dishonesty as soon as they’re tested. The money is tainted, linked to some very dodgy individuals, and paranoia sets in as sinister messages and unexplained events disturb their comfortable lives in north London. The break-down of their relationship is brilliantly described, and it all kicks off with an opening scene worthy of Hitchcock.
A long-running series of crime novels provides some of the same pleasures as soap opera, offering the latest instalment in the lives of familiar characters. Careless Love (Hodder £20) is the 25th book in Peter Robinson’s best-selling series featuring DCI Alan Banks, a thoughtful detective based in the fictional Yorkshire town of Eastvale. Banks is divorced, with two grown-up children and excruciating taste in music, but Robinson never allows the detective’s backstory to get in the way of some very contemporary plots.
His novels track the changing nature of crime, taking on difficult subjects such as gangs of men who groom under-age girls for sex, and the new book tackles the contentious subject of widening inequality. Two corpses are discovered on the moors, a student dressed for a night out and an older man in a business suit, with no obvious connection between them. The inquiry leads to a group of successful middle-aged men with access to expensive lawyers, but Banks is determined to uncover a scam involving sex, drugs and the exploitation of vulnerable young women.
The brooding presence of Kinder Scout, the highest point in the Peak District, hangs over Stephen Booth’s fine novel, Fall Down Dead (Sphere £20). Each year, a group of walkers sets out in commemoration of the mass trespass in 1932, when hundreds of ramblers defied local landowners in defence of the right to roam. The little group is led by Darius Roth, a local man who claims to be a descendant of one of the original protesters, but he ignores warnings about the weather. With one member of the party injured and no signal on their mobile phones, the walkers separate and a woman falls to her death in the fog. DI Ben Cooper suspects that the death wasn’t accidental but he has nothing to go on but his gut feeling – and some painstaking detective work that harks back to a less forensically-driven age of crime fiction.
Clare Askew’s memorable and moving first novel, All the Hidden Truths (Hodder £12.99), presents the police in Edinburgh with a highly unusual crime. When an engineering student walks into college one morning and murders 13 young women before killing himself, everyone knows the identity of the perpetrator. The investigation that follows focuses on three women – a police inspector, the killer’s mother and the mother of the first victim – in a harrowing examination of the causes and consequences of mass murder.
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.
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.
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.
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.