So, why was I walking through a deserted field in somewhere near Aldershot, in the rain, and wondering why there were no road signs? Moreover, why hadn’t I taken the advice of the Air Crash Investigation Branch and caught a taxi from the station? In addition, why wasn’t I wearing a coat?
All good questions, as I tramped past a golf course (a golf course? Where the hell was I?) knowing I was already late.
The answer was that I’d agreed to write a radio play about an Air Crash Investigator, having been asked by John Taylor of Fiction Factory productions. And I was doing my homework.
I’m a crime writer. At the heart of my work is the idea of evidence. In my Sister Agnes novels, the evidence comes from odd places. A hunch, maybe. A sense that someone is lying. The real forensic evidence happens around the edge of the story. This is the problem of writing a contemporary amateur detective. In Sherlock Holmes’ day, the police could be bumbling fools way behind the razor-sharp brilliance of Our Hero, but in the present, to write this kind of detective would just be plain unbelievable. So Agnes’s work, by definition, relies on the police doing their job just outside the main heart of the story. And she, because she works in a hostel for homeless kids in a rough old part of London, has access to the kind of privileged information that no one wants to tell to the authorities. As I say, a hunch, an instinct that someone is hiding something.
But now here I am, at the AAIB, looking at Evidence with a capital E. There are people sitting by screens, reading the traces left by the Black Box recorders (in fact they’re huge indestructible bright orange things), the computer read-outs of every activity recorded by all the equipment on board the aircraft. There are cubicles, which play the Cockpit Voice Recorders. And in the hangars themselves, the wreckage of planes is laid out. It is forensic but respectful, acknowledging the tragedy of the loss of life.
For this play, I’ve had to learn about fuel injection systems, cargo hold design, the patterns of ice formation in jet engines, the self-igniting dangers of lithium batteries. Or even, as in one case I researched, a screw coming loose in the engine.
It’s been a challenge, writing Mitchener. He’s an air crash investigator. Where he follows real life, he deals with Evidence with a capital E. Where he’s fictional, he’s a loner, on the outside, following his instincts. Crime fiction deals with human suffering, with loss, grief, rage, revenge, whether it’s a cop, a nun, or an air crash investigator. And that’s what I learned, standing in those hangars on that rainy day in Aldershot, that the search for Evidence, as much as it’s about computer read-outs and ice-formation - it’s also all about compassion.
Black Box Detective
A new radio play to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 2nd August at 2.15. It will also be available to hear for a week afterwards on the BBC website.
Alison Joseph is a crime writer and radio writer. She is best known for her Sister Agnes books. Alison also writes plays and adapts fiction and non-fiction for the BBC. More information and her work can be found on her website http://www.alisonjoseph.com