Thursday, 7 February 2019

The letter of the law – Kate Helm on the true crime shows and legal dramas that inspired her debut thriller

As a kid, I always loved the ideaof becoming a barrister -  the drama, the gowns and most of all, the life-or-death speeches! I was always a nerdy girl, obsessed with crime and the justice system – aged 7, I often wrote about big news stories while my classmates were writing cheerier accounts of what they did in their holidays…

 In the end, the baffling, Hogwarts-style barrister training route scared me so much that I opted for journalism instead. But I did end up in court as a reporter, covering trials and inquests where lives were changed and deaths analysed – before working on investigations at the BBC. 

 So when I had the idea of writing a thriller with a damaged courtroom sketch artist as the central character, it seemed like the perfect way to put decades of fascination with legal drama and cold cases to good use. Georgia Sage is convinced most criminals she draws are guilty – till she realises she might have helped convict the wrong person of murder. 

So here are the dramas – real life and fictional – that shaped me as a thriller writer!

1.         Ladykillers: Lucky, Lucky 13 This 1980 drama about Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged for murder in England, was probably not the ideal viewing for the 11-year-old me, but it made a huge impact. That’s partly due to the hypnotic performance by Georgina Hale – but it also made me think in depth about capital punishment for the first time. 

2.         The Crucible – we studied Arthur Miller’s 1953 play about the Salem witch trials at school. The impossible catch-22 faced by those accused of it – to ‘confess’ and incriminate friends, or deny and face death – was brought to life in a draughty Cheshire classroom. And, for a future writer, it also raised huge questions about persecution and freedom of speech. 

3.         The Police: A Complaint of Rape - My parents put my foot down and wouldn’t let me watch this documentary when it was first broadcast in 1982, but I saw the media furore that followed. The terrible way Reading detectives treated a woman victim brought huge changes to the system. A few years later, as a very junior reporter, I interviewed a rape victim at Reading Police Station who had been asked by the much-improved team to appeal for help with finding her attacker. It had a profound effect on me…

4.         …As did the 1988 movie The Accused, starring Jodie Foster. This, too, was ground-breaking in looking at attitudes to sexual assault and ‘blame’ especially with women who didn’t fit a stereotype. One of the cases in my book, The Secrets You Hide, reflects the fact that it’s still very hard to get a conviction.

5.         Crown Court: This Granada series was a pioneering daytime show where a fictional case would be presented to a jury made up of members of the public – before asking them to give their verdict. It was my not-guilty pleasure if I managed to wangle a day off sick from school. There were 300 cases in all between 1972 and 1985– the list on Wikipedia makes for fascinating and unsettlingreading (some of the titles would not be acceptable now!). 

6.         Rumpole of the Bailey: another childhood treat, featuring the eccentric rebel, Horace Rumpole, this drama had plenty of comedy too. Even though Rumpole couldn’t have been more different to me – I was a schoolgirl, he was a grumpy old barrister – he was an irresistible hero and I loved his way with words and sense of justice. 

7.         World in Action & Rough Justice: the work of these two pioneering investigative TV shows changed the lives of those wrongly convicted. As a teenager, when I was weighing up journalism vs. law, these programmes showed journalists could make a difference. Years later, I was lucky enough to work with many of the WIA and Rough Justice veterans in TV current affairs – and I learned that it is relentless attention to the tiniest details, that can bring about the right verdict, even decades after the original trial.

8.         North Square: set in a Leeds chambers, Peter Moffatt’s TV drama was the forerunner of Silk but I think I prefer North Square, which was a bit more rough and ready, and featured two of my favourite actors: the irresistible Rupert Penry-Jones and the brilliant Phil Davis.

9.         Evil Genius – the true story of America’s most diabolical bank heist – this jaw-dropping Netflix series is absolute proof that truth is way, way stranger than fiction. Tragic and grotesque, with no definite answers... 

10.       The Prosecutors: this documentary series shows the behind-the-scenes work passion that goes into bringing a case to trial – and how personal it becomes to the Crown Prosecution Service lawyers involved. The underfunded CPS gets a bashing but the individuals working there can be relentless and passionate and bring families much-needed closure. 

For writers and readers, the law is the ultimate demonstration of the power of words, stories and reason.  And if my determined and disturbed heroine gives a little insight into the work of those who fight for justice, then I will be a very happy author indeed…

The Secrets You Hide is published in paperback on February 7. Join Kate’s free book club for exclusive previews and competitions to win signed books by your favourite thriller authors, via Kate’s website or follow her on Twitter and Instagram @katewritesbooks

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