Saturday 2 December 2017

The Back to Front Scam Which Landed a Story

One of the questions I most often get asked as a crime writer is: where do your ideas come from? Here's the provenance of one idea.  In February 1991, the Provisional IRA built a home-made mortar, loaded it into the back of a van with a hole in the roof, parked it on the corner of Horse Guards Avenue and Whitehall in London, and fired three shells at Number 10 Downing Street.

The cabinet, headed by Prime Minister John Major, was meeting at the time. One of the shells exploded in Number 10's garden. It left a hole seven feet deep but the cabinet escaped injury thanks to bomb-proof windows in the cabinet room. The attack happened at exactly 10.08am.  Twenty minutes later, I stepped out of Westminster tube station, opposite Big Ben, on my way to interview a senior Whitehall Permanent Secretary for an article in the Daily Telegraph. I discovered the whole area around Downing Street had been cordoned off by police - and no-one, but no-one, was going in.

My problem was that the mandarin I needed to interview was confined to his office behind the taped off area and I was outside it. It seemed that I was going to lose the interview - and the fee I'd earn from the Telegraph for the article.

But then I remembered an incident that had occurred early in my career as a journalist - back in the 1960s. I'd been sent to cover the list at a magistrates' court. Most of the cases were trivial and not worth a line in the paper I was working for. But one of them involved a local ruffian who'd been found guilty of a fairly minor assault charge. After the court adjourned, he approached me and made it clear I'd get a beating if a word of the case appeared in my paper.  As it happens, his case was so boring I wasn't going to write about it, but when I got back to the office I mentioned the incident to the editor. He decided one of Her Majesty's Journalists couldn't be treated this way and insisted we ran the story on the paper's front page.

As the ruffian had been accompanied at the court by a group of likely lads, I thought it prudent to keep a watchful eye out when I left the office. If I was followed I knew a local hotel near my office where the front entrance was on one street but the back in another. I'd nip in the front and slip out the back to throw the likely lads off my tail.

In the event, it never came to that. But the notion gave me an idea of how I could breach the police cordon around Whitehall that morning of the attack. I knew a hotel that had a back entrance in Victoria Embankment Gardens (outside the cordon) and its front entrance in Whitehall Court (inside the cordon).  The back entrance wasn't blocked and nobody was stopping anyone leaving at the front - although nobody else was doing so. I made it to the interview and the only person I saw while I was walking to the mandarin's office was a bald-headed bloke with a worried look. He poked his head out of the front door of the Ministry Of Defence and asked whether I knew there'd been a bomb attack!

Many years later I used the front door-back door ruse in the first of my Crampton of the Chronicle crime mysteries, Headline Murder. It's just one of many journalist tricks-of-the-trade which we used in those days and which I call on in the Crampton books. The books' hero Colin Crampton, crime reporter on the Brighton Evening Chronicle, knows all the tricks. He shamelessly uses the scams to get his stories and solve crimes - most recently in the latest book in the series Front Page Murder.

Front Page Murder by Peter Bartram
It's December 1963 and Archie Flowerdew is sitting in a cell at Wandsworth Prison waiting to be hanged. On Christmas Eve. It's not exactly how he planned to spend the festive season. But, then, Archie was found guilty of murdering fellow comic postcard artist Percy Despart.  It seems there's nothing that can stop Archie's neck being wrung like a turkey's. Except that his niece Tammy is convinced Archie is innocent. She's determined he will sit down on Christmas Day to tuck into the plum pudding. She persuades Brighton Evening Chronicle crime reporter Colin Crampton to take up the case.  But Colin has problems of his own. First, that good turn he did to help out Chronicle sub-editor Barry Hobhouse has come back to bite him on the bum. Then Beatrice "the Widow" Gribble, Colin's trouble-prone landlady, needs him to sort out her latest faux pas - she's accidentally sent a Christmas card to her local butcher suggesting she's available for hot sex. And that's before Brighton cops clap Colin and girlfriend Shirley Goldsmith in jail on the charge of harbouring a fugitive from justice.  And, anyway, the more Colin investigates Archie's case, the more it looks like he is guilty… Pick up the third full-length novel in the Crampton of the Chronicle mystery series to get you in the mood for a murderous Christmas!

1 comment:

Lance Mason said...

In researching crime-writers blogs, I found yours. My interest is in writing long fiction, mainly in the universe of crime and crime-related stories (www dot lance-mason dot com). In hopes of bootstrapping some notice for my work, I have been looking for an established blog to which I might submit a guest post. The one in mind is a "craft essay" on fiction writing, combining "Show, don't tell" with novelist/professor Lee Martin's three essential elements in narrative (chronology, cause-and-effect, and consequences). If this is something you would consider, please advise. If you would like me to forward any other info, please advise.
Thank you
Lance Mason
contact at lance-mason dot com