Friday 26 April 2019

Reality check: Researching No Way Out by Cara Hunter

Authenticity is really important to me. I want the DI Fawley books to feel as real as possible and that means getting all the details right, from the forensic science to police procedure. Nothing gives me more pleasure than feedback from serving police officers or other professionals saying the books ring true to them. Since I started writing the series, I’ve gathered an amazing ‘pro team’ to help me, including a Detective Inspector, a QC, a former CSI, and a doctor. Their experience and insight has been absolutely invaluable, but for No Way Out I needed to add another highly specialised strand of expertise: fire scene investigation.

No Way Out opens with a catastrophic fire at a large Victorian house in north Oxford. Two young boys are pulled from the wreckage, one dead, one barely alive. But there’s no sign of the parents, and  - as quickly becomes clear – the fire was no accident. But who could possibly want such a nice ordinary family dead?

The opening scene is a transcript of the firefighters’ communications as they reach the scene and start to tackle the fire. As anyone who’s read any of the previous Fawley books will know, I really like including different types of document in the narrative, and the transcript was an obvious one to choose, as well as a unique and attention-grabbing start to the story. But if I was going to do it I had to get it right – the way the firefighters talk to each other, the terms they use – it all had to be accurate.  

I started by watching a lot of firefighter helmet-cam footage online, which gave me a much clearer idea of what actually happens in a serious fire. That was a good place to start. But I knew it wasn’t enough on its own, not least because almost everything I found was from the US. And it wasn’t just the opening scene either: right from the start, I always knew the fire scene investigation was going to be one of the main planks of the story, so I needed to understand that process from the inside.

I was in luck, though, because a friend was able to introduce me to Graham Turner, who was then Station Manager at the Rewley Road fire station in central Oxford (he’s since retired). He gave me a detailed guided tour of the premises, and went through exactly how fire crews are deployed, and which equipment is used and how. He also showed me the ‘smoke room’ which they use for training – even in broad daylight it was a terrifying, cramped dark space and really brought home how brave and selfless firefighters are. On a lighter note, I also found out that firefighters never have beards (not the genuine article, anyway!). It’s because facial hair could impede the breathing apparatus.

I also spent a long time with Steve Johns, one of the senior Oxfordshire fire scene investigators. He took me through several real-life fire scene reports, some of which were extremely harrowing, but it was fascinating to see how specific evidence is analysed and what it tells a professional like Steve about the source and progress of a fire. He also gave me the report template Oxfordshire Fire & Rescue use, which meant I was able to reproduce a shortened version of a ‘real’ fire report in the novel (I really loved being able to do that). And they were both kind enough to read the book in draft form to make sure it didn’t include any mistakes (including correcting my American lingo in the opening scene!).

Every professional I’ve consulted about the books has been so generous with their time, and Graham and Steve were no different. No Way Out wouldn’t be the book it is without them. 

No Way Out by Cara Hunter is published by Penguin Books (Out now)
It's one of the most disturbing cases DI Fawley has ever worked.  The Christmas holidays, and two children have just been pulled from the wreckage of their burning home in North Oxford. The toddler is dead, and his brother is soon fighting for his life.  Why were they left in the house alone? Where is their mother, and why is their father not answering his phone?  Then new evidence is discovered, and DI Fawley's worst nightmare comes true. Because this fire wasn't an accident. It was murder.  And the killer is still out there...

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