James Lasdun

I’ve often fantasised about writing a police procedural series. Sometimes the fantasy gets to the point where I start sketching out ideas, but invariably I come up against the double problem of my ignorance of how the police actually proceed and my private veto against fiction requiring serious research. So I stop. But something made me try again, and a few months ago I came home from my local Barnes and Noble with a stack of books about US law enforcement. I now know all about Luminol, Spiral Search Patterns and Bindle Paper. I understand the protocols of Search and Seizure. I’m up on Curtilage and the Exclusionary Rule, I can inform you about the finer points of hierarchy in a Detective Division and I can read Spatter.

Soon I was supplementing the books with crime coverage on the internet: police blogs, legal Q&A sites, live-streaming murder trials. I don’t have much stomach for the grislier end of the American murder spectrum. Nor am I drawn to high society or celebrity murders. But murder in the middle-class suburban household interests me quite a bit. Perhaps it’s the way those confidently articulated visions of domestic happiness – 1960s split-level ranch houses, 1990s McMansions – suggest murder as just one among many activities foreseen by their ample, leisure-dedicated spaces.

Along with half the country I followed the trial this spring and summer of Casey Anthony, a young Florida woman who went clubbing after her daughter disappeared, and told police the girl had been abducted by a nanny who turned out not to exist. The toddler’s body was found off a suburban drive called Suburban Drive, and whatever happened to her happened nearby, at the house where Casey lived with her parents – mother a nurse, father an ex-cop – in an Orlando subdivision. The bungalow looks blandly ordinary, but every ordinary thing and person in or around it plays some part in one or other version of the killing. Father, brother, bedroom, garage, pool, car, duct tape, doll, heart-shaped stickers, family computer: unremarkable elements, but constellated in fatally strange relations to each other. The evidence against Casey was persuasive, even without her blatant lies and the photos of her at Hot Body contests in the weeks after her daughter went missing. But it was also circumstantial, and there were concerns that jurors accustomed to the hi-tech forensic certainties of CSI might not convict without a piece of smoking DNA, especially since this was a capital case. I don’t imagine that any of them believed the defence attorney’s elaborate psychodrama positing an accidental drowning followed by retreat to ‘that deep, dark ugly place called denial’, itself the result of earlier fraternal and paternal molestation (no attempt was made to prove any of this). But they acquitted Casey all the same, and the country now has a new O.J. Simpson: an unassimilable conundrum of legal innocence and universally presumed guilt.

All of this was instructive to follow, but it couldn’t help me write sentences with gun-names and criminal actions in them, not without feeling like a fraud. Some kind of first-hand experience seemed necessary. As it happens, the police department in a town near where I live runs a Citizens Police Academy, with weekly seminars on all aspects of police work, from accident investigation to narcotics enforcement. It was set up as part of a Community Oriented Policing initiative, aimed at enlisting citizen involvement in law enforcement, though there’s also an unashamed PR element: ‘To create a better understanding and communication between the citizens and police through education’. It’s free, open to all comers, and you can attend or skip whichever classes you like. It’s held in the long, low Social Services building on the main commercial highway running out of town. There are usually about 20 citizens in attendance: retirees, some undergraduate types who I guess come from the nearby community college, and a couple of quiet men my own age whom I suspect of being rival aspiring crime novelists.

A senior detective – I’ll call him Lieutenant Arditi – presides. He’s a large, genially hyper-kinetic man with a moth-like moustache and a fund of anecdotes about farcical misadventures in the line of duty. The live SWAT training session at City Hall, for instance, with a scenario he devised, involving an anti-tax militia threatening to kill the mayor: a shopper trying out scanners at a nearby Radio Shack tuned in to the walkie-talkies and mistook the exercise for a real attack. I’ve come to think of him as ‘The Laughing Policeman’, after the book in the Sjöwall/Wahlöö Martin Beck series, which I’ve lately been blazing through.

Every week he brings in cops from different departments and agencies to show off their gear. I didn’t know what I was looking for exactly, so I paid close attention to everything and came home at night with copious notes. A cadaver dog can scent a body under water. If you tase someone who’s already been shot with pepper spray or CS gas, there’s a risk they might burst into flames. That kind of thing: potentially useful exotica, but still a little remote and theoretical.

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