Archive | May, 2012

Spirit Cat (Part 1)

27 May

 

Buster

 

 

 

His name was Buster and he didn’t know what was wrong. He was sitting on a street corner, under a lamppost, and he’d just watched his master get in the car and drive away.

His master had taken him into the park and thrown his ball for him, so he’d run off helter skelter after the ball, chasing it down just as he always had. But when he’d brought the ball back for his master, just like a good dog should, his master hadn’t been there to collect it. He had been over by the car, closing the door and starting up the engine.

That didn’t make sense to Buster. He was supposed to be in the car when the engine started.

He expected his master would come back and collect him of course, that was beyond question, but he hoped it would happen soon because it had been raining all day and Buster was getting very wet and very hungry. It was also getting dark and he was getting scared.

There were very few people around by now and the lamppost cast a glistening pool of yellowish light on the wet pavement for Buster to sit in. It was a lot less comfortable than his usual place in front of the fire.

He really didn’t know what was wrong. He loved his master and he had always just assumed, as dogs do, that his master loved him.

Buster didn’t know that he was no longer a cute little puppy, and he didn’t know that while he was busy taking care of all that important doggy business that he liked to keep on top of, he wasn’t doing what his master wanted.

He was a clever dog, nonetheless, and he could recognise quite a few words when he heard them. Words like his name and ‘sit’, ‘come’, ‘heel’ and ‘stop that you fucking bastard’, but he didn’t know exactly what they meant. They had never been used consistently enough for him to make connections between the words and what was meant by them.

To Buster, his master was a God and to him the ways of his God were inscrutable. He had no idea why his God sometimes beat him and shouted at him, he simply had to take it on trust that there was a purpose somewhere behind it all. No one had taught him any better.

So it was getting dark and Buster was getting wet and very hungry and wondering when his master was finally going to come and collect him. The thought that his master was sick and tired of him and never wanted to see him again never occurred to Buster. He was a dog, after all, and thoughts like that don’t come easily to dogs.

When it was as dark as it was going to get and Buster was lying with his nose on his paws, he became aware of a cat.

She was a white cat. Her nose was pink and her eyes were a curious shade, somewhere almost exactly between yellow and green. She sat with her front paws neatly placed side by side in front of her, looking at Buster with her cat’s eyes, clearly unafraid, and inscrutable.

Buster closed his eyes and looked away for a moment, and when he looked back the cat was gone.

Buster wasn’t sure how he felt about that. He had always thought that cats were only good for chasing, but he was very lonely and even a cat was more company than none at all.

Then he smelled something. It smelled a lot like the food his master used to eat. The kind he always wanted to eat himself, although what he usually got when he asked for it was a smack across the face.

He looked around to see where the smell was coming from and he saw the cat. She was sitting with her neat little feet in front of her, looking at him again with her curious coloured eyes. She had some food in her mouth and she dropped it on the ground in front of her.

Buster didn’t quite understand that because she didn’t start to eat the food, she simply walked away and left it. That made no sense at all to him. But he was hungry and the food smelled good. There wasn’t much of it, but he ate what there was and when it was gone, he licked the ground where it had been to get the last of the taste. When the last trace of food was gone, and it didn’t last long, Buster went back to where he had been before, lying at the foot of the lamppost with his nose on his paws. He felt a little better. Not much, just a little. But that was enough for the moment.

He was still waiting for his master, however, and he was still hoping that it wouldn’t take much longer for him to come.

The cat curled herself up next to Buster. She started to lick him clean as though he was a kitten and she purred. Buster accepted this attention without protest. He was very lonely and afraid and although she wasn’t really a God, her attention was better than none at all.

 

Buster slept fitfully, waking from time to time during the night. Sometimes when he woke the cat was beside him, sometimes she wasn’t. She would come and go as cats do, on silent, soft paws, going about her business with a preoccupied air.

Each time she left, Buster thought she was gone for good. Each time she came back, she had another morsel of food in her mouth and she left it lying on the ground. Each time she left food on the ground Buster ate it and felt a little better for a while.

At some point in the cold grey, half dead hours of the early morning Buster decided that wherever the cat was going, there had to be food, and that if he went with her, he would find the food for himself. Then he’d be able to eat as much as he wanted and not just as much as she was able to bring back to him. She couldn’t carry much in her mouth; she was only a cat, after all.

The cat picked herself up off the ground, stretched her back legs one at a time and then stalked off, with her tail held high and a little curled at the end.

Buster got to his feet and padded after her. He wouldn’t be gone for long, he told himself. Just long enough to get something to eat. Then he’d come back and do some more waiting under the lamppost. After all, his master was sure to come back sooner or later. Wasn’t he?

So the cat walked the streets and Buster followed her. She sniffed at this and that, and he sniffed too. But she had a sense of purpose about her and he didn’t. He was lost, while she definitely had somewhere to go.

She took him past some huddled bodies wrapped in newspapers, or sheltering in cardboard boxes covered with whatever plastic sheeting could be scrounged from somewhere.

Buster didn’t understand this. To him humans were Gods. They lived in houses, they had cars and they had an inexhaustible supply of food. They did strange things, of course. They insisted on washing you just when you’d managed to find something really nice and smelly to roll around in, but to see these Gods huddled up, just as cold and wet as Buster was himself, well that was a different kind of strange.

As the cat walked by, she seemed to pass the Gods with disdain. She wasn’t interested in them. To her, it seemed, they weren’t Gods at all. When one of them reached out a hand and tried to talk to her she stiffened, ears back, eyes narrowed and hissed at him, her wicked little fangs bared and ready.

He told her to fuck off.

This made things a little more familiar to Buster. It was a phrase that he knew well, although he had no idea what it meant. Maybe the cat did, though. She took a swipe at the man with her paw before moving along.

Buster hesitated before following her. They were Gods, to be sure, but they weren’t his God. The cat wasn’t even a God at all, but she did seem to know where there was food and for the moment, that was good enough for Buster.

 

The cat walked and Buster followed. Sometimes they found something to eat; sometimes they found something to sniff. Sometimes she’d take him to a bin that he could pull over with his reach and weight and then they could both forage through whatever spilled out. Buster was starting to feel that they were a team. A good team. He liked being part of a team. It made him feel more complete.

 

The morning wore on and there were more people around

“Look at that,” someone said. “It’s like that cat’s taking her dog for a walk.”

But most of them saw nothing. They were Gods, after all and far too busy with their God’s business to notice a cat and her dog.

The cat found a car to lie under and Buster crawled in after her. It was time for a rest, he thought, they’d walked quite a long way. Maybe they’d even walked a bit too far. Buster wasn’t sure he could find his lamppost again. But surely his God would find him when he chose to.

 

When Buster woke from his sleep, he found that the cat was gone. He had a sickening feeling of being alone again. He crawled out from under the car in the hope of finding the cat. Or maybe even his master.

What he found instead was that there were two Gods standing in the street. One big, one small. The small one was very young and she had to look up to see the big one, even though he was stooping a little to bring himself closer to her level.

Their words meant nothing to Buster, but their voices told him a story. The big one was speaking softly, coaxing, persuading, wanting something. The little one wasn’t sure. She didn’t know. She wanted to go away. Buster didn’t know why she didn’t just run if she wanted to go.

He didn’t know these Gods, neither of them was his God and he really didn’t like the big one. He didn’t like his voice and there was a faint smell about him that he found disturbing. It was something like fear and it was something like hunger. There was excitement in it too. It was a hunting smell. The big one was hunting, but Buster had no way of understanding what his prey was. It couldn’t be the little God. No one hunted the Gods; they weren’t rabbits, after all.

Then Buster saw the cat. She was sitting quite calmly on the roof of a car, watching the Gods with those eyes of hers.

The Gods were moving towards the car, they were looking at each other, still talking. Sometimes the big one looked away from the little one. He looked around, maybe looking for whatever he was hunting. Buster didn’t know. He couldn’t make sense of any of this. It wasn’t anything like the way he hunted. Maybe the cat understood it. Maybe this was the way cats hunted. Buster didn’t know.

When the Gods were next to the car, the bigger one seemed to notice the cat. He didn’t like it. She certainly didn’t like him. Her eyes narrowed and her ears turned back. Her mouth opened, showing those wicked little fangs and she hissed and spat.

The God waved his hand at her, maybe trying to hit her, or maybe to scare her away. She didn’t scare at all, though; she simply lunged at him, raking her claws across his hand as it flicked by.

“Fucking bitch!” the God yelled and the smaller God jerked back. The bigger one grabbed her by the arm and the cat growled low in her throat.

The fine red lines she’d traced across the back of the God’s hand burned bright in the morning sun. She’d drawn blood but she wanted more.

The little God was screaming now and struggling and that was too much for Buster. He started to bark. It was alarm and excitement and confusion that made him bark, but it wasn’t enough. He had to do something more.

He barked and snarled and growled. He darted in quick and then backed off, snapping his jaws at the big God, but not biting. He knew not to bite. He had been taught this, if nothing else, by his own God.

But the screaming and struggling went on and the cat was hissing and howling and it was driving Buster mad. He darted in again and again. Snapping and snarling and not knowing what to do.

Then the God lashed out and Buster’s teeth went into his flesh. It was an accident but Buster tasted blood and then the God kicked him in the face.

After that the rules were gone. Buster forgot what little of the law he’d ever learned from his God and he charged in. He sank his teeth into the big God’s flesh and this time he meant it. His teeth went in deep and he gripped hard, even as the God tried to pull him off. He felt his teeth tearing through the God’s flesh and it felt good.

More Gods were gathering. They were shouting and waving their arms about and someone was trying to force a stick between Buster’s jaws. Finally they dragged him away and got something tied around his muzzle to hold his jaws shut.

Buster realised he was in trouble again, but he really didn’t know why. The Gods were angry with him and the cat was gone. He wondered if his master would come and collect him now.

Or maybe the cat would reappear, the way she did and help him. Maybe she was some kind of God herself. Buster didn’t know. He only knew he was in trouble. Again.

 

 (To  be continued…)

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27 May

Sometimes a story  just seems to pop up out of nowhere and all of a sudden it’s there, pretty much complete and just waiting to be put into words.

It’s nice when that happens, but it doesn’t happen to me very often.

Usually I find that I’ve got a piece here and a piece there and it can take years for the whole thing to come together into something I can use as the basis for a story.

Let me give you an example.

More than thirty years ago I read a short story. It was about a newly married couple who take up with an American tourist on their honeymoon. This American is a nice enough fellow but he has a slightly morbid interest in instruments of torture, but we’ll come back to that. He’s also something of a humorist and when he sees a cat playing with her kitten, he decides to drop a pebble in order to give them a surprise. Unfortunately the pebble hits the kitten on the head and kills it.

The mother cat is distraught and she seeks her revenge. Eventually she has her opportunity as a result of the American’s interest in a  particular instrument of torture and… well, you might read the story yourself some day so I won’t spoil it.

I’d give you the title and author of the story, but I really can’t remember either. I thought it might have been by Edgar Allen Poe, but I can’t find it amongst the collections of his writing that I’ve been able to look at.

Many years after reading this story I saw a film called Cat’s Eye. It was written by Stephen King and it was based on three of his short stories which were all strung together with the linking theme of an itinerant cat who features in all of the stories.

He plays a fairly minor part in the first story, a more significant role in the second and he ends up being pretty well heroic in the third and last (and my favourite) of the three stories.

Overall, the film didn’t really work for me. I liked the basic idea and I was very impressed by the cat, but I on the whole I thought it could have been much better.

As often happens when I find something that doesn’t quite work for me, I wanted to do something in a similar vein and find a way to make it work better.

So for a period of years I had this idea that I’d like to write a story about a wandering cat who drifts in and out of other people’s lives. I wanted the story to be, if not a horror story, at least a story that would have something a little dark and threatening about it.

During this period I was living with a cat called Pugsley. He was my best pal for about sixteen years and I felt that he was a cat who deserved to have a story written about him. Unfortunately, however, I could never find a story to suit him. (Aside from anything else, he was a spectacularly unspooky cat, even if he was a bit of a rogue where the ladies were concerned).

Some time later I came across a book called Mapping Murder. It was written by Professor David Cantor, a forensic psychiatrist, and it was about geographical profiling, which is an investigative technique that he had been involved in developing. (He didn’t coin the term and he doesn’t share in the profits that have been made from geographical profiling software. He made his own software available free of charge to whoever could make good use of it).

This book isn’t especially salacious and it does not sensationalize or glamorize the various offenders who feature in it, but there was enough detail about the likes of Fred West and Robert Black to make me more than a little uncomfortable. (I should point out that I’m not exactly squeamish about these things in general, this probably isn’t a book for those of a sensitive disposition).

One of the ways I have of dealing with things that I find disturbing is to write about them, which prompted me to think about writing about a serial sex offender. (Not my usual choice of subject).

And in the meantime, I had lost Pugsley and two other cats had moved in; Tiger (promptly renamed Tigger), who is a big tabby tomcat with a touch of Siamese in him (to judge by the shape of his face, and his voice), and Holly, a pretty little white cat with psychotic tendencies.

Both are rescue cats, both are eccentric (even for cats) and I suppose they would have stayed at the cat sanctuary for long enough if I hadn’t turned up. (I seem to have an affinity with the kind of cats most people wouldn’t want to share their space with, although there was one cat there, a gorgeous auburn coloured cat, who was a bit too hostile even for me).

I can’t say why it is, but Holly was much easier to fit into a story than Pugsley was (or is). Maybe it’s because of her preternatural aggression. (Local dogs tend to hurry past my garden just in case Holly’s hiding in the hedge waiting to ambush. them). Or maybe it’s just because I know nothing about her early life and how it shaped her. I can see some of the effects, but I have no idea what the causes were. (I knew far more about Pugsley’s background when I took him on). So she’s a bit of a mystery cat, then. (They all are, but she is more so than most).

At about the same time I was reading the classic Jack London stories White Fang and Call of the Wild. I wouldn’t say that either story had a great influence on the plot of my story, but if you’ve read White Fang in particular you’ll probably notice a small spot of plagiarism that I’ve indulged in. (I could call it an homage, but why bother? Everyone steals from everyone and if you’re going to steal, then steal from the best).

Another source I tapped into was a tear-jerking advert for the RSPCA featuring an abandoned dog.

The title of my story was derived from a sort of private joke.

Every now and then amongst a population of bears you get a white bear, (not an albino or a polar bear, but a bear that would normally be black or brown, but turns out to have a white coat). In Native American cultures, such bears were considered to have a special significance and they were called ‘spirit bears’. I’d known about this for some years when I first met Holly and since she is a white cat, it seemed natural to call her a ‘spirit cat’.

So there you have most of the threads that came together to form Spirit Cat. The ones that I’m conscious of, anyway.

As usual, I didn’t want to write pure fantasy, I like an element of fantasy, but I prefer to have it grounded in reality.

In consequence nothing that any of the animals, or humans, do is impossible. Each individual act carried out by each character is perfectly possible and is based on observable behaviour. Admittedly, when you string all these individual actions together you do end up with a sequence of events that suggests a degree of purpose and understanding that you would not expect to see in most cats, or dogs, but I think that’s permissible.

I should add that the character of the cat in this story is not based on Holly alone. She has Holly’s aggression, but her intelligence is more attributable to Tigger or Pugsley. (Holly’s not exactly the sharpest tool in the box). The strong maternal instinct is probably more attributable to another cat called Tessa.

(Tess was also a highly intelligent cat. She was a lethal little hunter and also incredibly perceptive about human behaviour. She always knew when you were trying to sneak upon her with medication or flea treatments and she was an expert in the art of not taking pills).

I’d say that the caring aspect of the cat probably also came from Pugsley. He was incredibly tolerant of brash young cats who insisted on eating first (Although he was also quite capable of putting them in their place if they tried to usurp his favourite spot in front of the fire).

If the ‘spirit cat’ of the story also has a faintly demonic aspect, then I suppose that came from another cat called Max (as in Mad Max). I very nearly called him Damien, for his slightly disquieting beauty. (He had a mostly white face but the skin around his eyes was black, which made it look as though he was wearing mascara, in addition to this, he had the face and figure of an Egyptian Cat God and a distinctly louche character).

But somehow Max seemed to stick as a name, while Damien sort slid off, if I can put it that way, so Max is what he was called.

So having described the origins of this story, I suppose I’d better make it available in case anyone wants to read it.

The story divides quite neatly into four parts and I’ve split it into instalments in the hope that this makes it a bit easier to read. (I seldom read a blog post that’s much more than two thousand words and I don’t expect other people to either, which is one of the reasons why I’ve tended not to publish my fiction on this blog).

I should conclude by stating what is probably obvious by now. This is not a children’s story, in spite of having animals for two of the central characters. I don’t know if anyone’s going to like it much, but it’s one of those stories you write because you, sort of, have to, rather than because it’s likely to appeal to anyone.

Back to Square One

13 May

I gather that the expression ‘back to square one’ derives from the early days of British Broadcasting.

In the days before television, they had to think of a way to cover sporting events without pictures, and one of the ways to do this was to divide the football pitch into numbered squares. This allowed the commentators a very quick and easy way to tell the listeners where things were happening on the pitch.

In the course of using this system commentators were often heard to use the phrase ‘back to square one’ and the phrase seems to have caught on as a way of saying that things have gone badly and a fresh start is required.

The reason for this particular phrase coming to mind is because I’ve spent the last six months or so working on the first draft of a novel manuscript and I’ve reached a point where I think I’m going to have to go back and start again.

To provide a little background, this story is intended to follow on from the two I’ve already published on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and it’s proving to be a bit of a problem.

Essentially it’s another everyday tale of vampire folk trying to make their way in the modern world without being a/ discovered by the human population or b/ getting killed as a result of some devious plot carried on by others of their own kind.

The basic premise is that vampires live in highly territorial Mafia style families, each family being based in a major population centre. Before the development of modern cities vampires would have lived itinerant and largely solitary lives because it would have been almost impossible for them to hide their nature and activities in a small community.

What I have retained from the various traditions about vampires are things like being repelled by garlic, silver and direct sunlight (specifically UV light) and drowning very easily in fresh water. In addition I have retained other traditions about vampires being charismatic, having exceptionally acute senses and being physically powerful and resilient. Having said that, I don’t go for vampires crawling up and down walls or turning into bats etc.

I have avoided some of the other traditions about vampires i.e. being repelled by religious symbols, mostly because it raises too many inconsistencies.

In particular would vampires be repelled only by Christian symbols or would any religious symbol do? (It’s worth bearing in mind that I’m really not sure that followers of other religions use their symbols in order to repel evil in quite the way that Christians have tended to do).

There would also be the question of what it was about the symbol that repelled the vampire. Would it be some inherent power of the symbol itself, or perhaps the spiritual power of a divinity, or then again, maybe it would be the faith of the person wielding the symbol. These questions may seem trivial, but the way you choose to answer those questions does make a difference to how the plot might develop.

For example if you want to say that a religious symbol has an inherent power all of its own, then a chance configuration of objects that happened to form a cross, for example, would be enough to repel a vampire. This might work quite well in a comedy, but I didn’t think it would work very well for a story that was intended to be mostly serious.

If the power of a religious symbol stems from divine power, then it may raise theological problems of why this divine power had to wait for someone to brandish a religious symbol before acting against the vampire and this is liable to open the whole theological problem of evil. Maybe theodicy could provide the basis for an interesting novel, but it’s not one that I would be inclined to write.

If the power of the religious symbol stemmed from the faith of the person holding it, then there’s a question about whether or not the symbol is actually needed. Does faith really need a symbol in order to work?

You can argue that Stephen King addressed this question in Salem’s Lot when Father Callahan confronts Barlow, the vampire, and ultimately fails because he won’t relinquish his crucifix. The implication seems to be that had he given up the symbol of his faith, he would have been able to fend Barlow off with the reality of his faith.

Any or all of these questions might be interesting to pursue if you’re religious, but I’m not, so I tend to avoid them. I tend to follow in the footsteps of Anne Rice and Whitley Strieber in making my vampires pretty much secular and undeterred by religious symbols and rituals.

Where I differ from Anne Rice and Whitley Strieber is in the way that their vampires (most of them anyway) are so conflicted about hunting humans. I suppose this might be partly because both authors have written books from the point of view of vampires and they felt this was necessary in order to make their protagonists sympathetic. Or then again, maybe they simply wanted to explore the dilemma that comes from being obliged to kill in spite of one’s moral qualms.

Either way, I find all this hand wringing and agonising a bit wearing (this in spite of my respect for both authors on the whole).

I prefer to use a model based on natural history instead. In nature we find that most apex predators are superbly adapted for their role as killers, both physically and psychologically. They tend to be powerful, fast, agile and gifted with a superb array of senses. In psychological terms apex predators are often intelligent (even great white sharks have recently been shown to be more intelligent than was previously believed). They are often capable of forming close bonds with members of their own species and sometimes with individuals from other species (think of dogs and humans, obviously, but there are also documented cases of coyotes and badgers travelling together in order to hunt co-operatively).

Having said this no apex predator has ever shown much empathy for their prey (except for some humans) and, in general they show no regret over killing. If anything, apex predators show every sign of enjoying the process of hunting and revelling in their kills.

I take the view that vampires would be similar in their emotional makeup. I think that they would enjoy hunting for its own sake, as well as for the practical benefits of securing nutrition. I think they may value their prey, in some sense, but that they wouldn’t lose much sleep over killing them. I also think they would do as most predators do and select the weak, the old, the young and the stupid (or at least the marginalised and vulnerable) because this is simply the most practical way of selecting your prey. (Any sensible predator will pick the most vulnerable prey to hunt because it’s safer and easier, but because vampires hunt humans, they will also want to select those individuals who won’t be missed, they won’t want to draw attention to themselves by taking out prominent citizens).

It also seems that most apex predators are pretty conceited (I spend a lot of my time with cats and maybe that’s distorted my perception on this point) and I think vampires would be too.

Harking back for a moment to the issue of the secular nature of the vampires I write about, another aspect of this is the fact that if vampires were repelled by religious symbols, this would imply that they are innately evil. I wanted to avoid this implication. I prefer the idea that vampires are predators, and therefore dangerous, but not necessarily evil.

Unlike lions and tigers, for example, they are moral agents and are therefore capable of being evil, but the morality of their behaviour varies, within the parameters set by their physical, emotional and intellectual needs and abilities. In other words some are morally better than others and most of them are a complex blend of good and bad qualities, just like humans.

Following on from this, one of the persistent themes that has inadvertently emerged in the course of writing these stories has been how badly we, as human beings, often treat each other. This wasn’t a conscious decision, but it fits the overall nature of the stories and it will continue in the third (and hopefully last) instalment.

So this brings me to my problem. The first of these novels started off as a first person novella that owed a lot to The Quiller Memorandum by Adam Hall and a rather obscure post Godfather Mafia film called The Don is Dead (Anthony Quinn was the best thing in it). I wasn’t very happy with the outcome and I tried to turn it into a screenplay, which also didn’t work very well. Some years later I took the basic ideas and some of the characters and wrote The Familiar. (It went through more than twenty drafts, many of them major restructurings before I was reasonably happy with it).

Mistress of the City, which is the sequel, had also had a previous incarnation as a failed screenplay, but in this case I was a lot happier with the basic story so while it needed a bit of adapting it didn’t need as much radical chopping and changing to turn it into a novel I felt comfortable with.

I suppose this last episode is suffering from the fact that it’s completely new. It’s never had a previous incarnation and I suppose I’m just having to work harder at cobbling the various plot strands together.

Initially I just did as I’ve previously done and started at the beginning, working towards an ending I’d already worked out.

Whenever I start writing any story I always have the main characters, most of the main story points and the ending worked out in advance. I’ve read that Stephen King tends to start at the beginning and then see where the story takes him, picking out important themes as they emerge.

Obviously, this would only be in the first draft and I dare say he does his share of revising and rewriting before he sends it off to his editor/publisher/agent. But I suspect that this might explain why the endings to his novels are often so weak in comparison to the rest of his writing, which is why I always try to have an ending to work towards before I start writing. (Which doesn’t mean that I don’t revise, or even completely change my original ending before I’m finished).

After a while, I stopped trying to develop all of the subplots simultaneously and concentrated on one major plot line. This seemed to work for a while, but then I reached a point where I felt I had to go back and add in the other plot lines before I could finally get to my preordained ending.

That seemed to work for a while, but then I got to the same point again and realised that I was close to the end but the first draft was barely half the length it should be.

My first drafts are often pretty short. I tend to concentrate on dialogue and basic directions for the character’s actions, then I go back and add in more description, but generally just enough to create a sense of place and to help orient the reader.

I never write extended descriptive passages because I’m not convinced I’m very good at them and because I suspect a lot of readers tend to skim over them anyway. As a rule description is part of the furniture of a story, it takes someone like Charles Dickens to make descriptive passages a positive asset to his storytelling and I freely admit I’m nowhere near his standard.

So my first draft is too short and even although I know it will expand as I rewrite it, it still won’t be anywhere near the right length. I’ve also realised that there’s another plot line that has to go in and, although this will help with the length, it means going back to the start and trying to interweave another subplot into the mix.

I should stress that this new plot line isn’t something I’ve just made up to pad the thing out, it was always meant to be there and I’m really not sure why I didn’t add it in earlier, it’s actually pretty important to the overall design of the novel.

I suppose this isn’t really a disaster, in a way it’s not even that much of a setback. It’s just that I don’t normally work this way and I’m finding it a bit disconcerting.

I suppose what I also find a bit disconcerting is that fact that I’m writing the third in a series of stories that I’ve been reasonably happy with so far. I really don’t want this last story to be a weak add-on. I want it to maintain whatever standard I’ve managed to achieve so far. (I make no claim to be some kind of literary writer. I write because I like it and I’d be quite content to be reasonably competent hack).

I don’t have too many illusions that Mistress of the City would stand very well on it’s own. I think it builds on The Familiar, but it definitely depends on it as well, so I don’t mind if this novel doesn’t stand independently of the others, I just want to avoid it being a let down.

So it’s back to square one and maybe this time I’ll manage to wind up with a complete first draft.

The trick is to get it written. Once you’ve done that, you can start thinking about how to get it right.

 

 

CSI – Crime Scene Indeterminacy

6 May

With the advent of DNA profiling, many people assumed that the age-old problem of identifying and convicting criminals would become pretty much cut and dried.

This cheerful belief has been reinforced by most of the TV programmes that feature forensic scientists and pathologists as their central characters.

Unfortunately real life doesn’t quite work that way.

It’s worth noting that anyone who actually works in a crime lab would amongst the first to tell you this. (Generally speaking, scientists are keenly aware of the limitations of their techniques and their equipment and they’re often quite candid about them if anyone ever bothers to listen to them).

Incidentally, you can always tell when a politician has absolutely no grounding in science and very little understanding of technology because they always have boundless faith that complex problems can be quickly and easily solved by new technology. They also invariably assume that this technology will infallibly work first time and every time. (Anyone who pays attention to current affairs will doubtless be able to call to mind various examples of ambitious and generally hideously expensive high-tech projects that eventually came to nothing and had to be cancelled).

Of course in TV crime shows the story almost always ends in the criminal being unmasked and their guilt proved as the ineluctable consequence of systematic investigation and deduction.

Well, okay, it makes for a good story and I’m not knocking it. I like a good story as much as anyone.

But you have to take these TV shows with a pinch of salt and not get carried away with the notion that criminal investigations are always going to end with such a conclusive result.

In the first place most TV crime labs are packed with all the latest equipment and it’s all nice and shiny and works perfectly every time. (One suspects that real life forensic scientists might watch such programmes in the much the same spirit that people on the minimum wage might have watched Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous).

A second point to bear in mind is that the scriptwriters are on the side of the investigators. They can be remarkably ingenious in the way they will drop in rare genetic disorders, unusual types of pollen or whatever else they might need in order to provide neat, conclusive results that will determine guilt or innocence with absolute certainty.

I’m not knocking it because as I said; it makes for a good story and I like a good story as much as anyone.

Having said that, there is a risk that the general public and worse still politicians and journalists, who can be quite painfully ignorant of science (and just about everything else), will tend to overestimate the ability of modern police methods in ‘proving’ a suspect’s guilt.

The reason all this comes to mind is not because I have any kind of background in Law Enforcement, nor is it because I’ve recently been involved in any kind of criminal investigation. It’s simply because I’ve been cited for jury duty. 

Again. (Actually I don’t mind too much, it’ll be a break from my painfully low paid and frequently exasperating job).

Obviously there’s no way of knowing whether or not I’ll be selected or, if so, what kind of case I might be sitting on, but it does call to mind my previous experience of jury duty.

Obviously I can’t reveal any details of the jury’s deliberations and I don’t intend to say too much about the specifics of the case, but it was an educational experience and I’d like to offer a few observations in case they might be instructive to someone else.

One of the quirks of Scottish criminal court procedure is that there are no opening statements.

Once the preliminaries are over, the prosecution simply starts presenting evidence. This can be a little disconcerting for a juror in as much as you’re hearing evidence with only the text of the charge to give you any idea of what the whole thing’s about. This can make it hard to decide what’s important and what’s incidental.

The case I was sitting on was a murder. The victim and the defendant had been a couple; both with a history of multiple addictions and both of whom had been in and out of prison for most of their adult lives.

They were living in a block of flats that you would only move into if the alternative was sleeping rough.

One of the witnesses was a rarity in this community in that he had a job. It was his habit not only to lock his door when he came home for the evening, but also to barricade it with old car tyres in case someone tried to force it. His evidence was limited because he kept himself to himself and when he heard a disturbance that later turned out to be the murder being carried out, he simply kept his head down and hurried away.

I’m not inclined to judge him for this.

He was having to survive in an environment where altercations would have been frequent and where he couldn’t knock on a neighbour’s door with any confidence about what would happen if, and when, the door opened.

So we had a victim and we had a suspect.

We also had evidence from the police who attended the scene. People vary, as we all know, and police officers vary about as much as anyone else. Some of the police officers in this case gave very clear, credible evidence and you could have confidence in them. Others inspired a lot less confidence. Let’s leave it at that.

We also had lots of pictures to look at. Rather too many for some. (Not a jury secret. We had to have a break in the evidence because one of our number was becoming visibly distressed).

We also had our forensic evidence.

We had reports from the autopsy and we had some blood spatter and we even had some DNA evidence.

Without going into too much detail, it had always been perfectly obvious that the cause of death was essentially gross brutality on someone’s part.

Having said that, the pathologist’s evidence was quite surprising, because much of the earlier evidence we had been presented with had suggested that death was caused by a head injury, while the autopsy results showed that death was caused by internal damage as a result of severe trauma to the abdomen. The kind of trauma that might be caused if someone very heavy stamped on you.

In comparison, the head injury turned out to be relatively harmless.

So then we came to the blood spatter and the DNA evidence. This was the bit that one might assume was going to wrap the whole thing up one way or the other. It generally does in a TV show.

The blood spatter took the form of some very small spots of blood on the defendant’s clothes. DNA testing showed that the blood almost certainly came from the victim. This was expressed in terms of a probability of some millions (I forget how many) to one against the DNA belonging to anyone else.

The shape and size of the droplets indicated that they were the result of standing fairly close to some object soaked in the victim’s blood when it had been struck by something. (That was about as far as the expert witness was willing to go).

On the face of it that might seem to be pretty conclusive.

The blood almost certainly came from the victim and it had almost certainly travelled a relatively short distance (a few feet) as a result of a violent impact on something containing, or coated in, the victim’s blood. (The most likely candidate being the victim herself).

The simplest explanation for this evidence would be that the defendant had hit the victim.

On the other hand, it could have been that he had simply been standing next to her when someone else hit her. Or that she had been bleeding and some of her blood got onto a towel and she flicked it at him. (And no, I can’t think of any reason why anyone would do that). Or that he had hit her, but that didn’t necessarily prove that he had killed her. (The fatal injuries would have caused internal bleeding not blood spatter, therefore the defendant may well have hit the victim in the face, for instance, thereby causing the blood spatter, but that wouldn’t necessarily prove that he had killed her).

In other words, unlike the normal TV version, there wasn’t just one possible explanation for all this scientific evidence.

 And as a result, the scientific evidence wasn’t enough on its own to secure a conviction. We needed more in order to be sure, beyond reasonable doubt, that the defendant was guilty.

As a matter of fact, there was more evidence. Much of it circumstantial, it has to be said, but when it was all taken together we did reach a verdict. We found the defendant guilty. (In Scots law at present no single piece of evidence is enough to convict anyone. The prosecution has to have some kind of corroborative evidence as well).

I wouldn’t say that I have any doubts about the verdict we gave. I think we got it right, but the main thing I took from this experience was that the evidence needed a lot more interpretation than I had expected. If you’re tempted to think that juries are in danger of becoming redundant as forensic science advances, then I think you should probably sit in on a real trial in order to get a different perspective from the one presented on TV.

TV crime shows are not documentaries, they’re just entertainment. 

There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you think carefully about the details of the plotlines in your favourite crime show, you’ll probably see that a lot of time and trouble goes into setting things up so that the evidence tells a straightforward story. (Albeit after the requisite number of red herrings, and plot twists).

After we had given our verdict, the Depute Advocate General (prosecuting) read out some of the edited highlights of the defendant’s previous convictions and sentences. What struck me about this was that this was a man who had done the same (often violent) things over and over again, been caught, convicted and sentenced over and over again, serving a year here, eighteen months there, maybe as much as two or three years.

He had never killed anyone before, but when a twenty stone man stamps on a seven stone woman, the results are liable to be fatal even if that’s not his specific intention.

(In Scots law a killing can be murder if it’s the result of ‘wicked recklessness’, even if there’s no deliberate intention to kill).

So all in all, this wasn’t the kind of murder that’s likely to feature on CSI Miami, for example. There was no glamour, no plot twists or bizarre details, just a whole load of misery and pain and ultimately a sickening waste of life.

You could say that the victim in this crime didn’t have much going for her. Whatever talent she might have had seemed to be swallowed up in booze and smack and so maybe you could say that she’d missed or blown whatever chances she’d had in life. She certainly made a poor choice of partner.

On the other hand, maybe it’s better to point out that whatever else anyone might want to say about the victim, she had a friend and a mother who loved her while she lived and mourned her when she died.

Their pain at her loss was obvious.

That has to mean that her life had some value and some meaning.

Maybe that’s why Buddha said that we should have compassion for all living things. For all things that suffer.