As we speak, I am in the midst of a Blog Tour for the publication of my new book, the second in the Lakes Crime Thriller trilogy, BONES IN THE RIVER. I should have been talking about the book at Newcastle Noir and CrimeFest as well.
Current circumstances—UK lockdown for Covid-19 coronavirus—have put paid to any physical festivals or conventions. So, everything has moved online, with panels and interviews and readings. I took part in the recent Virtual Noir At The Bar (Episode 5 on April 29, from about 44:00min to 51:00min) instead of actually meeting up, in an actual bar, to do actual readings from our works.
As well as keeping on top of the Blog Tour, I’m also deeply into the planning of the next two books. And that’s where I run into the biggest questions of all.
How are we going to write about the events of 2020 in the future?
If I look at BONES IN THE RIVER, for instance, the events of the story occur at the annual Appleby Horse Fair, held in the Cumbrian market town for hundreds of years and famous as being the largest gathering of Gypsies and Travellers in Europe.
This year it has been cancelled.
The opening scene, in which a man accidentally runs down and kills a child on a deserted country road at night, could still happen in lockdown—but not after he’d just spent an evening having a meal with friends where they were undoubtedly all sitting around a dinner table—inside—in close proximity.
My CSI, Grace McColl, goes from crime scene to office and out into the field again, mixing with both the public and her colleagues. My detective, Nick Weston, goes to interview suspects and potential witnesses in person rather than by phone or Zoom, because how can you really get a feel for the reactions of the people you’re talking to unless you can see them while you talk.
People are brought in for questioning—their legal representatives sitting alongside them. What will happen in future? Zoom again, or will this cause a major leap forwards in projection hologram technology?
Grace visits her mother, Eleanor, who has moved back from the south coast up to Appleby. Grace’s ex-husband, Max, has been making himself useful around Eleanor’s new house and garden, perhaps as a way of trying to reinsert himself into Grace’s life. Even with the slight easing of lockdown due to take place in the UK from June 1, this is dubious behaviour. They have a barbecue—which as it’s outside would probably be allowed. But Nick also attends and he doesn’t count as family. Not sure he and Grace stay the full six feet apart at all times there, either…
Besides, Nick’s a father with a young daughter, Sophie. Would he risk her health by associating with others more than he absolutely had to for his job? And what about Nick’s partner, Lisa, who has been working suspiciously late at a hair and beauty salon that wouldn’t be open for business yet anyway.
While one of the other CSIs is suspended for a supposed error. He’s staying at home in his scruffs, watching the TV and playing video games—perfectly feasible in these lockdown times! But then he gets a visit from one of his colleagues and, instead of insisting the man stays on the doorstep so they can chat (no garden available in a little terraced house in Workington) he invites the man inside his home—without hand sanitiser, gloves or face mask.
The Travelling community at the Fair live in close proximity inside their vardo and bow-top horse-drawn caravans, and spend their time largely out of doors, but at the Fair they all mix and mingle with no thought to cross-contamination. There’s plenty of washing goes on, but it’s mostly of horses in the River Eden, as fits with tradition rather than to prevent the spread of Covid-19 infection.
And at the stand-off near the end of the book, the police are more concerned with the numbers involved than the risks of getting too close to the saliva of others.
If I’d been writing this book next year, and setting it this year, it might have been a very different story altogether.
So, what do I do about the third instalment? Do I mentally set the story pre-winter 2019, when Corona was still just a beer, and a virus was something more likely to be contracted by your computer than by your elderly relatives?
After all, I didn’t specify that BONES IN THE RIVER was set in any particularly year. It’s contemporary but not tied to any specific, non-transferrable event—the millennium, for instance.
But, in a few years’ time, the obvious setting of a book pre- or post-Covid-19 will undoubtedly date it. I went through my very first book recently, KILLER INSTINCT and UN-dated it. I didn’t change the story but I did take out references to minor things that I felt dated it badly. References to computer floppy disks, video cassette tapes—even public phone boxes, most of which have either disappeared from our streets or been turned into tiny libraries or stations for community defibrillators.
The next book I have planned is a bit more of an experiment, and therefore could be set at any time in the last few years. I don’t intend to make reference to Covid-19 in that story. It still feels too soon. Too raw.
This will give me time to see what’s going to change in societal behaviours in the slightly longer term before I start the next Charlie Fox book. If Charlie’s greatest threat to someone in the future is that if they don’t stop what they’re doing, she’ll cough on them, it’s going to change things in a big way…
What are your feelings, both as writers and readers about the inclusion of Covid-19 in books written right now, to be read in the next year or eighteen months? Do you want them to reflect these strange times in full and horrible detail, or do you read as more of an escape of what’s going on around you, and therefore not want to be reminded?
And will pre-2020 become seen as the new Golden Age—both of crime and of life?
This week’s Word of the Week is petrichor, meaning the smell of rain on dry earth. It comes from the Greek petra which means stone and ichor, which means the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology. My thanks to EvKa for sending me this among a whole list of wonderful words. A gift to treasure for a logophile like me!
You can read and comment on this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.
Since the coronavirus pandemic really began to bite in the UK in March, like many people I’ve been working from home.
Actually, I’ve worked from home for far longer than I ever held a job where I had to go into an office of any sort. My morning commute usually involves getting from bedroom to bathroom to kitchen to study. With only the occasional traffic hold-up if one of the cats happens to be lying across the stairs.
I’ve long since got used to the fact I can pick my own hours—whether that means working until 3am and then not starting again until until 11am. Although, those are always the mornings—when you’re still in your dressing gown—that a courier knocks on the door with an unexpected delivery for which a signature is required.
Or they used to, at any rate. Now they just lob things over the gate and run away. And who can blame them for that?
For me, isolation has been a normal state of affairs—particularly during the winter. I get used to not seeing another living soul that doesn’t have four legs and a tail. When the long winter nights start to loom, I bump up my Vitamin D intake and drag my daylight lamp out of storage. So, apart from cancelled crime festivals moving panels and events online, life has carried on very much along its normal path for me.
Since the coronavirus lockdown began in the UK on March 23, more and more of the British workforce has ended up not only staying home, but working from home as well. Every day, the talk radio shows are filled with people who are really struggling to cope with this state of affairs. And I can sympathise.
After all, working in a quiet house, with your personal choice of music—or silence—in the background, is one thing. Trying to work somewhere you are subjected to other people’s noise, boredom, and frustration must be something else altogether. Hence the saddening rise in incidents of domestic violence over the past few months.
But, many large companies are realising that it is indeed feasible to have a percentage of its workforce operating remotely. The internet may groan occasionally but the elastic band hasn’t actually snapped altogether (yet). So, it may well be, as Covid-19 looks set to stick around for some time to come, that more and more of us will end up working this way.
So, what are the benefits?
The most obvious one is that lack of commute. Not only do you win back the time spent in your car, aboard a train or bus, or even on your bicycle (although this does also have personal fitness benefits) but you win back the expense associated either with public or personal transport.
And what about the costs associated with buying clothing suitable for the office environment, or nipping out for a snack lunch? Instead, you can have your creature comforts around you, perhaps eat more efficiently or healthily, and maybe even take a few breaks for some yoga exercises or stretching to calm and motivate you.
You may also be able to work in a way that fits in far better with your preferences. If you’re at your best from 5am until lunchtime, can you choose to tackle your daily task list then and clock off early? Do you swelter or freeze because the temperature in your office space is set to someone else’s comfort zone?
And what about when the bugs and illnesses bite? If you’re working remotely, you may find you are less prone to catching whatever normally circulates around an office. And you may also find yourself able to tackle increasing amounts of work between naps on the sofa, before you would realistically be ready to come back to work.
But, it’s not all positive. Working alone all day does not suit some people, as lockdown has clearly demonstrated. They feel isolated and melancholy. Without the stimulation of colleagues to bounce ideas off, or collaborate with, some creative people may wither. I’ve certainly known authors whose writing slowed down enormously when they gave up their day jobs to write full time. When you have all day to do something, it’s no surprise that it often expands to take all day.
Staying focused on the job in hand is hard. It’s all too easy to become distracted by the need to hang the washing out, by the kids arriving home from school, or by friends or neighbours just ‘dropping in’. Attitudes may change, but I’ve tended to find that people assume if you’re at home, it’s not proper work, and can be interrupted at will.
Also, where are you going to work? Using the sofa, or the kitchen table, is not an ergonomically sound position. If you’re seriously going to work from home, you need a proper desk and a chair that will not store up posture problems further down the line. If they’re worth having, these things do not come cheap. They also take up a chunk of space—space that may well not be available in the modern house. Not everyone has the luxury of a spare room that can be dedicated as a home office.
And if you are well motivated, knowing when to stop can also become a problem. If the work is there to do, sometimes it’s a temptation to keep going until it’s done, regardless of how late into the evening that is achieved. Or will bosses start allocating more work than they know can realistically be handled in a day, in the knowledge that their employees will feel duty bound to get it done regardless?
This week’s Word of the Week is longueur, from the French for length, meaning a dull or tedious passage in a journey, piece of music or in a book. Often used in the plural.
I hope you’ll forgive me if this week’s blog is slightly picture heavy. This is due to what could be termed Foreseen Circumstances, but more of that later.
During the current coronavirus UK lockdown, I’ve been spending a little more time out in the garden, and I’ve had particular success this season with my variegated cat crop, so I thought I’d pass on some tips.
To grow your cat from seed, it’s probably best to start it off in a nice warm place. Being originally a Mediterranean variety, they don’t take well to cold. A bathroom radiator is ideal to begin with:
Then they can be moved to a nice sunny window ledge where they’ll bask quite happily while putting on weight:
Once you’re happy that your cat seedlings are established, it’s time to take them out to the greenhouse, although if you don’t have access to outdoors, they can be transplanted into a window box with excellent results:
The rest of this blog can be found over on Murder Is Everywhere.
BONES IN THE RIVER, the second book in the Lakes crime thriller series with CSI Grace McColl and Detective Nick Weston, will be published on May 26 2020. Even without the current UK Lockdown situation due to Covid-19, I enjoy taking the book on the virtual road with a Blog Tour.
So—drum roll, please—here are the dates and stops on the tour of the best and brightest book blogs for BONES IN THE RIVER. As well as getting the opinions of the various bloggers and reviewers, I’ll be writing, about the particular setting of the annual Appleby Horse Fair for this book, about starting this new series, answering questions, and talking about how past jobs have influenced my writing career. I hope you’ll join me.
Day 4: May 29
Trip Fiction with Tina Hartas
Day 5: May 31
Book Lovers Forever with Sara Weiss
NOT Newcastle Noir with Neil Broadfoot, Noelle Holten, Ed James and Zoë Sharp
Over the first weekend in May, I should have been in Newcastle, attending Newcastle Noir, organised by the wonderful Jacky ‘Dr Noir’ Collins. I was lucky enough to attend the very first crime fiction event Jacky organised, back in 2014 at the Literary & Philosophical Society—the Lit & Phil.
The event has grown hugely since those early days and is now a fixture in the crime writing festival calendar (ahem, 2020 excepted, of course). It now finds its home at the Newcastle City Library, a fitting place for readers, authors and books to combine.
Jacky is still planning to hold some virtual panels online but in the meantime, having got together with my intended fellow panellists for the Murder They Wrote item on the programme, I thought it would be fun to do a bit of a Q&A on writing and publishing with them over on Murder Is Everywhere here.
The Noir at the Bar events have become regular fixtures of the crime writers’ and readers’ calendars. It was blogger extraordinaire, Peter Rozovsky, who came up with the idea. You get a group of writers of dark, noir fiction together in their natural habitat—a bar, where else? They read a piece of their work and maybe give away a book to some lucky audience member. A simple, strong format that works a treat.
Except during the current Covid-19 lockdown, when all the bars are closed and people are strongly advised not to gather.
So, like everything else, Noir at the Bar has moved online.
At 7:30pm UK time on Wednesday, April 29, I’ll be taking part in the latest Virtual Noir at the Bar—although I’m sure that should be Noir at the Virtual Bar. The noir, after all, is real, even if we have to imagine the rest and pour our own drinks.
Vic Watson is hosting this latest session, which will be held via the Zoom platform, with Simon Bewick providing the technical know-how. I’m looking forward to it, if slightly apprehensive about the techy side of it. I’m far more at home with the mechanical than the electronic, and it’s that side of things that is giving me qualms, rather than the whole ‘reading in front of an audience’ thing.
I thought I’d read a piece of the next Lakes thriller, BONES IN THE RIVER, due out on May 26. It’s certainly the work that’s most on my mind at the moment, and it has the darker edge that suits the format.
At previous events—the non-virtual ones—I’ve read both from short stories and scenes or chapters from the current book at the time. Gauging the reaction is always useful, and I’m looking forward to seeing how that will work using this medium.
Of course, one of the nicest thing about NatB events is that you don’t have to be a published author to perform your work at one. Usually, there are invited writers but also a number of wildcard places available. I don’t know if that will be possible this time.
In some ways, with the Q&A chatroom running alongside the spotlight speakers, we’ll have more opportunity to interact with each other, and with those who’ve tuned in simply to hear the writers speak rather than to take part themselves.
I can’t wait!
(Of course, I’m still worried that I’m going to crash the entire Internet in the process…)
Click here to join the Virtual Noir at the Bar mailing list.
This week’s Word of the Week is toponymy, the study of place names, from the Greek topos, meaning place, and onoma, meaning name. To be correct, toponymy is an inventory of place names, whereas the scientific study of their meanings and use is toponomastics. A branch of onomastics, the study of names.
Much has been made during the current Covid-19 outbreak about looking for Patient Zero—the first person to contract the disease and pass it on to others.
More than a hundred years ago, Patient Zero for a Typhoid outbreak in New York state was an Irish cook called Mary Mallon. She became infamous in the media as Typhoid Mary—the symptom-free carrier of the Salmonella typhi bacteria that proved so deadly to her unwitting employers. It eventually led to her exile and incarceration for more than a quarter of a century.
Mary Mallon was born in Cookstown, County Tyrone in Ireland in 1869. She was orphaned as a child and raised by her grandmother, who taught her how to cook using just about any ingredients she had to hand.
In 1883, aged just fourteen, Mary emigrated to America. On Manhattan’s Lower East Side, she found work as a washerwoman, but had ambitions to escape a life of drudgery. She managed this by fabricating references that got her work in the homes of the wealthy. Starting as a scullery maid, she rose to become a cook. Her natural talent kept her in work and saw her rise in prominence.
During the early years of the last century, typhoid fever was seen as a disease that afflicted the poorest neighbourhoods. Fatality rates ran at approximately ten percent. Along with diphtheria, influenza and cholera, typhoid was rife in the slums of the Lower East Side, where the cause was sometimes attributed to the pure stench of rotting animal carcases, sewerage and garbage.
In fact, the bacillus responsible for typhoid fever had been discovered in 1880. Doctors and scientists had already assumed a micro-organism was the source, and had also posited that the spread was due to the consumption of food and water contaminated with the fæces or urine of an existing typhoid patient.
In 1906, Mary Mallon was working as a cook for the Warren family, at the home they were renting for the summer on Long Island. By late August, six of eleven members of the household were ill with typhoid fever. Some reports say Mary herself was also ill, although with a very mild dose. At other times, she is reported as saying she had never suffered from typhoid.
The owner of the house engaged a sanitary engineer, Dr George A. Soper, to try to get to the bottom of the outbreak. Soper had previously been hired by the State of New York to investigate such pockets of disease. Initially, bad shellfish was blamed, but not all those afflicted had eaten this. Soper learned that Mary would often serve ice cream and fresh peaches on a Sunday. It was his opinion that, “no better way could be found for a cook to cleanse her hands of microbes and infect a family.”
As Soper traced other outbreaks among seven well-to-do families, from 1900 to 1906, he discovered that Mary Mallon had been the cook in all the infected households. Her habit of fleeing at the first sign of the illness had further helped it to spread. Soper recorded Mary as the first healthy carrier of typhoid in America.
During 1907, there were roughly 3,000 cases of typhoid fever in New York, for which Mary was largely blamed. Soper called in Dr Biggs of the NY Department of Health and Dr Josephine Baker—an advocate of hygiene and public health—to try to persuade Mary to submit to testing. Her first reaction, when approached, was to chase Soper out of her kitchen with a carving fork. She subsequently evaded capture for five hours.
Eventually, Mary was taken by police and Dr Baker to the Willard Parker Hospital, where her status as a carrier for the bacteria that causes typhoid was confirmed. Then, without any hearing or trial, she was quarantined in a cottage in the grounds of Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island, just off the Bronx.
Mary still had no symptoms of the disease and, it appeared, did not believe she could be a responsible for spreading it. She deeply resented an article in the New York American in 1909, in which the nickname ‘Typhoid Mary’ was coined. “Dr Park has had me illustrated in Chicago. I wonder how the said Dr William H. Park would like to be insulted and put in the Journal and call him or his wife Typhoid William Park.”
The Supreme Court declined to release Mary in 1909, claiming the state’s responsibility in a health crisis. Her lawyer argued that she had been imprisoned without due process. The wording of the Greater New York Charter allowed the board of health to ‘remove or cause to be removed to a proper place…any person sick with any contagious, pestilential, or infectious disease…’ As Mary was not, in fact, showing any signs of sickness, then, legally, the charter did not apply to her.
In February 1910, a new Health Commissioner was appointed. He agreed to release Mary, provided she sign documents that she ‘is prepared to change her occupation (that of cook), and will give assurance by affidavit that she will upon her release take such hygienic precautions as will protect those with whom she comes in contact from infection.’
Unfortunately, no financial compensation was made available to Mary to allow for her years of confinement, nor to make up for the drop in wages from head cook back to the kind of menial laundry work she did as a newly arrived teenage immigrant.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that by 1914 she was working once again as a cook, this time for the Sloane Maternity Hospital in Manhattan, under the assumed name of Mrs Brown. The following year, they suffered an outbreak of typhoid fever. Two people died.
Although public opinion had been on Mary’s side during her first period of incarceration, the fact she had knowingly gone back to serving food—to pregnant women this time—despite signing a legal document saying she would not do so, was the final straw. She was sent back to her cottage on North Brother Island. There she remained until her death in 1938, following a stroke. There is some controversy over whether a post-mortem examination was carried out or not, but it was claimed that evidence was found of live Salmonella typhi bacteria in her gallbladder, even at age 69.
And her lasting legacy? That sign you see in public restrooms everywhere saying: ‘Employees must wash their hands before returning to work.’
This week’s Word of the Week is ignotism, meaning a mistake made out of ignorance.
See the illustrated version of this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.
The mind has a habit of contrariness. Tell yourself you must do something, and it produces reluctance. Tell yourself you cannot do something, and it produces craving.
So it seems to be at the moment. We are in lockdown. The dictionary definition of the word is ‘a security measure taken during an emergency to prevent people from leaving or entering a building’, which would seem to describe current circumstances. But it also means ‘the confining of prisoners to their cells, as following a riot or other disturbance’.
Lockdown particularly means to be held in solitary confinement. It is perilously close to locked up, which means to be imprisoned, punished, or even mentally disordered. Lockdown means isolation, and it tends to be thought of as isolation of an involuntary kind.
The language of isolation is generally judgemental and derogatory. It describes a form of captivity that is more for the benefit of the rest of society than for the individual involved. They are ostracised, blacklisted, boycotted, avoided, expelled. Described as an outcast, a pariah, leper, exile, nonperson, reject. They have been sent to Coventry. They are by the world forgot.
But that’s nothing to the phrases used to describe someone who isolates by choice. Self-isolators, except in unusual circumstances, are judged to be antisocial, inhospitable, unfriendly, discourteous, standoffish, aloof, unapproachable, lonely.
Being alone is a very different thing to being lonely, but it is certainly a state of affairs that some people cope with and others prefer.
Why not, instead, be enjoying a period of seclusion, taking time out, in one’s den, study, or sanctuary? An anchorage is a safe harbour, but according to Shakespeare it also means rest or support to the mind. Whereas an anchorite or anchoret chooses to withdraw from the world for religious reasons. An eremite, a recluse, a hermit. You could use collocation to turn one of those negative words back on itself. Isolation doesn’t sound anywhere near as undesirable when you put splendid in front of it.
An island could be associated with being marooned, shipwrecked or castaway. But a private island is something to be prized, as is an island paradise. A hide-out is somewhere outlaws fall back to when being chased by the local sheriff. A hideaway, on the other hand, has romantic connotations.
People with busy lives pay fortunes to be off the beaten track for a while, to be far from the madding crowd, to cultivate one’s garden, or go on retreat.
Language and how we use it has endless effect on the way we feel, about ourselves and others. If someone asks you how you are, it’s a British bad habit to say, “Oh, not bad.” Or even worse: “Not too bad.” Negative phrases which seem to cover every eventuality from having just won the lottery to being in constant pain. “Not bad,” after all, is rather a long way from “Good.”
We live in uncertain and terrifying times. I do not try to make light of that. But our use of language, our choice of words, will affect how we get through this. Isn’t it time we learned to be a little more gentle with ourselves?
A couple of weeks ago, on a Monday morning, I was supposed to fly to Venice for a four-day break. It’s a city I’ve always wanted to visit but never managed to see. I was hoping that the timing—late February—would mean the weather would not be too warm for some serious walking around, the infamous odours would not be too, well, malodorous, and the crowds would be bearable.
I was due to arrive the day before the end of the annual Carnevale di Venezia, so a chance to see the masked costumes for which the festival is famous before everyone dispersed. Ideal.
The fates were not with me on this.
Over the weekend before I was booked to fly, the news was suddenly full of the first coronavirus outbreak in northern Italy—in Lombardo, which quickly spread to neighbouring Veneto province. The final two days of the Carnival were cancelled.
Cancelling the trip would not result in a refund. By that time, it was the morning of the flight out and the Foreign Office guidelines were that it was OK to travel if you took sensible precautions. The greatest number of fatalities seemed to be among the elderly and those with underlying health problems.
Plus, come on—it’s Venice!
My travelling companion was in her seventies (although is undoubtedly fitter than I am) and she also has asthma.
Even if I did not contract anything—and I was bearing in mind the dangers of passing through several international airports as much as the country of destination—what about the possibility of quarantine? Every news report brought a steady increase in numbers of those infected. I had no desire to have our trip forcibly extended by two weeks, as happened to holidaymakers in a hotel in Tenerife, or those aboard several cruise ships.
Not only that but three friends living locally, whom I see on a regular basis, have undergone recent cancer treatments that have left them with compromised immune systems. Another friend is prone to serious respiratory illnesses.
Becoming ill myself would be one thing.
But being responsible for passing it on to someone else? For that I would find it hard to forgive myself.
So, the flight came and went and I was not on it. Instead, I have been visiting Venice vicariously by indulging in movies partially set there. The end of Casino Royale, for instance—particularly the scene where James Bond and Vesper Lynd arrive, on a rather beautiful yacht.
Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade had some scenes set there, and during a more stylish era to boot.
And finally, The Tourist mostly takes place in Venice, which provides eye candy not only in the city itself but also in the forms of Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. So, plenty for all tastes.
But that’s not all.
Because, staying put has meant more travelling for me rather than less. I’ve walked into isolated farmhouses on the side of Cumbrian fells in the Eden Valley. I’ve watched Gypsy horses being washed in the River Eden at Appleby-in-Westmorland. I’ve leaned over the shoulders of two detectives as they interrogated a suspect in the death of a child. I piggybacked onto a drone flight over a waterfall, searching for trace. And I was there when someone who should know better tried to plant evidence to incriminate another.
Yup, I’ve been caught up in the latest work-in-progress, which will be out in May. It has been slightly delayed due to STILL only having one arm working properly.
Because, let’s face it, the greatest journeys anyone can make are inside their own head. And no matter what the travel restrictions, now or in the days to come, the travel agent of a good book is always open for business and you can usually get a first class seat.
This week’s Word of the Week is Scrivener’s palsy, which is the old-fashioned name for writer’s cramp. It is also called mogigraphia, and is a disorder caused by certain muscles in the hand and forearm going into spasm, or being attacked by cramp, when the sufferer is writing or playing an instrument.
Read the illustrated version of this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.
On May 3rd 2019, the police were called to a home in Calne, Wiltshire. There they found Ellie Gould, a 17-year-old student, dead from multiple stab wounds. The knife used was still in her neck and her hand had been placed on the handle of the knife.
The police quickly arrested her ex-boyfriend, now revealed as Thomas Griffiths, then also 17 years old. In November, he was convicted at Bristol Crown Court of her murder and sentenced to serve a minimum of twelve and a half years.
The evidence apparently showed a ‘frenzied attack’ which included an attempt at strangulation and thirteen stab wounds. Ellie fought back, scratching Griffiths’ neck, but was overpowered. She was found dead by her father in the kitchen of the family home.
The pair attended the same secondary school and had known each other for around five years. They had been dating for three months, until Ellie broke up with Griffiths to concentrate on her exams. She had told friends that he had “not taken it well.”
On the morning of the murder, he walked out of school, drove to Ellie’s home and first strangled her, then stabbed her. He then tried to make it look as if the wounds were self-inflicted, and passed off the defence wounds Ellie had inflicted on himself as ‘self-harm’. He had also sent a series of fake messages to her phone and to friends, playing dumb about what had happened to her.
Until that point, Griffiths had been welcomed into the Gould home by Ellie’s parents. He had celebrated her birthday with them and had frequently eaten meals with the family. They had no inkling that he was capable of such an act.
The reason I’m writing about this story now is that last week school friends of Ellie’s appeared on national radio and TV as part of their campaign for self-defence to be taught in schools. They are convinced that her life might have been saved if she’d known some basic skills to defend herself.
I confess that whenever I hear of such a senseless crime as this, I wonder much the same thing. When I first started writing the Charlie Fox series of novels, Charlie is teaching self-defence classes, having herself been the victim of violent crime. As she tells one of her pupils in KILLER INSTINCT: “It takes remarkably little time to be strangled. You can’t afford to waste it.”
The throat is a highly vulnerable area. Relatively unprotected, usually not covered with heavy clothing, it’s more or less just a narrow tube that houses blood vessels to the brain as well as the main airway. Running down either side of the trachea are the vagus nerves. I go into a little bit of detail about these in HARD KNOCKS: ‘They control just about everything of importance in the body, from the heart and lungs to the abdominal organs. Hit the vagus nerves hard enough and your victim ceases to breathe, his heartbeat stutters, his nervous system crashes. And then he dies.’
In one-third of homicides by strangulation, the hyoid bone is fractured. This is a U-shaped bone in the front of the neck, to which the tongue is anchored. It sits between the lower jaw and the largest cartilage of the voice box, or larynx. Damage to the hyoid is often accompanied by damage to the cervical spine, larynx, pharynx (the area of the throat behind the mouth and nasal cavity) and possibly the lower jaw itself.
Given a choice—or possibly that should be if given no choice at all—I would always choose the throat as my first self-defence target. Doesn’t matter how big you are, or how covered in muscles, the throat is always vulnerable to a well-directed blow.
But if someone grabs you around the neck, there are a lot of ways to avoid being strangled. It fills me with both anger and sadness when I hear of tragedies such as Ellie Gould’s murder. A good self-defence instructor could have shown her a variety of techniques not only to escape such a hold but to put her attacker on the floor while she was at it.
A knife is a different matter. Go up against someone with a knife and you’re going to get cut, like it or not. It takes a different attitude—one you need to have decided upon in advance. But it can be done.
So, if those school friends of Ellie’s decide to set up a petition to have self-defence made part of the curriculum, I’d sign it. Would you?
This week’s Word of the Week is supervene, which means to follow something closely, either as a consequence or in contrast, while intervene means to come between persons or things.
May 1-3, Newcastle City Library, Newcastle upon Tyne.
June 4-7, Mercure Bristol Grand Hotel, Bristol.
This blog also appears over on Murder Is Everywhere