Hazel McHaffie

Unnatural Causes

Richard Shepherd was just 9 years old when his mother died. He was in his early teens when a friend – the son of a GP – smuggled one of his father’s medical textbooks into school to spook his pals. The book was Simpson’s Forensic Medicine – and the young Richard was mesmerised.

‘Even the most amateur psychologist must deduce that my need to explore death’s presentation was the reason for my extraordinary interest in that copy of Simpson’s Forensic Medicine. More than an interest, it was a fascination. It went further than prurience and much further than the other boys’ eagerness to be horrified.’

Richard fell in love with the way this great pathologist ‘rushed to crime scenes, often in those days by steam train, and then used his medical skills to help detectives reconstruct homicides, solve the unsolvable, exonerate the innocent, argue the case in court and bring to justice the perpetrator.’

But it wasn’t until 16 years after he first entered medical school that he finally became a forensic pathologist himself. The stardust that magical book had sprinkled in his eyes as a teenager lingered, fuelling excitement when calls to examine bodies came. He loved the mixture of medical knowledge and detective work. He was firmly wedded to absolute integrity.

‘I was determined to adhere to the truth, with its beautiful simplicity, and not allow emotion, with all its treachery, to muddy that simplicity.’

But gradually experience changed his naive trust and confidence in his own principles and knowledge.

‘I became a forensic pathologist to be a seeker of truth. That meant I must stand up for the truth whatever the pressure I was placed under to massage it. I see now that this is the sort of noble thought a keen young man of limited experience might have. I had not worked on enough cases to know how malleable a concept truth is for some people, nor how open to interpretation, instinct and inclination are all truths, even those that appear to be scientific fact … I was still deluding myself that it was always possible to find a moral pathway that everyone would recognize as clear and correct.’

And the emotional payload death carried for the living, took a heavy toll. He forced himself to detach from it. One of the most harrowing times was being confronted by 137 young people from many different countries aboard a party vessel, the Marchioness, mowed down by a dredger on the Thames. 51 died. Systematically and doggedly identifying and doing autopsies on so many young healthy people had repercussions – both short and longer term.

‘It was an extremely intense week. To see so many young people here was not just unusual, it was shocking. I was aware, as though in my peripheral vision, of the intense misery of parents, fearing the worst, waiting for news.’

One such repercussion related to identification. Being in the water meant the fingers were not amenable to the usual fingerprint checks. Dr Shepherd was obliged to cut off hands and send them elsewhere for specialised testing. Some were stitched back on, but not all. And this became one of many times when the consequences of exposing the truth was seen in the fall out the pathologist was subject to. Caught in the crossfire between both warring barristers and rival pathologists, he had to account for what he did as well as what he omitted to do. Some of his cases were very high profile indeed – the Hungerford massacre, the Rachel Nickell and Stephen Lawrence murders, Harold Shipman’s victims, Joy Gardner death, the 7 July Islamic attacks in London – dragging his name into the public eye. At times he felt helpless in the face of miscarriages of justice, courtroom humiliations, and it was inevitably hard to maintain a dispassionate stance and defend the truth as he saw it.

‘When I chose this career, I thought that I would be conveying the truth about the dead to the living – who would be grateful to hear it. But, as we approached the new century, I instead was starting to feel like the faithful dog that proudly lays a stick at the feet of his master only to receive a hearty kick for his efforts.

In places the level of detail is quite lurid and not for the squeamish, but the book is beautifully written and humbly insightful. I learned some fascinating facts about interpretation of detail at the scene of crimes or in the mortuary, gleaned from forty years experience and over 23,000 autopsies. And the whole story is a salutary reminder of how much we owe to the dedication and commitment of the emergency services and out of hours work of the whole team. Gruelling hours, unwholesome tasks, unjustified criticism, and precious little thanks. I salute this honest, clever, dedicated man.

Reading the end from his own perspective, the hideous injustice of his whole career being besmirched by accusations of misconduct with respect to a dead baby’s injuries, first to the Home Office and GMC, and thence to the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service, seems monstrously unfair. Small wonder that he was immobilized by dread, haunted by the clawing stench of decay, a hell-hole of body parts and distorted corpses, tormented by self-doubt. He seriously contemplated suicide. He was paying a heavy price for compassion and caring. It took time and compromise and many hours of flying a plane to restore a measure of equilibrium.

It’s a seeringly honest, sobering account, and I was left in awe of the writer who never gave up on searching for the real truth in spite of the personal and professional cost, determined to give understanding and a degree of closure to devastated families. Its strapline reads: The Life and Many Deaths of Britain’s Top Forensic Pathologist. A perfect summary. Justifiably a bestseller.

 

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Mother … ? Father … ? In-between?

Cue: Big sigh. I have a need to vent; excuse me if I do so on my blog this week.

Sometimes I feel a sense of despair when yet another claim is made for equality; it feels as if individuals and groups want it all. The activists’ mantra seems to be, ‘If you can have/do/be X, Y or Z, I must be able to too.’ And when it comes to gender issues, the boundaries are now so fluid that the demarcations are becoming well nigh impossible to pin down. On the matter of transgender rights, we’ve already had controversy over access to public toilets and changing rooms, housing in prison and on hospital wards, school uniforms, sport, Girl Guides … and we’ve all seen how, as societal expectation and scientific capability allow for increasing flexibility, rights and interests become mired in doubt and challenge.

Boiled down to the perspective of a single person, my sympathy does go out to anyone so unhappy with their biological identity that they will risk public opprobrium and undergo hugely disturbing physical and psychological procedures to ‘right nature’s wrong’. I’ve met a number of transgender women and I’ve absolutely no reason to suspect their motives for wishing to accompany me into the toilets bearing the figure of a person in a skirt in Debenhams/John Lewis/the railway station.

But when it comes to gender issues impinging on families, my allegiance swings to the innocent children caught in the crossfire. As a rule of thumb, instinct tells me that their rights should trump those of the warring adults, so I confess, I breathed a sigh of relief on Thursday when a High Court ruling decreed that in the case of a transgender father the baby’s rights should prevail.

For those who missed the story …
The transgender man in question, Freddy McConnell (a journalist with The Guardian by trade), was born female, but suffered from gender dysphoria, so elected to transition to become a man. However, he decided to retain his uterus so he could still give birth like a woman. Hmmmmmmm. A classic case of wanting cake and eating it, methinks. And yes, he went ahead and duly had a baby. But ahah! Was he now mum or was he dad? Well, apparently, the biological exclusively-female necessities having been taken care of, he wanted to be a man; he wanted to register as the father on his child’s birth certificate. Perhaps unsurprisingly the authorities objected; after all it is unprecedented. So he took them to court – as you do – for refusing to let him exercise his rights to be identified as male. The lawyers for The General Register Office, however, argued that, since he gave birth to the child (a boy), he must be registered as the mother; the child had a right to know the identity of the person who carried him. Back comes Freddy McConnell like a plucky wee terrier with an appeal higher up the legal ladder.

Result? In the High Court on Thursday, the President of the Family Division, sided with the earlier ruling, basing his decision on the common law definition of a mother. He too, said the child had the right to know the true identity of the person who had borne him, and that person was his mother. But he also pointed out that, there is a far-reaching issue underpinning this case. Now that it’s perfectly possible – medically and legally – for a person legally defined as a man to give birth, there is a pressing need for Parliament to address this whole question. Well, at least it would be a change from the current shenanigans relating to the B word, wouldn’t it?!

Now, I’m no legal eagle, but isn’t it also relevant that the birth certificate belongs to the child, not to the parent? It’s a legal document that sets out who a person is; it must record the truth. And in addition, to me it feels wrong for a baby to be an unwitting pawn in a political campaign, to be singled out for future problems, to be branded as ‘different’ from birth, before he has any chance to formulate his own views on the subject.

One possible solution springs instantly to mind … could there maybe be a special certificate for such cases, merely asking for the name of the ‘Parent’? I’d need to think more about the ramifications of such a move before promoting it outside the confines of my personal blog … and before all the heterosexual non-transgender equal-rights activists jump on that bandwagon and want ‘Parent ‘on their certificates too! Because of course, singling anyone out for special attention and different treatment immediately raises issues and hackles elsewhere.

But, hey, if a couple (Hobbit Humphrey and Jake England-Johns, to be precise, who are both circus performers living on a houseboat near Bath) can legally bring up a child as gender neutral, keeping the infant’s sex a secret even from family, to avoid the unconscious bias around the girl/boy divide until Anoush is old enough to choose how ‘they’ (parental choice of pronoun for their offspring) will be defined, then perhaps anything’s possible!

I was myself brought up with a strict moral code that encourages putting others’ comfort, welfare and interests ahead of my own. And I’m old enough now to feel a degree of nostalgia for a society that was centred on that philosophy rather than ‘I want and I will have!’. I’m with the Dowager Duchess on this one: Has the world gone completely mad?

, , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Stephen King, master thriller-writer

Yep, I’m sure regular followers of this blog will have been wondering, when will she ever get to the king of thrillers!  ‘America’s greatest living novelist‘! ‘When it comes to grabbing an audience by the throat and giving them no choice but to keep reading, King has no equal.

Well, I can confess, in the safety of my own blog pages, that my first experience of Stephen King proved decidedly underwhelming.  Under the Dome simply wasn’t for me. Too far fetched. Too long-winded. A ‘so-what’ kind of book. So I deliberately gave myself time to distance from that before returning to give him a second chance.

Mr Mercedes is a very different kind of tale, billed as an ‘expertly crafted example of the classic race-against-the-clock thriller’. And I’m wanting the very best examples to hone my own skills. So, bring it on. A masterclass would be very helpful.

It starts off with a massacre. A twelve-cylinder Mercedes is driven through thick fog into a concentrated crowd of desperate people all queuing at a job fair. The driver is still at large. But shortly after his retirement, Kermit William Hodges, lead detective on the case, receives a letter from the man responsible, taunting him. And we have the kernel of the story, the cat and mouse chase, each goading the other, a race to prevent another mass killing.

And yes,now I could quite understand what makes Stephen King a giant among thriller writers. It’s the whole package really, but it might be helpful if I single out a few features.

The first stroke of genius is in the first chapter. King introduces three of the victims of the Mercedes massacre in the last few hours of their lives. In a few pages he makes us care about the young cash-strapped mum Janice Cray, and her croupy baby Patti, and the kindly stranger called August who lends them his sleeping bag while they wait for the job fair to open. It puts a human face on the tragedy. We’re shocked when these three lives are obliterated by the grey Mercedes careering into them. We want justice for them.

Then there are his main characters. With simple but deft strokes he fleshes them out, unlikely heroes and psychopathic killer alike, little by little letting us see into their past, follow their present, dread their future. No overload, no long-winded description, but four dimensional.

He’s also a past master at dropping in a sinister or significant fact without padding or fanfare, so the picture builds subtly and contributes exponentially to the spine-tingling tension. He doesn’t even hide the identity of Mr Mercedes from us. In Chapter 11, Brady Hartsfield is exposed in his natural habitat, selling ice-cream to innocent kids, solving computer glitches for naive technophobes.

And amidst all the sordid facts and coarse language and accumulating horror, King even drops occasional pearls of literary delight.

She has the bright, inquisitive gaze of a crow with its eye on a freshly squashed chipmunk.

… an apartment … with rooms as big as a political candidate’s promises

She frowns, transforming her face into a walnut shell with eyes

They’re wondering if I’m riding into the Kingdom of Dementia on the Alzheimer’s Express

… she sits hunched in her bar of sun, a human parenthesis in a fuzzy blue robe

And I love the delicious irony of Retired Detective Hodges considering the possibility that Mr Mercedes is actually a woman. ‘He supposes it’s technically possible, and it would make a neat solution for an Agatha Christie novel, but this is real life.’

Unputdownable indeed. I could never aspire to his heights but I can learn from his skills.

, , , ,

Comments

Psychological control

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time on train stations of late, and browsing in the book sections on platforms while I wait … and wait … and wait. This week I was struck by the proportion of books in the top 60 which deal with psychology and crime – not just through fiction (there were several of those), but factual books.
Confessions of a Psychopath by ME Thomas
Stalkers by Rachel Cassidy
Talking with Psychopaths and Savages by Christopher Berry-Dee
Talking with Serial Killers by Christopher Berry-Dee
Unnatural Causes by Dr Richard Shepherd

Hmmm. Is this the current trend, d’you suppose/know?

Weirdly enough, I had a book for the journey on Thursday that takes psychological thriller writing to a whole new level. “A wonderful portrayal of psychological obsession at its creepy best’ as one reviewer puts it. The Girl Before by JP Delaney. Creepy serendipity? or just my mind atuned to the subject?

The setting for The Girl Before is an ultra-minimalist house in South Hendon in London: One Folgate Street. Austere, sterile, disciplined. Serene, calm, beautiful emptiness. A mausoleum of a place. Its award-winning architect and owner, Edward Monkford, insists on a huge number of rules – over 200! – for anyone leasing the property: no flatpack furniture, no cushions or rugs, nothing to be left on the floor at any time, no animals, no handrails, no books! …These rules constitute a restrictive covenant, a legal condition imposed on the property in perpetuity. Potential inhabitants must sign documents, fill in questionnaires, submit to being interviewed, before being selected to move in, and undergo repeated ongoing psychometric measurements grappling with intense ethical dilemmas – we get glimpses of the penetrating questions they’re asked throughout the book. Once in, they must undertake to keep the property completely uncluttered and regimented in line with Edward’s exacting standards. And every tenant so far has been a beautiful red-headed girl with determination and intelligence – facsimiles of Edward’s dead wife. Every one a vulnerable woman who has know grief and loss.

I’m always somewhat fascinated by the concept of the unreliable narrator, but it’s a tricky tactic to adopt in reality. This story follows two of the tenants – Emma and Jane – as they attempt to live up to the expectations of One Folgate Street, as they unravel the tragedies and stories relating to their predecessors. Because, for all its outward perfection, the house’s history is dark and sinister. Three people have died tragically – Edward’s wife and son amongst them. And Edward’s obsessive tendencies spill over into his control of the women sexually as well as mentally. He is looking for a pure relationship, unencumbered by convention, with a sense of simplicity and freedom on both sides. When it’s no longer perfect, each must be ready to move on, without regret.

Well written, cleverly plotted, interesting structure, well researched – and a runaway success. It took the author a decade or so to work out how to write the book, but she has captured something very special. It was well worth the wait.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in obsessive perfectionism, but it rings true. As does Delaney’s description of grief and loss, and the emotions around having a disabled child. Not surprising maybe as the author has herself lost a son, and has another one with a rare medical syndrome.

And the poignancy of this book is enhanced further for me by a report out the very day I finished it, about a five year high in the statistics for deaths relating to domestic violence in the UK. There is something particularly sinister about pathological behaviour behind closed doors. And Delaney has captured the essence of it in The Girl Before.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Missing …

I do love discovering a new author and devouring their books. It’s a bit like getting to know a new friend. One such recent discovery was Samantha Hayes. You might – or much more likely, might well not! – remember I posted a review of a psychological thriller by her at the beginning of August. It rang lots of bells with me, which sent me off in search of more of her books. I bought four – enough to give me a feel for the kind of writer she is, I thought.

Until You’re Mine which came out in 2013, was her first published thriller, so it was appropriate that this was the first one I read. Had her style changed over the years? Is she a predictable author? Would I find her later novels as exciting? I’m very aware that there are downsides to immersing oneself in the writings of a single author – even the best can pall somewhat with over-exposure.

Well, Hayes specialises in scary, skin-crawling tension, that’s for sure … and missing persons … and last minute unpredictable twists. I’ll give you a brief summary of each novel in chronological order of publication.

You Belong to Me (2015)
Three women have been terrified by stalkers. Two of them – Alexandra Stanford and Melanie Carter – are now dead. Both had red hair, both had infinity tattoos surgically removed from their bodies. The third one, Isabel Moore, also red haired with the same tattoo on her neck, vanished without trace.

DI Lorraine Fisher is haunted by the memory of Alexandra’s dead body. She feels responsible; Alex had reported her terror but there had been insufficient evidence for the police to do anything about her stalker, Jimmy Hardwick. Melanie’s case was different, but some time after her death, Lorraine is told about a man having hassled her too. Could this be the same stalker? Is there a serial killer on her patch?

Isabel Moore, the third woman, has hidden herself away in India, but she comes out of hiding when she receives word that both of her parents are dead; killed in a car crash. And to her horror, she learns that the driver of the car was Felix Darwin, the same controlling man who had made her life a living hell.

Three first person voices tell the story, all with serious issues. One of those voices is that of the seriously disturbed man who terrorises women. It’s scary stuff and certainly gets inside the experience of abusive control. I didn’t guess the final twist but I did find some of the action rather stretched my credulity.

In Too Deep (2016)
Gina Forrester is struggling – first her son Jacob dies; then her husband Rick disappears. Now someone is taunting her. Is she going mad? Who was watching her from inside that house in Evalina Street? Who really booked a week’s holiday in a luxury hotel for her? And what exactly is her daughter Hannah hiding from her? Everywhere she goes Gina sees ‘bits of Rick, as if he’s been blown into a million pieces‘, and she’s determined to gather them all up, piece him back together again.

Some of the clues are rather too clunky/unsubtle for my liking and I did guess the main twists well before they were revealed, but the question of how it would all resolve itself remained, and that tension kept me reading. Nothing, however, prepared me for the last few lines. (It was the final page of Until you’re Mine that blew me away too.)

The Reunion (2018)
It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. The Reunion conjures up the cold horror felt by a family when a thirteen year old girl, Lenni, vanishes. It’s 21 years ago now … and the family are in trouble once again. Her father is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease; family rifts are unresolved; someone is sending creepy messages saying the caller knows where Lenni is. It’s time to sell the property which gave such joy and security to the children and their friends. Lenni’s sister Claire decides they’ll have one last hurrah at the house and arranges a reunion of everyone from those halcyon days – which means all those who were present when Lenni actually went missing. But the week intended for reminiscence therapy for her father and healing for them all, turns into a nightmare. Another teenager goes missing. Crimes are committed. Trust is shaken.

This one ticks lots of boxes. It covers my kind of territory: eating disorders, dementia, family dynamics and secrets. Again the ending was a surprise, but for me, the writing isn’t as good as the first one of Hayes’ books I read, and that took the edge off my enjoyment.

So, overall, Samantha Hayes gets a big tick from me for her devious plotting, and for her breathless ‘well-I-didn’t-see-that-coming’ endings. And I’ve learned something more about how to tingle spines in a domestic psychological thriller. But comparisons show me that the component that grabs my interest most is the topic under review and its ethical dimensions. Part of my mind is sorting, seething, delving beneath the surface, wondering What would I do?

 

 

 

, , , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Assisted dying … again!

In spite of everything that’s happening in Parliament this week – unprecedented machinations relating to Brexit: rebellions … the prime minister publicly losing his slim majority … the house voting not to go along with his plans … grandees being slung out of the political party they’ve survived for decades … breathless historically significant happenings – in spite of all that, assisted dying has hit the headlines once again.

It must be a surreal feeling, mustn’t it, counting down the days till you die? Rather like life on Death Row.

Sixty-five-year-old Richard Selley is doing just that. Born and bred in the Westcountry (my homeland), he taught Economics at Loretto School in Musselburgh (a few miles from where I live), and now lives in Perthshire. Tomorrow he will die far away in Switzerland.

Four years ago he was diagnosed with MND, and since then he’s been campaigning for a change in the law to allow people in the terminal stages of illness to end their lives peacefully and with dignity. In spite of his struggles with movement and speech, he has managed to write a book, Death sits on my Shoulder, and maintain a blog, Moments with MND.

In a letter to MSPs he makes this heartfelt plea:
‘If the choice of an assisted death was available to me here in Scotland so many of my worries would have been eased and my remaining time would have been spent in better ways than burdensome and complex admin. Instead, that precious time would be spent with my wife, my family and my friends. The current laws (and lack of laws) around assisted dying in Scotland are cruel, outdated and discriminatory.’

And indeed, Mr Selley hugely regrets the necessity to go to Switzerland for this service as he explains here.

Most of this effort has been below the radar, but now, at the eleventh hour, his case has been reported on the national news; during that precious time when he is spending his final week quietly at home with his wife and family and friends, doing ordinary things – like watching box sets, sharing memories. All for the last time. Knowing. Knowing, that tomorrow – Friday 6 September 2019 – he will take that lethal dose of medication, say his final goodbyes. Tomorrow.

He is quick to express appreciation for the ‘outstanding care’ he’s received from the NHS, but he now faces the end phase of this cruel illness, and has decided that enough is enough: ‘As I enter the final stages of this journey, and the prospect of total paralysis, I have decided that I would prefer to leave this world before too much longer. To use the terminology of Brexit, I have had my own little referendum, and decided that I wish to leave rather than remain. I don’t wish to crash out in an undignified manner, so I am hoping to negotiate a withdrawal agreement that will not require a long transition period.’

On top of the mental anguish – which he relates on his blog – it will cost him about £10,000, and he’s very aware that not everyone could afford such a step. He also has to be fit enough to fly, which means taking action earlier than he might if he were able to stay in this country. He can no longer swallow, so he’s practising the movements required to administer the poison via his feeding tube. And on top of all that he’s adamant he must make all the arrangements himself to protect his wife Elaine from prosecution. A tough call indeed.

As he says himself, ‘I think if those who oppose assisted dying could spend just one day in my shoes they would change their view.’ In reality, opponents of legalising assisted dying express enormous sympathy for Richard Selley and others in similar situations, but they say they have to consider wider societal harms, and the potential for abuse and exploitation. Elderly and dependent people could so easily feel under pressure to end their lives rather than being a burden on their families or society. The right to die could soon segue into a duty to die.

In spite of huge advances in palliative care, it’s estimated that eleven terminally ill people die a painful death every week in Scotland. It’s a significant problem. Of course, proposals for a change in the law have already come before Holyrood twice; on both occasions failing to get parliamentary backing, in spite of the powerful voice and image of Margo MacDonald MSP who had Parkinson’s Disease herself and died in 2014. To be fair, public as well as professional opinion has changed following a series of campaigns and high profile cases, but are we ready for the law to catch up? Can such a delicately nuanced matter even be captured in legal terms?

We should all be indebted to people like Richard Selley who use precious resources – energy and time – to bring these ethical dilemmas so vividly and urgently to our attention. I do hope he has the peaceful death he has worked so tirelessly for.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Death row drama

Fast-paced … action packed … unputdownable … chilling … compelling … well crafted … the reviews give Last Witness by Jillianne Hoffman plenty of hype.

Plus, the author has impeccable credentials for writing a book about criminal trials and police investigations. She was herself an Assistant State Attorney between 1991 and 1996, and a Legal Advisor for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement until 2001, so she knows what she’s talking about. I set out with high hopes. But as I read, a little voice niggled. Is she perhaps rather too anxious to ensure the reader knows how everything works, what everything means. I was personally criticised for letting my academic background show through the mesh early on in my metamorphosis into novelist, so it’s something I’m specially attuned to.

Having said that, the book is centred on a fascinating premise: just how far should a person go to ensure justice is done? Is it ever justifiable to lie in the interests of the greater good, to protect innocent people? My kind of ethical challenges, huh? And Hoffman creates enough bad apples to make one suspicious of everyone in this story! She also challenges the reader to ask, What would I have done in these circumstances?  Could I live with a guilty conscience? OK, I’m listening.

A summary of the story:
Three years ago a serial rapist, William Bantling, was sent to death row by Florida’s Assistant State Attorney, CJ Townsend, for the torture and murder of eleven young woman.
Now three policemen closely involved in Bantling’s conviction have been brutally murdered in ritualistic killings conveying a powerful message. No gruesome details are spared in the telling! CJ knew all three victims. She also knows the shocking secret they took to their graves. Now she is the last witness to what they all conspired in.
Someone out there knows the truth and will stop at nothing to prevent it being revealed. Will she be the next to die? Who exactly is this second monster and what motive could he possibly have for such barbarity?
As new facts emerge, serious doubts are being raised about the safety of Bantling’s conviction, enough to demand he be brought from death row to the very court that convicted him, to face again the young woman who sent him to his death. A woman he once raped, terrorised and left for dead. He’s a man with scores to settle and allies in dark places. She’s a woman haunted day and night by the past and the future.

It’s a dark barbaric tale scraping the barrel of human depravity and psychological manipulation. Maybe it was because I read it during a ten-hour train journey, but I found it rather weighed down with technical detail which slowed the momentum of the story for someone not familiar with the American judiciary system.

In places too, I found the style of writing rather repetitive, and hampered by the density of the material. For me it needed space to breathe. But I loved the description of criminal defense attorney, Lester Franklin Barquet who ‘was old school himself, dressed to the nines in southern manners and a three-piece suit.’

It’s a thriller and part of my ongoing education in how to achieve suspense and tension, but this one doesn’t make it into my exemplar section.

 

 

 

, , , , , ,

Comments

Structuring a book

As a writer myself I’m always interested in the structure of books, especially when they’re a bit whacky, so I was intrigued by one I came across recently by someone who initially went down the self-publishing route and made a go of it. As he says himself in the acknowledgements: ‘Thanks to Apple for making reliable work tools and to Amazon for turning the writing of novels back into something one can actually earn a living from’.
(NB.
He has since been taken on by traditional publishers.)

Things We Never Said is Nick Alexander‘s fourteenth work of fiction, and he has adopted an intriguing style for this one. Catherine Patrick has just died from cancer. After her death, best friend Maggie gives the grieving husband Sean a box. It contains 29 envelopes and 29 photos to be opened one a week for 29 weeks.

The envelopes contain tiny cassettes on which Catherine has dictated a message for Sean about their lives together. She warns him it will contain some information that’ll be hard to hear, and indeed he is challenged, angered, saddened and moved by what she confides, as she fills out gaps in his understanding, things they never said.

The book is constructed around these photos and taped messages.
– Waiting for each Sunday to listen to the next installment, gives the author opportunity to flesh out the present; Sean lost in grief, remembering his wife, interacting with their daughter, family, friends; making decisions for the future.
– The photos resurrect memories of significant happenings in their lives, enabling the author to unravel the events and their impact.
– Listening to the recording, exposes the emotion, the reaction, the baggage, the unsaid and the unseen behind their lives together, maintaining the tension.

All relationships have their ups and downs, all have their secrets. Loss is universal. Nick Alexander develops this reality in a way that keeps the pages turning through 29 installments, knowing there will be painful revelations, wondering how they will pan out. We feel Sean’s impotence – there can be no confrontation, no opportunity to challenge or rage or explain or put things right. Catherine has gone. Sean must resolve the issues for himself and find a way to move on. I confess I wasn’t drawn in initially, the style was too staccato, the dialogue too banal.  But as the characters were rounded out I started to care what Catherine would reveal and how Sean would deal with it. It’s a design and technique that works.

PS. There are other novels with the same title. Not sure why people do this. 

, , , , ,

Comments

The sad state of our NHS

A relative of mine is currently struggling with the intransigencies of a creaking NHS. I’m doing my best to find a way through that gets the patient the much-needed attention without further demoralising a team of professionals fighting fire because of impossible targets and too few resources. After all, I, more than many, appreciate both sides: I was a small cog in the healthcare machine myself for donkeys’ years, and I’ve been on the receiving end many times too. So perhaps a book by someone who buckled under the burden of working in such an environment was bound to resonate for me.

Adam Kay‘s This is Going to Hurt is absolutely brilliant. One of a family of doctors, his ‘default decision’ as a teenager was to follow in their footsteps, but nothing prepared him for the reality of life post-qualification, the life of a junior doctor.

Recording thoughts and experiences is a recommended part of ‘reflective practice’, and This is Going to Hurt is based on Adam’s diary scribbled in secret after endless days, sleepless nights and missed weekends.  It’s a no-holds barred account of his time on the front line. 97-hour weeks. Life and death decisions. Ingratitude and complaint. Raw experience. Terror. Failure. Success. Innumerable objects in assorted orifices. A tsunami of bodily fluids drenching his person and his imagination. All recounted with honest brutality and a fabulous line in whacky humour.

Kay spent six years training and a further six years practising medicine, specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology. But eventually the price he was paying was simply too high. When something terrible happened on his watch, he finally crumbled. The patient suffered a torrential haemorrhage during a caesarean section – she had an undiagnosed placenta praevia. Dr Kay hadn’t been negligent and there was no suggestion otherwise; any other competent doctor in such circumstances would have done exactly what he did. But he expected more of himself. He was the most senior doctor involved and everyone was relying on him to sort out the horror. He felt overwhelmed by the tragedy.
I knew that if I’d been better – super-diligent, super-observant, super-something – I might have gone into that room an hour earlier. I might have noticed some subtle change on the CTG. I might have saved the baby’s life, saved the mother from permanent compromise. That ‘might-have’ was inescapable.

Much like the NHS itself, the book is filled with hope and despair, miracles and disasters, catastrophes and absurdities, intense sadness and riotous gallows humour. I defy anyone to read it without laughing out loud, or more importantly, without a sinking heart. It’s a damning indictment of a system that expects its practitioners to work impossible hours, assume phenomenal responsibility, compromise their health and relationships, for less pay than ‘the hospital parking meter earns’.

No wonder it won Book of the Year in the 2018 National Book Awards.

It’s difficult to avoid technical terms in such a book, so the author offers helpful footnotes –
I’ll help you out with the medical terminology and provide a bit of context about what each job involved. Unlike being a junior doctor, I won’t just drop you in the deep end and expect you to know exactly what you’re doing.

The footnotes themselves are often hilarious.
Diathermy is essentially a soldering iron – it heats up the area you touch it on and stops small blood vessels from bleeding by sealing them off. It is important not to clean the skin with alcohol-based antiseptic before the operation, otherwise diathermy sparks can set the patient on fire.

Swabs (used in surgery) are designed with a radio-opaque thread running through them as a marker, which shows up on X-rays as a line. A bit unimaginative – I’d have gone for a radio-opaque ‘WHOOPS!’

But I think my favourite one is:
I once put another of these standard dementia questions to a man in his nineties – ‘Spell WORLD backwards’. He paused and said, ‘As in “the planet” or “the past participle of ‘to whirl'”?’

Having spent years delivering babies myself as well as caring for the very sick and small ones, many of Kay’s obstetric stories rang bells for me personally. And I was moved by the care and empathy that this young doctor felt, that had him sneaking back to check patients were OK, or weeping for an hour when things went wrong. What a shame that this sensitivity cost him too dearly to remain on the giving end. We needs practitioners who really care.

Medicine’s loss is the entertainment industry’s gain. Adam Kay has gone on to become  an award-winning comedian and writer for TV and film. Indeed he’s actually performing in the Edinburgh Fringe this year! But his book conveys in the best way I’ve ever seen the pain and the joy of working alongside disease, despair and death. And finding the humour and words and humility to share the emotional costs. It’s already been a No 1 best-seller, attracted over 6,500 reviews on Amazon. I devoutly hope it’s on the essential reading list for the new Secretary of State/Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care/Welfare. Changes have been made since Adam Kay was practising, but not enough. Not nearly enough.

, , , , , , ,

Comments

Publication at last!

Wahey! It’s finally finally between covers and published and available. Phew! My eleventh novel.

As you know Killing Me Gently is something of a departure for me – a psychological thriller, and I have no idea if my regular readers will be pleased or nonplussed by the change. Several people have got in touch to say they’ve immediately ordered a copy because they ‘love thrillers’ … hmmm, but do they include this kind of thriller, I wonder? I’m hoping for lots of feedback – the honest variety, no holds barred, of course.

The story centres around a young career woman, Anya Morgan, who has it all – beauty, brains, dream home, handsome husband. And now to complete the picture, a new baby, Gypsy Lysette  … except Gypsy hasn’t read the textbooks; she doesn’t conform to Anya’s standards of perfection.

Leon Morgan is torn between supporting his paranoid wife and the demands of his job. Increasingly stressed, he starts to make mistakes, big mistakes, threatening the future of the family firm, jeopardising his marriage and his relationship with his brother.

Tiffany Corrigan to the rescue; qualified nurse, mother of three, a fount of practical wisdom. She’s a shoulder to lean on when the crises escalate … when Gypsy is admitted to hospital … when the fingers start pointing … when suspicion and jealousy widen the rift between Anya and Leon …

Then inexplicable things start to happen. Frightening things. Baby Gypsy’s life as well as Anya’s sanity are under threat. Who is responsible? The social workers and the protection team are caught on the horns of a dilemma, damned if they intervene, damned if they don’t. Will they act in time to save this family from devastating loss?

I’ve already had some lovely comments on Tom Bee’s super-special cover. That’s always a good start.

 

 

, , ,

Comments

Previous Posts