Hazel McHaffie

Sally Clark

A Room Swept White

When I was working on my latest novel, Killing Me Gently, I was affected quite profoundly by the emotions of two of my characters who were struggling mentally in different ways. The closer I got to knowing and understanding them, the more tense and edgy I felt.

Imagine that situation in a time of a pandemic such as now! Real and justified anxiety. Widespread uncertainty. Close confinement. A reduction in social contact and support. Distorted perspectives. Suspicion. Less resources for support services. It’s a tinderbox.

And thinking along these lines took me to a psychological thriller I read some weeks ago:  A Room Swept White by best-selling writer of crime fiction Sophie Hannah. A psychological thriller set in ‘my’ world, so it ticked all my boxes.

From the outset we’re plunged into a hugely disturbing story, set brilliantly by means of two scenarios: a police briefing in a murder case; and an interview between an investigative journalist cum documentary maker and a middle-class physiotherapist recently released from prison.

We know from the blurb on the back cover that three women have been wrongly accused of murdering children, that all three are subsequently freed, and that Dr Judith Duffy, a paediatric pathologist and prime expert witness in their cases, is under investigation for misconduct. Then one of the three women is found shot dead in her own home.

TV producer, Fliss Benson, is suddenly and unexpectedly promoted to work on a documentary about miscarriages of justice, and on the same day receives an anonymous card with sixteen numbers arranged in four rows of four figures. But she has her own private and personal reasons for not wanting to work in this area. The card has to be significant; of that she’s sure, even though her boss dismisses it out of hand. The murder victim had a card with sixteen numbers on it arranged in four rows of four, in her pocket. And one by one other significant women are singled out for similar cards all penned by the same hand, all on expensive paper.

Then CID strongly advises Fliss to cease all work on the cot-death murders documentary. She knows it’s what she ought to do; she also knows she can’t do it. It’s nothing to do with justice, it’s her only way of  fixing whatever it is that’s eating away at her and her self-identity.

So many factors in this story rang bells and gave me a strong sense of déjà vu. The pathological details in the cases of the babies who died – suffocation, smothering, shaking, salt poisoning … Professionals damned if they intervene, damned if they don’t …  One social worker driven to suicide because of his failure to safeguard a vulnerable child .. Munchausens-by-proxy … Witnesses changing their minds, swayed by so-called experts. Jurors confused by the conflicting convictions and arguments … Court testimony distorted, coloured, changing … everywhere doubt, suspicion. And it’s so skillfully written, I was kept in confusion and suspense to the very end.

So why did it ring so many bells? Not just because it explores similar ground to my Killing me Gently … ahhhh, yes, … of course … it’s there in the acknowledgements at the end of the book. Hannah took her inspiration from three real-life cases of women wrongly convicted, whose stories I followed closely at the time, and indeed mentioned in a post on this very blog – Sally Clark, Angela Cannings, Trupti Patel. Three human there-but-for-the-grace-of-God tragedies.

So, an excellent read, but perhaps not for vulnerable new mothers at this time of global tension and fear for the future.

Stay safe out there, everyone, and I hope you can find the space for reading those books you never normally seem to get round to!

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April Jones and other children

WARNING. Today’s blog is wall-to-wall serious stuff. If you’re feeling a bit low or weepy probably best to leave it for another day. Apologies.

I’ve been much exercised this week by the abduction of little April Jones. You too? Five years old. Still missing. Said to have been murdered. As the police say, every parent’s worst nightmare. Made more poignant by the fact that she was allowed out later than usual to play as a treat because her parents had just had a glowing report of her progress at school.

Preoccupation with this tragedy has taken my thoughts to stories that have similarly gripped my attention in the past.

Since there’s a possibility I might – repeat might – one day write a novel about the deliberate harming of children, I’ve been collecting information on the subject for years. The file includes some harrowing stories, particularly those involving miscarriages of justice.

D’you remember the high profile cases of Sally Clark, Trupti Patel, Angela Cannings; all suspected of harming their own children; all later exonerated? And the scary discoveries that discredited the forensic evidence against them given by the renowned expert witness, Professor Sir Roy Meadows? They’re certainly engraved on my memory.

Try as we may to keep an open mind and reflect on all these cases involving children in a measured and reasoned way, inevitably media coverage influences reactions. Vulnerable youngsters suffering at the hands of those who should be their principal protectors and advocates … happy children being taken away by social services … innocent parents being accused of abuse … miscarriages of justice …  Stirs profound and troubling emotions, doesn’t it? And that’s from a safe distance. How do the wider families of these victims cope in such circumstances? How do they live with such knowledge, whether or not the accusations are true?

And then there’s the recent spate of cases where children have been found murdered by a parent – suffocated, stabbed, shot, burned, thrown. Beyond imagination.

But in the midst of all this stark reality in my file is a most unusual snippet relating to one of these incomprehensible crimes – something that impressed me greatly. It’s a letter that was reproduced in several newspapers a couple of months ago (in mid July), written by a grieving grandfather. This man’s son-in-law, Ceri Fuller, is believed to have driven his three children, Sam, 12, Rebecca, 8, and Charlotte, 7, to a secluded woodland 75 miles from their home, where he stabbed them to death before jumping 65ft to his own death. To date the motive remains unclear although salacious snippets of information have been offered as ammunition for speculators.

Whatever the rationale, whatever the turmoil in this man’s head, the fact remains that the mother, Ruth, and grandparents have lost three children in brutal circumstances. And yet Ruth’s father, Ron Tocknell, an artist and illustrator from Gloucestershire, has insisted there were ‘no villains, only victims‘.

He wrote an open 1,800-word letter to his local paper which is so moving and thought-provoking that I’m going to reproduce some of it here and leave it as its own testimony.

‘Perhaps some of you feel anger toward him. You know him only as the man who did this.

I know him as the man who fell in love with my daughter. I know him as the man who worked tirelessly to support the family he worshipped. I know him as the man who, together with my daughter, raised my beautiful grandchildren in an environment of love and joy and laughter …

When he had to address misbehaviour he did so with reason and never with punishment.

Perhaps we will never understand the torment in Ceri’s mind that drove him to such an act but I know that this is not an act of malice or spite. I weep for my daughter’s pain. I weep for the loss of my grandchildren and I weep for Ceri’s pain and confusion in equal measure. There are no villains in this dreadful episode.

There are only victims. He will always remain the man I am proud to have called my son-in-law …

We cannot dictate the random paths our lives take. I would ask you all to suspend judgment and find compassion for all.’

Puts a very different complexion on things, doesn’t it? And a salutary reminder that the stories that reach us are only partial pictures.

Sobering, lowering, troubling stuff. Just thinking of these children and their families makes me wonder if in reality I could bear to write a book on the subject. And if I did, if anyone would ever want to read it. Probably not.


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