Hazel McHaffie

Truth and ethics

I’m suffering from a troubled conscience as I write this post.

Nobody surely could have failed to be horrified at what happened to Sarah Everard in March this year. Her brutal kidnap and murder stirred the anger and sorrow of the nation, compounded by the fact that her killer was a police officer. – a police officer using his privileges and knowledge to desecrate and murder an innocent young woman. We’ve all been taught to trust the police, so it erodes the very fabric of our security. And the links between other sexual offences such as flashing, and subsequent rape and murder, brought the crime closer to us all.

Small wonder then that I felt sick to the pit of my stomach at the opening to Cold Kill by Neil White. Chapter 1 launches straight into the murder of a young woman, experienced through the eyes of the killer … wearing heavy boots, a polo shirt, a police crest on his breast, a black and white check ribbon around his cap, handcuffs dangling from his belt. By page 4 ethical questions are screaming in my head. Should I even read this fiction? Should writers write purely for entertainment about what is a living nightmare for some families?

I should explain I was led to the book by blurb about the author. Neil White failed all his exams at school, but in his 20s returned to education, qualified as a solicitor in his 30s, and now spends his days in the courtroom and his evenings writing crime fiction – a story of triumph through hard work and application. I was intrigued to know just how able this writer is. And yes, he’s certainly able! His brilliant capture of the first murder caught me unawares and raised all manner of qualms.

And boy, did this whole book challenge me! Moral dilemmas aplenty. Reporters wheedle their way into the living rooms of the distraught and grieving families, as they share intimate stories about the victim and the relatives, as they seek to titillate public curiosity. Just how morally right is it for reporters to intrude on private horror and pain in the interests of selling newspapers or raising viewing figures? One of the reporters is in a relationship with a police officer … where does that place them when it comes to a collision between personal and professional loyalties?

The public gather – like knitters at the guillotine. To what extent should their ghoulish interest be exploited? The fathers of the murdered girls have backstories; one an ex cop, the other heading up a dark underworld. How much of their past histories should be exposed to public scrutiny?

A retired child psychologist has confidential information that could prove vital in the murder inquiry … but which principle trumps which? Old confidences from a child patient, or the young women this killer is targetting now?

In the case of Cold Kill, there’s an extra level of revulsion knowing that the killer is there, unnoticed, invisible, privy to what the detectives are thinking, what the police are searching for, what the lawyers are advising. Part of their world. Secretly smirking. Laughing up his sleeve at their blindness, his own cleverness. And his ubiquitous presence is conveyed so effectively by occasional sections devoted to his perspective, amidst the narrative relating to the investigators. He is merely ‘he’. Sent shivers down my spine, feeling those cold eyes everywhere, watching, waiting, plotting, exacting terrible revenge, seeing his macabre MO like a signature at each killing. 

I did read to the end in spite of my reservations, and indeed this author is a compelling storyteller. But nevertheless I felt guilty for having been ‘entertained’ by crimes that have devastated the lives of real families. I’m still analysing this surprising development. Have I lost the art of differentiating fact from fiction? Or is this a matter of timing?

 

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