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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.

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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History


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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History

A traveling researcher engages people and places from Britain's past and present, drawing comparisons and contrasts between past and present for today's reader.

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Murder Case: Truth is More Complicated than Fiction

By Fay Sampson ~ November 9, 2010

One of the best meetings this year of our Devon Writers Group was an inside view of a murder enquiry. Detective Superintendent Nigel Boulton talked us through 13 years of leading such investigations.

Did you know, for instance, that bodies, or, more usually, bits of bodies are routinely picked up by fishermen in their nets? That has something to do with our living at the westerly end of the English Channel. The trade winds bring in flotsam from as far away as Portugal. Fish normally start to feed on a body after only 4 hours. It’s unusual for a whole corpse to be found. In England, if fishermen report the human remains they have found, the whole catch has to be jettisoned. Not surprisingly, they will usually drop such finds overboard and say nothing.

If a body is reported, from the sea or on land, the first officer on the scene will be a uniformed police constable, the most junior rank, with typically less than five years experience. It falls to them to make the crucial decision about whether this is a suspicious death which requires them to call in the detective branch of the force.

Deciding then to make it a homicide investigation has huge financial implications for the force. One murder case can cost £1m.

When a murder has been committed there is a ‘Golden Hour’, when witnesses are fresh. Many vital decisions will already have been made before the Senior Investigating Officer appears on the scene and takes over.

Do you know who the victim is? What was the cause of death? Where did it happen? The ‘scene of crime’ may be a car, a person, as well as a place. All evidence must be preserved.

Detectives go to great lengths to understand the victim: their lifestyle, their personality, their contacts, their past. It takes a large team of officers and forensic experts to follow up all these lines of enquiry.

The SIO has a heavy responsibility to prioritise these lines of investigation. A single case may require a thousand decisions. The SIO is followed around by another officer recording all these decisions in a Policy Book. That’s something you never see on a TV murder drama.

It’s more difficult to identify young bodies, because their teeth are usually perfect, and you don’t have the dental records of the older generation.DNA is a powerful new tool, but again hugely expensive.

And you can suffer from too much information. When a case goes public, the police may be bombarded with telephone calls, only a few of which are relevant.

If the case looks like being colourful, the media are on to it with amazing speed. The SIO may turn up at the scene for the first time to be accosted by a live TV camera. Senior police officers are trained to handle the media. It’s useful to feed them information. They often track down key witnesses faster than the police.

And talking of tracing people, did you know that a mobile phone company can track where your phone is, even when it’s switched off? We saw a fascinating map of how the police tracked the movement of suspects to the murder scene, even though they thought they had laid a trail of misleading evidence.

All these decisions to handle, and the Senior Investigating Officer may be conducting as many as nine such major enquiries at the same time.

Fay Sampson (UK) is a writer of adult and children's fiction and non-fiction, including A MALIGNANT HOUSE, #2 in the Susie Fewings series, a British Crime Club Pick.

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Reader Comments:

Fay, thank you for a fascinating report! All that about bodies in the sea reminded me of Dorothy L. Sayers' HAVE HIS CARCASE, one of my favorites.
-Donna, November 9, 2010

Well, I couldn't do this work--and have the greatest respect for those who can--but I sure do love reading and writing about it! Great info.
-jennymilch, November 9, 2010

Fascinating, Fay. As a fellow writer from the UK I found it really interesting to glimpse some of what goes on behind the scenes. I think on balance I'm glad that I write about Britain 2000 years ago. This has its good and bad side - I don't have to worry about "police procedure" among the Ancient Romans, but on the other hand most modern detection tools (even a hand-lens) aren't available to my sleuth!
-Jane Finnis, November 10, 2010

Ah, but Jane, fish in the ocean would eat at a Roman body just the same.

-Donna, November 10, 2010

True, Donna - and if a Roman sleuth needed to know how long a body had been at sea, she might lack forensics experts, but the local fishermen would be a good source.
-Jane Finnis, November 11, 2010

That was a really interesting report. Money is the last thing you think of when you read of an investigation that is underway. Everyone needs a paycheque though.

-Debbie, November 11, 2010

Brilliant! I felt myself inspired by the fishy end (ouch!) of a body in the sea. Four hours, uh? All of a sudden, unidentified bodies and conspiring fishermen have sprung into life. I realise all this sounds utterly ghoulish, but it's great to get real information like this. Terrific stuff.
-Dolores, November 15, 2010

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