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Researching the cases of DCI Jansen

Updated: Nov 28, 2018

A Christmas Blog: written for #AdventingAuthors, festive calendar, with Tracy Buchanan

You might imagine that researching a crime novel might be a tricky job, involving reading about cases that turn your stomach; asking helpful police tricky questions; or even thinking about the more gruesome aspects of the human psyche. And it does – all those things. If my computer was ever whisked away for checking then I think some of the internet search questions I put into google might raise a few eyebrows.

Carols and hot chocolate

However, set in a snowy St Albans, Under the Ice includes a number of wintry scenes and one of those is Midnight Mass at the Cathedral. Researching this was a treat. St Albans Cathedral is beautiful. Built to commemorate the death of St Alban who died over 1700 years ago, it soars above the huge Verulamium Park, dotted with Roman ruins and seeped in history. I went along last Christmas to the Midnight Mass, after popping into the pub that Jenny and Will visit in the novel, the Kings Arms. The scene is written with much of the detail observed that evening – without any of the sense of Jenny’s alarm. The cobbled streets of the city, lit up in Christmas lights to highlight the beautiful architecture made it one of my favourite research trips.

Another included a visit to the Waffle House in St Albans, on which the Waterwheel Café is loosely based. It’s different in the novel – both the size of the river and the location of the old mill wheel. But eating waffles with maple syrup and sipping hot chocolate in their covered, wintry outdoor eating area was no hardship. Again, Jenny’s experience there is far more harrowing, but there are a few bonuses for us writers of novels set at Christmas.

A day behind bars

DCI Maarten Jansen’s next case, released next November, involved more gritty research. One of the characters is in prison, and I visited one in County Durham. I was lucky enough to have an officer as a guide during Parole Only, meaning all the cells are locked and this is when the officers can eat their lunch, go to town, or visit the prison gym. They use the same gym the prisoners use which contained some serious gear.

The scent of a prison

It was an eye-opener. My only experience of prison is from TV and films. You want your novels to capture the essence of any scene – the smells, the sounds – involving much more than google searching. The smells in the prison were certainly something. I visited a cell that had recently been trashed by a prisoner, who had kicked the sink and toilet off the wall. I also saw some of the contraband confiscated – an array of drugs and weapons; the scent of Spice, the drug prisons are currently struggling with, was sickening.

What the officer said

The offices do a difficult job. The officer who showed me round spoke about attacks he’s been the victim of, and how there is aggression for the uniform they wear. He also spoke with real sympathy about how financial cuts mean that some of the prison wings are sorely in need of updating, including more than a simple paint job: there are fittings hanging off walls and windows which don’t fully close. It’s certainly no holiday park.

We love libraries!

One of the more positive aspects involved talking to the librarian. She described herself as a civilian, and therefore her relationships with the prisoners are different. She spoke about the fact that many of the prisoners come with very little education. Many are anxious to read true crime, which the prison service is wary of providing, concerned it could be inflammatory. She encourages the books; she said they provide a stepping stone to other novels and she spoke with animation about watching a love of reading grow amongst the men. Libraries are vital everywhere.

Mulled wine and a mince pie

Today was a more relaxing afternoon. I ate lunch in a pub which features in Maarten Jansen’s next case, and sat by a roaring fire, decorated with Christmas wreathes. The life of a writer has its perks.

Merry Christmas. And happy reading!

Under the Iceis available in hardback and on e-book.

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