You have to be dead or have come to serious harm at the hands of another person to come under the auspices of MCU. On my first visit to Cambridgeshire major crime, I was full of anxiety about the violence and trauma of its daily work. My head was filled with dark images of police work on television – all those shadowy departments, with glass partitions and sinisterly high tech screens showing maps and suspects and gruesome injury: the moody lighting of The Bridge and River.
Cambridgeshire police headquarters in fact looks like a cross between a Travelodge and a university campus. It’s a boxy new-build in a huge car park: bright yellow brick, blue balustrades and wheelchair ramps. Police HQ houses forensic teams (Scenes of Crime Officers or SOCO, sometimes known by the US acronym CSIs), labs for basic testing, an authorisation department for phone tracing, press office, and all the admin staff. And major crime of course, in a building which resembles a Barratt home, to the rear or the main building.
During that visit, I met the detective who was to help me most with the procedural detail faced by my own detective heroine, DS Manon Bradshaw, in Missing, Presumed.
Detective Sergeant Graham McMillan – universally known as Macca – has been a police officer for 20 years, eight of them in major crime. He retains a boyish enthusiasm about the work: in major crime, the hours are unpredictable and the cases exciting.
Macca explained how critical the first 72 hours are for a high risk ‘misper’. This period, in particular the first 24 hours (known as the ‘golden hour’), means round the clock shifts for the investigating team. It is full-throttle, its aim to find the victim alive because after 72 hours their chances wane. At the three month mark, by contrast, and without proof of life (use of bank cards etc), police will assume the misper is dead.
One of the key areas he helped me with in Missing, Presumed was understanding the real tensions faced by a police team. Often, they are scrutinized by other forces, sometimes by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, and in high profile cases, the media tend to weigh in, too. Budgetary constraints can be a factor. There are numerous protocols governing investigations, many to stop detectives pursuing something on a hunch.
Macca also helped me get the language right – the pay-as-you-go, unregistered mobiles that are known as ‘dirty phones’, for example. Officers don’t go door to door – that’s for salesmen. They go house to house.
And he’s hilarious when it comes to unrealistic TV drama scenarios, such as when the entire police team gather at the scene of a crime and clod-hop about. It might make good viewing but it wouldn’t do much for evidence-gathering.
Keeping it real can put me in a tight corner as a writer, but it’s my job to plot my characters out of it. Macca’s a Scouser, ex-Army, a lifelong Everton fan, an honourable man. He’s great company, not a grumpy old Morse. The kind of detail I can ask of him, can’t be found in a book or on the internet.
At the same time, as a novelist you are not writing a procedural manual, and the needs of the story always come first. The great detectives of crime fiction tend to play fast and loose with the rule book, and so they should. I’ve had to take some fictional liberties with DS Manon Bradshaw, but thanks to Macca, the pressures she faces and the department she works in are entirely real.