Know Better Now

(In response to Donna’s ‘It’s my birthday and I’ll suggest a Ramones themed anthology if I want to’ challenge.)

necklace“Honestly Mum, I didn’t do it,” I say as Mum is shown into the office by the same smug looking security guard who rugby tackled me as I left the shop.

Mum’s face is white. “I know you didn’t, Tracey. I’m sure this has all been a misunderstanding.”

The shop manager snorts. “We found this in her bag. The alarm went off when she tried to leave the store.”

Mum looks at the gold chain dangling from the manager’s podgy fingers. The quivering crystal drop deposits flecks of light on the desk. Colour rises in her cheeks. Only ten minutes earlier I had shown her that necklace and asked her to give me the money for it.

I know it’s looking bad for me. Mum does too. “What are you going to do?” she asks the manager.

“We can end the matter here, as long as Tracey agrees not to enter the store again. We have the necklace back and I think she’s learned a valuable lesson.” He smiles condescendingly at me. I wish I had a baseball bat so that I could smash his fucking teeth in.

“I didn’t do it, all right?”

The manager presses his fingertips together. “If you’re going to kick up a fuss we could always review the CCTV footage. I’m warning you, though, that if we see evidence of you stealing on camera I’ll have no choice but to prosecute.”

“Come on Tracey, let’s go,” Mum says.

I’m staring at the manager, hating him so much that he should dissolve into a greasy spot in front of my eyes. But he doesn’t. He stares right back at me, so I call his bluff. “Go ahead. Watch the footage.”


The black and white screen is divided into four. My stomach turns cold as I walk into view in the top right frame. Mum’s fingers wrap round my arm. “It’s not too late. Let’s just stop this now and go home.”

“Your mum’s right, Tracey. Why risk getting a criminal record when you’ve got your whole life ahead of you?” The manager is sweating. He knows as well as I do that the cameras may show nothing.  I can’t back down now.

Together we watch the black and white me on the screen lifts the necklace from its peg on the wall. I remember looking at it. I remember thinking, Mum would really like this. I remember how expensive it was.

Mum appears on screen beside me. There’s no sound, but our conversation is still fresh in my head. “Wow,” she said, when I showed her the necklace. I wanted her to have it but she said she couldn’t afford it. She’d just had to pay for my new school uniform and besides, when would she wear it now that Mike had dumped her? “If you give me my next three month’s pocket money in advance, I’ll get it for you,” I said. And she smiled and said that was very sweet, but I shouldn’t spend my pocket money on her.

Mum walks off screen. I’m still holding the necklace. I remember feeling the weight of it in my hand and thinking how easy it would be to just drop it. It would slither straight into the carrier bag over my arm. I glance round the shop to see if anyone is watching, then… I hang the necklace back up on the peg.

“See! I told you I didn’t do it!”

The shop manager has been perched on the edge of his seat, so sure that he’s got me. Now his mouth opens. For a moment he just stares, then he cries, “Wait a minute! Between this point and you leaving the store that necklace somehow got into your bag and I’m going to find out how you did it.”

He fast forwards, then stops when I appear in the bottom left frame. There I am, fingering some silk scarves when Mum comes up behind me. She’s telling me that she is going to Boots and I can meet her there when I’m done. Then, while I’m still studying the scarves, her hand reaches out, cupped like half of an oyster shell. She tips it downwards and the necklace flows into my bag.

The manager and I both turn to look at her. Her face is pressed into her cupped hands.


Murder, Mystery and Microscopes

The most important thing I took away from the Murder, Mystery and Microscopes event at the Edinburgh Science Festival last week was: Don’t bother to commit a crime – you will get caught. The notes below are therefore not intended to aid you in any criminal activity but may be of interest if you read or write crime fiction.

Stuart MacBride read out three extracts from two of his books then invited forensic experts David Barclay and Lorna Dawson to “demonstrate whether there is any possible truth in the nonsense I put in my novels.” To his credit, MacBride’s descriptions were mostly accurate.

  • Extract 1 (Cold Granite): A body is found at a rubbish dump. In the book a group of school children have the misfortune to stumble upon a dead body poking out of a bin bag at the dump.  Barclay talked us through the correct procedure for locating a body in a rubbish heap, should no curious school children be available. First you would have to have some clue to suggest that the body had indeed ended up there; blood in a wheelie bin, for example. Every day truck loads of rubbish would have been added to the heap so that since the body was dumped, the front face of the heap would have crept forward by several meters. You would have to take core samples starting from the face of the heap and working backwards until you found newspapers from the date when the supposed victim went missing. You would then take core samples going across the heap until you found envelopes with a postcode on them corresponding to the address the bloody wheelie bin belonged to. This method relies on people throwing out old newspapers and envelopes with their household rubbish which lead Barclay to comment, “If recycling catches on it will be the worst thing ever for forensic scientists.”
  • Extract 2 (Dying Light): A body is found in woodland. Lorna Dawson explained how you would pinpoint where a body had been hidden if you suspected it had been transported by car to somewhere remote and dumped. First you would take samples of soil from the tyres of the suspect’s car. Using information from the National Soil Database you could overlay maps of soil pH, mineral content and vegetation to identify areas where the soil could have come from. “Generally criminals are lazy and don’t want to carry the body far so it is usually found no more than 100m from where the car was parked.” A body dumped in woodland could be scavenged by animals. In this case you would call in experts on foxes or badgers to help track down the missing body parts.
  • Extract 3 (Dying Light): Arson attack. Barclay told us that MacBride was spot on when he described the perpetrator masturbating in the bushes after throwing a petrol bomb into a house. “It’s surprisingly often that we find semen on leaves of bushes near crime scenes.” MacBride was also right to have the perpetrator breaking the window of the house with a brick before throwing the petrol bomb in since “they normally bounce off windows.” However, petrol bombs are not the neatest way to commit arson. Where would the arsonist get the petrol? Barclay pointed out that garages are covered by CCTV so there would be evidence to show him or her buying it. Petrol is messy. It would splash onto the arsonist’s clothes and police may find his or her footprints in the petrol residue at the crime scene. Petrol is extremely explosive when it vaporises so the aronist would have to act quickly if they didn’t want to blow themself up. Finally, when petrol burns it goes up and away from clothing and bodies leaving evidence behind for the police to find.

Val McDermid – Oxford Alumni Weekend 2009

I’ve just returned from the most fantastic weekend in Oxford where I attended talks, readings and discussion panels with writers as part of the university’s Alumni Weekend. The next three posts will focus on highlights from the event. First up, here’s what Val McDermid had to say on crime fiction:

“The crime novel relies on the suspension of disbelief. One of the ways we do this is with a vivid sense of place. If the reader recognises streets and buildings they are more likely to believe other stuff that the author says.”

“I am a great believer that if you have three facts in your possession you can plot for half an hour on any subject.”

“When I started writing, I didn’t know a lot about police procedure. I didn’t realise at that point how much was just makey-uppy.”

Ideas generally start as something small. They’re tangents; something where I think ‘I didn’t know that. That’s really interesting!’”

“With the first couple of books it’s about developing a writing process that works for you. I used to work out the story, write it out on filing cards – I had different coloured filing cards for different plot strands – and jiggle them around till it made narrative sense. That worked really well for me for about 15 books, then it stopped working. Now I write the first 60 pages, put the book to one side to let it percolate, then I take six to eight weeks to finish the first draft.”

“I think writers have always taken revenge on people that have annoyed us over the years. You draw on your whole database of human experience when you draw your characters. Readers never recognise themselves in the unpleasant characters!”

Val McDermid’s most recent novel, Fever of the Bone, is available to buy from Amazon.