Crime Writing: Making it Real – the faint whiff of policing

Capturing the visceral nature of a crime scene can be tricky without first-hand experience. Former police officer turned crime advisor Graham Bartlett shares advice on rendering a crime scene that’s authentic and credible.

Graham Bartlett
Graham Bartlett

Ask any cop what the go-to insult of numb-skulls on a night out is when they walk past and I’ll bet you they reply with, ‘Oink oink. Can anyone smell pork?’

As you can imagine that splits our sides. So much so that we often ask the comedian to come and spend the night in our free bed and breakfast facility to reward their wit.

Writers are always told to ‘show’ through the senses. How do things sound, smell, feel, look, taste? The good news is that police stations and crime scenes are replete with stimulants to excite each sense – well, maybe not taste; I’ve never tried licking a dead body in any case.

Criminal sense

So, unless you’ve been in the police or had the misfortune to grace the inside of a cell block, been victim or witness to a violent crime or worked in a mortuary, you might only be able to imagine the unique – gut-wrenching – smells that our workplaces emanate.

Take a cell block – or custody suite as they are sometimes laughably called. Who’s the resident behind the three inch green (or blue) steel doors? Well, you have drunks, vagrants, prisoners entering their third showerless day, the incontinent (often deliberately so), the dirty protestors and just your average Joe whose fetid footwear stands sentry outside their cell.

Add to that the whiff of Jeyes fluid (other brands are available) and the cremation of microwave ready-meals and you start to get an idea of just how violently the olfactory glands are assaulted.

What about the sounds? It might come as a surprise that many prisoners don’t just settle down quietly with a book and wait for their turn to be interviewed.

Some like to remind the custody officers they are still there, sometimes in quite colourful terms. A few tenacious souls believe that if they punch, or headbutt, the metal door often enough they will break through to freedom.

Unsurprisingly, their neighbours have a view about this constant racket and offer to rearrange the culprit’s body parts the moment they meet. On a serious note, there are far too many people with mental health problems in police cells and the sounds of their distresses are sickening.

I wouldn’t buy it as a fragrance, but the ‘cocktail of death’ isn’t as revolting as the cell block or, worse still, the lung-lingering stench of a decomposing body.

– Graham Bartlett

Smells like trouble

As well as the din created by the prisoners, custody staff often find it difficult to gently close the cell doors – why should they, after all, when a hefty slam is far more satisfying. Their key-chains jangle at every move and police officers’ radios squawk and bleat pretty much constantly.

It’s no less distinctive out at the crime scene. I remember, as a tender eighteen-year-old recruit, arriving to the report of a man being beaten half to death behind some shops in Bognor Regis. As we stepped out of the car, I asked my tutor what the smell was: ‘Get used to it, son, it’s the cocktail of death.’

Luckily this chap did not die but the aroma still lingered. The cocktail of blood and alcohol produces a sickly sweet yet ferrous-tinged smell. It’s quite distinctive but strangely not that unpleasant.

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t buy it as a fragrance, but it’s not as revolting as the cell block or, worse still, the lung-lingering stench of a decomposing body or the wretch many endure at the mortuary as the stomach contents are emptied.

No more pigs

If your protagonist is a police officer then never forget they are human beings. Both of my non-fiction books, Death Comes Knocking – Policing Roy Grace’s Brighton and Babes in the Wood specifically show what it feels like to police certain incidents. Cops experience fear, dread, pain and PTSD the same as everyone.

They also have to show gargantuan restraint (imagine interviewing a child rapist and not ripping their throat out), stem the giggles and turn to gallows humour to get through the day.

When I am advising authors, I try to help them find extra depth in their settings and characters by describing real places, people and incidents through the senses.

– Graham Bartlett

You will want your readers to really care about your characters so showing these states, maybe through ‘close point of view’. is essential. Don’t be afraid for them to cry, get angry or make mistakes as, after all, aren’t these the symptoms of stress?

When I am advising authors, I try to help them find extra depth in their settings and characters by describing real places, people and incidents through the senses.

In my own work-in-progress, my agent described some of the character traits displayed by one of the main players as being far-fetched. Little did she know those were the most accurate attributes drawn from a former colleague who had to be seen to be believed.

I’ll be running some courses with the Professional Writing Academy very soon which will help and guide you in all things crime fiction, but equally I’m happy to help you on a one to one basis. Just contact me through and sign up to my newsletter while you’re there.

Happy sleuthing.

Graham Bartlett

Author and Police Advisor

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Meet your Course Director

Graham Bartlett

Graham Bartlett

Graham Bartlett is a bestselling crime writer and police-procedure guru.

He is author of the Sunday Times Top Ten bestseller Bad for Good (‘a cracking debut’, Mark Billingham) and its follow-ups Force of Hate and City on Fire.

For thirty years, Graham was a police officer, policing the city of Brighton and Hove, and rising to become its police commander. On the way he was a homicide senior investigating officer and led on managing dangerous offenders, sexual offences, domestic violence, child protection and hate crime. He was a qualified strategic firearms and public order commander, leading the policing of many armed operations, large scale protests and sporting events.

He went on to become a police procedural and crime advisor, helping scores of authors and TV writers (including Peter James, Anthony Horowitz, Mark Billingham, Elly Griffiths and Dorothy Koomson) achieve authenticity alongside their drama. He has worked on numerous TV dramas and receives wide praise for his approach to blending procedural accuracy with story and character needs. 

Graham also has two bestselling non-fiction books – Death Comes Knocking and Babes in the Wood – to his name.

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