Crime Writing: making it real – the faint whiff of policing

Graham Bartlett
2 April 2020
Article uploaded by
Mo Harber-Lamond

Capturing the visceral nature of a crime scene can be a tricky task for a crime writer who may have never encountered one first-hand. To begin his series of articles Crime Writing: making it real, retired police officer turned crime advisor to authors Graham Bartlett shares some advice on how to capture the essence of a crime scene with authenticity.

Writing Crime Fiction

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Crime Writing - Making it Real

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.

As writers, you are always being 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.

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 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 distress is 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

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.

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

Graham Bartlett

Graham Bartlett was a UK police officer in Sussex for thirty years. He mainly policed the city of Brighton and Hove, 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.

Since retiring, he has become a police procedural and crime advisor helping around fifty authors and TV writers (including Peter James, Mark Billingham, Elly Griffiths and Dorothy Koomson) achieve authenticity alongside their drama. He is also a best-selling crime writer, with two non-fiction books – Death Comes Knocking and Babes in the Wood – to his name and a crime novel in the pipeline.

Graham will soon be launching a crime fiction online course in partnership with Professional Writing Academy.

Writing Crime Fiction

Begins: *** TO BE ANNOUNCED ***