It made me wonder what a secret agent does when he or she retires? How do they deprogramme themselves?
Several incidents in my life inspired Sin Killers. Back in 1988, I lived in the town of Andover in Hampshire. I worked as a milkman, starting work at 5.00 a.m. delivering 450 pints to customers. It was ‘job and finish’ meaning I quit work as soon as I’d made the deliveries and unloaded my electric milk float of empty bottles at the depot. Like many of my colleagues, I ran the round, usually finishing in six hours. I’ve never been fitter!
running five miles and lifting hundreds of pounds of milk bottles, I
was wound up and unable to relax enough to go to sleep for eight
hours during the day. To wind down, I went window shopping, calling
in at charity shops to buy books and sometimes having a beer and a
snack at a pub.
People watching is a trait of writers, and occasionally I’d see a man in his fifties who kept himself to himself, but who appeared to be monitoring conversations around him. He was more observant than me, even stopping in the street to watch passersby, making notes in an exercise book, checking the time on his watch. He rarely spoke to anyone. I thought he was just an eccentric loner, maybe a care in the community patient with mental health issues until I noticed he had an attractive Asian partner—who was as sharp-eyed as him.
One day, after he’d left the pub, I asked the landlord who he was. I was amazed to learn that he was an ex-secret agent, a spook for MI5, I was told…as was his wife, who came from Vietnam. He couldn’t have been less like James Bond, as he was of forgettable appearance, balding, medium-height and wearing typical country clothing of tweed jacket, flat cap and twill trousers. The landlord described him as “creepy.”
made me wonder what a secret agent does when he or she retires? How
do they deprogramme themselves? What if they hadn’t retired, but been
dismissed for some transgression? They might have a chip on their
shoulders and could be dangerous through their training. The chap I
saw spying on others wasn’t 007, but what if he had hacking skills or
knew how to kill with sophisticated poisons?
years later, he and his wife provided me with inspiration for Noah
and Nina Shrike.
The post office raider suffering with PTSD was an amalgam of various ex-services personnel I’ve known—men and women who were still fighting wars in their head—with inadequate mental health support. Veterans are at high risk of becoming addicted, of being made homeless and of turning to crime to survive; their suicide rates are disproportionately high.
People who are trained to kill aren’t retrained in how to live peacefully.
I’ve noticed a hardening of attitudes towards what is morally acceptable.
This novel grew out of a few preoccupations that have been troubling me. Some of these concerns date back decades, while others have grown in recent years. Few things change about human existence, at least in how we react to cataclysmic events, though I’ve noticed a hardening of attitudes towards what is morally acceptable.
I stole the titles of two rock albums, to place into an embittered contemplation of society by one of the killers in The Perfect Murderer. These titles have resonated with me since reading them, as they’re both a succinct comment on modern times. The Doobie Brothers issued ‘What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits’in 1974, and at the time it was more of a reflection on sexuality and drug use. These days, such an observation includes a host of what was once seen as appalling transgressions.
Jane’s Addiction released ‘Nothing’s Shocking’ in 1988. Though lead singer Perry Farrell was referring to more than sex and drugs, I think that even this louche counter-culture leading light would have found it impossible to predict quite how debauched the world would be twenty-six years later. It really does take something horrendously bad to produce revulsion in people nowadays.
Many things that would have been condemned and not spoken of forty years ago, now immediately enter the world as sources of entertainment. Comedians make jokes about paedophilia, while executions and horrible accidents provide a thrill on YouTube and the foulest details of murders are revealed. People are inured to being affected by witnessing violence, which must alter how they feel about helping victims or worse, administering pain to others. Many would take out their phones to record the plight of a stricken person, rather than offer them help.
The rise of computer gaming has been inexorable. Gamers can kill opponents on-screen with no physical risk to themselves. Some slaughter thousands of people online every week. Where’s the harm, you may ask? In 2011 in Norway, Anders Breivik killed 77 people, injuring 319 others in two attacks, including shooting youngsters attending a youth camp. He’d been immersed in the video games ‘World of Warcraft’ and ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’ for years. The prosecution portrayed his mass killings as an extension of his merciless role-playing online. The killer was devoid of empathy for his victims, seeing them as targets.
One of my grandfathers was a veteran of the WW1 trenches. He saw, and no doubt was involved in perpetrating some terrible acts of violence. Bayoneted and gassed at Ypres, he was invalided out of the fighting. He was ill in more than obvious physical ways, and treatment of shell shock was in its infancy back then. Drifting through a series of dead-end jobs, he was a heavy drinker and a violent, abusive family man. He had a brooding presence, and I was afraid of him as a little boy. Photographs of him taken at the time of the war show a haunted and stunned expression as if he doesn’t understand the horror he’s just been through and is terrified about what’s going to happen next.
He died in his fifties, propelled by alcoholism into an early grave. I was very young, but still detected a sense of relief from my mother and aunt—a strange emotion to process. Since then, I’ve known veterans of many wars, on a friendly basis and as colleagues. Most were seemingly unaffected by their wartime experiences, while others knew that they still had post-traumatic stress disorder. Some sought counselling and medication, others plunged into oblivion through overindulging in alcohol and drugs. There are many ex-services personnel among the homeless.
Living in America for three years, I met Vietnam vets and heard some terrible tales. I was there when 9/11 happened, and it was worrying to witness a nation gearing up for war. Any people who criticised the military build-up were seen as unpatriotic. It put some veterans in an awkward position. They wanted to support the red, white and blue but knew the hell that their children and grandchildren were heading into. The thirst for revenge outweighed any logical thinking, however, and few stopped to consider why America was attacking Saddam Hussein and not tracking down Osama Bin Laden.
As a legal alien in the USA, I had to be circumspect about what I thought and said. It was tough to witness the turmoil that some were going through. My then-wife had a friend whose brother was killed in Vietnam. She’d been a protester against that conflict but was now seeing her son go off to war in Iraq. I found myself thinking of a protest song that was popular in that era—Country Joe McDonald’s ‘The Fish Cheer/ I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag’, with its dire prediction “And you can be the first one in your block/To have your boy come home in a box.”
Wars accomplish few of their declared aims, though there’s always more success for the things that are going on beneath the surface. A simple example of this is what has happened to honest citizens in the last ten years, with the massive increase in unwarranted intrusion into their lives by surveillance of many kinds. Governments welcome wars as a way of tightening their control of the civilian population. If there’s an enemy to fight, be it the Nazis seventy years ago or terrorists today, then stringent measures are brought in to monitor the public in the name of security. Once in place, they aren’t relaxed or removed when the threat is gone. We become the enemy for our lords and masters.
It’s often said that the UK has the most CCTV cameras per head of the population. I can well believe it. In 2008 I visited a friend in Andalusia for a week. She lived in a remote mountainous place above Estepona, but we went on trips to Malaga. There were certainly security cameras in place to discourage shoplifting, but I didn’t notice as many on the streets. I didn’t see any GATSO speed cameras on the roadside at all. My friend was an ex-pat who left the UK in the 1980s, and when I told her that in the fifty-mile journey between my home in Cornwall and Exeter airport, where I’d parked my car, there were at least thirty-eight speed cameras, she found it impossible to believe.
wondered how much being ground down and watched all the time,
contributes to the dour expressions on the faces of people in a
typical British high street. The Spaniards are happy, smiling and
relaxed by comparison—and it isn’t just down to the nicer weather
there. I live in a dozy part of Cornwall, some six miles from the
bustling resort of Newquay. Nothing much happens around here, but all
the same on my weekly walk into town a mile away, I pass through the
view of at least a dozen cameras on buildings—and those are the
ones I’ve spotted.
I have to admit, though, that I’m in two minds about the value of watching people all of the time. I helped to run a busy community centre for four years. One of our main problems was vandalism—bored youngsters entering the site and breaking windows. This was a major drain on the resources of the charity which ran the centre, but we couldn’t afford to install a modern surveillance system on the old Victorian building, and would it have done any good anyway? Someone has to watch the monitor screens, and even if any recordings made helped to identify who’d committed the vandalism—what then? Punishment of the miscreants we did catch was weak.
Another theme of ‘The Perfect Murderer’ is about how we’re affected as individuals by what we choose to do, and which happen unbidden to us. There’s an odd denial of consequences for some things. People alter the state of their minds with drink and drugs, but still claim to be ok to do most activities. Warriors return from doing battle and are expected to slot back into society as if nothing traumatic has occurred to them. Anybody who watches television or uses a computer can witness shocking acts of violence and depravity. Gamers commit cyber violence, yet declare that it doesn’t affect them in any way. Academic research shows that it does.
the sanest character in my story is the lead detective Neil Kettle.
He seeks help for the depression and panic attacks that he’s
experiencing in a delayed reaction to bereavement, as well as the
intense stress he’s under from hunting for a serial killer. He knows
that he’s troubled, but does something about it.
Several of the other characters are familiar with their own maladjusted way of thinking but have bent it to their will as it suits their purpose. In researching the novel, I found many examples of links between make-believe violence and the real thing. It’s foolish to pretend that we’re not affected by what we use for recreational purposes, whether it’s a book, film, piece of music, video game or drug, including alcohol. We wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t affect us in some way.
We are all supposed to be in charge of our thoughts and emotions, though, so that’s just about the only safeguard that’s in place. But what if someone has tipped over the edge of what is acceptable and is functioning in a different way? That’s what has happened to the two killers in The Perfect Murderer. One has been made into a killing machine, through wartime experiences. The Watcher started as a boy soldier and hasn’t stopped fighting since. He has no moral compass and exists only to play The Game which is as much a way of life for him as being a mercenary or paramilitary fighter. With little education, his family exterminated in ethnic cleansing and unable to trust friendships, he clings to a deadly framework to support himself.
Boy soldiers are commonly used in revolutionary warfare. The atrocities in Africa, the Middle East and Slovenia featured children as fighters—often kidnapped, it’s still going on. I once met and worked with a man who’d been snatched from his classroom by the army of the Ayatollah in Iran. He was 14 years old, and with minimum weapons training, he found himself in a firefight with a machine gun forty-eight hours later. He killed people, was the victim of chemical warfare, and twenty-five years later was still coping with the guilt of what he’d done, trying to make amends by working as a social worker with refugees in London.
Watcher is committing acts of great evil, though he doesn’t see them
that way. The other murderer, the vengeful detective sees things
differently too. He’s a psychopath, and even knows that he is—but
this only reinforces the moral crusade that he’s on. Much has been
written and filmed about psychopathy, and it’s common to view all
‘psychos’ as cold-blooded killers. They’re not, though they are often
more successful than most people would credit for people with a major
If you’re interested in learning more about psychopathy, I recommend ‘The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through The Madness Industry‘ by Jon Ronson. They are among us, though only comprise 1% of the population. However, in prisons, the percentage rate rises alarmingly, with some 25% of convicts reckoned to be psychopaths. We might look on that figure as reassuring that not all of them are as cunning as the malign detective in my story.
It may also comfort you to know that when I did the Hare PCL-R psychological assessment test for psychopathy, I scored a lowly 4—though I wouldn’t claim that I’m normal by any means. While I’m denying things, I should point out that nor do I share the particular sexual predilections of the lorry driver Fred Denyer. I love trees—but not that much!
Roger Rule’s behaviour is affected by the tumour growing in his brain, but up until that begins to happen he’s been sure that what he was doing was correct. This happens with serial killers, for they see things in such a different way that it’s hard to rationalise their thought processes. Just think of the crimes committed by high profile men from the world of entertainment against trusting and vulnerable children, women and young men. None of the convicted perpetrators has expressed any remorse—they considered what they did to be their right.
are sometimes extremely sexual people, though their desire is
motivated more by manipulation and a tactic to achieve another
conquest, than any feelings of love. They can be at the opposite
extreme too, as I found when meeting two murderers who’d killed their
wives for being licentious.
with most of my writing, there’s a lot of true personal stuff in the
fiction. They say to write about what you know, so I distributed
various maladies I’ve suffered from around my characters. I have
Raynaud’s phenomenon, which gives me cold feet, and was plagued with
Aspergillosis for seven months—caught from the mildewed walls of my
cottage home. I cured myself with a visit to the dry hot air of the
mountains of Andalusia—which The Watcher fantasises about visiting.
I had a lucky escape, as I was not long returned when the unfortunate
gardener, mentioned in the novel, died of this deadly lung infection.
I’ve gone through depression and panic attacks several times, helped more by counselling than medication. CC’s gout is from pained personal experience. I’ve only had a few attacks, but they are excruciating. It feels like the affected joint, usually the big toe, is being gripped in a vice which is being heated with a blowtorch while someone hammers the metal. Maddeningly, it’s a tough condition to get any sympathy for, as it’s become a cliché that it’s caused by rich eating and excessive drinking of dark spirits. It’s not, as it’s a form of arthritis that is hereditary in origin—I recall my grandfather having a gout stool to rest his foot on in front of his armchair. He was the shell-shocked man who left me a Hebel verey pistol from the WW1 trenches—which makes an appearance in the story.
The mental phenomena that Roger experiences are not all familiar to me, thank goodness. I’ve seen floaters in my eyes, but many people have, and I’ve had my sleep disturbed by exploding head syndrome four or five times in the course of my life. The black cat which the detective sees as a hallucination happened to the father of a friend when he was declining with a brain tumour. He took it in good humour and wasn’t alarmed by it, thinking it to be a visitor from his boyhood.
Morag Mallory is loosely based on a couple of female characters I’ve known. One of them had a lucrative sideline in producing hooch in her garage, a form of poteen that she learnt to make as a teenager in the Hebrides. I was thinking of an old head shop called Spice Island which operated in Southsea, Portsmouth in the 1980s when describing ‘Feed Your Head’. That emporium closed, but there’s plenty like it in Glastonbury. I knew a woman who used the community centre, who never wore shoes—not even in deep snow!
I played a bit fast and loose with the geographical location of ‘The Perfect Murderer’. Writers tend to do this, so I apologise to any purists who may try to track down the exact locations. Initially, I tried to make the story set in some unspecified county town. This was partly to give it a universal quality, which I hoped wouldn’t deter any readers—some like stories set in their home county and would be put off by a tale set hundreds of miles away. But I started to get a bit lost within my own story such as when sending characters to a specific street or settlement.
I started to think of places I’ve lived and known, though I mixed and merged them in some cosmic godlike way! Liskerrett is the ancient name for Liskeard, as well as the name of the community centre there. I added the high street in Andover, Hampshire to Liskeard, along with some woods and rabbit warrens I knew in Suffolk. The area of Bodmin Moor where the climax of the manhunt is set is real, though with names changed. Minions becomes Penamena—a blend of Pensilva, a village three miles away and Gonamena, a nearby mine. ‘The Cheesewring’ pub has its name changed to ‘Gold-Diggings’—the name of an abandoned and flooded quarry nearby.
Raven’s Nest is really Crow’s Nest, and Corneston is the new name for Launceston, once Cornwall’s county town. I renamed Saint Cleer with its ancient name of Saint Clarus. The standing stones of Long Tom and The Hurlers are rechristened Long Don and The Happy Maidens—nicked from The Merry Maidens down Penzance way. The hidden flooded burial mound really exists and was shown to me by a friend who knows the area well.
Old adits and mines are a hazard on the moor. The sinkhole that happened in 2009 over by the Cheesewring quarry is real, and there forever. I had a friend who explored abandoned mines on his own, without telling people where he was going and I thought him mad! Mining was carried out without proper maps being made for centuries, so the ground can be very unstable, especially after heavy rain.
Emulating Zeus, I dragged the old military airbase of Saint Mawgan closer to Liskerret, though there are several decommissioned and WW2 era runways in Cornwall, including RAF Davidstow Moor, just to the north of Bodmin Moor.
Various themes emerged during the writing of the novel, not all of them pre-planned. The great novelist E.L Doctorow observed that “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” He’s right, and some of the things that I realised I was writing about surprised me a little.
One of my preoccupations was feet and tracking, including tracing the trail we leave in the lives of others. Feet cropped up in different ways—through the impressions left in the soil, the scent marker that the bloodhound follows, CC’s gout, The Watcher’s Raynaud’s phenomenon, Frank’s sprained ankle, Morag’s bare feet, the gouge wounds in the victims’ heels. All of the investigating team become more aware of their feet and walking, realising that by travelling everywhere by car, they’ve lost touch with the public. The decline of the beat bobby that occurred in the 1960s was precipitated by the increased use of patrol cars.
features heavily in the story. Neil is isolated by being in command,
and only really opens up to his father-in-law, Roger—a man who
trusts no one. The Watcher is similarly untrusting, though his
reluctance to be close to anyone comes from his survival instincts.
Frank shares with those who can help him, such as Brian and Bruce,
but keeps things back from his colleagues and family.
Some of this reticence to be communicative comes from the solitariness of the characters. Neil reads that 34% of the population lives alone, as does he, Roger, CC, Mac, Super-Cooper, Brad Whitford, Barbara Thompson, Nigel Fletcher, Robbie Frazier, Eamon O’Flannery and Mal Lavelle and several of the potential suspects. Some of them alleviate their loneliness by having the company of a pet, but those who exist as solitaries can get out of the habit of talking. Instead, they channel their energies into hobbies and activities—photography, orchids, bees, cycling, wildlife and good causes.
The story is set against what some of the characters see as a breakdown of morals. Video gaming, social networking, television and newspapers all view murder as a source of entertainment. The wildness of the countryside shows how we become more at risk out of town. Hunter and prey can include human beings. Few people could survive for more than a couple of days if lost in the wilds—and we’re not on the food chain in the U.K.
Then, another murder happens, which doesn’t fit the pattern.
A second killer has joined in.
A serial killer, known as The Watcher, is terrorising the small market town of Liskerrett, Cornwall and the surrounding area, taking victims seemingly at random and with great expertise.
Kettle is running a major murder investigation, as he struggles with
depression, a delayed reaction to the accidental death of his wife
four years ago.
Three people have been murdered, a child, an old woman and an American tourist, all dying by different methods. The perpetrator is playing a game, one as old as time. He’s a fantasist, but is he a psychopath? His killing skills suggest military training—he might have PTSD.
A master of disguise, he never appears the same way twice when spotted in public on CCTV, imitating women and disabled war veterans. Neil’s detectives have close encounters with the killer, not realising who he is. He could be targetting them.
almost Christmas, and Liskerrett is busy with thrill-seeking ghouls,
visiting the murder scenes and hampering the hunt for a murderer who
kills perfectly. Neil and his team of detectives are under enormous
pressure to catch the killer, for Liskerrett is already being
referred to as ‘Murder Town.’
investigation becomes even more complicated, when MI5 and the FBI
take an interest. They provide Neil with useful information about the
perpetrator, but what are they keeping secret?
Neil feels isolated in command, his only friends the forensic pathologist Christie Cook, known as CC, and his father-in-law, the retired chief detective Roger Rule, an autocratic control-freak with a heart of ice. But, Roger was a highly successful murder investigator, so Neil turns to him for advice.
another murder happens, which doesn’t fit the pattern.