It’s like this. I write a detective nun, Sister Agnes. Based in South London, working in a hostel for homeless kids, work that takes her to the dark places of city life. So when John Taylor of Fiction Factory commissioned me to write a radio play about an Air Crash Investigator, all I could see were the differences. Agnes’s work is all about the dispossessed, the desperate, the vulnerable, where a fine line divides those who cause the harm and those who are harmed.
My stories tend to start with an addict found dead in a squalid flat, a man stabbed in a street brawl. A plane falling out of the sky is a very different story.
I soon found myself in a world of fuel injection systems, cargo hold design, the patterns of ice formation in jet engines, the self-igniting dangers of lithium batteries. Or even, as in one case I researched, a screw coming loose in the engine. The classic detective story tends to have maximum mystery and minimum tragedy. An air disaster tends to have maximum tragedy and minimum mystery.
The world that Agnes inhabits is as real as I can make it. The police work round the edge of her cases is based on fact, (and I make sure the Bermondsey bus routes are accurate too). The same had to be true of Mitchener. The time I spent at the Air Crash Investigation Branch in Hampshire was hugely informative. The concern of their teams for the truth, their state-of-the-art technology, their painstaking forensic explorations that can go on for years, their respect for the relatives of those who die in this rare but cruel way – all of this was impressive and very moving.
There is a point, of course, when fiction departs from reality. Story telling is just that, a story, and reality is shaped to fit the tale. But crime fiction deals with human suffering, with loss, grief, rage, revenge. And whether it’s a cop, a nun, an air crash investigator, the detective stands with the bereaved relative in the mortuary, or by the twisted wreckage of a plane, offering some small solace in the form of answers. Michael Maloney brought to Mitchener his own brilliance, giving him his restlessness, his quiet rage, the sense that the quest for answers was as much for himself as for the investigation.
When we turn the page, or listen on the edge of our seat, it’s because we want to know the answer too.
Black Box Detective
A new radio play to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 2nd August at 2.14