As the son of a copper, writing a series of police procedurals, I often think how my father would react to the books – especially now, just a few days from the publication of the next one – Death Watch.
Dad – or Det Chief Inspector Brian Kelly – was not a shy critic of fictional investigators. I have an image of him in later years, in an arm-chair, watching No Hiding Place, or Gideon’s Way, and barking: "That’s it – leave your bloody fingerprints on everything," as some hapless detective worked his way through the crime scene picking things up. He was particularly critical of John Gregson as Gideon – partly I suspect because Mum had a bit of a soft spot for the leading man. This passion was a kind of compliment, as Gregson bore a surprising resemblance to Dad, as did Jack Hawkins, who played the same role in the film version.
But Dad wasn’t pompous about the police force, and the two anecdotes which he enjoyed telling most weren’t designed to burnish an image of brisk efficiency.
On the day he took to the streets of London in uniform in 1939 – Warrant Number 90/128033 – he was asked to follow a beat over Hampstead Heath. It was a hot night, and he was a keen swimmer and played first class rugby, so when he got to one of the ponds in the early hours he stripped off for a dip. When he swam up to the edge to climb out he found his neatly folded uniform framed by the large polished boots of the station sergeant who had come out to check on him. He was marched back on a charge.
Later he was given a beat around King’s Cross. He’d learnt by this time that he was to maintain at all times – except in an emergency – a stately walking pace. (And to keep his clothes on). Through the long hours of the night he would pace the streets, maintaining the dignity of his office – with one exception. When he got to the corner of Hilldrop Crescent the thought of passing Crippen’s house at No 39 was always too much for him, and a kind of childish panic took hold. I can see him running past, one hand holding his helmet in place on his head, the blakeys on his boots producing sparks off the pavement.
For a boy with hardly any formal education, and a career interrupted by three years as a Commando from 1942-45, Dad did well in ‘The Job’. But at the age of ten years, in 1967, I was taken aside and told, firmly, that I could do anything I wished with my life except follow those stately footsteps. What did Dad fear for me ? Perhaps he felt he’d spent too much of his life with London’s low-life, and it had bred a cynical nature. It hadn’t helped that he’d been at Scotland Yard during the years when corruption had infiltrated parts of the Met, a cancer not fully addressed until the appointment of Sir Robert Mark.
Dad was an honest copper. It was something his colleagues said about him later, a comment which always made me wonder how many were not. I went in to the old Yard just once. I remember his office – nicotine stained – and I’ve still got his ash-tray by me now as I type. And he took me down stairs into Canon Row police station to view the latest technological miracle installed to combat organised crime – a photocopier.
Despite the glamour of the Yard, and a job he enjoyed, he wanted something better for his three sons, and I guess he knew that ‘coppering’ has a nasty habit of running in families. I rang the Met’s Record Office recently to check up some details on his career and ended up chatting to ex-copper Neil Paterson.
Both his parents were in the force, and he said that it seemed that most coppers were related to other coppers. "There’s three of us here in the office, and we all had a relative in the force. It’s just like a big firm, isn’t it ?" And when police officers make the headlines, often for the wrong reasons, it’s odd how often they are part of coppering families. When young woman PC Nina McKay was stabbed to death in 1997 the outcry against those who’d failed to lock her killer up earlier that very day was led by her father – former Chief Superintendant Sidney McKay. So perhaps that’s why Dad did it – he didn’t want my name in the papers.
I doubt Dad saw the irony when I got my first job as a reporter – getting my name in the paper every week. I didn’t make a career out of reporting crime, although I covered many cases, and a few which crossed Dad’s tracks – including the A6 murder, and the guilty, not-guilty, guilty-after-all, story of James Hanratty.
When I went through Dad’s papers at home after he died a mug shot of Hanratty dropped out. Dad always said he was guilty, and it’s a pity he died before the latest forensic developments pretty much proved him right.
In his last years we did find we had a lot in common. In many ways being a good reporter needs the same attitude as that of a policeman – you need to feel that you have a right to know, a right to ask questions, and you have to be devious – what journalists like to refer to as ‘rat-like cunning’.
My later career took me to the Financial Times. In retrospect I now see I spent quiet a bit of time interviewing crooks, and I always used to covet the moment when I knew someone was telling me a lie. It unleashes a kind of righteous indignation which is extremely powerful. I like to think Dad felt the same way the first time he interviewed the Kray Twins – for nicking guttering in a street, then trying to flog the gutters back to the hapless householders.
I didn’t see my first crime novel published until 2001, more than quarter of a century after Dad died – but I think he’d recognise facets of his character in my two sleuths – DI Peter Shaw, and DS George Valentine. In many ways they are both Dad – young and old. Shaw’s the athlete, righteous, and clean-cut. Valentine is the cynic, with a penchant for the odd sniff of the barmaid’s apron, and his eyes set on a pension.
If Dad had lived to read the books I hope he would have enjoyed them, and reflected, I think, that telling children they can’t do something can have some very unpredictable outcomes.
Death Watch, the second in the Shaw and Valentine series, is published by Penguin Books on February 25.