Anyone who’s writing a crime and thriller novel, and is thinking of applying to our creative writing courses in London or online, needs to understand the expectations of the genre and what its readers want. Stuart Prebble (above) – whose novel The Bridge is published by our sister company Studio 28 today – tells us how he created such a tense thriller about the hunt for a sadistic killer.
One of the best and most familiar pieces of advice given to aspiring authors is to ‘write what you know’. So when I began to think about the plot of a new novel involving a serial killer, my mind went back some four decades to the only time I’ve been close to a real-life murder investigation. The case was among the most notorious in the history of the British criminal justice system.
The so-called Yorkshire Ripper was a sadistic psychopath who killed 13 women over a five-year period up to his arrest in 1981. Most of his victims were prostitutes, and nearly all the murders were committed around the red-light districts of Leeds, Bradford and other towns in the north of England.
I was a young and inexperienced TV news reporter at that time, and this was big news, so I remember feeling nervous as I filed stories for the national bulletins about the progress of the investigation. Women were afraid to go out at night, I reported. Men felt a collective sense of guilt on behalf of their gender, and an individual sense that at some time, somewhere, someone might be looking at them and wondering ‘could it be you?’
It was an uncomfortable and disturbing feeling, which I shared and stored away. Of course I had no idea that the memory would resurface 40 years later to serve as the background to the plot of my latest novel.
These ‘Ripper’ murders took place well before there was such a thing as a DNA database, and before the world was populated by thousands of surveillance cameras, so for several years the police enquiry seemed to be getting nowhere. Then one day an extraordinary thing happened. Detectives announced they had received a letter and a tape-recording from someone claiming to be the killer. The news caused a sensation and I vividly remember joining a large gathering of TV and press reporters as detectives prepared to ask the public if they recognised the handwriting and the voice on the tape.
Even in such an overcrowded room, you could have heard a pin drop as the tape recorder clicked on and a deep male voice with an unmistakably northern accent said ‘I’m Jack’. Maybe it was just the macabre background and circumstances, but to me it sounded like the voice of pure evil. I still recall the shudder that went through me as the man taunted the senior detective, Detective Chief Superintendent George Oldfield, by name.
‘I have the greatest respect for you George, but Lord! You are no nearer catching me now than four years ago when I started.’
The incident must have made a deep impression because it all came flooding back as the plot for The Bridge began to take shape in my mind. As with the Ripper, the news-media in my story gives a name to the fugitive which seems appropriate. ‘The Madman’ in the novel does not kill women, but his crimes are every bit as appalling. Detectives hunting him also receive letters and recordings which they believe hold the key to cracking the crimes. Just as in the search for the Yorkshire Ripper, my detectives take a huge risk in placing their trust in the idea that the man on the tapes and the killer are one and the same.
In the real-life case in the north-east, experts in linguistics from Newcastle University were immediately called upon to locate the area from which the accent originated. They quickly announced that it came from a small town called Seaham in Country Durham. Now increasingly confident they were closing in on their man, detectives questioned every adult male for miles around, eliminating them one by one. At the same time, officers were stopping men randomly in red-light districts throughout the region. They were only sent on their way if their accent was obviously from somewhere else.
Among the thousands of men who were stopped and questioned was one Peter Sutcliffe, who was a lorry driver working in the area, and who bore a remarkable resemblance to the identikit picture of the suspect. However his accent was nothing like the man on the tape, and so he was allowed on his way. In all, he was interviewed by police but then released on nine separate occasions.
Sutcliffe was eventually arrested in a red-light district, and asked the police if he could urinate in nearby bushes. They allowed it, and he took the opportunity to jettison the hammer, knife and rope which were the tools of his terrible trade. Under questioning back at the police station, however, he eventually broke down and confessed. The five-year hunt was over.
Peter Sutcliffe was sentenced to serve his entire life in prison, where he resides to this day. Little more was heard about the letters and tapes, until 25 years later in 2006 when a sad and misguided misfit named John Samuel Humble was sentenced to eight years for sending the letters and tapes. Upon his release he told journalists that ‘it was a prank, I did it for a bit of fun.’
Perhaps it’s understandable that when faced with a murder hunt which is going nowhere, and a public clamouring for results, detectives might become fixated on any lead that comes their way. Even so, I dared not stretch my readers’ credulity by making my fictional officers in The Bridge quite as incompetent as their real-life counterparts from the 1980s seemed to be. The joy of writing fiction is that such blunders lead only to a series of twists and turns as the plot thickens, rather than to further death and tragedy in the real world. Which may be why it’s so much easier to be a writer than a detective.
The Bridge by Stuart Prebble is published today by Studio 28. To buy a copy, please click here.
For more information or to apply for a Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course, please click here.