Sunday, 10 May 2009

Guest Author: Michael O'Byrne

Michael is the author of “The Crime Writers Guide to Police Practice and Procedure,” which has just been published by Robert Hale Publishing. It is a ‘must have’ book for any budding crime writer and Michael has kindly agreed to stop by my Blog to answer some questions. Mike will also be happy to answer any questions you care to add in the comments below.

Tell us a bit about your book.
It is what it says on the cover! It’s a guide to police practice written I hope in non-technical language aimed specifically at crime writers – (although a lot of journalists/reporters would benefit from reading it even if only to get the rank structure right) – as a crime writer myself I think I can see what is of interest to other writers and can give them some guidance on what they need and don’t need to know, and maybe some ideas on roles that have not been used to best effect.

What motivated you to write this book?
I went to the Swanwick Writers school about three years ago and was asked to run a short workshop on crime. I enjoyed it and could do it without too much extra work on my part. It was very successful and I was asked to run a 4 hour workshop the next year. I had to do a lot of research for it – I looked around and found that there is a real dearth of books on this subject despite the fact that crime writing is probably one of the biggest genres so I put the idea of a book to three publishers, two turned it down and Robert Hale took it up.

Did you have to do much research on top of what you already knew from your police career?
I had to do a lot of research in two areas DNA and profiling. DNA had moved on a lot since I retired and I needed to get up to speed and of course you need to know a technical subject well if you want to describe it in non-technical language. I have just about enough science in my background to find this interesting rather than a bore, I can only hope that I have managed on the ‘non-technical interesting read’ bit. Researching profiling was fascinating as it is a much loved device now, especially with American writers, and of course by journalists. My interest was also fired by the fact that I was in Surrey Police when it was first used by the British police in the railway murders. Geographic profiling, trying to narrow the possible suspects by working out where he/she might live or work has some value but psychological profiling is just sophisticated guess-work with real dangers attached to its use. I had to be sure of my ground when writing this just because of the mythology that surrounds it.

Have the police procedures you describe changed much over the decades?
There are two ‘procedures’ to consider those for detection and those for prosecution.
Those for detection changed for the first time with the development of fingerprinting at the turn of the last century, then the growth of sophisticated forensics in the 70s and 80s then finally with the development of genetic fingerprinting in the 90s. The latter has revolutionised the treatment of crime scenes as the dangers of contamination are so great, such that for some crime scenes the Senior Investigating Officer may not get in for two or three days while the SOCOs do their work.

In prosecutions the first major change was the introduction of the Judges Rules and the police caution in 1910/11 then nothing much really changed until the Police and Criminal Evidence Act in 1984 followed by the introduction of the Crown Prosecution Service in the late 80s. The most recent changes have been the avalanche of anti-terrorism provisions which could take up a whole book themselves.

The other change worth mentioning is the culture of the service itself. When I joined in 1970 it was very male, white, conservative whereas there are now a lot more women in every rank and specialism and a growing (although still too small) number of people from the visible minority communities.

What do you think will change most in the future?
In the immediate future the service will be subject to the same pressures as the rest of the public services in have to cope with significant budget cuts – my own hope is that this leads to an appraisal of the use of Community Safety Officers a change that has never been evaluated and which now takes up a significant amount of forces’ budgets.

Longer term I think that there may be a backlash on the repressive legislation that has been introduced by the Labour government in the last ten years, I think we have seen the beginning in the way they have been forced to change their stance on retaining DNA and in the recent reaction to the fact that the Met used the powers under the terrorism acts to stop and search over 150,000 people, nearly a third of whom were of Asian or Afro-Caribbean origin. This cannot be right and is alienating the very communities whose active support we need to cope with the problem that Islamist terrorism presents

Your first love is fiction – is that where you will be concentrating your efforts next?
I have written two books neither of which could find a publisher’s editor who could ‘fall in love with’ them. I am now in the middle of a crime thriller based on a retired police officer living in the Greek Islands which I hope to finish this summer. If it works I may be able to fulfil my wish to emulate Hammond Innes who managed to finance his life sailing round there on the basis of his writing.

What is the best thing about being a writer?
Putting together a piece that you know instinctively hangs together and works – especially if it has dialogue that sound real and pacey.

And the worst?
Same as everyone else – the first blank page/screen where you know you want to write something but can’t seem to get the first sentence to emerge.

What piece of advice would you offer to anyone thinking of writing crime? (apart from buy your book of course)
KISS – keep it simple stupid! Don’t get too technical unless you really need to and are willing to do the research. One of my favourite writers in Ian Rankin and I think it is (apart from super plots and characterisation) because he never gets technical ( I don’t think Rebus ever actually arrests and cautions anyone) and because he has great cop dialogue which creates the right atmosphere.

Thank you Michael for answering my questions.


  1. I have a question for Mr. O'Byrne. I'm an American author trying to do research on police procedures in Scotland. I was thrilled to learn about your book but want to know if the same information about English procedures would apply to Scotland as well (forgive my ignorance). :)
    Thank you,

  2. this is an interesting question and your lack oif knowledge of the difference beweeen England and Scotland is shared by most of the people living in the UK, and they don't have your excuse. In esence there is little or no difference in the processes and procedures in both countries. The two major differences are in the law of corroboration and in the office of the Procurator Fiscal. In Scotland a case cannort be made against a person without corroboration e.g. on the word of a single accuser. This has added to the cost of policing in Scotland as it usuually ends up with officers always working in pairs and creates a higher threshold for charging a ssuspect. The second difference is in the office of Fiscal. He/she is much more like the US District Attorney than the English Crown Prosecutor in the he can direct police enquiries. In almost every other way the law and practice is the same

  3. I really appreciate your reply - that knowledge helps a lot. I just ordered your book so I'm looking forward to gleaning more good information. Thanks so much!

  4. I am finding your book enormously helpful as I am writing my first crime novel (I have two other published novels). Thank you. One question - my crime takes place in an old people's home. The GP who comes to sign the death certificate is not entirely happy with what he finds, but does not necessarily suspect murder (although the death is suspicious). What should he do? Contact the coroner for a post mortem, or send for the police in the first instance?
    Thank you.

  5. Hi Frances,
    what he does depemnds on the nature and strength of his suspicions. From wjhat you say i guess that he/she suspects that the cause of death is either abuse of medication or suffocation - the usuual ways of killing the elderly. Suffocation wouod usuually show in burst cappileries in nthe eyes unless the victim was very frail. If the doctor has no firm grouns he would more than likely just decline to sign the death certificate and inform the coroner. This would mean that the matter woulod then be pursued initially by the coroner's offcer (almost always a retired police offcer) who would take it forward, involving the police when appropriate, probably after the pm. In plotting terms a key issue may be preservation of the scene if there is the possibility of forensic evidence 9 e.g. fibres in suffocation). Hope thisis helpful

  6. Belated thanks for that, Michael. It was very helpful. In the meantime, I have found a tame policeman who has been wonderful; nothing too much trouble. The problem is that there are questions I need to ask all the time. Ideally, I'd like to persuade him to give up the day job and come and stay with me for the duration...

  7. Dear Michael,
    I am currently writing a horror novel and have been reading your guide to police procedure so as to make the story as accurate as possible. There are, however, a few specific questions that remained unanswered after searching through your book, and I would be most grateful if you could help me out. Firstly, if an innocent person's home is cornered off as the scene of a murder, would that person be required to stay elsewhere while the scene was being investigated? If so, then for how long (assuming that the circumstances of the murder were utterly baffling)? Secondly, if an extensive post-mortem examination was necessary, what sort of time limit would the pathologists have to keep the corpse itself at the mortuary (again, assuming that this was a very complex case)?

  8. Michael has asked me to post the following reply.

    Hi J-palm,
    I'll deal with the two elements separately.
    Once the scene of the crime has been thoroughly forensically examined and the investigating officer is happy that he/she can't get anything more from it, it will be returned to the owner. This will be weeks and may be months depending on the facts. If the owner wanted possession before the police were willing to give it up he could go to court for a possession order and the police would need to justify their reasons for wanting to retain possession.
    The body is easier. It belongs to the coroner (not the family) and he/she can decide on what happens to it. Bodies in complex cases are kept sometimes for very long periods, especially if it is difficult to establish a cause of death, as if there is an arrest the suspect is entitled to have a pathological examination made on his behalf by his pathologist.

  9. Michael, having just bought your brilliant book, please can you help me. If the murderer takes out a light bulb, the victim falls down the stairs and then he replaces the bulb, the finger prints that are on the bulb would they be destroyed from the heat when the detective puts the light on to view the victim. It is thought to be an accident but turns out to be murder. From Shirley.

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