Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Unhappy happenstance

The title of this blog has never been more apposite, or more ironic, than in the past few days.

On the one hand, I’m the author of a thriller about a taxi driver who goes on a killing spree, murdering people seemingly at random. On the other, I’m still doing the day job as a reporter on a Sunday newspaper.

Last Wednesday, I was told to pack a bag and head for Cumbria – after a taxi driver went on a killing spree, murdering people seemingly at random. No shortage of blood and no shortage of irony.

I’ve been parachuted into “similar” situations often enough before but the odd parallels between my fiction and Derrick Bird’s reality made this slightly different.
Not that there was any time to consider the oddness of the coincidence as there was work to be done. This was a story of national significance and global interest and, whether people think it right or not, the job of the media is to report on it and that meant being there.

On Wednesday, reporters and photographers raced to west Cumbria as news of the shootings broke. By Thursday, Whitehaven and its surrounding villages were under siege by the press, me included. My remit was the stories of the bereaved and witnesses, what might be called the lost and found – those who lost loved ones or those who found the bodies of victims.

It’s a typically cavalier journalistic term, the kind of thing that gets you through a job like this where it doesn’t pay to become too involved, even if that is sometimes easier said that done. The dividing line between reporter and writer stands somewhere along that crevice, where one must remain detached as the other must make a connection in order to understand and therefore relate.

I stood, precariously, with a foot either side of the line.

It inevitably struck me how much easier it is to write fiction about someone being shot, revelling in all the gory detail, than it is to be confronted with the evidence of very real deaths and having to interview the lost and found. A photographer I know was one of the first on the scene and dashed from village to village, trying to record the mayhem as it unfolded. He personally found three bodies as he drove in the wake of the killer, just coming across them as they lay untended by the roadside, blood flowing into gutters, as the police concentrated on catching Bird.

A nice old gentleman that I spoke to, who from my parochial point of view had the added bonus of being Scottish, had to face the horror of one of the victims, a neighbour, being shot on his doorstep. He rushed to her aid but she had died immediately with half her face blown away, a situation that he described with remarkable understatement as “something that you don’t see every day.”

As part of my research for Random, I read extensively about serial killers including various tomes by psychologists who had conducted series of interviews with murderers. I know lots about trigger points and psychoses, Mad Emperor Syndrome, Fractured Identity Syndrome, Looking Glass Self and more.

I know the distinction between serial killers, mass murderers and spree killers – but then any fan of CSI could tell you that. I know the FBI’s Crime Classification Manual divide them into “organised”, “disorganised” and “mixed” killers. Their motives are generally categorised as being “visionary”, “mission-oriented”, “hedonistic” and “power or control”.

But does any of this give me a greater insight into why Derrick Bird embarked on his particular killing spree? Not particularly. As with Thomas Hamilton and Michael Ryan, Bird destroyed the most vital piece of evidence – himself. Without the opportunity to question him, all that is left is the tittle tattle of other taxi drivers, half stories of feuds and tax bills, taunts and vice girls. It’s all grist to the tabloid mill but is unlikely to ever give a definitive answer as to the Why.

It’s all so much simpler in the world of fiction. In Random, as in west Cumbria, there is never any doubt as to Whodunnit as the story is told by the killer himself. The Whydunnit unfolds in due course and all is revealed.

Being inside the head of my killer, The Cutter, was an uncomfortable place to be. Being inside the head of Derrick Bird might be too much for anyone and in the end, it proved too much for him.

Any way you look at it, there was far too much blood and far too much irony.

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