IF IN DOUBT, ASK
Research is a wonderful thing. If you are a writer, research is the magical thing that gets your plot from A to B, and the essential nugget of knowledge that will help you fathom a solution to a seemingly impossible problem. There are many kinds of research: some you do before you start writing and some you only find out you need when you are elbow deep in your story.
On my first visit to New York – long before I started writing the Alice Madison series – I decided that I needed to find out more about the witness protection program and how it worked. This was in the days before internet and Google; so I looked up the telephone number for the New York office of the US Marshals and I called them from my hotel room. The phone call went something like this:
ME: Hello, I wonder if you could help me. Would it be possible for someone from your office to talk to me about how the witness protection program is run? I’m a writer and I live in London. I would love to find out more about how you give witnesses new identities and protect them in their new lives.
(a very long silence)
US MARSHALS: May I have your name?
ME: Sure, it’s Valentina Giambanco and–
US MARSHALS: You need to talk to our media office and they’ll process your request, it will take a couple of weeks.
ME: Oh Gosh, I’m only in New York for a couple of days.
(another long silence)
US MARSHALS: Let me see what I can do.
ME: That would be great, that would be brilliant. Thank you so much. I’m staying at the–
US MARSHALS: It’s okay. We know where you are. Someone will call you back.
The reason why they knew exactly where I was was that my phone call had been traced to the Lexington Hotel on 53rd. The reason they traced my call was that I was breezily asking them about procedures and processes that are highly confidential and only my peppy English accent (I sound British only when I’m in the USA) told them that I was not in fact a Mafia spy come to learn their secrets. As it happens, I am half-Sicilian but that did not seem to matter a jot.
Someone did call me back and two hours later a US Marshal met me in the hotel bar, quickly checked my passport to make sure I was who I said I was, and then, over a Coke and a coffee, proceeded to tell me what he could about his job.
He was Italian-American and was the spitting image of Roy Scheider in Jaws – down to the deep tan and the glasses. He had a background in naval intelligence and had joined the Marshals a few years earlier.
I could not believe what was happening. I was actually talking to a Marshal. Someone who was helping to protect witnesses against one of the most ruthless and dangerous organisations the world has ever known. He had recently worked in Italy – helping the Italian police to set up the same sort of program they had in the USA.
Did he explain to me how the system worked? How they create new identities and resettle people who live with bounties on their heads? No, he did not. But he was very patient and answered as many questions as he could. And he took the trouble to come and meet me because I was about to leave town and couldn’t go through the regular channels. I was amazed; I still am. And all because I picked up the phone and asked.
Incidentally, only a few years ago, while doing research for the Alice Madison series in Seattle, I approached two patrol officers in the street – I’m getting very good at this now and I can weather the initial befuddled expressions – and I asked them whether I could interview them.
Forty-eight hours later I spent the day on a ride-along with a phenomenal police officer – a thirty-year old veteran of the Settle Police Department who, in single eight-hour shift, forever changed my perception of policing.
I will never get over how people – in my case, officers and agents – have been willing to help and have been ready to give their time just for the pleasure of talking to me about their jobs. Google is all well and good but I recommend picking up the phone. Even if, occasionally, the call gets traced.