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The day I met a homicide detective

I was sitting across the table from a homicide detective and she was watching me, taking the measure of me in a way that made me aware of every word I said and how I said it. The room was small – was it one of their standard interview rooms? I caught myself checking for a one-sided mirror but the walls were a uniform pale shade of oatmeal, more office than police. In the room there was nothing but a table with four chairs, a homicide detective with far better things to do and a crime fiction writer who was trying very hard to be calm and collected.

  I should have realised that being in that room in the headquarters of the Seattle Police Department was not a place conducive to get the detective to open up to me and speak candidly about her job and what it is like to be chasing down murderers and violent felons. This was the place where they did the chasing down. It was far more likely that she would get me to talk to her than vice versa.

  I write crime fiction, more specifically I write about a homicide detective, Alice Madison, in the Seattle Police Department, in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, which explain why my research had led me on a grey March day – only hours before my plane would take me back to my London home – to be across the table from the real life version of my character. And why I was feeling under scrutiny and slightly apprehensive.   

  The meeting had been organised by her former detective sergeant and sparing the time to see me in the middle of her day was a kindness – a kindness I did not want her to regret.

  She was in her early fifties and had sharp eyes and the poise of someone used to run things and get things done. She had come to policing quite late – when she was thirty-four – but her colleagues had seen an aptitude for a particular kind of work and, after years in other units like patrol and sex crimes, had encouraged her to apply to Homicide. Two and a half years later she had investigated six cases out of Seattle’s yearly quota of 30-35 murders, and – for her sins – found herself talking to me.

  When I’m talking to an officer, and I have little time to develop a connection, I always try to get straight to the core of policing: there is a huge mythology about the work police officers do and it has been represented in a thousand ways in books and films – many times possibly misrepresented. What would she have liked the public to know about being a detective that is not always portrayed in the media?

  She considered the question and I knew I’d get a straight answer. Detectives need to know how to document things, she said, they need to know how to prepare against the defense because when it goes to court their case needs to be watertight.

  I nodded, trying not to interrupt her stream of thoughts. Detectives need to be hard working and tenacious, she continued, with a long attention span. Sure, they need the ability to talk to people but they must be very good with paperwork too. Shoddy paperwork can lose a case. Families don’t get to pick the detective that leads their loved one’s murder investigation and talking to them is like walking a tightrope. I asked her why. Because you cannot give them the complete assurance that you will find the murderer and they’ll go to jail, you just cannot make that kind of promise. But, she continued, what she does say is ‘I promise we will never stop looking’. And when she said it I believed her.

  What did she remember most about her first case as a primary detective? Mostly, she replied, the pressure of not messing up, of doing things right, dotting the Is and crossing the Ts. That pressure was all consuming. She was being totally honest and I was more grateful than I could say.

  We spoke about the pressures of being a mother with teenagers and working night shifts, of the arrangements come undone because at the last minute a suspect had been arrested and she had to question him instead of having lunch with her daughter on her way to a job interview.

  I could have stayed in the little room for hours listening to her talk about the job she obviously felt so passionately about but I was aware that beyond the door she had cases to go back to and work to do. Incidentally, her partner had not joined us because they’d had a murder at the weekend and she was too busy. It kind of puts things into perspective.

  As a last note I asked her if there was something particularly irksome in the way films, television and books portray women detectives and I did get a smile. She had watched a film the other day, she replied, and the detective looked frumpy, as if she hadn’t even brushed her hair when she left her house. Women detectives wore business casual, she said, and they brush their hair. I thought about a French television series with a woman homicide detective, I thought of her scrunched up pony-tail and the strap of her vest which was constantly threatening to fall off her shoulder. It was almost distracting from the story. The real detective had a point.

  I thanked her and she took me downstairs through security. We said goodbye and I went back to my hotel and she went back to the weekend’s murder. She was brilliant, I thought, absolutely brilliant. My character is twenty years younger and a completely different person but I would love for her to grow up to be that kind of detective.