Graham Bartlett talks about his second calling

There’s a powerful sense of frustration in your book Bad For Good with cuts to the police, the merger of police authorities, and officers being stretched to the limit. In your plot that leads to vigilantism – do you think that is a real threat?

I definitely think it’s a real threat. I think the police are being not only cut to dangerous levels, but also the expectation is being spread too thin, so they’re forever dealing with mental health, they’re dealing with basically non police issues, and because they’re 24/7 they’re the service of first and last resort. I’ve not seen vigilantism on the scale that I portray in Bad for Good, it was supposed to be something that could happen in the future, it is a work of fiction, but I can honestly see that if things don’t start to improve the public will just get fed up with calling the police and they’re not turning up, or not turning up quickly enough, or not having the resources to do a thorough job, and just think “You know what? We’re going to take it into our own hands. We know who’s making our life a misery on this estate so we’ll send a couple of big boys around and sort them out”. I think that’s a very real possibility, and it’s obviously hugely scary.

It’s very frightening in the book, but you can understand why people might turn to private security firms instead of waiting for hours for the over-stretched police to turn up because they haven’t got the resources to cope with demand.

They haven’t, and if you speak to them they are literally run ragged, they’re not sitting around waiting for work. They’re not getting a meal break, they’re rarely off on time, they’re being run from pillar to post every day, every night.

How many police officers down are they?

I think it’s about 20%, something like that, which is a huge number to cut. Sussex Police was 3000, so 20% would bring it down to what, 2400? I had 600 police officers in Brighton and Hove, so that’s 600 police officers you’ve removed, so basically, across Sussex, you’ve removed the entire police complement of Brighton and Hove. But of course what you also do, and this goes back to an earlier question, you lose a lot of experience. You can’t make police officers redundant because they’re not employees, it’s kind of antiquated, they hold an office, they’re not employees, so you can’t make them redundant, there’s no way to do that. What you can do is you can make them retire when they reach retirement age and so a lot of people were forced to retire when they might not otherwise have retired. And a lot of experienced people chose to leave as well because they just thought “Do you know what, I just can’t do this anymore.” So you lost all the experience and then you have the [government saying] “We’re going to invest millions of pounds in new police officers.” Well, first of all, all you’re doing is bringing it somewhere close to the numbers there were before (but not when the cuts started) and secondly, you’re bringing in new people, so you’re bringing in people that you’re going to need to vet, train, deploy, develop and then eventually promote. If you think you’re getting rid of people that are inspectors or chief inspectors, that will take years to replace those properly, and all of the air bubbles that that causes through the system, it takes 15 years to do that.

The merging of police authorities means they have fewer resources between them, doesn’t it?

Yes, but I think there are some benefits of that. You have a system where you’ve got 43 police forces across the UK, including the Met and the City of London, the two London forces. On each of those forces, with the exception of those two, you have a police and crime commissioner, which is an elected person who replaced police authorities, you have a chief constable, you have a group of chief officers, you have a director of finance, director of HR for each of those forces. Now some of those forces are huge, really, really busy, and probably warrant all of that. And you have other forces of 1000 police officers, tiny forces that still have that same infrastructure, so I think there is some benefit in structurally merging and creating some rationalisation at those higher levels, but not at the expense of the operational levels.

In the book you have an officer driving from Kent to Sussex who won’t get where he’s needed for a couple of hours.

Well that again is looking into the future. Surrey and Sussex share their Major Crime Team, which is where we first meet Jo. In the book she’s head of Major Crime for Surrey and Sussex, so I stretched it and added Kent and  Hampshire.

You could have an officer who lives in Dover and they pick up a murder in the New Forest, that’s still on their patch, and it’s going to take them most of the day to get there. If you have an officer who’s living in Woking or Guildford who’s got to get to Hastings, that’s still a long way, so there are issues with merging operational units, but I think there are opportunities to make savings to reinvest at the operational level.

What made you want to make your detective a woman?

It was stupidity ’cause it was so hard! It was so hard to write, but I wanted to. Obviously I’ve done the role that Jo is doing, not quite the same circumstances, but I had done that role and people know that I’ve done that role. I’ve been the divisional commander here, so I didn’t want people to think “Oh, this is just autobiographical. He’s just using it as a cathartic exercise”.

But also I did actually want to explore something about how it was different for women both in terms of what they go through, but also what they offer, because I’m what you would think was out of central casting of a senior police officer. I’m a white, middle aged, straight, middle class bloke. So I know what it’s like to do this job, I did it for four years, but I don’t know what it’s like to do it as a woman. So when I was writing Jo I wanted to explore a lot of that, but I also wanted to give her greater depth and I think there’s more opportunity to do that with women. I think you’re able to show their strengths better, I think you can authentically show their emotive response better because they do tend to be more honest with their emotions than blokes.

There’s a scene where she’s being vilified in the press after a press conference and her husband Darren, who’s a journalist, is going “Look, it’s still headlines” and she’s going “No, they all think I’m useless” and she’s able to say that kind of thing.

I had a really, really useful person help me on this who’s a woman called Di Roskilly, who was the divisional commander for East Sussex after I’d gone. She’s a wonderful, wonderful human being, she’s just amazing. She read it and I thought she’d say “Just do this here, tweak that there” but her reply to me was “I think we need a Zoom call” so I’m thinking “Oh my God! I’ve been called to the head teacher’s office!” So we have this Zoom call and essentially what she was saying is that you’ve got most of the external pressures just about right, you kind of understand that it was harder for me than it would have been for you, and there are challenges around child care that you probably didn’t have, even though we both did it when we had young children. It’s easier for me to do a Darren and wander off and do my job than it was for her, even though her husband is a fantastic bloke, he’s a police officer, really nice bloke. But she said “What you haven’t touched on at all is the internal pressures, the guilt”. A lot of the impostor syndrome that Jo suffers from came from Di – you know, she’s thinking, “Somehow I’ve managed to find my way into this role, but I’m not ready for it.” Jo says to Gary “People think you should have got the job, and maybe they’re right“ or something like that. That’s the sort of thing that she’d be feeling, almost like “Have I been put in this role for tokenism rather than because of ability?” and so I was delighted that Di guided me on that because I wanted to get that depth, because it’s a continuing story and I wanted to mine that even deeper in the second book. You can develop that and I just think it’s interesting. When I decided to write that character as a woman I made a pact with myself to do it as well as possible and to really open my eyes and understand.

What made you decide to write in the first place? Have you always wanted to write?

No, no!

Did that happen because you were helping other authors?

Yeah, it’s Peter James’s fault, it’s down to him, I blame him! So what happened was in my last year or so in the police the chief constable and deputy chief constable were very keen on the divisional commanders blogging, everyone was into blogging, Twitter had just come out, they wanted to get a bit of a social media presence and people blogging. So we were all up for that, it’s a good idea, a good way of getting your thoughts down, getting your voice out there, so I wrote a few blogs and published them.

You sent those to Peter, didn’t you?

I sent them to Peter. I really enjoyed it, and one of them the Argus picked up and they said “Do you mind if we use this as a page 8?” which is their guest page, or it was at the time. It was about running towards danger rather than away, and it was all connected with an off duty Essex officer who got killed because there was a knife man in his street, and everyone else is running away and he’s running towards it, and I wrote a few hundred words on why someone would do that, why the police do that, and why you find yourself in the middle of something where you think “God how did I get here? I’m in danger!” So I said to the Argus “By all means if you want to publish it, yeah, but I don’t want you to edit anything out of it because there’s a lot of meaning in there, but if you want to improve the writing, the English or whatever, crack on” and they said “No, no, it’s absolutely fine as it is.” So I thought “Oh, maybe I could write some articles or whatever when I leave the police” so I sent it to Peter and Peter said “Actually, you’ve got quite a good style, it’s not commercial yet, but you could really work with it” and then a couple of months later he came up to me and said “I’ve been chatting to my agent and publisher, would you write a non fiction [book] with me?” So it took off from there. So I started it and it was a struggle to start, I really, really struggled to find my voice, to get a rhythm going and all of that. But once I got into it, I absolutely loved it and now it feels like a sort of second calling really, you know? It’s all I think about day in, day out, which annoys my wife ’cause I should be thinking about the shopping and the gardening and stuff like that.

And you’re just thinking!

Yeah, musing!

So Peter encouraged you and worked with you and spotted your talent, but how long had you been working with him before you got to that point?

Probably a couple of years, three years.

And how did that happen?

Well he already had a relationship with Sussex Police through Dave Gaylor, and when Dave left other people took on the mantle, and because of the job I was doing, and he based his books in Brighton, it was very much a case of, doing the role I did, the chief wanting us to kind of facilitate Peter. Peter’s a lovely, lovely fellow and really easy to get along with, so we just became friends really.

I’d guide him on certain things, and we let him go and spend some time with particular units if we felt it was appropriate. So we just became friends really, but I didn’t start officially advising him until I left the police and started to read his books through in draft form. And from that, once we published Death Comes Knocking, the crime writing community got to hear about how I worked with Peter and then they all came to me and asked me to do the same for them. And it’s been like a full time job ever since.

So you’ve got a big client base now?

Yeah, it really is.

Do you still advise him or have you handed him over to someone who’s still in the police?

No, I still advise him. Dave does a lot of the development work with him because they’ve been doing it for years, but I’ll pick up particular things, I’ll go through all his manuscripts twice and just check them for authenticity. We’re always talking, we were talking the other day about plot and character and that sort of thing, always on the phone to one another. But one of the things that I’m really, really conscious of is that I have been gone for a while now, so I do have to make sure that my knowledge is up to date.

I keep in touch with a lot of current officers, a lot of recently retired officers, and actually doing the work keeps you up to date because if someone asks you a question you think “Oh, I think I know what happens there” and then you go and research it and you find that actually it’s changed a little bit.

So an example of that is when I was in the police, one of the discipline outcomes up until about 1996 included reduction in rank, so if you were a sergeant or above you could be demoted. That then went in 1996, and it actually came back at the end of 2020. I don’t know why I checked it, somebody asked me “can you be demoted as a police officer?’ so I must have got a whisper or something, ’cause I went and researched and I think about a month before, the law had changed and you could again, after all that time. So actually doing the advising and being assiduous in my own research on behalf of other people, helps me keep up to date.

Has it been a big culture shock moving from the culture of the police to the literary world of publishers and authors and literary agents? 

Yes it has. Obviously in the police you’re surrounded by people all the time, and you’re kind of bouncing off people and you’re getting feedback, even if it’s subtle feedback, from people about your own performance. So if you were in the middle of doing something like running a big policing [operation] or a big protest or something like that, and you said you wanted to do something and you voiced that, and you’ve got someone next to you you trust and they’re going “Oh”, immediately you think “maybe that’s wrong.” If you’re writing a book, you don’t get any feedback until you send it to your agent, if you’re lucky enough to have an agent!

I need to be careful about saying this but basically in the police people are very responsive, so whatever rank I was, if I sent an email to you and said “are you able to do this for me?” you’d reply back yes or no, you’d tell me straightaway. Or if you were my boss and said “Graham, we need you to come in at 6:00 tomorrow morning, really sorry if that’s awkward, but need you in” I’ll be in at 6:00 tomorrow morning. In the publishing world the urgency to respond to needy authors like me is not quite as great as I’d expect. It’s not bad, I mean, I’ve got great publishers, they are very good, but it is a culture shock. And at the end of the day what I’m doing is not life and death, and sometimes in the police it can be.

Sometimes I say to David Headley, my agent, “Should we chase this up?” and he’s “No, it’s fine, it’s fine, just don’t worry about it, this is quite normal”. And then you speak to other authors and they go “No it’s fine, don’t worry, that’s just how it all works.” So there’s a bit of that, and it’s a bit of getting used to lone working.

What a different world you’re in!

It is, it’s really different. I did feel that the police was a calling and it was a calling, as I said, there was no plan B. And I feel I’ve had a second calling now, and if anything my only frustration at the moment is that I don’t have enough time to write, I’d love to write more.

Are you writing the next Jo Howe book?

I’m writing the next but one, so the second one is already written, it’s just waiting for copy edits to come back from the publishers, it comes out next year, and then hopefully if this one [Bad For Good] sells well, and the next one, hopefully they’ll offer me another contract and I’ll be able to write some more. I’ve started writing the third one, so I’m getting ahead of the game.

So you knew it was going to be a series when you started?

Yeah, I don’t know how long. It’s interesting because I was at this event last night, there were two authors that have got very long series, Mark Billingham and Tim Weaver, and both of them were saying “We thought three or four books and that would be it”. I think Tim’s on about 12 or 13, Mark’s on about 21 in the series!

If they’re still enjoying it, that’s fine, isn’t it?

Yeah, they still go through the “I’m gonna get found out, I haven’t got another story in me” but they just recognise that as part of the process. But they write a fresh, and often a better, book every time. And they do still enjoy it, and they do write the odd standalone in between just to keep themselves fresh.

That’s what amazes me about Peter James’s books. When I asked him about this, he explained how he keeps it fresh for himself by learning new things. He loves to learn about something, such as art forgery, do a lot of research and then write a book, and that keeps him going. His books never dip in quality.

No, no. He’s obviously got a great set of characters there and people invest in characters. You know you can have the best story in the world, but if they don’t care about your characters they’re not going to read it. So Peter’s got fabulous characters that he keeps deep and nuanced, and you can have empathy with all of them. You know the art forgery one that’s coming out, it’s just inspired. He’s about three or four books ahead, in terms of what’s in his head.

Why did you retire when you did, did you have to go after 30 years?

I’d done 30 years. So about a year before I was due to leave, Sussex Police brought in this kind of enforced retirement, ’cause it’s the only way they could get officer numbers down, because it was at the beginning of the cuts, so they were requiring people to retire when they reached pensionable age.

A sort of side story here, it was my job as a divisional commander to serve the notices on the people who were having to retire, and most of them didn’t want to go. I had tears in the office and everything. One of the people that I had to serve a notice to was that officer I was talking about earlier that got the Queen’s Police Medal, so she got the Queen’s Police Medal one week, and in the next week she’s in my office getting served the papers that she had to leave, that was awful.

I didn’t want to go at that point, I thought “No, I want to stay on. I’m still quite young, I’ve got lots to give still” but as the months went on I thought “Yeah ok, I’ve got my head round it now and I’ll find something.”

About six months before I was due to retire they announced that in two months’ time they were going to stop this thing, it was a regulation called A19.

What year was that?

This was in 2012. So everyone was saying to me “Oh, that’s great, they’ve ditched A19 in Sussex, now you don’t have to go” and I said “Do you know what? My head’s gone, now my head is out the door, I’m left, I’ve made that decision and I can’t rethink it, that I’m going to stay for another four or five years, or whatever.” So I didn’t have to go, but the circumstances kind of pushed me in that direction. Then I took my own decision to leave when I did.

Did you already have this other career in mind, perhaps?

No, no, I don’t think I’ve ever thought this has been a career until about three years ago. I mean, I was doing a lot of safeguarding work when I left, I was chairing safeguarding boards, I was undertaking safeguarding reviews. I still do some of that, so still very much in the criminal justice world. But then the writing and the advising started to take over and it’s almost full time now. It’s mainly advising but a lot of writing as well, I’m trying to bring it to 50/50, that’s my aim. With a bit of time for myself in there too.

You’ve had a really good, strong family life, haven’t you? You talk about that in one of your books, that that was such a help, because a lot of police marriages suffer from the stress and strain of the work.

Yeah, I’ve been very lucky, we’ve been married 30 years, we’ve got 25 year old triplets, they’re just an absolute blessing, they’ve grown into such wonderful young men and young woman, just so proud of them.

As far as possible I’ve tried to put my family first. I think the more senior you are, although I was a sergeant when we had the children, so I wasn’t very senior then, but the more senior you are, the more you can engineer your diary a little bit better. I don’t think I ever missed a birthday. I always made sure I took leave on the birthday, I only had one birthday to worry about in a year! I went to as many school things as I possibly could, sometimes I couldn’t. But I think by trying to work it out that you can, it’s surprising how much time you can give to your family.

I was able to come home and talk about things that had happened, but I also didn’t allow it to kind of consume family life. Sometimes things completely overcome you. You’ve read Death Comes Knocking about the cot death, that’s an example that completely devastated me. But I tried to have this view that my family’s my family, they were a good release for me but at the end of the day they needed me as a dad and as a husband more than they needed me as somebody to counsel. And one of my sons is in the police now, he’s a police officer in mid Sussex.

Carrying on the family tradition?

Yeah, he’s loving it. He’s been in just over two years but he moans like a veteran, he’s fabulous!

Is that part of the deal?

Oh God yeah. I hear myself through him so much, I used to sound like that!

 

 


GRAHAM BARTLETT was a police officer for thirty years and is now a bestselling writer. He rose to become chief superintendent of the Brighton and Hove force as well as its police commander. He entered the Sunday Times Top Ten with his first non-fiction book, Death Comes Knocking – Policing Roy Grace’s Brighton in 2016. He followed that up in 2020 with another non-fiction book, Babes in the Wood, the harrowing 32-year fight to bring a double child killer to justice. Both these books he co-wrote with international best seller, Peter James.
As well as writing, Bartlett is a police procedural and crime advisor helping scores of authors and TV writers (including Mark Billingham, Elly Griffiths, Anthony Horowitz, Ruth Ware, Claire McGowan and Dorothy Koomson) achieve authenticity in their drama.

 

#crimefiction #crimewriters #detectivefiction #brightonauthors #grahambartlett #badforgood #policeprocedural #peterjames #roygraceseries

6 comments

  1. I love the idea that a writing career basically stemmed from an organisation deciding it needed a presence on Twitter!

    1. Thank you for taking the trouble to leave a comment. I’m glad you found the interview interesting, and hope you enjoy Graham’s novel Bad For Good.

  2. What an interesting partnership that grew out of advising Peter James about the details of police practise ! And I guess also with all those other authors, each with their own emphasis and style. You must know so much about contemporary crime writing that your own specialist creative writing course would almost write itself ! It would be SO over-subscribed. Brilliant .

  3. Thank you Graham Bartlett for your thoughts on your second calling: an inspiring journey from blogs and tweets to nonfiction and novel writing.

  4. Absolutely fascinating! I was especially impressed by the way Graham immersed himself in the female professional role. I am so looking forward to reading Bad for Good!

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