A while back, there was a passing fad for writers to ‘interview’ their own characters – presumably to increase the feeling of authenticity about them. On my own blog, I said that I thought my policeman, Jack Carston, would be unwilling to waste time being interviewed by me since he’s not convinced I always understand him or represent his actions and motives properly in the books. Then the journalist/writer/publisher Sara Bain suggested he might respond more positively to her. It was an interesting idea, and this was the result.
SB: Good morning, Jack. Can I start by asking about why you became a policeman? Were there any events in your youth which might have influenced your decision to join the force?
JC: Well, first, it wasn’t any sort of vocation. Just one of several options. I come from a family of trawlermen so I was ready to try just about anything to avoid doing that. But blaming things that happen to you as a kid – I don’t think that’s the way things work. Back then, for me cops were people you were afraid of. Yeah, maybe that’s it. Maybe I wanted people to be afraid of me. I don’t think so, though.
SB: What kind of policeman are you, then?
JC: Not very good if you ask my boss, Ridley. I can see why he thinks that way, though. I don’t think writing stuff on bits of paper with boxes to tick gets things done. Yeah, you have to have it, but we should be more hands on, leave all that to the clerks and backroom people. OK, I stick to procedures – if I didn’t, it could mess up a whole investigation, defence lawyers would jump all over me – but when you’re dealing with people and their reasons for doing things, it’s not easy to make it all neat. I think I’m mostly honest. Try to be anyway. And, despite what Ridley thinks, I do take the job seriously. It upsets me when low-lifes get away with things. But worse than that is when nice, ordinary, harmless people have to be punished for doing something bad, when it’s not really their fault, or when you can see exactly why they did it. That hurts.
SB: So what do you think about the idea of justice then? Do you still believe in it?
JC: Big, big question. If you mean what lawyers and judges do – no, not really. It’s the ultimate way of putting people into boxes. The question they ask is just ‘Did he do so-and-so?’ If the answer’s ‘yes’, he’s guilty. Nobody bothers much about why he did it or what the other guy did first. Look at all the rape cases, or domestic abuse, they don’t often give the benefit of the doubt to victims who’ve retaliated. It’s a nasty part of the job.
SB: So are you saying that the British criminal law system doesn’t really deliver justice?
JC: No, I think it tries. The lawyers and the rest are all doing their jobs. Some of them are bent but that’s just a small minority. But they’re all such clever buggers. They’ll use the law to shine the light on some things but keep other stuff in the dark. In the end, like everything else, it comes down to the fact that, if you can afford the best, you’re more likely to be not guilty.
SB: I can see how that might be galling for a detective. How important is it for you to ‘get your man’?
JC: Hmmm. My first reaction is that it’s everything. No point doing the job otherwise. But then, I think back over some of my recent cases and … well, I wish I hadn’t. Found out who did it, I mean. Trouble is, I like the challenges of untangling the mystery but I don’t always like what I find.
SB: Well, my next question was going to be about plea bargaining, but I’m guessing it’s not something you favour.
JC: You’re right, but it depends. For example, nobody ever gives perps the chance to bargain for a lesser sentence just because the person they topped deserved it.
SB: Have you ever broken the law yourself?
JC: Of course. I bet you have, too. Be honest, there might be a couple of nuns somewhere who are still stainless but everybody’s done something. Last thing I can remember was shoplifting a biro. I picked it up, forgot I had it, and left without paying for it. Didn’t go back and tell them.
SB: OK, breaking the law’s quite a wide expression. So let me ask what you think the worst crimes are.
JC: Well, there are the obvious ones – kids, babies even – the things people can do to them … you wouldn’t believe it. Half the injuries don’t get reported. They’re that extreme. But I feel sick as well whenever it’s a case of somebody much stronger beating up on someone who’s basically defenceless. Domestics. Huge guys slapping around stick thin partners. But you know, there’s a different sort of sickness I feel, too – the sort when the people involved are in such hopeless, desperate situations and circumstances that you just feel helpless. There’s just nothing you can do. It’s not how bad the crime is, it’s the emptiness of their lives, the absence of any chances to make things better. I hate the job then.
SB: Does that mean you’re still haunted by some of the horrific things you must have seen?
(At this point, Carston was silent for a while, his face betraying the fact that he was perhaps revisiting past experiences.)
JC: In the end, each one just reminds you of how much evil there is – or, rather, how much potential there is for it. I push the individual ones down, way down. I can’t forget them, but they’re submerged. The only person who knows they’re there is Kath, my wife. She doesn’t say anything about them, but she knows when one of them is trying to resurface. I never get used to it.
SB: All of which suggests it must be hard for you to stay objective. Is it easy to keep personal prejudice out of your working life?
JC: If I could be objective about the sort of things I’m talking about, I’d be a bigger monster than any of the ones I’ve come across.