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Author: Graham Pike

Psychological drama: Writing fictional crime drama for a forensic psychology course

Updated Thursday, 4 March 2021
For Graham Pike, writing psychology courses is part of the job. But what happened when he found himself having to create a crime drama?

A person types on a typewriter (Actually, we don't make our academics use typewriters, but we've burned through our collection of stock photos of people typing on laptops for our cybersecurity course...) "The city awoke to clouds, dank with a sense of heavy regret, crying rain that washed the detritus of the night down the dark, dreary drains. Jake Bullet pulled the cloying greyness around him like a cloak, looking nowhere but downward with a boding sense that the day was headed in a similar direction. Across town a siren broke the muttering stillness and sliced through his whiskey dried head, reminding him all too keenly of a night he'd rather, but would never, forget..." the kind of prose I immediately think of if someone mentions fictional detectives and crime dramas. More Raymond Chandler and Humphrey Bogart than Jo Nesbo and Patricia Cornwell; a clue, perhaps, as to my lack of experience with contemporary crime fiction. But I'm writing a course on forensic psychology that will follow a fictional investigation, and cannot have Philip Marlowe wandering across the same page as the latest investigative interviewing techniques.

Or can I? A few years ago I did some filming with the police which included an interview with Steve Retford (an officer with Greater Manchester Police) who jokingly described the BBC series Life on Mars as '...a police training film from way back then'. Life on Mars features a modern day police officer who travels back in time to the 1970s, and is shocked at the approach taken by his fellow detectives. Which, now I come to think of it, is a rather neat way of demonstrating the strides taken in improving investigative techniques and in showing the impact that psychology has had on policing practice.

A comparison then. Two parallel investigations, one conducted by a character embodying the no-nonsense hunch-based approach of Marlowe and Hunt (the scenery chewing 70s cop from Life on Mars played by Philip Glenister – who does some of the voice overs for the course). And the other? Who might be an inspiration for writing a modern, professional, evidence-based kind-of officer?

I might not be an aficionado of modern crime drama (unless Sherlock or Elementary count, and I doubt they do), but I did watch all three series of the Danish show, The Killing, and became a huge fan of Sofie Grabol and her jumper-wearing detective, Sara Lund. Lund might not always play things exactly by the book, but she does epitomise the hypothesis driven, evidence-based face of modern policing.

Lund vs Hunt it is then! Now... if only I knew how to write crime fiction. Before tackling that dilemma, it is standard OU practice to consider content from many angles, including the cultural and constructions/portrayals of race and gender. You can read more about how we tackled race, and particularly gender, in a companion article [link to be insterted].

Back to the dilemma. I have no experience of creative writing (beyond winning a Blue Peter poetry competition when I was 8), but the investigations here, focusing on interviews with witnesses, are supposed to provide an insight into real police investigations rather than be an exercise in page-turner plots and cliff-hangers.

So, first step is to watch some real police interviews... in fact, a LOT of police interviews. Obviously access to videos of real police interviews are very hard to come by, but thanks to the same filming I mentioned earlier, I have dozens of hours of expert officers from the GMP interviewing witnesses. Moreover, as the filming involved staging a crime and asking the police to solve it, I also know what really happened as the staged crime was videoed from numerous angles - a huge advantage compared to a real crime!

As I watch each interview, I note down the questions asked, the responses given and pay particular attention to information that is accurate and that which is not. After several days of this, I have decidedly square eyes, a new found respect for the patience of police interviewers and a very good sense of what a real interview looks like and the errors that witnesses tend to make.

As I know which bits of psychology we are going to cover, I work through the list and select errors, and also accurate evidence, that will be useful illustration of the findings of psychological research. I use reworded versions of the questions used by the real officers to lead to reworked versions of the accuracies and inaccuracies made by the witnesses, and now  have the bones of the fictional investigations.

For the modern policing which will be an homage to Sara Lund, there is little left to do - as the investigation is all about the evidence. For the more old-fashioned investigation, I look at where modern questioning techniques led to accurate evidence, and imagine what would have happened if the officer had interrogated the witness, rather than interview them. From there it is a very simple step to transform an evidence led process into one in which the officer looks for evidence to support their initial hunch.

Throw in some silly names of suspects (again channelling Chandler), flesh out and give new personas to the detectives (DI Jake Bullet and DS Lara Sund no less) and the two investigations almost write themselves, save for the actual typing, brow-furrowing, retyping, editing, more brow-furrowing, more typing, re-editing and yet more typing.

The result is two fictional investigations, of the same crime, that should not only be recognisable in terms of the standards of crime drama, but are both based closely on analyses of real police investigations and actual information provided by witnesses. I hope the blend of character-based detectives and realism stemming from actual investigations is enjoyable and informative, but particularly that it makes very clear how easy it is for certain policing techniques to lead to serious miscarriages of justice.

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