Death Comes Knocking by Graham Bartlett with Peter James: Extract from the book
PUBLISHED: 15:19 25 July 2016 | UPDATED: 15:19 25 July 2016
Former Sussex police officer Graham Bartlett and bestselling author Peter James have worked together to write a gripping account of Brighton and Hove’s most challenging cases
Not long ago, some people would have urged you to buy just a one-way ticket to Brighton rather than bothering with a return – chances were you’d be dead before you could use the homeward part.
‘Slaughterhouse of Europe’, ‘Crime Capital of Britain’, ‘Drugs Death Capital of the UK’. Soubriquets that have consistently defined the town of Brighton – now the City of Brighton and Hove – since Regency days, and with some accuracy.
Two women, separately murdered and stuffed into railway trunks; three members of the same family bludgeoned to death by a fourth; a Chief Constable struck down in his own office with a fire poker and a Prime Minister and her entire cabinet narrowly escaping assassination. All of this happened in and around Brighton.
And as you stroll jauntily down Queens Road from the railway station to the seaside, don’t fantasize about building sandcastles on the beach; there is no sand, just the stones that Mods and Rockers hurled at each other during their pitched battles of the 1960s and again in the 1980s. Rising above you to the east is the hilltop racecourse, with its picturesque downland and coastal views; this was where the Razor Gangs prowled in the 1930s, keen to give a ‘Glasgow grin’ – the scar from a slash from ear to mouth which looks like a joyless smile – to anyone who crossed them.
Aside from these historical horrors, dreadful things still happen in Brighton today. On the surface it is one of the most stunningly beautiful cities in the UK, pulsing with individuality, host to a wide and diverse creative population, a long-favoured home to many great writers, artists and actors, including the late Sir Laurence Olivier, a thriving conference centre enjoyed by both the Conservative and Labour parties, with two renowned universities, one-off shops and a vast array of innovative restaurants and unique hotels. Yet it has always had a contrasting menacing side.
Brighton’s dark underbelly has been its defining feature since it was first ‘colonized’ as a party town in the 1700s by the Prince Regent, who would become King George IV. Following the royal lead, posh toffs from London took to descending on the town for dirty weekends. In the mid-nineteenth century, the new railway line from the capital opened the place to the lower classes, among them, it seems, every enterprising villain who saw opportunity in its riches.
It’s a place where for a few pounds ex-employees have snatched their former bosses off the street and beat them half to death, where bodies can be spirited away, chopped up and left as carrion, where you can be gunned down for just trying to sell a van. And, when the local outlaws aren’t killing each other, they are robbing the elderly and confused or selling brick dust with a pinch of heroin to make a fast buck from desperate addicts. The grubbiness, the seediness and the violence are so powerfully drawn upon by Graham Greene as the backdrop for the wonderfully dark and evil Brighton Rock, the very novel that inspired internationally-acclaimed bestselling author Peter James to become a writer. And he had no further to look than Brighton, his home town, as the perfect setting for the Roy Grace novels.
How do I know all this? I was its police chief for four rollercoaster years. And I had policed its streets for nearly thirty. I loved it. I’m the only person in over a quarter of a century to have served in Brighton at every rank from Police Constable (PC) to Chief Superintendent; I saw it from every angle.
There was never a plan B for me. My mum, I think, quietly worried about my single-minded ambition to become a cop. She always supported me every step of the way, but was anxious of what my reaction would be if I failed. That would never happen.
If Sussex Police hadn’t accepted me that snowy February morning in 1983 – the day the arrest of one of our nation’s worst ever serial killers, Dennis Nilsen, was headline news – I would have hounded the other forty-two UK forces until one swore me in as a constable. Those constabularies were saved! I joined my home force a month later at the youngest possible age, just eighteen and a half, and weighing a mere 9st 10lbs.
Policing was in my blood. I idolized my Uncle Gordon, a lifelong Brighton traffic officer, and my beloved father, John, who ran the Brighton and Hove volunteer Special Constabulary. I grew up wanting to be them. Gordon got to rush around with blue lights blazing and sirens wailing, yet still found time to drop off at our house for coffee and to let me sit longingly in his police car. Dad went to the football for free. His passion for public service, together with so much else about him, made him my lifelong inspiration. It was being a copper or nothing as far as I was concerned.
As my mum never fails to remind me, my first emergency call-out was to escort a family of ducks across a major highway in Bognor Regis. However, I didn’t meet many people as innocent as those adorable creatures in the ensuing days and weeks of my fledgling career. My love for the job was instant. I was made for it, despite my boyish appearance drawing regular taunts of, ‘Does your mum know you’re out?’ I rapidly hardened into an officer with a reputation as a voracious thief taker, and with it I developed the gift of the gab. I’ve heard it said many times, and it is without doubt true, that a police officer’s best weapon is their mouth, whether negotiating with an armed villain, talking down a would-be suicide from a cliff top, or trying to placate an angry mob.
I was gutted when, after two years’ service, I was posted to Gatwick Airport. While always crammed with passengers, the airport had little crime. To alleviate the boredom I joined the firearms team and later a plain-clothes squad. The enforced inactivity did mean, however, that I found Julie, who would become my wife, the love of my life and best friend.
I initially spotted her in her chic British Caledonian uniform checking in holidaymakers to far-flung destinations. It was her sassy smile and sparkling blue eyes that first drew my attention. Plucking up the courage to speak to her, all macho with gun on belt, I was hooked by her confident and playful manner. Nothing I could say drew a serious answer; everything was a joke. Here was a girl who loved life. The fact that she mistook me for another officer when she agreed to my first request for a date still comes up in conversation when I run out of more pithy putdowns.
However, it was after Gatwick, in 1989, that I landed the posting I felt born to. Brighton. I couldn’t believe that they paid me to work there. Whether it was at the sharp end of the job, policing its then rough housing estates where returning after ten minutes to your patrol car you might find all four of its wheels stolen, or a year later starting my detective career in the city’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID), I felt I had died and gone to heaven.
The thrills, however, were equally matched by fear and frustration.
As a young Detective Constable (DC) I had become exasperated arresting a gay couple for the umpteenth time for a series of horrendous attacks on each other. Their drunken rows would culminate in one or the other furiously stabbing his partner or making a similarly vicious and concerted bid to kill. Once, one crashed a marble chopping board on the other’s head, breaking both skull and stoneware. Knowing the lack of protection the police or courts provided for domestic violence victims, particularly gay men at that time, I took the law into my own hands when I heard that our efforts to keep the attacker remanded in custody had been scuppered by the defence solicitor finding a bail hostel, assuring its manager that the crime was just a lovers’ tiff.
When Judge Gower discovered I had phoned the hostel and told them the full violent nature of the charges, prompting them to withdraw their offer, he was incandescent with rage. His Honour spelt out all sorts of career- and liberty-threatening consequences to me but he had no option than to leave the would-be murderer in jail. Privately I am sure he was grateful to me, although he never said so.
Brighton was a place that shocked, shamed and enchanted me every day: racing around its streets on ‘blues and twos’ from pub fight to robbery; dodging bricks and roof tiles thrown by unknown foes while leaping from the police car on the city’s run-down estates; or praying that back-up would get to me before the approaching knifeman carried out his threat. It was all in a day’s work.
My despair when another thoroughly decent son or daughter, brother or sister, husband or wife had been slain by some drunken, jealous or greedy scumbag was always overtaken by a single-minded obsession to go after the bad guys and see them locked up for as long as the courts dared.
It was much later in my career that I met the novelist Peter James. His Roy Grace books had already topped the bestseller lists world-wide, not least because of the precision with which he describes Brighton and Hove and its policing. As the city’s Superintendent, and later its Divisional Commander, I was delighted with the accurate picture Peter painted of the challenges we faced. Together with the Chief Constable, I ensured that we gave him access to every research opportunity we could, while knowing of course that some operations were just too secret to share.
I have had a lifelong ambition to write, but running the UK’s second-busiest police station kind of got in the way. Peter and I had often discussed his interest in writing a non-fiction book about policing his home area of Brighton and Sussex. Me hanging up my handcuffs gave us the chance we needed. This book would be an opportunity to chronicle the events that had the most impact on me during my service – the exciting, the intriguing and the distressing. It would set out the inner conflicts of being an operational and high-ranking police officer in a crazy city, as well as drawing parallels with Roy Grace’s adventures. We felt it would be an absorbing read both for fans of Peter’s crime novels as well as all people interested in the inner world of the police.
For my part, to have such a wise, gentle and hugely successful author as Peter James working alongside me on my first, albeit co-written, book is a huge honour. As he coaxed my style from ‘we were proceeding in a northerly direction’ to something more readable, and restructured the accounts to achieve greater impact, his patience knew no bounds.
We both hope you enjoy the insight this book offers you. It’s been a joy to write but has also awoken some sleeping demons in me. It will show you what it feels like to dedicate your life to policing your own community and the pain, the laughs, the anger and pride that come as part of the package.
I’m going to tell you all about it. I’m going to tell you of the horrors that happen to people. I’m going to tell you what it really feels like having to clear up the carnage caused by others. I’m going to tell you how we cope, what happens when we don’t and the personal cost we pay.
I’m going to tell you what it’s like to police Roy Grace’s Brighton.
1: MAN DOWN
One of the fascinations of policing is that you never really know what is around the corner. A much-loved and respected Brighton public order inspector I knew, Andy Parr – now sadly deceased – achieved his fifteen minutes of fame by theorizing that increases in violence were linked to the lunar cycle. Andy, almost single-handedly, led the fight against the drunken mobs who, each weekend, seemed hell-bent on turning the city into a war zone. His research indicated that people became more aggressive and anti-social around the full moon. While not entirely scientific, his theory attracted a good deal of media discussion and hilarity. It was as valid as any other explanation for when and why shit happens.
The gripping climax to Looking Good Dead is a prime example of how events can erupt from nowhere. One minute Detective Superintendent (D/Supt) Roy Grace and Detective Sergeant (DS) Norman Potting are methodically studying a list of sulphuric acid suppliers. The next Grace’s sidekick, DS Glenn Branson, bursts in with the final piece of the jigsaw and they race off to evil Carl Venner’s lair to rescue the imprisoned Bryces.
Crashing into the warehouse, the team are confronted by not only the imminent deaths of hostages Tom and Kellie Bryce, but their own too. The shout of ‘Police, drop your gun’ is rudely answered by a muzzle flash and bullets whistling past. Too late to retreat and yell for back-up. Too late for anything but find cover, move forward and save the innocent. Everyone is a target. Rounds ricochet off walls as cement dust showers the cops. Branson takes a hit but everyone else keeps going, drawing fire and rescuing the two captives from certain death.
That is the reality of the danger that police officers face every day. In my career I’ve met many thousands of officers and almost all of them, at some point, have been in a situation where their life was on the line.
Sussex isn’t awash with guns. The county averages thirteen murders a year. By comparison Dallas, which has a similar population, has around ten times that. That is dwarfed by Los Angeles where, the Chief Medical Examiner told Peter James on a recent visit to the morgue, there are twenty-five gunshot deaths on a quiet weekend.
Although armed crime in Sussex is rare, when it happens it is terrifying. In 1984, as a very young bobby, I had an early taste of that.
Nineteen years old and with only a year’s service I was still wide-eyed at the prospect of booking on duty each day. Every time I donned the blue serge uniform, I would be gripped by a rush of anticipation for the thrills or horrors that awaited me.
One Sunday in the March of that year, I’d just started a late shift. For a change I was allowed the privilege of crewing one of the response cars, rather than plodding the empty streets of Bognor Regis, thirty miles west of Brighton. We used to wonder whether Chris de Burgh had Bognor in mind when he wrote his lyrics for ‘Fatal Hesitation’ about empty cafes, sodden streets and the desolation of a holiday resort in the rain.
My partner for the day, Steve Clarke, had not been on our team much longer than I. Unlike me, however, he was not an eager youngster. He was a squat, gruff, roll-up puffing, thirtysomething joker, whose CID career had come to an abrupt end due to his marksmanship with a bread roll at the 1982 Christmas party. The Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) whose eye he blacked with the flying food clearly lost his festive spirit and busted Steve back to uniform in his first act of the new year.
Despite Steve’s fall from grace and sometimes brusque manner, he liked me. I think he saw his own early enthusiasm reflected in my exuberance. He took time to teach me the job, warts and all, and I often wonder whether I would have had such an early eagerness to become a detective were it not for Steve.
That dull, dank day he and I settled into the creaking Hillman Avenger ready for an eight-hour shift of who knows what. I fired up the ageing analogue radio as Steve coaxed the car into life. Immediately we heard the call that we all dread and will never forget.
‘Whisky two zero two, ten twenty. Officer shot, offenders made off.’ Ten twenty was the code given for a police emergency: one of our own was being attacked. It always triggered a reflex reaction among all cops to drop everything and dash to wherever help was needed.
I instantly recognized the voice. PC Bob Elliott was a dishevelled, battle-worn thief taker; a real old-fashioned bobby who was at home on the streets. Some coppers attract trouble. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen to them, and they have a name – ‘shit magnets’. Bob was, by any measure, king of the shit magnet hill. He’d already won two Queen’s Commendations for Brave Conduct. Police officers take the view that there is a thin line between courage and stupidity. Bob was never stupid and he was braver than most. He used to get mercilessly ribbed for the trouble he attracted but this time we knew it was different. This was really scary.
‘Bloody hell, Graham, did Bob say what I think he said?’ snapped Steve.
‘Yes but I didn’t catch a location.’
‘Right. Let’s go!’ He flipped the blue lights and two tones on and crunched the gears into action.
I hung on for dear life as we two-wheeled out of the police station back yard. With no location yet revealed, I wasn’t sure where we were heading but guessed that Steve’s experience told him to just get on the road. My senses battled with the sound of the roaring engine, the smell of burning tyres and the ordeal of being tossed around in the car. I felt as Grace must do when Branson clicks into his red mist driving skills.
Over the radio came a clamour of units offering help, trying to make sense of what craziness had erupted on this sleepy Sunday afternoon.
Bob and his partner Tim Phillips were on an anti-crime initiative which meant they had free rein to patrol hotspots in and around the resort of Bognor, its neighbour Littlehampton and the majestic inland cathedral and castle town of Arundel.
The details emerging suggested that Bob and Tim had stopped a car on the main Brighton to Portsmouth trunk road, the A27, just as it swept into the shadow of Arundel Castle. Something about the two occupants studiously ignoring the marked police car as they drove past, together with them looking just a bit out of place in the Peugeot 604 they were driving, sparked a hunch that all was not right.
Initially the two occupants, both Londoners, had dutifully stood at the roadside while they tried to bluff their way past the officers. However, they had not reckoned on being caught by two of the most intuitive cops in Sussex.
These two took nothing at face value and when the story the men put up of just going for a Sunday drive didn’t ring true, Bob and Tim got suspicious and announced their intention to search them and the car. In a flash the mood changed and the men bolted back towards the Peugeot in a desperate attempt to flee.
Bob grabbed one and a furious struggle followed, the two men grappling on the verge with speeding cars whistling past inches away. As Tim leapt for the other, his man suddenly pulled a handgun and aimed it at the startled officer. Both officers desperately lunged towards him, reaching him just in time to divert his aim. A deafening explosion made time stand still. A fiery pain tore through Tim. Then all four men, fighting furiously, fell into a drainage ditch. A passer-by leapt from his car and dashed to the aid of the officers. Thinking only about his safety, they ordered him away fearing he would be shot too. Then Bob was pistol-whipped across the face with the Luger handgun and was stunned by the heavy blow. This gave the assailants the time to break free. They dashed to their car and screeched off.
In horror, Tim looked at the serious gun shot wound to his groin.
I was shell-shocked. The police is a big family and, even though I did not really know Tim at that time, I felt for him like a brother. It was the first and only time in my career that I was on duty when an officer was shot. That shock never left me.
More from Peter James…
• Peter James: A trip to Courchevel, my new Roy Grace novel and Polpo in Brighton - Bestselling crime writer Peter James talks us through his gastronomic adventures and keeps us abreast of everything relating to his fictional detective, Roy Grace
• Peter James: Meeting heroes, selfies with Sir Alan Ayckbourn and my love for Scarborough - Bestselling crime writer Peter James talks us through his gastronomic adventures and keeps us abreast of everything relating to his fictional detective, Roy Grace