WASHINGTON – JANUARY 2009
Give or take a week, it is pretty much a year since I flew out to Georgia to film the television piece for the Richard and Judy Book Club broadcast. Those of you who were in touch with me at the time, and those who read the blog and looked at the pictures I took, are aware of how important that trip was, not only from the viewpoint of the R&J Club, but also from the viewpoint of how it was to follow in the footsteps of Joseph Vaughan, to visit the places where he travelled, to see some of the things he would have seen.
Well, I have just returned from Washington, and though the purpose of the trip was to film the piece for BBC’s ‘Inside Out’ program (which will be aired in mid to late March), as with Georgia the purpose of the trip was superseded and underpinned by so many other factors. I followed in the footsteps of Robert Miller and John Robey, and they were profound steps indeed.
This will not be a short blog, and though I am going to try and convey the significance of where we were and what we saw, it will be difficult. I am going to try and give you a rundown of what happened from a journalistic perspective, but I am not a journalist.
Before I begin I have to tell you about the people who went with me. From the BBC my producer, Lindsay Doyle – a remarkable woman in so many ways, and a tremendously gifted producer. It was easy to see exactly what she wanted from the piece, and yet she too was so moved by what we saw and heard that I do not – in any way – envy her the work she will have to do when she is in the editing suite. As she said to me so many times ‘To fit all of this into twelve minutes…well, we could make an hour long show and still have material that it would be difficult to leave out.’ Lindsay has become a great friend, and the support and guidance she gave me in doing this piece was invaluable.
And then there was Ciara Redman, researcher extraordinaire. The groundwork and logistics she did prior to our departure proved so effective… Well, we were in Washington for five days, and you will see from the following blog entry and the film itself that she managed to secure the time and willingness of some remarkable people, and what we came away with would never have been possible had she not been so brilliant at her job.
Finally Paul Hutchins, our cameraman. Paul has been all over the world. Paul remains un-phased by anything. Paul is not only a superbly talented and professional cameraman, he is also a wonderful companion. He knows what he wants, and he gets it. The way the piece will ‘look’ when it is done will be because of Paul’s ‘photographer’s eye’ and his willingness to just do it again, and then again one more time, until he has what he wants.
As far as the BBC guys are concerned, not only were they superb at their individual jobs, they were a pleasure to be with all the time.
And finally, there was Jon, my editor. Jon came with me to Georgia. Jon is without doubt one of the best friends I have ever had the good fortune of knowing. Not only is his knowledge of all things seemingly endless, he is still aware – as I am – of the sheer amount of things that we don’t know. Thus all our adventures together are learning experiences, and so full of questions and debates and discussions. I know he also appreciates the significance of what we saw and what we did, and there is not one person in the world with whom I would have preferred to share the Washington experience. He is acknowledged in the front of every one of my books for very obvious reasons, and I cherish and value his friendship enormously.
So to business. We arrived mid-afternoon on Wednesday and went to our hotel. It was already late in the day and we prepared our schedule for the following morning. And what a morning that proved to be…
I am a huge fan of the film ‘All The President’s Men’, the Alan J. Pakula-directed masterpiece starring Redford and Hoffman regarding the work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who tracked those thin leads that led all the way back to the Oval Office tapes that resulted in Nixon’s resignation. In the film the editor of the Post, Ben Bradlee, is played by Jason Robards. Robards won an Oscar for his performance. Our first interview was with the veteran Post reporter, Walter Pincus, a man personally hired by Bradlee, a man who was present not only during Watergate and the Post’s coverage of Nixon’s resignation, but also Nicaragua, the Clinton/Lewinski situation, and subsequently won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of 9/11. At a guess, Walter is in his late seventies. Apparently the current record for oldest working Post journalist is ninety-two. Walter said he might try and beat the record. Well, I interviewed Walter in the Post conference room, and there on the wall was the original lead plate of the ‘Nixon Resigns’ headline from the Post’s printing room… And after the interview was done Walter was generous enough to allow us to film him working at his desk, a desk in the very same newsroom where Bernstein and Woodward worked, the very same newsroom where they filmed ‘All The President’s Men’.
From the Post we drove out to a branch of Starbuck’s where the three workers were murdered, a case which became known as ‘The Starbucks Murders’ (information about which is freely available on the web), and we saw the memorial there on the wall. This was a precursor to meeting Brad Garrett, retired FBI Special Agent, the man who worked on and solved the Starbucks case alongside many, many more. What we wanted to talk to Garrett about was threefold. We wanted to know about the Starbucks investigation, also the Washington Sniper case, but also – more importantly than either of those – we wanted an inside look at the world of a working FBI man. Brad was very forthcoming and co-operative. He took us on a drive out of Washington to show us where the perpetrator of the Starbucks killings lived, and from there he drove us to an industrial lake behind a cement factory to talk to us about a case that – even now – still haunts him. A fisherman, casting lines out into the lake, saw a thirty-gallon trash can float to the surface of the water. The lid, once wired to the can itself, had come loose, and in the can he could see two heads. The Police were called, and once the can was dragged onto land it was discovered that a Vietnamese woman and her two year-old child, both kidnapped some five months earlier, were inside the can. From all appearances it seemed that they had been put in the can alive.
Brad said that despite this case happening more than thirteen years ago, it was rare that a day would go by without him thinking of it. Working as a private investigator now, he said that though there were many aspects of the FBI life he missed, there was still the ‘addictive nature’ of the work in his blood. It was something he spoke of with great intensity, and it was so very easy to see that such a job was not a job at all, but a vocation, even a lifestyle.
Our last interview that day was out in Fallschurch, Virginia. Here we met with June Boyle, a thirteen-year veteran Homicide detective, her years before Homicide having been spent in Robbery, Sex-Crimes, and many other areas. June was immediately charming, very warm, very human, and she drove us out to a park where we sat on benches near a playground and spoke of her life in the Fairfax County Police Department. Here I am not going to expound on the Washington Sniper case. There is a huge amount of information about this case on the web, and for a brief outline check it out on Wikipedia. Safe to say that the Washington or ‘Beltway Sniper’ case was the most important investigation on the east coast for as many years as anyone could remember. Well, Detective June Boyle was the detective who finally interviewed and secured a confession from Lee Boyd Malvo, the young accomplice to the Washington Sniper. She spent six and a half hours with him. She secured his confidence and his trust. She arranged his food, she sent out for veggie burgers, for boxes of raisins, at one point sharing the raisins with him that he gave her with his own hands. And then she got him to open up, to really start talking, and with that information the case had a foundation and a grounding that would never have been possible without her. Despite the fact that the Attorney General authorised Malvo’s trial to take place in Virginia, and thus gave the jury the opportunity to execute him, the jury decided not to. They gave him life in prison. I asked June how she felt about this, and in a split second her expression changed completely. ‘Malvo should be dead," she replied, so matter-of-factly. 'There are some people in this world that should be dead, and Malvo is one of them’ It was a glimpse behind the face that she wore for the world. In that moment I realised that despite her generosity of spirit, despite the fact that she is a tremendously big-hearted person, she is also a police detective, and has been witness to some of the very worst kind of people the world has to offer. This is a lifestyle, a vocation, that one can never leave behind. June, in her own words, said that she ‘missed the rush, the excitement, the buzz of a new case, a new lead, the feeling that it was going somewhere…’. She, of all the people we met, gave me the greatest insight into the mind of characters I choose to write about. She was not married, she had ‘survived’ numerous relationships, she now cared for her mother but essentially lived alone. She seems, certainly to me, to have given her life to her work. She was very good at it, perhaps too good, and I certainly felt nothing but the most tremendous respect for what she had done and who she is. I wish her the very best for the future.
So our first day of filming ended. A hell of a day.
The second day began with Alyce. Alyce is thirty-one, a mother of two. Her son is nine and lives with his grandma. Alyce’s daughter, getting on for three years of age, lives with Alyce. I am not going to give you Alyce’s surname or the names of her children for obvious reasons. Alyce, for ten years, was a heroin addict. She was homeless, destitute, broke, and a junkie. At one moment I asked after the whereabouts of her daughter’s father. ‘Well, he lives in the same doorway where I used to live…’ was her response.
Alyce has just finished the third year of her medical studies. She has been off heroin for a little longer than that. She has another two years to go, and when she graduates as a nurse she wants to specialise in helping those who are adversely affected by drugs. She has recovered her relationship with her parents and her siblings. She has secured low-income (Section 8) housing and lives in a really nice home (because she has made it so), and she is testament to the fact that people can survive. Alyce was generous, warm, friendly, talkative, very open about her life and her personal experiences, and she has an optimistic outlook for the future. We asked her about Obama, the possible changes, the political and cultural future of America, and she smiled wryly. She said ‘Race doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter what color the President is. He seems to be a smart man. The last one wasn’t smart. That’s the thing that will make a difference.’ A very astute observation. While the rest of the world is talking about what colour the President is, someone right there in the middle of it sees it for what it is. Is he smart, or is he dumb? That’s the thing that will make a difference.
Lastly we visited with Patrick Anderson, novelist and crime fiction reviewer for The Washington Post. Patrick was kind enough to have us interview him in his apartment, and certainly for me he seemed to epitomise the literary, well-read, East Coast gentleman, a man who many novelists would both admire and fear. Patrick does not mince words. If he likes something he likes it. If he doesn’t, well he doesn’t, and he certainly has no difficulty saying so. We asked him about crime fiction of the past, crime fiction for the future, and he gave us some very insightful observations that you will see in the interview when it is broadcast.
And so our second day ended, as did our interviews, and the last day of official filming was ahead of us.
Saturday was bright and cold. The perfect day. The light was good, the vast crowds from the week before had dissipated and gone home, and we got to see Washington the ‘morning after the party’. The White House, the Federal Triangle, the State Department, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Reflecting Pool, Arlington Cemetery with the Eternal Flame and memorials for both JFK and RFK. We visited Robert E. Lee’s house at the top of the hill, and from there we could see the White House, Capitol Hill and the Pentagon. Iconic images, all of them, and yet somehow they were reminders of the things that America has become famous for in the last eight years or so. Foreign policy decisions, Iraq, Afghanistan, Rumsfeld, the Bush administration, so many other mistakes that have made the election of President Obama so necessary for the future. Time will tell, but I am optimistic…
It was our last full day in the US capital, and though we had accomplished what we set out to do – to film the different pieces we needed to film, to take the general views for the camera, the sections where I would record a voice-over once back in Birmingham, I also felt that we had been a window into something that would have been unattainable any other way. Tourists don’t get into the Washington Post, they don’t talk to FBI agents or homicide detectives, they don’t walk through Section 8 housing complexes and speak with recovered heroin addicts about the trials and tribulations of being sick and poor and a parent, and yet somehow possessing a strength of spirit sufficient not only to survive those experiences, but to then dedicate the rest of their lives to helping people escape from the same terrible circumstances. As a tourist you see the White House, Capitol Hill, Arlington Cemetery, but you see it as an outsider, a spectator, without any of the underlying awareness of the consequences of the decisions made at Capitol Hill, the kind of decisions that have filled Arlington with war-dead. Jon said a very interesting thing. He said that all generals should be made to stand on the roof of the Pentagon and look up at Arlington, the ocean of crosses and monuments, and then make a decision as to whether to go to war. He also said that considering the fact that the USA has so little relative history, the history they do have seems to mean so much more to them.
On Sunday morning Jon and I went out to Columbia Street. I filmed a short piece-to-camera for the Orion website in the street where Catherine Sheridan was murdered at the start of A Simple Act of Violence. In a strange way this was more sobering than anything else. We write fiction. We create characters and put them in fabricated circumstances, and whether we write for the sake of entertainment, or we write to evoke an emotion, or we write simply for pleasure, we are still writing fiction.
Standing there on Columbia Street and talking about Catherine Sheridan, so soon after having spoken to Brad Garrett about the Vietnamese woman and her baby who were kidnapped and then drowned in an industrial lake…after having spent time with June Boyle and listened to her talk of the Washington Sniper case, the arrest and interrogation of Lee Boyd Malvo, the fact that the jury saw pictures of his victims, innocent people with their heads blown apart, and then were confronted with pictures of Malvo as a baby and were sufficiently influenced on a sympathetic level to refuse to commit to the death penalty…standing on that street and talking about a fictional character made me so much more aware of the real people. The ones that do die. The ones that are murdered. Sobering, to say the least.
I take a great deal of memories away from Washington. I think they are things that will stay with me for the rest of my life, and will certainly inform and influence my writing.
And I took a lot of photographs – at least two or three hundred. I’ll be posting them on the gallery as soon as I can.
I am so often asked why I write about America. I am often challenged, accused of trying to be something I am not.
I disagree. I tell stories. That’s what I do. I have always done, always will. I feel I have a duty and a responsibility to engage and inform and educate and entertain. I believe that there are things I can show people that they otherwise would never see. I believe this is a privilege, and it is something that I feel very fortunate to do.
To this end I must thank again the guys from the BBC, Jon and my friends at Orion who helped organise and arrange the trip, and finally Walter, Brad, June, Alyce and Patrick – great people all, so giving of their time, their insight, their thoughts and feelings.
Oh, and thanks to the people of Washington who made our job so much easier with their courtesy and consideration. You have a great city, a great people, and let us hope – in so many ways – that the recent inauguration of a ‘smart president’ makes the difference we are all hoping for in these difficult times.
Best wishes, as always, and speak soon,