I’m delighted to welcome Mike Thomas to Linda’s Book Bag today. Mike’s latest novel Ash and Bones, the first in the DC Will MacReady series, was published by Bonnier Zaffre on 25th August 2016. Ash and Bones is available for purchase here.
I was interested in how Mike perceived criminality, given that he has a background in the police, and luckily he agreed to tell me a few of his views in a thought provoking guest post that reminded me very much of the circumstances of many youngsters I’ve taught in the past.
Ash and Bones
At a squalid flat near the Cardiff docks, an early morning police raid goes catastrophically wrong when the police aren’t the only unexpected guests. A plain clothes officer is shot dead at point blank range, the original suspect is left in a coma. The killer, identity unknown, slips away.
Young and inexperienced, Will MacReady starts his first day on the CID. With the city in shock and the entire force reeling, he is desperate to help - but unearths truths that lead the team down an increasingly dark path…
What Makes a Criminal
A Guest Post by Mike Thomas
On one of my old patches there were two brothers, infamous siblings who were hooked on the gear, who spent their hours breaking into OAP housing complexes for copper piping, for the keys to the pensioners’ vehicles, for their treasured possessions, just to pay for their next bag of brown. And they did a lot of drugs, so they committed a lot of crime to fund their habits. Shoplifting, street robberies, a bit of dealing where they’d cut the amphet until it was nothing but chalk dust and baby powder. Whenever you arrested them, they’d fight. Every single time. Punch and spit on and headbutt you as you tried to cuff them, and they were tough guys, these brothers, twentysomething street brawlers with ruined knuckles and missing teeth. Every cop I knew hated them. Nobody stopped to wonder just why they were like they were. What had happened to them to shape their lives.
We’ll come back to them in a short while.
What makes a criminal? I used to ponder this a lot during my career – over twenty years – as a cop. I don’t know anybody who hasn’t – at least once in their life – done a bad thing. Some of them – friends, family members – have done Very Bad Things. When I was growing up, in a small Valleys town in Wales, there was little to do until you looked old enough to sneak into the pub and neck far too much watery lager. I took to graffiti. I was good at it. My little crew were good at it. So we tagged and conjured colourful murals and ran away before the Old Bill caught us. Did I know I was breaking the law? On some level, of course. But you’re talking about somebody whose closest cousin was a heroin-addicted prison veteran who died after jumping from a bridge while trying to escape pursuing cops. Spraying daft breakdancing figures at the back of Tesco paled in comparison.
And it didn’t stop me joining the police, where I spent two decades dealing with society’s disenfranchised. Wherever I worked – valleys, capital city – you would spend all your time with the same people. Locking them up. Sorting out their problems, from spousal fights to broken front doors to missing kids. Locking them up again. Sorting out yet more problems. And so it went, an endless conveyor belt of Other People’s Issues. It became exhausting. Frustrating. You were nothing but a glorified social worker, but one people would happily thump if you didn’t do what they demanded, or had the temerity to place handcuffs on them for setting fire to their neighbour’s car.
The frustration with policing, the awful things I’d witnessed, they fed into my first novel, Pocket Notebook, which charts the downfall of a PTSD-suffering firearms officer – the book is one long howl of rage. It was incredibly cathartic to write, and led to me leaving the police – which I was very happy to do. After twenty years of banging my head against a brick wall, fiction allowed me to address the concerns I had with the Job, the government, and the ineptitude of the senior ranks. I’ve calmed a lot since leaving, and the writing is less ragged and angry – more measured, I hope, yet still as authentic as a former police officer’s fiction can be.
Leaving also gave me the space to think further about those criminals I was dealing with all those years. Because it’s easy to see everything in just black and white or slide everyone into boxes marked good or evil. To just roll your eyes and mutter about scumbags and pond life and scrotes as you scream to the latest domestic involving That Couple Every Copper Knows. But that is to miss the reasons, the root causes. There’s the usual biggies: greed, money, sometimes profound mental illness. But I’ve dealt with so-called ‘career crims’ who used to cause untold misery, and it’s only upon speaking to them, or their families, and hearing their backstories do you understand – never accept, never condone, but understand – why they do the things they do. Why they behave in such a way. The fact is some of them never had a chance. They’ve been marginalised and brutalised since birth and wouldn’t know right from wrong if it thumped them in the nose (yes, that’s wrong).
So: back to those brothers. I’d been policing that area for five years, a teeth-grindingly busy patch where the calls never ended, where the locals detested you, where you’d go home after an afternoon turn and down two bottles of wine to take the edge off. And then I found out what happened to them. How their father repeatedly sexually abused them as babies, as toddlers, as they grew into their teens. They moved into adulthood already damaged beyond repair.
Both are dead now. One suicide, one overdose. Neither saw the age of forty.
The truth is you’re never too far from the edge. It would only take one or two life-changing events to nudge you towards doing something criminal. Losing your job, for example. No money coming in, your kids starving, so you shoplift food and are caught. Your wife leaves you for another man, and you can’t contain your rage, and you attack them both. I’ve seen people lose it for the most mundane of reasons. One wife stabbed her husband to death because he wouldn’t give her one of his cigarettes. In my new novel, Ash and Bones, we see decent people driven to commit terrible crimes for the most ridiculous of reasons.
As human beings – flawed, brilliant, baffling things that we are – we all have it in us.
About Mike Thomas
Mike Thomas was born in Wales in 1971. For more than two decades he served in the police, working some of Cardiff ’s busiest neighbourhoods in uniform, public order units, drugs teams and CID. He left the force in 2015 to write full time.
His debut novel, Pocket Notebook, was published by William Heinemann (Penguin Random House) and longlisted for the Wales Book of the Year. The author was also named as one of Waterstones’ ‘New Voices’ for 2010. His second novel, Ugly Bus, is currently in development for a six part television series with the BBC.
His new novel (the first in the MacReady series), Ash and Bones, was released August 2016 by Bonnier Zaffre. Splinter, the second in the series, is ready for release in 2017.
He lives in the wilds of Portugal with his wife, two children and an unstable, futon-eating dog.