The Investigation Begins

In real life most unlawful killings require little in the way of detective skills. The victim and the killer are usually known to one another.  The killing is an assault that goes wrong, that goes too far.  The job of the detective is to gather the evidence needed for a conviction and ensure that all the legal hurdles are safely negotiated and that the case-building and subsequent trial takes as little police time (the only truly scare resource) as possible.  Given the trauma of the victim’s families and the killer it is surprising that so little is written using this scenario.  Perhaps it is the difficulty of setting it into a genre – is it a crime novel or a novel in which a crime occurs?

The scenario used by most crime writers is very different. There it is usually a case of either who did it or how the detective can prove the case against the person they know did it.  The purpose of this chapter is to describe police procedures in ‘stranger’ killings and at the end suggest some ways in which these procedures can be managed without slowing down the pace of the story or killing any tension between the characters.

Finding the Body

Winston Churchill said that the two most difficult things to do in life are to climb a wall that is leaning towards you and kiss a girl who is leaning away from you. For killers the two most difficult things are to carry out the killing unobserved or unrecognized and to get rid of the body.  Put crudely the body is over a hundredweight of meat, in a package five to six feet long, which, in the key twenty-four hours after the killing will go rock solid through rigor mortis and then will begin to rot and to smell.  In addition it is extremely difficult to move the body after the killing without this being identified in the post-mortem because of the livor mortis or post-mortem lividity (the fact that blood will poll in the lowest part of the body after the heart stops pumping).  The serial killer Dennis Nilsen was caught simply because his drains could not cope with the volume of material he was trying to dispose of.  When confronted by police he still had the remains of several bodies in his flat.

Where the body is found is important to both the writer and the detective, as it is the first clue about the killer. First, the degree of premeditation.  At one end of the scale is the ‘domestic’ killing where the body is almost always found where the death occurred.  The killing is not premeditated and no thought has been given by the killer to the disposal of the body or how blame can be either mitigated or avoided completely.  There are exceptional cases where the killer is quick enough on his or her feet to manage the task.  An example is the ‘Lady in the Lake’ murder, when Gordon Park managed to dump his wife’s body in Coniston Water in 1976 and persuade everybody that she had run off after an argument.  He was incredibly unlucky that her body was found over twenty years later in 1997 (he still protests his innocence).  At the other end of the scale the killer forces for lures the victim to a remote spot where the killing takes place and it is relatively easy to bury or otherwise hide the body.

If the victim is adult and the body has been moved then either the killer will be a man, as most women simply do not have the upper body strength required, or two or more people will have helped to move it. And, as we will see in Chapter 3, whatever was used to move the body will likely carry some trace.

The body is almost always found by a member of the public – a neighbour who was worried about the victim, a person out walking the dog. The first police officer on the scene is usually a uniformed patrol constable.  The growing use of community support officers may mean that one (or more likely two or three) of them may now be the first.  In writing terms this is a useful device for the mismanagement of the scene in the initial stages as CSOs do not have the same training or mind-set as police officers.  The next officer to attend is the senior uniformed officer on duty, called appropriately enough the Duty Officer.  In cities this is usually an inspector but in rural locations it is more likely to be a sergeant.  This officer will supervise the securing of the scene, arranging the attendance of CID and beginning whatever local inquiries are possible with the officers immediately available.

In investigation terms the best body is one that is well and truly dead, as this means that fewer people will have had access to the crime scene before it is examined forensically. The worst scenario is where the victim is wounded and dying as this will mean that everyone and his uncle will be through the scene before the examination and the victim will have been removed to hospital.  It has happened that the person finding the victim only calls the ambulance and not the police; by the time police arrive, having been alerted by the ambulance crew, not only has the victim gone to hospital but the helpful neighbours are busy cleaning up the blood!  As we shall see in Chapter 3, this has the potential to compromise any subsequent findings in evidential terms.

The officers dealing with the scene will try to seal off as large an area as possible so as to safeguard the integrity of any subsequent finds. A good example of how far police will go was demonstrated in the shooting of Gerry Tobin on the M40 in August 2007, when Thames Valley Police closed the whole motorway so that they could search for evidence.  The key point to remember is that, from an evidential point of view, there is only one chance to examine the scene.  Once it has been released and can be visited by anyone outside of the investigation the evidential value of anything then found is almost zero, although it may have a high intelligence value.  An example of the difference between these two classifications would be where a finger-print is found in a car that has been used during the crime.  It has little evidential value on its own as there is no way of knowing when and where the contact took place, but it can be extremely valuable intelligence in identifying a potential suspect.  It becomes of evidential value if the owner of the print denies having ever been in the car.

Having established a perimeter the next two tasks are to set out a corridor for entry and exit, and to begin a log recording who has visited the scene and when. At this point, unless there is the opportunity to pursue a named suspect, the uniformed officers’ task is complete and CID will take charge of the scene.  A final couple of points from a writer’s point of view: the average unformed constable, and certainly the Duty Officer, will have seen more dead bodies, in more extreme conditions of dismemberment and putrefaction than their CID counterparts, as they deal regularly with road traffic accidents and people who are found weeks after they have died.  They are thus less likely to feel the need to throw up at the scene.  Secondly, it is rarely the sight of a body, regardless of its state, that causes people to gag; it is always the smell.  It seems to get into the very mucous of the nose and stays there for some time, regardless of masks or copious amounts of perfume or aftershave.

The Detectives

The rank of the first detective to attend the scene will depend on the time of day. During office hours it will probably be a detective inspector (DI) or a detective chief inspector (DCI).  From 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. it will either be a detective sergeant (DS) or a detective constable (DC); the former is more likely in a large town a city, the latter in a rural location.  Having surveyed the scene of the crime the decision will be made, either by the officer if they are sufficiently senior (DCI), or in consultation with a senior officer, on the scale of effort the investigation will require.  A straightforward domestic killing may be handled by a DS and a small team of DCs working in the general office, but a complicated ‘stranger’ killing will require a large team working out of a dedicated incident room.  When you consider that in the series of attacks on prostitutes that took place around Ipswich in December 2006 Suffolk were assisted in both the patrol and detective functions by all the surrounding forces and by the Metropolitan Police, it makes some fiction, where the team is a man, a woman and a dog, look more than a little incredible.  In every case a Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) will be appointed, usually a detective superintendent or a DCI.  In a domestic murder their role will be overall supervision, with little personal input.  In a complex murder they will be dedicated solely to the investigation.

The Crime Scene

Once the crime scene is secured it is important that access is controlled and that people attend, as far as possible, in the right order. The first person to arrive after the police, is usually the Divisional Surgeon, who will declare life extinct.  This is done even in cases where the person is very obviously dead as it is not unknown for defence counsel to raise it as an issue at trial.  The next person is the photographer as it is important to try to capture the scene before it is disturbed, and to photograph the body from as many angles as possible before it is removed.  A video recording will also be made, which significantly aids in briefing those who have not attended the scene and in showing the jury a more complete picture of the crime scene.  The need to preserve the scene from contamination by any DNA traces now means that even the SIO will avoid disturbing things if at all possible.  A camera has been developed which can take a picture of the scene ‘in the round’ to help in this.  If the killing is in any way complicated and there is a likelihood that attending the scene will be helpful in the post-mortem, the pathologist will be asked to attend.  This does not occur routinely, however, because of a number of factors: the availability of the pathologist, the need to remove the body, etc.  After this the scene is left to the Scenes of Crimes Officers (SOCOs) to capture all of the forensic evidence available.

As much as possible will be done leaving the body in situ.  If it is indoors this is relatively straightforward; outside and in a public place it becomes more difficult.  In recent years it has become common practice to erect a tent over the immediate scene, both to screen the body from public view and to preserve the scene for as long as possible.  Writers should be aware of the fact that practices in preserving the scene, allowing access and general levels of professionalism have changed significantly in the last twenty to thirty years.  It used to be common practice, especially in the smaller country forces, for senior officers to attend and trample all over the scene, whether or not they were part of the investigation, and for very little to be done to preserve it except in the immediate vicinity of the body.  Current practice is that:

  • only those involved in the investigation attend the scene
  • access to be kept to a minimum
  • those accessing the scene wear protective clothing
  • as large an area around the body be preserved for examination as is practicable.

The recurring theme is the need to preserve the evidential integrity of anything found.

The forensic examination of the scene is essentially looking for:

  • anything missing that one would expect to find there
  • anything at the scene which is foreign to it
  • samples of all blood and body fluids at the scene
  • anything which may have DNA traces, such as a cigarette end
  • all fingerprints for comparison and elimination
  • any other physical marks such as tool marks where there is a break-in, footprints or tyre tracks.

The Incident Room

The complexity of a murder investigation is such that most SIOs prefer, as far as possible, to staff the incident room with people they know and whose judgement they can rely on. Most of the work is now assisted by computerization through the HOLMES system.  The team is usually housed in a room or suite of rooms which most larger stations have dedicated specifically for this purpose.

[Figure 1: Murder Enquiry Structure]


The SIO can be either a detective superintendent or a DCI. The preference is for superintendent, as this rank has additional powers to search and take intimate samples, thus making the enquiry team more self-sufficient.  All SIOs have been specifically trained in the task and in larger forces only selected superintendents will carry out the role.  In smaller forces it is essential that every detective superintendent is able to carry out this function efficiently.  As in most fiction the SIO will inevitably have a ‘bagman’, someone to act as their ‘gopher’ and dogsbody.  This will normally be a detective sergeant (DS).

The SIO is responsible for the overall management of the case and specifically for deciding which lines of inquiry will be pursued and how this will be done. It is vital that they keep an open mind, as the cases of Colin Stagg and Jeremy Bamber show (see Chapter 4).  All of this is logged in the Policy Book.  This means that:

  • the lines of enquiry can be audited
  • anyone joining the investigation can quickly get up to speed on how it has been developed and why some lines of inquiry are being pursued and others not
  • the review process, which takes place routinely if there is no arrest, can look at the decisions made in the context of the time and state of knowledge of the SIO when they were made. This makes it easier to understand the thinking of the SIO and minimizes the effect of hindsight.

The Office Manager

This officer is responsible for running the Incident Room. He or she can be either a DI or a DS.  Skill and experience are more important than rank and most SIOs prefer to work with officers that they know and trust as this is a key post.  If done efficiently it frees the SIO to focus on the inquiry itself rather than the management of the incident room.

Everything that the SIO or Statement Reader (see later) requires to be done is noted in the Action Book. This is a simple book of duplicate pages, one of which is detachable.  Each task is entered in the book, with details of exactly what needs to be done, who should do it and when it should be done by.  The top copy is detached from the book and given to the inquiry team.  A key role of the Incident Room Manager is to chase up on the progress of these actions, ensuring that they are all completed on time and that nothing is missed.  When the action is completed the top copy is returned and the Incident Room Manager decides whether all actions are complete or more must be done on any particular line of inquiry.  The system has been computerized through the HOLMES system but for some time most SIOs preferred to stick to the paper system partly because it was tried and tested, and partly because the management team did not have the computer skills to enter the information directly.  In addition a book is easier to access and cannot crash.  Even now a paper copy is kept of the actions for the same reasons.

The importance of the role of the Office Manager cannot be overstated. Most difficult inquiries lead to the accumulation of massive amounts of information, most of which is irrelevant.  The key tasks are:

  • to control the flow of the information
  • to ensure that all of the tasks identified are carried out
  • to spot coincidences or inconsistencies which need to be followed up.

Most murders are cleared up by the dogged perseverance of the detectives in patiently following up every lead and, by process of elimination, ending up with a prime suspect on whom they can then focus. For this to work it is essential that the system can manage the information so that as detectives go out every day they are up to date on the results of the inquiries made by the other teams.

The Statement Reader

Before HOLMES the Statement Reader was the centre of the inquiry process. He or she reads every statement coming in, either from the teams or obtained from outside forces in order to ensure that every ‘i’ has been dotted and every ‘t’ crossed.  If they are not satisfied they instigate another ‘action’ for further work to be done.  In addition, they will also mark up the statement with all the items to be indexed on the HOLMES system.  This gives them a unique view of the whole enquiry; their brain is the first and, some would argue, the best computer used in murder investigations.


In the 1980s the Home Office identified that computerization could greatly assist major inquiries where large amounts of information were accumulated and where paper-based indexing systems, and the computer that is the Statement Reader’s brain, could no longer cope with the volume. They developed an approach which was given the name HOLMES, the acronym being developed, somewhat laboriously, from Home Office Large and Major Enquiry System.  In order to stimulate competition they left it to the market to provide the computer solution and several companies became involved in developing software and systems.  Since they all came to the market at different times, with different specifications and at different costs, forces ended up buying from several suppliers.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, there are liars, damned liars and computer salespeople. Despite assurances from the industry that all the systems could be made compatible, the reality was that none of them could talk to one another nor could there be any electronic exchange of information.  The only way that linked inquiries could work where forces had different makes of computer was to set up physical links between incident rooms, with all the information being input as many times as there were systems if cross-referencing was to be possible.  This made it clumsy, expensive, time-consuming and very frustrating; thus investigators were reluctant to use the system universally for some considerable time.  It was yet another instance where the Home Office confused cost with value for money.

It is only in relatively recent times that the systems have been made compatible and it has been possible to exchange information on a single input basis. HOLMES is now highly developed.  All the information gathered in the course of the investigation is input as either evidence (statements, exhibits etc.) or as intelligence.  It allows for very sophisticated searches, and if the Statement Reader and indexers have done their work properly, patterns, coincidences and inconsistencies can be identified quickly.  It is also far less likely that the mistakes that were made in the Yorkshire Ripper case (when, for example, Sutcliffe was arrested more than once) could occur without alarm bells ringing.  There is no doubt that HOLMES has made management of large inquiries much simpler, especially where they involve incidents in more than one force area.

Inquiry Teams

When the body of the victim is found relatively soon after death the first twenty-four to forty-eight hours of the inquiry become vitally important, as it is possible to find witnesses with a clear memory of events inside this time period, and if the suspect can be identified and arrested it is more likely that forensic evidence linking them with the victim or the scene will be found. This means that the SIO will deploy as many officers as possible, both uniformed and CID, at the beginning of the investigation in order to carry out house-to-house inquiries and to position teams where passers-by may have seen something.  An essential element of the SIO’s job in this period is keeping up to date with the information coming in and ensuring that everyone is briefed on it.  After that time the staffing is significantly reduced.  It will usually consist of a DI running anywhere between three and five teams of one DS and four DCs.  The DCs will usually work in pairs.  At first sight this looks like a waste of manpower but experience has shown that it is better to have one officer asking questions whilst the other observes and makes notes and it does make any arrest much safer.

The Family Liaison Officer

In every case of violent or unexplained death a family liaison officer will be appointed to look after the needs of the family vis-à-vis the investigation. The duties of this officer are:

  • to assess the family in its wider context so as to keep the SIO informed of its needs
  • to ensure that the media strategies of the police and the family are co-ordinated so that the public do not get a mixed message
  • to get whatever intelligence is possible from the family and family friends
  • to look after the interests of the investigation
  • to keep a log of all contacts and interactions with the family and family friends.

When the killer is someone from outside the family this job is relatively straightforward as the process is mainly one way, keeping the family informed of the progress of the investigation. When the killer is someone from within the family the situation is significantly more complicated, especially during the period when the person is only a suspect and no arrest has been made.  In these cases the liaison officer needs to do exactly the opposite of the job description.  It is imperative that they always keep to the front of their mind the fact that they are detectives and investigators first and liaison officers second, so they must gauge what the family can be told without hindering the investigation in any way.  In complicated and difficult cases the SIO may deliberately not inform the liaison officer of certain facts so that the latter can be open with the family.  This is not always possible as the officer needs to be well informed if they are to carry out their role as an investigator.  It does not need too much imagination to see the stresses that this can cause to the officer, especially if in the course of a long inquiry they form any sort of emotional attachment to members of the family, such as the victim’s parents.  If the killer is a member of the family this may mean that the liaison officer has to be changed after an arrest, as the arrest will certainly undermine the trust that they have built up with the family.

The Scientific Services Manager

Up until the 1970s, all the forensic functions in most forces were carried out by police officers who had had additional training. From that point on the job itself became more and more skilled and required more and more of a scientific background, especially in the recovery of fingerprints.  The increasingly use of DNA sampling has significantly accelerated the process and it is now common for most forces to have a separate and distinct function for the maintenance and development of forensic science.  In addition, forensic analysis does not come cheap and it has become essential for forces to be able to control the amount of work contracted out to the forensic science service by filtering applications for the examination of exhibits through someone with expert knowledge.

In the initial stages of the investigation the forensic team leads the way. It is unusual to have witnesses who can name or point to possible suspects.  It is certain that the suspect, once arrested, will deny the charge so it is essential that evidence is found which will link him or her with the scene and with the victim.  Once all the forensic evidence is recovered the forensic scientists fade into the background and only re-emerge when a suspect comes into the frame and needs to be either charged or eliminated.  Those writers who wish to develop a storyline or plot in which forensic evidence plays a central part should be aware of the fact that this is an area, which is developing quickly and which is highly technical, as in the use of DNA when a very small sample has been recovered.  I will cover this and give some background on the evidential difficulties that it presents in Chapter 3.  Tempting though it may be, an extensive knowledge of the storylines in television shows such as CSI and Silent Witness is not adequate background on which to base a plot (indeed some of the scriptwriters and their advisors would benefit from reading this book!).  The writer needs to research the issue using materials as up to date as he or she can acquire and understand (or persuade someone with that knowledge to brief them).

The Exhibits Officer

In every inquiry the police seize physical evidence which links the criminals to the crime or which is evidence that the crime has been committed. In ‘stranger’ murders where there is a complicated crime scene there can be a very large volume of seized material.  To understand the difficulty that this presents it is necessary to understand the legal concept known as the ‘chain of evidence’.  Put simply this means that the prosecution must be able to show that any item they present in evidence was actually that which was taken from the scene.  There needs to be an auditable paper trail which confirms how it was conveyed to the police station, then to the place where the forensic analysis took place and then back into police custody for presentation by the prosecution in court as an exhibit.  In order to ensure that nothing goes wrong in this process every enquiry will have its Exhibits Officer.  They will have responsibility for:

  • bagging and labelling all exhibits
  • making sure that the packaging is correct and will not lead to any deterioration of the exhibit itself, e.g. making sure that bloodied clothing is not put in an airtight container, and that it is stored properly
  • that the item is conveyed and recovered properly from the forensic science service
  • that the item presented in court can be guaranteed to be the one that was recovered from the scene.

This officer needs to be an obsessive, nit-picking ‘finisher’ if the SIO is to avoid being ambushed at crown court by either a failure in the chain of evidence or an allegation that the exhibit has been contaminated in some way. It is a particularly onerous and always underrated task, but given both its critical nature and its ability to attract idiosyncratic characters it is one which is worthy of consideration by any crime writer for background colour.

The Disclosure Team

Up until 1996 the only disclosure that the prosecution had to make to the defence was either evidence which they themselves intended to introduce in the trial or evidence which they had come across and which they judged would be helpful to the defence. There were a number of cases in which it was found on appeal that the prosecution had knowledge of issues which were either helpful to the defence or could potentially undermine the prosecution case, where the defence had been kept in ignorance of them.

As a result the Criminal Procedures and Investigation Act 1996 introduced a duty on the prosecution to disclose all evidence to the defence other than that which they thought of informants. This duty of disclosure has been reduced by the Criminal Justice Act 2003 but the volume of information handled by any murder inquiry is such that it is still necessary to have a number of officers reviewing it as it comes in and deciding what should be disclosed to the defence.  It has been found to be more efficient to do this as the inquiry progresses rather than waiting until someone is arrested and charged.  It does not need much imagination to realize the tensions that this can produce where an arrest has been made but the SIO is not certain that all of the participants have been identified.  In addition it is a bit like expecting a turkey to vote for Christmas to ask an SIO to bring an objective mind to bear on disclosing evidence to the defence which is not directly helpful to their case but does have the potential to undermine that of the prosecution.

Lines of Approach

The difficulty representing a real-life inquiry presents to the writer is that the murder will usually occur very early on in the book, probably just at the point where the writer is trying to establish the main characters in the mind of the reader. To do this successfully most teachers / editors / publishers advise that the number of people used in the opening chapters is kept to a minimum.  This seems to discourage even established writers from describing the inquiry team and the incident room.  In my view this is misguided as they can provide wonderful background colour.  For example Ian Rankin succeeds because he is so good at immersing the reader in the atmosphere of the police station and the police culture.  If you can get a handle on the chatter, joking and repartee that takes place when a group of men and women are brought together in these circumstances it will give the opening chapters, and thus the book, a powerful atmosphere.  An example of the sort of black humour that could be used comes from a multiple murder in Tooting, London.  There had been a long-running dispute between two families – one Irish, one English – which boiled over into a long and bloody fight in which one Irishman and three Englishmen were killed.  The briefing board was headed ‘England 1 – Ireland 3’ – at least until the SIO ordered it wiped clean.

The briefings can be used to develop the plot, lay down red herrings and show aspects of the protagonist through short, sharp interchanges with officers at the briefing who need not play any future part in the story. In much the same way the bureaucracy, the need to manage the overtime budget, the frustration of not getting enough staff, or the wrong people, can all be used to develop tension between the protagonist and the senior officers or the team, or to give reasons why lines of inquiry which later proved to be fruitful were not initially pursued.

©Queen Victoria


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