Murder Trial: The Disappearance of Margaret Fleming, BBC iPlayer, directed by Matt Pindle.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000d2cw/murder-trial-the-disappearance-of-margaret-fleming-series-1-episode-1

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000d2fq/murder-trial-the-disappearance-of-margaret-fleming-series-1-episode-2

In 2019, Edward Cairney and Avril Jones are jointly charged with the murder of Margaret Fleming and brought to trial. The accused lived in Inverkip on the coast of the Firth of Clyde, a backwater (near where my sister used to live) but there’s no body, and little forensic evidence. Until recently bringing out the body for examination was necessary before a murder trial could take place. John George Haigh or The Acid Bath Murderer, as he was daubed in the early twentieth century was convicted of the murder of six people (he claimed nine victims) but there was still enough physical evidence to convict him. Forensic evidence in the twenty-first century is no longer a pony and trap, more of a high-speed-express train that often pre-determines which way a jury is going to vote –guilty,  not guilty, or in Scotland, the case being Unproven.

The prosecution were able to show what little forensic evidence that appears in the case of Margaret Fleming was ambiguous. Bone fragments, which were fragments, but which could have come from any number of animals and not necessarily from the body of Fleming.

There was little doubt the John George Haigh was guilty of murder, but he was asking the prosecution a simple question—prove it. Edward Cairney and Avril Jones are saying the same thing. The case rests on who has the best story?

Here we move from the whodunnit to the whydunnit. We’re looking at motive. Agatha Christie, who was guilty of a well-publicised disappearing act of her on, much quoted saying suggests, ‘very few of us are what we seem,’ and is the basis of most of her work. The before and after shock of J.B.Priestly’s An Inspector Calls.

Margaret Fleming, thirty-five, disappeared before or after police called at the depilated property investigating inconsistencies in form filling. An application for Personal Independence Payment which had been filled in by her carers, Edward Cairney and Avril Jones quickly became a missing-person enquiry then a murder trial. Margaret Fleming, the two accused suggested, had simply ran out the back door as the police came to the front door.  Cairney suggested that she had run away with gypsies. Jones went along with whatever Cairney suggested. But the last person to see Margaret Fleming was her GP and that had been in 1999.

Motive for murder, improbable as it seems, seems to have been diddling the benefit system for sixteen years. Witnesses are called to establish that Margaret Fleming had been a happy-go-lucky girl before her protective father Derick died and she was given into the care of the accused.

The only witnesses that Margaret Fleming was no longer happy and no longer lucky afterwards were Edward Cairney and Avril Jones. A doughnut shaped hole exists in the prosecution’s case.  They can’t provide the body and they can’t provide evidence that Margaret Fleming was maltreated before she was murdered.

In the Whydunnit story something always turns up—the moment in Scooby Doo when the hood is pulled off the ghostly figure and he cries, ‘I’d have gotten away with it, if it wasn’t for you damn kids.’ The Scooby Doo moment arrives after Cairney and Jones are arrested, wheeling their trolley, ready to board a train to London. A supposed typed letter from Margaret Fleming to Edward Cairney and Avril Jones has a hotel address in London. You know the sort of letter, I’m doing great and I’ve ran away with gypsies, but I’ll be home soon, and p.s. you definitely didn’t kill me. In Scooby Doo setting up your alibi sets up your fall.

To recap, the police have the letter. They have the typewriter it is written on. They have dates and time in which Edward Cairney and Avril Jones were in London staying in the same alleged hotel Margaret Fleming was staying in. Time enough to post a letter to themselves, which is franked with a London postcode, and which they collected themselves as proof of Margaret Fleming’s continuing disappearance, but sudden re-appearance using language she was not grammatically capable of.   The jury could decide its circumstantial evidence—because it is. In terms of a double-twist narrative either Margaret Fleming’s body has to be found or the victim has to turn up in court the day they are convicted.

No double-twists—yet. Apart from a local vigil for Margaret Fleming. Bit late for that, vigilance should be for people that are alive.       

A good short story for Christmas?

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/dec/20/the-tennis-church-sophie-hannah-short-story

book burning.jpg

What makes a good short story? I asked the writers and reader on ABCtales that question. You might want to have a go at answering it yourself. This story is in the public domain and I’ve read it, so I’ve used it as an example. There are no right or wrong answers. You might think you could make a better job of it yourself. Go ahead. That’s what I always think. I’m stupid that way.  I remember, a few years ago, reading two contributors to ABCtales having the don’t worry about the grammar or spelling conversation, because the editors will sort all that out for you, when you sell it for a million quid. Some people don’t live on the same planet as me. I don’t think I’ll ever make a million quid from my writing. If I make ten quid, I’m ecstatic. My writing is a search for readers, there’s a sense of ego involved, of course, because I’m not a robot, which ironically is not the future of writing, because the software is already here and writing articles in sports, business and politics.

Quill software, for example, can collect data across a range of fields, perform statistical and financial modelling and produce reports quicker than you can say oh, fuck, I wish I had that when I was copying Joe Block’s work at college. Instant A* grade every time. And the CIA and Google are using it to collect and transform bit patterns into coherent structures and reports. Writing novels takes a whole different skill set – dream on. Ten minutes, using similar software for the equivalent of a 100 000 word novel. Short stories, grammatically correct, and conforming to different genres, produced quicker than I can pick my nose.

I don’t imagine I can write like Sophie Hannah, who wrote the short story The Tennis Church (follow the link above) but neither do I think I can write like Peter or Claudine or Ewan or Sooz or Rachel, or any number of writers on ABCtales, or those writing general fiction. We like to think, or I like to think, we are unique, our words or stories are like fingerprints. You could read a bit of writing and nod with recognition and say that’s Claudine – even if she disguised her work. That’s a Charles Dickens’s story. That’s Agatha Christie. But if Sophie Hannah can resurrect Inspector Poirot, as she has done with The Monogram and as she is doing with Closed Casket then it would be foolish to believe software will not soon be able to perform the same function. Val McDermid’s reworking of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey could take software such as Quill a few minutes.

There’s always the feel the quality argument. You do get a few folk that spend tens of thousands of pound on sound systems for music. They argue the quality is so much better. I’m sure we’ll get the same pattern emerging with the written word. Journalism is a closing door. Factual works will follow. Fiction writing and writers like to think their idiosyncratic take on life and skill set will lead to openings. For the very few, the 1%, that will remain true, the rest of us hacks—a number worldwide that keeps growing, competing for even fewer resources and openings—are pretty much fucked in terms of hoping to get an audience of over fifty reads. I like to think I’ll keep on writing because it’s a habit and how I make sense of the world. It’s too easy to let my increased understanding of the written word slip away, but all things change. The only certainty is mass immiseration or the poor and the poverty of chances and choices of those born recently. At least I’ve had a life of sorts. Bah humbug! Read on.