The Trial of Louise Woodward, ITV Thursday 11th November 9pm, ITV Hub

Matthew Eappen would be around twenty-five now, had he lived. Nineteen-year-old nanny, Louise Woodward was accused and found guilty of shaking the eight-month-old baby in her care so hard it caused subdural hematoma and killed him.

Her trial, soon after the death of Princess Diana in 1987, was a media event—I don’t remember it, but watching footage Woodward’s pasty face was familiar from old newspaper stories.

Key players in the trial, such as the defence team, were interviewed. Many of the same high-profile names that had appeared during the O. J. Simpson murder case. Legal costs paid for by au pair companies that imported labour into New York’s prosperous boroughs. A service-sector also on trial, with the fear of further litigation from ‘shaken-baby syndrome’ a threat to their business model.

As were the middle-class parents of Eappen.  They were both doctors. Trials had been filmed, but until this case streamed only to a local audience. The court-room commentator offered insight into how their closed world was viewed through a lense. Woodward, for example, she suggested was a nervous smiler. That might give the jurors, and those at home, the wrong impression. And she didn’t cry. That was a no-no. But crying at the wrong moment, or inappropriately, could also set jurors against you.

The mother of Matthew, being blonde and pretty, helped their case. But she also didn’t cry enough. And those stay-at-home moms with less than the twin incomes of two doctors were less sympathetic to her need to work, and might have wondered why she wasn’t a stay-at-home mother to their two young children.  

The case itself was a closed-room, but not a mystery of the Agatha Christie variety. Louise Woodward the only suspect. She either shook the baby to death, causing internal bleeding behind the eyes, or she didn’t.  Her defence team took the controversial decision to go for all or nothing. They would not, for example, go for a plea of manslaughter with all its legal complexities and moral nuisances.  Woodward, if found guilty of murder, could expect a minimal of ten or twenty years on prison. Or if the sixteen jurors, whittled down to twelve to the dismay of the defence team, found her not guilty, she’d walk out of the courtroom, there and then.

The case rested on medical science. The prosecution had a text book open-and-shut case. Straight-backed white, medical men declaiming what happened. A pattern they recognised and could show, visually, using props.

The lead defence attorney asked an expert for the prosecution case to ‘imagine’ a different scenario than one he was trying to present. The expert refused, only to be rebuked the judge.

This is where the trail of Louise Woodward fails the viewer. We wouldn’t expect the parents of Matthew Eappen to take part in the re-construction of events, or even Louise Woodward, but we might expect the trail judge to take part and explain how he came to his extraordinary verdict (but twenty-fire years later, perhaps he’s dead).

Certainly, the prosecution team and its experts had little doubt of Woodward’s guilt of ‘shaken-baby syndrome’.

In contrast, her family, and supporters at her small Cheshire English village, portrayed her as a martyr falsely prosecuted for reasons they couldn’t quite fathom. Experts can’t be experts when they contradict a firm belief has become for many a way of life with a contemporary resonance from the election of the moron’s moron to global warming narratives.

The defence case rested on medical expertise, but with a different paradigm. Woodward had been in charge of the children. And she may have shaken Matthew, to help revive him after he had slipped into unconsciousness, but from bleeding to the brain that had happened before—when exactly, wasn’t important—therefore she had responded in a reasonable manner. The black swan argument.  All swans are white, but there might be a black one. And our experts will show you pictures.

Twenty-five years later, a defence expert recanted and agreed such a scenario might have been possible. Another expert sneered. Louise Woodward to him remained a murderer, who had—largely—got away with it.

Certainly, if she didn’t have such an overpriced defence team, it would be difficult to believe that she wouldn’t still be in jail. Portrayed as an English rose, who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, worked for her in the media (it would have been interesting to compare and contrast the treatment of black or Latino nannies for similar crimes). The world has moved on and Matthew Eappen remains dead. Whodunnit?  You’re the expert.   

Out of Blue, BBC iPlayer, written by Carol Morley and Martin Amis and directed by Carol Morley.

Schrödinger’s cat, observational effect and superposition, the multiverse, and our place in the universe to the power of…Einstein’s God doesn’t throw dice. Enough quantum physics to fill half a teaspoon. This is the backdrop for a routine murder mystery, with unsolved serial killer cases and socialites Detective Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson) is called in to investigate as a possible homicide Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer). Hoolihan has issues and is a reformed alcoholic, but she’s grown old dis-gracefully. She’s the best in the business and has a preternatural talent for linking disparate clues. Almost a one-hundred percent success rate.

Ticking in the film noirish background there are the cases that got away. A serial killer that was never caught and grown silent over the years. It’s personal, Hoolihan’s childish memories trigger clues she picks up in the case, and, vice-versa. In particular a Brenda Lee I’ll Be Seeing You soundtrack that sends her off into past and present.  In the foreground, Col Tom Rockwell’s (James Caan) a Vietnam War hero and well-respected family in New Orleans whose astrophysicist daughter’s case she’s investigating.

A closed-box mystery of the Agatha Christie variety.  Jennifer Rockwell, with a gunshot to her brain, had been found dead in observatory in which she worked. The door locked. Prof Ian Strammi (Toby Jones) is the main suspect. Being Toby Jones, we know it couldn’t have been that killed her on this or any planet.

The case is solved not by plodding, but great intuitive leaps of faith by the troubled Hoolihan. Cynical colleagues such as Tony Silvero (Aaron Tveit) can only look on in wonder. This is a pleasant enough way to spend an hour-and-a-half of your allotted time, if you’ve nothing better to do. Turn your brain off and enjoy, as I did.   

Stieg Larsson (2010) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland

When Mikael Blomkvist is holed up in cottage in the Vanger estate and can’t think he reads detective novels. I do that too. Hence The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (and the first 100 pages of The Girl Who Kicks the Hornets’ Nest). Blomkvist namechecks Val McDermid The Mermaids Singing and some other—to me—obscure Scandinavian detective novels. In short, Blomkvist was behaving like a real person. He was behaving like me, which might have been you. But who would play you in the film? The answer is Daniel Craig plays Blomkvist. (Roona Mara plays Lisbeth Salander) Larsson/Blomkvist was everyman with a mission, or two missions, or perhaps three books full of Millennium and another three, literally, ghost written.

The trial was already over, everything that could be said had been said, but he never doubted that he would lose. The written verdict was handed down at 10.00 on Friday morning, and all that remained was a summing-up from the reporters waiting on the corridor outside the district court.

Blomkvist had been found guilty, fined and he’s going to jail for three months. But he’s more worried about the Millennium magazine he’s set up to investigate corruption and big finance, which is often the same thing. He’s been accused of libel and defamation of the reputation of financier Hans Erik Wennerstrom. That’s a bit like defaming Sir Philip Nigel Ross Green special adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron. And conservatives really would be so outraged with the Swedish model of prison time. Blomkvist thought of it as therapeutic. Our Tory friends, of course, think that the hanging of a boy of thirteen-year-old for stealing a spoon in 1788 was too lenient, because he hadn’t been flogged properly first.

Stieg Larsson has a didactic element to his writing, which if often glossed over by his page-turning prose. Current concerns in the disunited United Kingdom that children are facing Christmas cooped up with their abusers, with the NSPCC charity receiving more than 31 000 calls since April, are matched by the author’s themes of incest and sexual abuse and eugenics of the Nazi variety in The Vanger Family. They are portrayed as old money, industrialists that made things and didn’t mind destroying people in the process. But not all of them. Christopher Plummer plays the eighty-two-year-old patriarch Henrik Vanger in the film of the same name, he’s that nice kind of Teutonic fellow that worries about worker redundancies. And for the last 40 years he’s been receiving a framed and pressed flower, with a note to mark the disappearance of his niece Harriet. He believes someone is his family has murdered her. All police leads have ended in failure. He hires Blomkvist, ostensibly to write a family history, to look for new leads of what happened on the day of her disappearance. But he doesn’t hold out much hope.

Blomkvist says because it’s an island, it’s a bit like an Agatha Christie closed-room whodunnit in the Vanger family, but then discounts the idea. But that’s exactly what this long-winding book is.  

Larsson makes misogynistic abuse plain. Part 1, for example, tells the reader, 18% of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man. Part 2, 46% of the women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man. Part 3, 13% of the women in Sweden have been subjected to aggravated sexual assault outside a sexual relationship. 92% of Women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the police. Here in Britain the Independent Monitor for the Press, Femicide Census, reported that a woman is currently being killed by a man every three days. Larsson, before his death, was outing not just a Scandinavian, but a British and, arguably, universal pattern.

Larsson’s revenge was the creation of the iconic Lisbeth Salander. While journalist Blomkvist experiences middle-class angst of where his next story will be coming from, Salander is the outsider’s outsider. She’s four-foot-eleven, twenty four, but looks like a beautiful fifteen-year-old waif and every minute is a battle for survival. Her battle with a bureaucracy designed to help her is of the deadly variety. Her social worker a sadistic predator that orally and anally rapes her. Larsson flips to his point of view as he muses that she’s better than a prostitute because he pays for her services with her own—state-funded—money.

Salander will get her revenge—she always does. She’s a hi-tech hacker, the best in Sweden, and she has a photographic memory. Blomkvist muses that she suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, but they become lovers as they unravel the mystery of what happened to Harriet Vanger and other mutilated and abused women. Salander is the equaliser that’s not going to let powerful men get away with it.

Salander, ironically, becomes part of capitalist branding like our aging James Bond. She becomes not a character, but a sexy Japanese Anamie figure that can be deployed in a number of situations and she’ll come out top girl.

In The Girl Who Kicks the Hornets’ Nest, for example, she’s been shot in the head by her father and buried in a shallow grave by her half-brother who is built like ‘a brick shithouse’. Because of a genetic condition, her half-brother feels no pain. He’s superhuman and a psychopathic murderer. He disarms two armed cops, kills one of them and steals their car, yet she takes him down. She has internal injuries to her leg and…well, you get the drift. Bad thing happen. Bad things happen to her. But it makes her stronger. More of a brand name. Watch the movie, save yourself time.     

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

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?

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.