The wild, cruel beast is not behind the bars of the cage.
He is in front of it.
— Axel Munthe
September sees the release of the next Hunter Kerr novel published by Sapere Books and I thought you would be interested to hear where the Beast of Barnwell – the serial killer in this story - comes from.
The ‘Beast’ is loosely based on Peter Pickering from Wombwell, near Barnsley, who was dubbed the Beast of Wombwell by the press following his conviction in 1973 for the rape and murder of 14 year-old Shirley Ann Boldy, when he was jailed indefinitely.
Peter abducted Shirley Ann as she walked back to school at lunchtime, driving her to woods in the village of Barnburgh where he tortured and raped her before stabbing her with a kitchen knife. Peter had to flee with her body in his van when he was disturbed by three men walking in the woods who tried to intervene after hearing her screams for help.
Arrested later that day, he had dumped Shirley Ann’s body, cleaned his van, burned his clothes and sandpapered and bleached his shoes in a hope of hiding evidence, however he eventually confessed, blaming his mother for the killing, telling detectives that “she would never allow him to have a girlfriend and he could see her face as he killed Shirley.”
The killing of Shirley Ann came just five months after he was released from prison after a six year jail term for sex attacks on a teenage girl in Doncaster and Scarborough.
Detectives who dealt with Pickering firmly believed that Peter was responsible for more rapes and murders and were particularly interested in him for the unsolved murders of 13 year-old Anne Dunwell, from Rotherham, who was raped and strangled in 1964, and 14 year-old Elsie Frost from Wakefield, who was stabbed five times in 1965. He was visited several times while detained in Broadmoor by detectives and interviewed in connection with these murders but refused to cooperate.
However, in 2017, detectives had a breakthrough. Forensic evidence linked Peter to the murder of Elsie Frost and a fresh investigation was launched. During this re-investigation detectives discovered that Peter was renting a storage garage in Sheffield, and getting a warrant, they opened it up and found handcuffs, diaries and exercise books, which contained confessions. One of those confessions was the rape of an 18 year-old woman from Barnsley, which was undetected and after tracing the woman, who was then in her sixties, Peter was charged with that rape and convicted in 2018. Before he could be sentenced for that rape and also charged with the Elsie Frost murder, Peter died. He was 79.
So, there you are. Now you know how I developed the Beast of Barnwell. You can get hold of a copy by visiting Shadow of the Beast on Amazon.
Questions and answers
When did you first start writing? Did a specific event encourage you to start?
About the age of twelve, and it was a science fiction apocalyptic story, written in two exercise books from Woolworths.
I had an uncle, who was not only an avid reader but had a wonderful imagination, and as a teenager, I would spend many Autumn and Winter nights with him developing characters and drafting first chapters in front of a glowing coal fire with just a single table lamp burning. It made for a wonderful atmosphere. It was this uncle who introduced me to crime fiction.
How much research do you do?
Until recently I haven’t had to do much research. My Hunter Kerr novels crime novels are interwoven with my previous experiences as a detective, and I also have a number of colleagues I can contact, including a scenes of crime forensic investigator if I get stuck with my crime scenes.
However, I have just started a new series whose central character is a forensic psychologist and I have been so fortunate to spend time with a doctor who works in a medium secure unit with killers and rapists and got a fascinating insight into his working role. The first of the series is in the bag but the second is on the writing board and it has necessitated quite a bit of research.
Where do you write / your writing habits?
I have a study set out with everything I need. I start my day walking my dog on fields at the back of my home, and as I’m walking, I am working through what I will be writing when I return. I then hammer away at my keyboard for about five hours, doing some refining along the way, and then take my dog out for his second walk, reflect on the piece I have just written and do a mental edit. I’ll then return and make a few adjustments.
What part of the writing process do you find most difficult? Starting, knowing when you’ve done enough research, the ending?
I am a constructive plotter, and so work out a beginning and end, and build in significant events in the middle to drive the story forward. In my study I have a huge whiteboard, and I ‘run’ my stories as if they were a major incident (from my detective days), with photographs, timelines, and spider lines connecting characters to story, so I can keep track.
How real do your characters become and do they ever seem to control their own storyline?
Many of my characters are based on people I know or have met, so it’s quite easy for them to own their story.
Do you ever feel guilty about killing off characters or do you relish it?
Not the villains. As I have mentioned above, my stories are based on my experiences as a detective, and so my villains are based on those I have come across during my career and so I find bumping them off quite cathartic. However, I have just killed off one of my leading detectives in my Hunter Kerr series and I had a great deal of angst about doing so.
What are you working on?
I am working on a new character who is a forensic psychologist’s in a psychological thriller, which is a huge shift for me as my previous novels are police procedurals.
Do you always know your ending?
As I have mentioned above, I am a plotter and planner and I generally have my ending worked out. However, in Secrets of the Dead, the ending changed dramatically when I bumped into a former colleague in the pub. The colleague in question was attached to Task Force and during our chat he revealed that he and his team were involved in a search in woodland for a man who had been missing for three weeks and they suspected he had been murdered and buried there. As he unveiled how his body had been discovered, it not only changed my ending of that book, but gave me a prologue as well.
Following my retirement after 32 years in the police service, working mainly as a detective, I set about working on the novel I promised myself I would write. I had already made one attempt in the early 1990’s whilst working undercover in drugs squad, making notes when on surveillance and writing them up in an old police cell during breaks. That work finished as a novella, many elements of it based on my own and former colleagues’ experiences and for many years it sat on a shelf not seeing the light of day. Last year I rescued it and began re-working it, adding new elements and characters from my policing experience and it has been launched as Hunter, the prequel to my DS Hunter Kerr series.
It would be fair to state that none of my books make for cosy reading, they are based on hard-hitting experiences from my work as a detective and some of the villains are a combination of felons I have come across during cases. In my novel Cold Death that is brought to the fore. In the early 1990’s, while working as a Sergeant in Barnsley, we were dealing with two rival gangs who were engaged in a turf war over drugs. There had been a number of beatings, stabbings and a shooting carried out upon the differing gang members. This culminated one evening by one of the gangs breaking into the mortuary at the hospital, taking a dead body from the cold storage and placing it in the boot of their stolen car. From there they drove to a closed school, where they removed it from the boot and placed it on the ground, and then drove fiercely around the playground, running over it numerous times. It takes little imagination to realise the mess the body was in. They then put the body back in the car, drove to the home of the rival drug dealer and as a threat of what was to come launched it through the front window of the house. He wasn’t in but his mother and grandmother were, watching television. Can you just imagine the terror they must have faced that evening.
That defiling act of that dead man’s body has stayed with me and by way of showing how evil my character – Billy Wallace - was in Cold Death I put a twist into this scenario to protect the identification of the story.
The character Billy Wallace came about following my attendance at the scene of a brutal attack on a woman by a man she was in a relationship with. The scene I visited was one of the bloodiest I have ever been to. The woman had been hacked at with a boning knife and machete. She’d been stabbed 37 times, had her throat cut and several fingers severed. Whilst on remand for this attack, knowing he had severed three fingers from his victim’s hand, he sent a packet of fish fingers to her with a note ‘These are to replace the ones you’re missing.’
She survived thanks to the quick actions of a neighbour who was a nurse, and she was eventually able to give evidence against him in court and see him jailed for a minimum of 22 years.
Once again, I played around with some elements of this incident to protect identification.
As crime writers we all draw on our experiences, and my stories and plots are based broadly on what I have experienced during my career, bringing out my thoughts and feelings through my protagonist DS Hunter Kerr.
My journey into writing crime fiction began in my early teens, inspired and encouraged by an uncle, who was a lover of books, had a wonderful imagination and who taught me the basics of crafting a novel. In the Autumn and Winter months we would spend many an evening together in front of a roaring coal fire discussing crime fiction, and working on crime plots, developing characters and opening chapters.
Becoming a police officer in 1976 was the stepping-stone for crafting my crime stories. The on-the-job experiences provided me with the ideal material to weave into my writing and it was around this time that I discovered the work of Ed McBain. I devoured many of his 87th Precinct novels and knew that this was how I wanted to formulate my own novels.
I got that opportunity upon my retirement in 2006 after 32 years in the police. During that time, I had dipped in and out of writing groups - usually in between investigations - writing short stories and numerous first chapters based on my experiences, promising myself that one day I would complete a novel. Now there was no excuse, and I had so much rich material to draw upon – some humorous and some pretty gruesome – that I deemed worthy of progressing.
Added to that, I also had my many experiences as a detective. I began my plain clothes work in Vice Squad during the Ripper era. I progressed to CID and was involved in many notable murder investigations and then as a Detective Sergeant I entered Drugs Squad working undercover. My last job was as an Inspector, in charge of a busy CID, whose work was centred around sex offenders, child protection, domestic violence and racial incidents – a rich vein to draw upon.
My protagonist, Hunter Kerr, first appeared in 1995 as a rookie cop. It took me eighteen months to write, (initially in longhand) mostly tucked away in an old police cell during lunch breaks. The finished piece was titled ‘Loitering with Intent’ and though it finished short of being a novel, it had all the structure of a book led by a central character that was loosely autobiographical. For years it sat on a shelf until recently when I decided that this would form the basis of my prequel HUNTER.
It would be fair to say that there is a fine membrane between myself and my character Detective Sergeant Hunter Kerr. The storylines are interwoven with my own experiences as a cop or linked to incidences involving former colleagues and I’ve taken liberties with them. Hunter’s thoughts, feelings and emotions are mine as is much of his background. Where we differ is, I didn’t lose my first love to a serial killer.