Ex-cop turned author says Jane Furlong murder is 'definitely solvable'
There's a scene in the debut thriller from Auckland ex-cop Nathan Blackwell where the detective hero prepares himself for the mental horrors of investigating a child murder by googling similar famous cases abroad "to try and normalise it".
The novel, The Sound of Her Voice, is full of meticulous real-life details of police process: ill-fitting body-armour; the grisly sounds of an autopsy; the tedium of keeping a crime-scene secured; the technicalities of a wire-tap.
So is this another true-to-life detail? Is desensitisation-by-Google something Blackwell would do during his 10 years in the police, seven of them as detective?
Actually, says Blackwell, no. He put the googling scene in mostly because he wanted to frighten readers. When people know they're reading a fiction, they might be tempted to think the ghastly crimes described are horror-movie fantasies.
"So I threw those things in to say, actually, these are real things that have happened."
Which is also why he peppered the story with passing references to real New Zealand crimes: a mother who tears out her daughter's toenails and pours boiling water on her; a young woman driven around as she dies of her stab-wounds; the deaths of Christie Marceau, of Blessie Gotingco, of policeman Don Wilkinson, murdered while trying to install a tracking device on a drug dealer's vehicle.
"Readers can Google those cases themselves, and read about those horrific things, and then they start to go, 'Ah, maybe this isn't as implausible as it's been pitched.'"
One thing that's not quite real? Blackwell's name. It's a pseudonym. (In fact I have only his and his publicist's word that he really is an ex-cop, and I've not been roped into an elaborate publicity stunt. Here's hoping.)
But no, says Blackwell, who came into the Stuff offices for a face-to-face interview, it's not a marketing ploy.
"The main reason is that I was involved in covert work with the police, in the undercover programme and informant handling. If my face and real name got out there it wouldn't harm ongoing operations, but it might undermine the work those units do if people out there realise I'm someone I wasn't telling them that I was."
The publicist suggested keeping schtum might even be a life-or-death matter, but Blackwell suggests that would be over-egging it.
"I like to think the people I worked against would see it as me doing my job, though there are some pretty bad people out there, so you never know. But I certainly don't think there's anyone out there who wants to kill me."
The importance of anonymity will fade the longer he's out of the force, but for now he's keeping his biography vague: He's a North Shore kid who attended Westlake Boys. He's in his "early 30s", was with the police for about 10 years, and left "in the past five years" for "another interesting opportunity".
He worked on some high-profile cases, including that of Jane Furlong, who went missing in 1993, and whose skeleton was found in sand-dunes at Port Waikato in 2012.
Even though it was investigated three times without success, Blackwell reckons Furlong's murder "is definitely solvable".
He says police are in fact already confident of the identity of Furlong's killers, but their confidence is based on evidence that can't be used in court.
"There's a lot of stuff that can be done legally but can't be used in court because it gives away a technique or a technology, and the police sometimes do it because it's nice to know."
To secure a conviction, police would need on-the-record statements from certain key witnesses, but those witnesses are distrustful of the police.
"The problem is that people who were in that scene back in 1993 were treated very poorly by the police. If you were drug dealer or a prostitute, you were treated like shit."
Thus the 1993 investigation was conducted badly, and the 1996 reinvestigation was built on the same "shambles". Finding Furlong's body in 2012 changed the game, but by then witnesses were already alienated and suspicious.
"If you are in that kind of world, a tinfoil hat is pretty common, and with a high-profile murder investigated three times and not solved, some of them are going to think, 'Are the police in on this? Should I really put my head up and be a witness?'
"But it's definitely solvable, in that there are people who know what happened, people who now aren't in that scene, and who could tell the story."
The Sound of Her Voice draws on Blackwell's police insider knowledge, but also betrays his enthusiasm for the thrillers of Andy McNab, Jo Nesbo and Lee Child. He was also inspired by the first season of TV's True Detective, which showed you could create great drama with a storyline where things don't work out, and bad things happen to good people.
The story follows North Shore cop Matt Buchanan as he works a number of nasty cases involving missing persons, murder, rape and worse. It's super-pacy, the plot-twists are genuinely surprising and Buchanan's foul-mouthed interior voice has a laconic, macho tone that sits tidily within the international tough-cop-thriller genre, yet feels unforced and authentically Kiwi.
Over time, Buchanan is driven a little mad, both by the horrors of what he's seen, but also by the fundamental frustrations of being a cop.
He rails against the court processes where criminals walk free on technicalities, rape victims are re-traumatised by cynical defence lawyers, and time is wasted on pointless drug arrests. Was Blackwell, by any chance, using Buchanan as a soapbox for gripes of his own?
Buchanan's observations are valid, says Blackwell, and he shares them to an extent, but his own views are rather more boringly balanced.
Yes it's unfortunate when murderers and rapists get off and walk free, and that's probably bad for the New Zealand public, "but what Matt doesn't touch on is that it's the police's job to gather enough evidence to put them away, and if that doesn't happen that's because you either haven't done your job well enough or the evidence was never there to find".
"It's frustrating when people get off when you know they've done something, but at the same time it's the probably the fairest system we could have."
And yes, he finds it terrible the way sexual assault victims are cross-examined in court.
Police get so much training in how to support victims and how to avoid re-traumatising them with multiple interviews and so on, but all that care is negated when a defence lawyer starts tearing the victim apart on the stand and forcing them to relive their trauma. Yet fairness dictates that victims must give evidence, because that's how courts work.
"I don't know what the answer is. It's just an upsetting thing."
On drug law, though, Blackwell does feel well out of step with the official line. He's liberal not just on soft drugs ("few and far between are the times that a person who's used weed has done something that's affected anyone to a great extent"), but on all drugs.
"The problem with illegal drugs is that they're illegal. Because it's illegal, the criminal underworld calls the price. So it's expensive: meth is $600 a gram, and people all over the country have daily gram habit. And because it's expensive people can't afford it, so what do you if you can't find that money? You do burglaries. You steal cars.
"And then the people who can't pay off their debts? All the stabbings, all the beatings, all the rapes – that all spins off the illegal drug trade.
"Regulate it. If you could go down to your pharmacy and get your meth for far less than you're paying the Headhunters, a whole lot of crime would dive overnight. And then you spend all that the money on health and education trying to attack the demand. In my eyes it's a health and education problem, not an enforcement one.
"It needs some radical changes, but no one is every going to have the balls to do it. Who in their right mind is ever going to legalise meth, legalise heroin, legalise LSD?"
As for the psychological core of the book – Matt's downward spiral – that was pretty much pure fiction, says Blackwell.
Yes, some of the stuff he saw involving child abuse, rape and murder meant he was psychologically "knocked about" occasionally, "but the PTSD was something I had to research". He never sought trauma counselling, even though it was available.
"It's probably something police should work a bit harder on".
Child abuse cops and police photographers "get counselling all the time, but the frontline cops who get to the murder scene and deal with the children of murdered people, and the detectives who do the same on CIB teams, don't get it as matter of course".
"Over the years I"m sure there've been stories of cops burning out, but I didn't see much of it in my 10 years."
Often the biggest stress on cops is sheer workload.
"Any one detective would have between 20 and 50 of their own files to work on at any one time, and every one of those needs witness interviews, evidence gathered, search warrants done, all of which takes weeks and weeks of work. Something has to give."
If there is a lesson hidden in the pages of Blackwell's gleefully dark novel, it's perhaps that "I wanted to portray the detectives as human".
He wanted to show the nitty-gritty of investigations, and how many possibilities are considered right up till the last minute of an investigation, and how much of the police's hard-won evidence gets discarded as it passes through prosecutors and trial judges and pre-trail arguments, long before it even gets shown to a jury.
"There's plenty of talk out there about the police being one big organisation. They all sing from the same song-sheet. They're just robots. They get tunnel vision in investigations, and they want to lock somebody up and get a media release out saying they've done their job. But it's the exact opposite."
If detectives can't identify the murderer, they couldn't care less about not getting praise in the media.
"All they want to do is make sure they find the truth and they get the right person."
* The Sound Of Her Voice, published by Mary Egan Publishing, by Nathan Blackwell, is on sale now for $30.
- Sunday Star Times