Debut Author in the Spotlight: Elizabeth Haynes

HaynesITDC You may have noticed Elizabeth Haynes and her debut novel Into the Darkest Corner recently.  There’s been quite a buzz on twitter and the novel was featured by Amazon in its Rising Stars programme.  A lot of people love this novel.  As one of the judges for the CWA’s John Creasey New Blood Dagger, you won’t see my thoughts on the novel until later this year.  However, Elizabeth’s day job intrigued me and I asked her what it entails and how it impacts on her fiction writing.  When I was at school, the careers service never mentioned ‘intelligence analysts’ and I’ve not heard it mentioned subsequently.  So, if like me, you are curious to get out of this dark corner and learn more, read on for Elizabeth’s reply…

If you were to contemplate the best day job for a would-be crime writer, what would you come up with? Police officer? Well, that’s a given. Forensic pathologist? Criminal defence lawyer? I’m willing to bet not many people would reply with ‘intelligence analyst’ but that’s because my job is one that has been sadly and persistently overlooked by crime writers and producers of detective drama. The nearest we came to glorious representation on the silver screen was possibly Ben Affleck’s CIA intelligence analyst in ‘The Sum of All Fears’, but to be honest he was a bit more hands-on than we are in real life.

Now put aside the image of Ben Affleck leaping over car bonnets and blowing things up, and focus instead on lots of analysts sitting behind computer screens and drinking the occasional strong cup of tea – you get the picture.

The most succinct description is one I’ve found on the Connexions Direct careers database and it describes the role thus:

Criminal intelligence analysts collect, collate and evaluate data to analyse patterns of crime. They study data and crime patterns from different sources of information or intelligence to build up a picture of suspects and their activities, to help prevent future crimes being committed. Their work may include:

  • Checking computer and paper-based crime reports
  • Mapping geographical crime ‘hot-spots’ using specialist software
  • Working out patterns of crime, such as times committed and locations
  • Analysing criminal networks using special computer software
  • Suspect profiling
  • Using databases to input and extract crime data.

It might sound geeky to admit to genuine excitement at having spotted something that police officers with twenty-plus years’ service behind them might have overlooked, but there is something genuinely thrilling about being able to say “I believe it happened like this” and then being proved right. Not that anyone will ever admit that you were the one who pointed it out, of course.

As well as working in the police environment and having ready access to kind people who can check that what you’ve written is accurate, being a police intelligence analyst trains you to think like a writer. As well as looking at spreadsheets and spending a lot of time arranging and presenting data, analysts are trained to make an inference and then use the data to either prove or disprove it – using the eternal question ‘What if…?’

I’ll give you a fictional example. There might be a crime series involving pockets of daytime burglaries in rural locations, across a large geographical area but with the same distinctive modus operandi. Jewellery and cash are the main types of property stolen. You might initially expect your burglar is driving around looking for likely houses to target, but if they are only taking small portable items, what if they are using the rail network to get around? This might be your inference, and overlaying your map showing the offences with the locations of train stations (or bus routes) might strengthen this premise. Gathering further evidence in the form of CCTV from the stations might prove or disprove your inference altogether.

So much for the analysis – the writer in me looks at my fictional situations and wonders ‘what if…?’ to explore possibilities, twists and red herrings.

Another analytical tool is network analysis – using software that allows the ‘mapping’ of crime networks: who is working for whom; following the supply of illegal commodities from importation to street-level dealing; linking people to each other by showing associations and contacts. The end result of the analysis is a beautiful spider’s web of links drawn between little icons showing people, telephones, vehicles, places and commodities. If only the software producer would come up with a version of this software for writers, I am sure they would make a fortune. It’s like the ultimate mind-map.

I’m hoping finally to make good use of all this police work in my third book, the one I’ve been planning and tinkering with for years now. It’s a procedural in the truest sense of the word, and structurally it will include crime reports, witness statements, forensic reports and other ‘source’ documents to enable the reader to solve the crime alongside the detectives.  This, depending on your own levels of analytical ability, and how cunningly I can set it all down, will be either monumentally dull or thrilling.

With thanks to Elizabeth.  Get the novel at Waterstone’s here.  And find out more at the author’s website here.  Find Elizabeth on twitter @Elizjhaynes.