Hard Landing - Stephen Leather
Dan ‘Spider’ Shepherd is used to putting his life on the line as a detective in an elite undercover squad. But when a powerful drugs baron starts to kill off witnesses to his crimes, Shepherd faces his most dangerous assignment yet – going undercover in a top security prison, where one wrong move will mean certain death.
Drugs baron Gerry Carpenter is being held on remand and is facing a long prison stretch. Customs and Excise and Drugs Squad detectives are celebrating victory over one of their most wanted targets. But the celebrations are premature. Carpenter is determined to regain his freedom and begins a campaign of terror on the outside. Witnesses are threatened, police officers killed, evidence is destroyed, and the case against him starts to fall apart.
Shepherd’s mission is to find out how Carpenter is managing to run his operation from behind bars. But to do that he has to stay undercover twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, surrounded by career criminals and psychopathic killers who can smell a cop a mile away.
And it’s only as Shepherd starts to get close to Carpenter that he realises just how dangerous the man is. And how easily Carpenter can strike where it will hurt Shepherd most – at his family.
Stephen Leather writes: Hard Landing marks the debut of SAS-trooper turned undercover cop Dan ‘Spider’ Shepherd, who I hope to use in future thrillers. The last hero I used in several books was Mike ‘Joker’ Cramer who appeared in The Chinaman, The Long Shot and The Double Tap. I always regretted killing him off, and I won’t make the same mistake with Spider Shepherd.
The idea of writing about an undercover cop came from a writing job I did for the BBC on a show called In Deep starring Nick Berry and Stephen Tomkinson. The producer ended up totally rewriting my script (and ruining it in the process) but all the research I did on undercover police work and prisons came in useful with Hard Landing.
In Deep was cancelled (hardly surprising, the last series was awful) so maybe one day we’ll see a TV series based on Shepherd. With Shepherd, I wanted a policeman who could also take part in military scenarios, so I gave him an SAS background. I also had the idea of making him the father of a young son, so that we see him as a real human being and not just an action figure.
So far as research went, I spent a day inside Belmarsh Prison in South London. The prison authorities were really helpful, and even drew me a map of the institution. I was given a free run of the place and all my questions were answered. I also visited Shepton Mallet Prison in the West Country and spent time with a group of lifers. Turns out that I’m one of the most borrowed writers in the British prison system!
Hard Landing also marks the return of several other characters from previous books, including Major Allan Gannon of the SAS and former SAS trooper Martin O’Brien who both appeared in The Double Tap, and surveillance expert Alex Knight (Tango One) who might well one day get a book of his own.
Following publication I went on a two-week tour of British prisons, talking to inmates about my book and about writing. It was a great experience, I got great feedback from readers, and got to met characters I’m sure will feature in future books. One of the guys I met didn’t think you could blow the doors of a prison down with a rocket-propelled grenade, which I have happen in Hard Landing, and he sounded like he knew.
Take two crime writers and a bunch of lifers. What happens next? Stuart Jeffries finds out
There are a few simple rules for writing a good crime novel," novelist Michael Jecks tells his audience of murderers and sex offenders. "For example, you've got to have a murder before page 60. That's not very difficult - just bump someone off around page three." Some of the men nod slowly, as though making a mental note: "Must kill quicker."
" You also need to have no more than six suspects because you'll confuse the reader," says Jecks. "But no fewer than four because you want to make things interesting."
All 14 men are listening intently.
" And don't forget to put the page numbers in the top right corner," adds Jecks. "Editors like that apparently." Jecks has a rapt audience. Several of these life prisoners nurture literary ambitions and have fat piles of plays, screenplays, poems and fiction in their cells. We're sitting in a classroom at HM Prison Shepton Mallet in Somerset, where two British crime writers and a fiction editor have come to offer inmates advice on how to write and get published.
There is plenty of time for inmates to develop their literary talents at Shepton Mallet. Eighteen months ago, it became a category C prison for lifers, about a third of whom have committed sex offences. Category C means that the men have progressed from maximum security establishments - the next stop is an open prison. But many of the men jailed here are into their third decade of incarceration. "Many are here for the most appalling crimes," says governor Bryan McAlley.
" One of the biggest changes is that it's far more peaceful," he says. "When I leave at night, I don't hear garage music pumping out as I used to, but John Coltrane, Miles Davis or Puccini. That's because rather than being filled with kids from Bristol and Cardiff who are in for drugs-related offences, the average age has gone from 23-24 up to 44-45, and the men here now often have very high levels of education."
Later, I find myself chatting about Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho to an articulate man, as though we were at a literary soiree. "I found the violence disturbing," he says. "Mind you, I've had psychotic episodes just as bad." Then I talk about global warming to a man who has just done a degree in environmental sciences. The following day I discover that he was a cocaine addict who stole from the savings of his 92-year-old grandmother and 88-year-old aunt to feed his habit, and 12 years ago killed them by setting fire to their house.
This is the first such writers' day that the prison has organised. Twenty-five publishers were invited, but only one, Hodder and Stoughton, bothered to reply. Hodder put up two crime writers, Michael Jecks and Stephen Leather for the event, and sent one of its senior fiction editors along to run workshops. Jecks, who is deputy chairman of the Crime Writers' Association, specialises in novels set in the early 12th century. He studies contemporaneous coroners' reports of real murders and uses them as the basis for his fiction.
" I don't think visiting Shepton Mallet will help me with my books," he says. "I don't do this kind of research. It's more like community service."
It's a different story for Leather, who has come from tax exile in Dublin for the event and hopes to glean some authentic details about prison life for the novel he is writing. The book is about an undercover cop in jail trying to find out how a convicted drug dealer is arranging to bump off people from inside. "I've only got five weeks before I hand in the manuscript and at the moment I've no idea how I'll finish it. I need to get some authentic details of British prison life, a sense of the in-cell electricity and maybe a few characters."
Leather and Jecks are well read at HM Shepton Mallet. "I've read all your books," an inmate tells Leather during the day. "Don't you think you're getting touchy feely? I mean your heroes are virtually new men in your recent books." "I don't think so - I mean a Bosnian pimp who shoots someone through the head? Do you really think so?" "Oh yeah," says Steve. "I like it. I like touchy feely."
As for the prisoners' writing, very little of it is touchy feely. A great deal of it is harrowingly violent, and set in terrifying prison contexts. But is any it any good or worth publishing? Is there a new John McVicar in there? A Larkin? A Proust? On the train from London, Stephen Leather and Hodder editor Sue Fletcher prepare for the day by studying some of the manuscripts submitted by inmates. "This one's pretty good," says Leather handing me a story called A Smashing Burglary, by John Wrigglesworth. And it is. It's an understated tale about a house breaker who gets his comeuppance during a burglary. "I wonder if it's autobiographical?" asks Stephen. "He wouldn't be a lifer if he was just a burglar," says Sue. The manuscript that impresses them most is a novel called Consequences by a prisoner who has the nom de plume M Ikey. The author's synopsis says it is "an uncompromising account of the life of a youth by the name of Slim Jim Campbell", set in Hackney. It concludes with Jimmy's imprisonment and death aged 16. Consequences turns out to have been written by a man called Michael Taylor convicted aged 16 for murdering one girl and raping five others 19 years ago.
That afternoon at the prison, Stephen and Sue sit in a workshop and critique some of the prisoners' work they've read. John Wrigglesworth turns out to be rather less than frightening. "I find it really hard to commit myself to writing anything but short stories," he says. "There's no point writing short stories. Even when Stephen King writes them they don't really sell," says Sue.
" I don't think I'd be able to finish a novel. When I write something I keep polishing the story, rewriting it 10 times or so as though I never want to finish it." "That's your subconscious," says Stephen. "It doesn't want you to finish whatever you write because you’re afraid of exposing yourself to criticism."
Then Stephen and Sue try to encourage Michael Taylor to change the ending of Consequences. Nineteen years ago, a Home Office psychiatrist told the Old Bailey that Taylor was "the most dangerous man I have ever come across" and the judge ordered him to be detained at Her Majesty's pleasure for what he called the "appalling" strangulation of a girl outside a club. Now he wants to get published. " I wrote Consequences after I read that novel Yardie," Michael tells the workshop. "I thought I could do better than that."
" Why don't you try to make the story a bit more uplifting?" asks Sue.
" Because I don't moralise, I don't rationalise or explain. I tell it like it is" he replies. "Like when he hit his girl in the face with a bottle, that's for real. This ain't a man who don't hit women on principle, it ain't someone who fights according to the Marquis of Queensberry rules. I'm being realistic." " Yes, but having your hero commit suicide at the end is a real downer," says Stephen.
" You have to change it if you want to sell books," adds Sue. "Well, bottom line is I want to sell books, so I'll change it."
As we leave, Stephen Leather tells me his research has been very fruitful. "I've got material for this book and the next too. I can use some of the inmates and the guards as characters, no problem."
But perhaps he wasn't the only one today who was researching a novel. Maybe Stephen, Sue and I will crop up, too, as characters in an inmate's novel about a prison visit that goes horribly wrong. I wonder which of us they will bump off before page 60?
© The Guardian Newspaper
The Irish Independent Writes
Bestselling thriller writers Stephen Leather and Glenn Meade visited Dublin's most notorious prison as part of a tour of 40 jails. Justine McCarthy was given exclusive access to the writers' question and answer session with inmates The prisoner checks the scribbled dedication. "For Joe," it says, "best wishes." He flips the book shut, seeming satisfied, and tucks it tight under his armpit. "Thanks," he mutters to the author, zipping up his hoodie so that the book is concealed. He turns to go back to his cell, shoulders hunched, head down, hugging his contraband as he slips past a warder. Earlier, he had sat in the back row with three other inmates like himself - young and mouthy with roll-your-own ciggies and seen-it-all eyes - firing off hard-man questions as lethally accurate as sniper fire. Damned if they were going to give a soft ride to the two big-time authors doing their PR-behind-bars wheeze and making a virtue of day-in-the-cells research.
" Have yiz been in solitary, have yiz?"
" Did they put youze on suicide watch? "
" Did they bang the door behind yiz in the cell?"
The authors, Mancunian Stephen Leather and Dubliner Glenn Meade, bestselling thriller writers who pride themselves on the mean-streets realism of their fiction, wear their chastisement like sackcloth. Leather, a former London Times and South China Morning Post journalist living part-time in Dublin for tax reasons, is visiting Mountjoy as the final stop in a tour of 40 prisons to promote his 15th novel, Hard Landing. Once upon a time, he used to write TV scripts for The Bill and The Knock. Now he does readings for serious offenders who borrow more crime books than any other genre from prison libraries. His itinerary has taken him to the most notorious fortresses in Britain: Strangeways, Belmarsh, Liverpool, you name it. When he will finally emerge back into the sunlit street outside Mountjoy after two hours on the inside of Ireland's condemned jailhouse, he'll admit: "This was tougher than anywhere else. These guys had stony stares."
" Ye know yer man Jeffrey Archer? How much would he make from his b'yukes?"
" Usually you get 8% on paperbacks and 12.5% on hardbacks for every copy sold."
" That all?" snorts the back row, contemptuous of the former fellow jailbird.
" Multiply 80c by 300 million copies of the books he's sold and you get the idea," replies Leather.
Nothing prepares you for the feeling of deja vu in Mountjoy. It looks exactly like the movies. If you could smell the movies, they would have the same disinfectant, hospital odour too. Clanging, echoey wings fan out at 60-degree angles from a central circle, housing cells that were designed for single occupancy but sometimes squeeze in four adult men at a time. Justice Minister Michael McDowell has called in the wrecker's ball with a view to selling off the site to property developers and building a state-of-the-art prison on the city's outskirts.
Everyone agrees Mountjoy is past it. It was never intended as a prison when it officially opened on March 27, 1850, at a cost of £56,000. It was to be a holding centre for convicts being transported to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) and, though it originally featured in-cell sanitation, it is now the only prison in the country where the occupants still have to slop-out. "The arrival of television and electric light are the only other things that have changed here in 150 years," according to deputy governor Willie Connolly.
Among its most famous prisoners were Kevin Barry, Thomas McDonagh and Liam Mellowes. Brendan Behan is said to have learned to write here and his famous ould triangle is permanently displayed on the stone wall of the central landing. Forty people were executed, including one woman (Annie Walsh in August 1925), and the last in April, 1954, was Michael Manning for the murder of nurse Catherine Cooper.
The old condemned cell, across the corridor from the execution chamber, has been converted into the library. Among the better-thumbed titles on the shelves are Death in December about the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, The Complete Jack The Ripper and Excellent Cadavers. Also here is Michael Moore's ranting polemic on the George Bush administration, Stupid White Men. Its classification under 'True Crime' hints that someone has a sense of humour.
A small, wiry prisoner with a wide smile (we are forbidden to ask the inmates their names or crimes) has discovered through working in the library that "the lads here have an eclectic taste. It's the younger lads that'd mostly be into gangster books."
What was the weirdest request he got?
" A book on how to put a ship in a bottle," he says. "I said to the lad, 'ya must be joking'. He wasn't. I got the book for him and he built his ship and put it in the bottle."
Back in the auditorium, one of the hard lads was asking Glenn Meade where he got his ideas for the novels.
" Drugs," he replied, deadpan, building on the street cred he had sown by introducing himself as "a working class lad from Finglas" (neglecting to mention his career as an airline pilot instructor or his silver Merc waiting outside).
" Do you take them often?" his questioner probed, enjoying the banter.
" Only at weekends."
The repartee has broken the ice. Two big, older men in front, notepads and pens poised, ask technical questions about the length, structure and necessary tension of modern fiction writing. One, bearded and wearing a knitted sweater, says he has 80,000 words of his novel written. The man beside him says he prefers writing poetry. Later, someone mentions that, between them, they have murdered five people.
One of the hard lads in the back row reveals that he has 50,000 words of his novel written. Most of it was done during a previous jail sentence in Wheatfield Prison. He had shown it to a published novelist who had conducted a workshop and who had been very encouraging. But there had been no follow-through. He said he had a year of his present 3½-year sentence left to serve and he was determined to walk out of there with his completed novel under his arm.
When Stephen Leather recounted how an inmate in one of the English jails he visited had pointed out the implausibility of a rocket-propelled launcher demolishing a prison cell door - as he had written in a novel - it was the same burgeoning writer who had asked the obvious question.
" What did he say was the best thing to use?" he wondered, while prison staff shifted uneasily in their seats.
For most people, fiction offers escapism. For others, there is always the hope of escape too.
© Irish Independent