The Sadness of a Life Swept Away

Ever watched “CSI” and wondered, “Why would anyone choose to become a pathologist?” Well, I used to feel the same way about crime scene cleaners (and proctologists, but let’s not go there…)

Isn’t it a creepy job, cleaning up the mess left behind when someone has been murdered, or committed suicide or just been left to die because no one knows they’re there? You’d have to be some sort of morbid freak to want to do a job like that, wouldn’t you?

Well, as it turns out, the answer is “no”. And it took the testimony of two people to help me understand why.

The first was a young Californian guy who pretty much “invented” the profession of crime scene cleaning. I met him a few years ago when I was researching his world for a screenplay I was writing. This guy intrigued me by saying that he had identified this unfilled niche in the “clean-up crew” marketplace because he had been looking for a job that fitted his personality. Initially he had thought about being a mortician…

“Ah-ha!” I hear you say. “He was a ghoul, a death-freak, some sort of whacked out necrophiliac…” In fact, he was none of these things: just a clean-cut guy in a sparkling white polo shirt (complete with corporate logo) and neatly-pressed chinos, with a charming smile and a dry wit… not the least bit what I was expecting. He was – by his own admission – a “neat-freak”: he didn’t like mess, he saw a gap in the market, and voila – an industry was born.

My second revelation came while I was watching a documentary about another crime scene cleaning pioneer. Her story was very different… and much more moving. Her brother-in-law had committed suicide, messily, and after the cops and the coroner had done their work and the body had been removed, she was horrified to discover that the mess and body fluids were left behind for her to clean up.

And it was while she was scrubbing her brother’s blood from the living room carpet and cleaning bits of his brain from the walls, that she had her own moment of truth: nobody should have to do this for a loved one. The next day, she started her own crime-scene cleaning business.

And that’s the thing that astonished me, that I’d never thought of: she was doing this job because she cared… cared that those left behind shouldn’t be further traumatized by the aftermath of a violent death. Cared enough, in fact, to dedicate her life to providing a service that would help ease the pain of those recently bereaved and return their world to some semblance of normality.

But what affected me most of all was when she revealed that, as the years passed, it wasn’t the murders or the suicides that really upset her: it was the “undiscovered deaths”.

It’s the work of the crime scene cleaner to sweep that life away, to not only scrub away the “decomp” left behind when someone dies unnoticed and unmissed, but also to shovel the detritus of their lives into so many bin liners and take it to the incinerator, their possessions unwanted, their passing unmourned by anyone.

And that’s what haunts Erdogan, a crime scene cleaner and the lonely hero of my thriller “Implicated”, a man who embodies the very reason why you might pick this seemingly grotesque profession: not because you care too little for your fellow human beings, but because you care too much.

So, Peter…where do you get your ideas?

Submerged ruined church

This is the question I’m most often asked when people find out I’m a novelist. And, as any writer will tell you, it’s a really difficult question to answer. For me it’s always been a bit of a mystery – ideas really do seem to pop-up out of nowhere. But every now and then, it’s possible to identify the exact time and place when an idea comes to you.

If you’ve read my latest novel IMPLICATED you’ll know it starts with the image of a man underwater, desperately trying to swim down to a ruined Greek church on the seabed. The man in question, Erdogan Denizli, is a crime scene cleaner in Ventura County, California, and, as you soon find out, he’s dreaming. Ah, you may wonder: why is a Californian crime-scene cleaner dreaming about a church beneath the sea?

If you’ve read the book you’ll know. But where did this opening image come from?

A few years go, I was travelling in Northern Cyprus. I stopped at a small hotel on a deserted rocky promontory, a long way from anywhere.

It wasn’t a very promising spot for a hotel – it was spread across both sides of the road and the “beach” was an uninviting rocky cove, accessed by a cement ramp: it resembled not so much a holiday resort as an abandoned quarry. And yet, there was something strangely appealing about the place. Was it the light? The remoteness of the location?

Or perhaps it was the erudite and charming Turkish Cypriot owner, Erdogan – a retired teacher from Istanbul – who made me feel so welcome.

I ended up staying for three weeks. During that time I got to know Erdogan reasonably well and one evening, asked him about how he came to build the hotel.

Years ago, he told me, he’d had a rather odd dream: he dreamt of a ruined church completely submerged beneath the sea. At the time he thought nothing of it.

On retirement, he was driving around Northern Cyprus looking for a place to build a hotel when he came to this rocky outcrop. For reasons he couldn’t explain, he knew at once that this was the place.

He built his hotel. The business thrived. Over the years he entertained visitors from all over the world including, on one occasion, a couple of Italian archaeologists.

One morning the Italians went diving and returned in a state of high excitement: just off the promontory, several metres below the surface, they had discovered the ruins of a Greek Orthodox church, completely submerged in the aquamarine sea…

Some years later I was watching a documentary about crime-scene cleaning. It was fascinating and I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of person would choose to do a job like this?

And for some strange reason the image of the church underwater came back to me, and I knew I had both a name for my protagonist and an opening scene for my new thriller…