Death Comes Knocking

Photo:Graham Bartlett / Peter James

Graham Bartlett / Peter James

Policing Roy Grace's Brighton

Graham Bartlett with Peter James

Fans of Peter James and his bestselling Roy Grace series of crime novels know that his books draw on in-depth research into the lives of Brighton and Hove police and are set in a world every bit as gritty as the real thing. His friend Graham Bartlett was a long-serving detective in the city once described as Britain's 'crime capital'. Together, in Death Comes Knocking, they have written a gripping account of the city's most challenging cases, taking the reader from crime scenes and incident rooms to the morgue, and introducing some of the real-life detectives who inspired Peter James's characters. 

Whether it's the murder of a dodgy nightclub owner and his family in Sussex's worst non-terrorist mass murder or the race to find the abductor of a young girl, tracking down the antique trade's most notorious 'knocker boys' or nailing an audacious ring of forgers, hunting for a cold-blooded killer who executed a surfer or catching a pair who kidnapped a businessman, leaving him severely beaten, to die on a hillside, the authors skilfully evoke the dangerous inside story of policing, the personal toll it takes and the dedication of those who risk their lives to keep the public safe.  

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Extract from the book

In my career I’ve met many thousands of officers and almost all of them, at some point, have been in a situation where their life was on the line.

Sussex isn’t awash with guns. The county averages thirteen murders a year. By comparison Dallas, which has a similar population, has around ten times that. That is dwarfed by Los Angeles where, the Chief Medical Examiner told Peter James on a recent visit to the morgue, there are twenty-five gunshot deaths on a quiet weekend.

Although armed crime in Sussex is rare, when it happens it is terrifying. In 1984, as a very young bobby, I had an early taste of that.

Nineteen years old and with only a year’s service I was still wide-eyed at the prospect of booking on duty each day. Every time I donned the blue serge uniform, I would be gripped by a rush of anticipation for the thrills or horrors that awaited me.

One Sunday in the March of that year, I’d just started a late shift. For a change I was allowed the privilege of crewing one of the response cars, rather than plodding the empty streets of Bognor Regis, thirty miles west of Brighton. We used to wonder whether Chris de Burgh had Bognor in mind when he wrote his lyrics for ‘Fatal Hesitation’ about empty cafes, sodden streets and the desolation of a holiday resort in the rain. 

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Death Comes Knocking' page

My partner for the day, Steve Clarke, had not been on our team much longer than I. Unlike me, however, he was not an eager youngster. He was a squat, gruff, roll-up puffing, thirtysomething joker, whose CID career had come to an abrupt end due to his marksmanship with a bread roll at the 1982 Christmas party. The Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) whose eye he blacked with the flying food clearly lost his festive spirit and busted Steve back to uniform in his first act of the new year.

Despite Steve’s fall from grace and sometimes brusque manner, he liked me. I think he saw his own early enthusiasm reflected in my exuberance. He took time to teach me the job, warts and all, and I often wonder whether I would have had such an early eagerness to become a detective were it not for Steve.

That dull, dank day he and I settled into the creaking Hillman Avenger ready for an eight-hour shift of who knows what. I fired up the ageing analogue radio as Steve coaxed the car into life. Immediately we heard the call that we all dread and will never forget.

‘Whisky two zero two, ten twenty. Officer shot, offenders made off.’ Ten twenty was the code given for a police emergency: one of our own was being attacked. It always triggered a reflex reaction among all cops to drop everything and dash to wherever help was needed.

I instantly recognized the voice. PC Bob Elliott was a dishevelled, battle-worn thief taker; a real old-fashioned bobby who was at home on the streets. Some coppers attract trouble. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen to them, and they have a name – ‘shit magnets’. Bob was, by any measure, king of the shit magnet hill. He’d already won two Queen’s Commendations for Brave Conduct. Police officers take the view that there is a thin line between courage and stupidity. Bob was never stupid and he was braver than most. He used to get mercilessly ribbed for the trouble he attracted but this time we knew it was different. This was really scary.

‘Bloody hell, Graham, did Bob say what I think he said?’ snapped Steve.

‘Yes but I didn’t catch a location.’

‘Right. Let’s go!’ He flipped the blue lights and two tones on and crunched the gears into action.

I hung on for dear life as we two-wheeled out of the police station back yard. With no location yet revealed, I wasn’t sure where we were heading but guessed that Steve’s experience told him to just get on the road. My senses battled with the sound of the roaring engine, the smell of burning tyres and the ordeal of being tossed around in the car. I felt as Grace must do when Branson clicks into his red mist driving skills.

Over the radio came a clamour of units offering help, trying to make sense of what craziness had erupted on this sleepy Sunday afternoon.

Bob and his partner Tim Phillips were on an anti-crime initiative which meant they had free rein to patrol hotspots in and around the resort of Bognor, its neighbour Littlehampton and the majestic inland cathedral and castle town of Arundel.

The details emerging suggested that Bob and Tim had stopped a car on the main Brighton to Portsmouth trunk road, the A27, just as it swept into the shadow of Arundel Castle. Something about the two occupants studiously ignoring the marked police car as they drove past, together with them looking just a bit out of place in the Peugeot 604 they were driving, sparked a hunch that all was not right.

Initially the two occupants, both Londoners, had dutifully stood at the roadside while they tried to bluff their way past the officers. However, they had not reckoned on being caught by two of the most intuitive cops in Sussex.

Photo:Graham Bartlett

Graham Bartlett

These two took nothing at face value and when the story the men put up of just going for a Sunday drive didn’t ring true, Bob and Tim got suspicious and announced their intention to search them and the car. In a flash the mood changed and the men bolted back towards the Peugeot in a desperate attempt to flee.

Bob grabbed one and a furious struggle followed, the two men grappling on the verge with speeding cars whistling past inches away. As Tim leapt for the other, his man suddenly pulled a handgun and aimed it at the startled officer. Both officers desperately lunged towards him, reaching him just in time to divert his aim. A deafening explosion made time stand still. A fiery pain tore through Tim. Then all four men, fighting furiously, fell into a drainage ditch. A passer-by leapt from his car and dashed to the aid of the officers. Thinking only about his safety, they ordered him away fearing he would be shot too. Then Bob was pistol-whipped across the face with the Luger handgun and was stunned by the heavy blow. This gave the assailants the time to break free. They dashed to their car and screeched off.

In horror, Tim looked at the serious gun shot wound to his groin.

I was shell-shocked. The police is a big family and, even though I did not really know Tim at that time, I felt for him like a brother. It was the first and only time in my career that I was on duty when an officer was shot. That shock never left me.?

This page was added by Paul Beaken on 25/07/2016.

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