A Tabloid Story by Jan Needle

In the never-ending search for an honest living as a writer, I have wandered down many byways. Most recently, having written a novella about a particularly gruesome murder, I decided to show it to a few chosen intimates to give me some idea of if it was any good or not.

It's called The Blood Hound, and even that title was given to me by one of those intimates. It's based on a true series of events which took place in Blackburn, Lancashire, in the 1870s. A little girl called Emily disappeared one afternoon after having been given a prize for excellence at her local school.

On her way home she was called across the street by a man, who asked her to go and collect some tobacco for him from a local shop. She knew him, and he gave her the money for the purchase, then went back into his barbershop to wait for her. She was seven.

At home, her parents became worried when her father came home from the mill where he worked, but Emily had still not returned. He went to the police, there was a search, and nothing at all was found.

The police were very good about it, and next day issued Missing Person notices and searched the surrounding area. Nothing.

It was almost fair time in Blackburn, and the town was full of itinerant entertainers, as well as the myriad navvies and ex-navvies who had built the railways and canal – many of whom, of course, were Irish. It would not have taken much to make the place explode.

There were no actual witnesses to the murder or the immediate lead up to it, but several little girls had seen a tramp on a corner near the barbershop, and claimed that he had sent the girl to collect the 'bacca.' You can maybe guess the rest.

There was no mass media in those days, but they did have an alarming number of local newspapers, an extraordinary number of railway lines through the town, and a veritable army of balladeers and chapbook men. Very soon the town was seething with rubberneckers and wild opinions. The barber, strangely, was not fingered as a suspect for many days.

Before that, at least ten tramps were arrested on one day alone, and many more itinerants fled the area. The strongest suspect was seized in a distant county – those railways again – because the girls remembered their man had broken clogs. He was brought back to Blackburn, probably to be lynched.

You can keep it too light. But my proper pics wouldn't download
Except he wasn't. Because a lively opportunist from Preston brought his dog all the way to Blackburn when he read about the murder, and persuaded the police (Mr Chief Constable Potts) that it was a bloodhound and would find out the dreadful truth. The dog, Morgan, was only half bloodhound, and when set on in the woods where part of Emily's body had been found, came up with nothing.

But by this time, local opinion had turned against the barber (who was a tiny, damaged man of twenty-four) and the bloodhound was taken to his shop. It was the first time in England, apparently, that a bloodhound had been used to find a murdered body. Normally, they just hunted runaways.

It took Morgan no time at all. After sniffing round the bottom floor he shot upstairs and almost jammed himself inside the chimney. Where very shortly, Emily's half-burned skull was found. The police saved the barber from the baying crowd, so that he could be hanged with proper decency.

It was the luridness of the newspaper accounts and broadside ballads that gave me my problem. The crime, as delineated, was so appalling, so utterly brutal, that I felt my story had to start with it. Unvarnished. But I thought I might be wrong.

To cut a long story short (if not my problem), it's now been read by six people who are ‘fans’ and friends. And guess what. Half of them think my approach is dead right, and the other half think it borders on disgusting – and more importantly, puts them off reading beyond the first two chapters.

My intention, and my hope, was this: to show a vile crime, then follow it by going into the barber's mind to try and understand why he might have done it. His wife, the mother of his children, forgave him. There was a public subscription to keep them from the poor house. Not, one fears, what would have happened in our more enlightened times?

He was a sad wee man, barely five feet tall, who had been given to the parish as an undernourished toddler, and who fell off the workhouse roof onto his head when aged eleven.

There’s my quandary, sensation seekers. What to do?

PS I had a pic of the 'bloodhound' and the murderer, but the computer said no. Sorry.

PPS Just finished the account by G.A.Jones ('honest George') of his 'pleasure trip' to the Baltic by motor boat the month before Britain and Germany went to war. It is understated, funny, moving, and original. Just like Julia's own writing. She is, of course, his daughter. I honestly can't recommend it highly enough. It's called The Cruise of Naromis, and it's from Golden Duck and on Amazon.


Wendy H. Jones said…
I like the sound of it. This is what I do not n my crime books. Show the story from the perspective of the police and the killer. There's an audience for it. I would certainly read the book
Bill Kirton said…
When I wrote my first crime novel, I thought readers of the genre liked gory bits so I wrote a scene, near the end, which was pretty nasty. I didn't enjoy writing it and readers' opinions seemed to be divided about it. One Amazon review said such passages should make one 'question the author's psyche', another said 'the thought that this author also writes children's books "creeps me out"'. In the end, it was my own reservations about it that made me tone it down in a second edition. You can't win, Jan.
Susan Price said…
Bill, isn't it a peculiar idea that people who write for children are somehow walled off from the rest of the world - or should be - and have no knowledge of nasty things like crime or cruelty? Because, obviously, children have no knowledge or experience of these things either.
Andrew Crofts said…
The trouble with asking people their opinions, (particularly friends and fans) is that they then feel obliged to give them, even if they do not really feel that strongly. Everyone's opinions will always vary so you are bound to end up questioning your own judgement and may then lose your confidence.Keeping up your confidence during the writing process is hard enough as it is!

The only way forward is to follow your own instincts.

My opinion, (which is worth nothing at all), is that if people are going to read a book about a child murder they jolly well have to brace up and take whatever punishment the author chooses to give them!
julia jones said…
Wise words from Andrew I think. (And thank you also for kind words about Naromis.)
Umberto Tosi said…
The only thing I would add is that "based on a true story," doesn't mean it has to conform to history, only your truth in shaping what the incident evoked in you - starting with your obvious compassion for both victim and perpetrator in this case. Good luck!
Jan Needle said…
Thanks for the opinions, everyone. I'm working on it!
Unknown said…
As I said really before JANeedle interferred! And showed me how to do it.
Speaking as one of the 'fans and friends' it isn't as simple as feeling obliged to give an opinion even if one doesn't feel it very strongly; it's more likely to be that one has a strong reaction that the writer might not want to hear or agree with. Asking those nearest and dearest to read an unpublished work is an act of trust and possible risk. We are not neutral readers. We have our own reading preferences, and prejudices when it comes to genre and subject. We may be reading something we would not chose to read under other circumstances, particularly when it comes to fiction, we make choices. I read a lot of crime fiction, but have a visceral dislike of violence and stop reading if I find it too much. I have obviously read about child murders, but the same applies, perhaps more so. I make a choice not to 'brace up'. It's not the same reading something written by - and for - someone you know, especially one whose writing you care about and admire. As one of your nearest and dearest, James Albert, I will get past chapter two, I promise. And tell you honestly what I think.
And imagine what it's like for the partner of a 'sexual psycho'!
Sorry to butt in on the authors' blog - but I just wanted to put out a 'critical friend's' persepective.
Jan Needle said…
thanks viv, as ever. and i do understand, which is why i wrote the blog. it's a genuine dilemma.
glitter noir said…
What Andrew said. Maybe you'll be lynched, but the satisfaction of having tackled such a dire dilemma will be almost worth that price.
Dennis Hamley said…
The trouble with these comments is that, each in its own way,they are all true. Like Sue and Bill - and even, though you'never guess it -Jan -I have had people assume that because I wrote mainly for children, I must have arrested development and therefore would know nothing about such things and could not possibly write about them. Well, I do and I could. I simply choose not to. Though my Point Crimes were littered with violent deaths, some graphically described. Nobody seemed to mind. I was surprised about that. They obviously weren'gory enough. I'll remember that in future.

No, Reb, nobody would have Jan lynched. Would they?
Jan Needle said…
If there's any lynching to be done, I'll do it meself, please. Or do I mean lunching? The childrens/adults point is a fascinating one,though. Over the years, as a writer for adults, I've ben dogged with comments from people who assume that because my first published books were for children I can't really write for grown-ups (ie, them). Something like ninety per cent of my 'output' has in fact had nothing to do with children's fiction at all. But people still refer to me as a children's writer.

Perhaps I'd probably be better to not change a word of The Blood Hound. Anyone who took it to be for children would clearly need psychological help!

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