Reflections on a certain crime by R.J. Ellory


Some while ago I was asked by the Wall Street Journal to write a piece concerning ‘unknown’ or forgotten literary classics.  Having recently spent a considerable amount of time in France, I decided to share my thoughts about several French writers, now widely available in English, who seemed yet to be unheard of by my English contemporaries, associates and friends.

Amongst the list of those I chose was Jean-Patrick Manchette, author of La Position de Tireur Couché (literally translates as ‘the position of the gunman lying down’, published in English as ‘The Prone Gunman’).  This book has now been adapted for film and is on general release as ‘The Gunman’ with Sean Penn and Javier Bardem.

Manchette said a very interesting thing about his genre, to the effect that the crime novel was the best way to hold up a mirror to the society within which we live.  That was the central theme of the piece I wrote for the Wall Street Journal, and seems to hold true as far as my own writing is concerned.  Dealing with the wider canvas of ethics, morals, justice, crime and punishment, the motivations and rationales of those who violate the laws of the land and all related subjects leads us – not only as writers, but also as interested individuals – into the subject of psychology, the mind, the very woof and warp of life itself.

And then the other night my wife and I watched a film called ‘The Imitation Game’ with Benedict Cumberbatch, itself a depiction of the life and work of Alan Turing, the man responsible for creating a machine that cracked the Enigma code.  The somewhat romanticized portrayal of life at Bletchley Park, the ‘emotional personalisation’ of the story that was facilitated by placing a brother of one of the research team on a ship that had to be ‘sacrificed’ so as to prevent any possibility of the Germans discovering that the code had been broken, did nothing to obscure the factual tragedy inherent in the tale.  Turing was a homosexual.  At the time, homosexuality was against the law.  Anyone engaging in homosexual activity could be charged with ‘gross indecency’.  Fifty years after the war the truth of Bletchley Park, Turing and the cracking of Enigma became public knowledge, at least those parts of it that the government permitted us to know, and Queen Elizabeth II granted Turing a royal pardon.  It was the then-Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who stood up in parliament and announced that Turing had been ‘forgiven’.  Charles Dance, commenting in the film extras, said that the greatest irony of Turing’s pardon was that it was Turing who should have been forgiving us for the way in which he was treated, not the other way around.

After the film was over, my wife and discussed the moral and ethical ramifications of that specific situation.  Turing was a genius.  Turing built a machine with wires and valves and cogs that gave us the foundation for all things computer-related that we take for granted today.  It has been estimated that Turing’s machine and the cracking of Enigma shortened the war by two years and saved a further fourteen million lives.  Why couldn’t Churchill have stepped in when Turing was charged with ‘gross indecency’?  Why, after all that Turing had done, couldn’t someone ‘high up’ have bailed him out, saved the day, rescued him for the truly dreadful fate that awaited him?  But no.  No-one stepped in.  Turing was charged, tried, convicted, and not one person came forward to tell the world what this great man had done, how his ingenuity, resolve, courage and magnificent intellect had turned the tide of the war.  They couldn’t.  Such a thought was inconceivable.  Everything that Turing had ever accomplished was bound over and held confidential under the Official Secrets Act.  Had you looked up Turing’s war record, you would have found no record at all.  In effect, certainly for the duration of the war itself, Turing was a man who did not exist.

The judge at Turing’s trial gave Turing a choice: two years in jail or be subjected to horrific chemical castration to ‘curb his proclivities’.  Turing, wishing not to be divorced from his ever-ongoing work and research, chose the latter.  He reported in for a year, taking mandatory injections of Stilboestrol (synthetic oestrogen).  The treatment rendered Turing impotent.  On June 8, 1954, Turing was found dead.  His body had lain undiscovered for twenty-four hours.  Whether he committed suicide by eating a cyanide-soaked apple, or whether his death was caused by inadvertent inhalation of cyanide fumes from a machine he’d set up in his tiny room is still a matter of conjecture.  He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered at Woking Crematorium.  His life and work went unknown for decades, but now – notwithstanding the fact that we will never have a chance to ask for his forgiveness – at least what he achieved has been acknowledged and appropriately commended.

However, having spoken to many who have seen the film, there still lies the question: Why did no-one step in to save Turing?  Answer: Because he broke the law.  It was that simple.  The simple fact is that many tens of thousands of individuals gave everything of themselves in the Second World War.  Turing was a genius, no doubt about it, but he did what he was able to do to assist in the war effort.  Others, perhaps blessed with less intellect, nevertheless gave no less of themselves.  Ordinary men and women learned to fly aircraft and parachute into occupied territory; they underwent rigorous training and volunteered for missions deep in the heart of Nazi Germany; they ferried supplies across a U-Boat-riddled Atlantic to bring ammunition and supplies to Allied forces abroad; they boarded landing craft for the invasion in June of 1944, certain that they would never again see home.  And millions of them didn’t see home again, as we know all too well.  Just because someone did something truly extraordinary and heroic did it them give them license to break the law, to perpetrate a crime, to be unreservedly forgiven?  No, it did not.  Did Montgomery’s success in defeating Rommel then give him permission to rob banks and kill innocent civilians?  No, it did not.  The law was the law.  Turing broke the law, and he had to face the penalty.

The real truth is that the law was insane.  A law that punishes a man or woman for their sexual preferences or predilections, save where those preferences and predilections actually render physical, mental or emotional harm to another, is the true criminal here.  It was a ‘sign of the times’, much the same as children born out of wedlock caused not only the mothers, but also the infants to be shunned and despised. My wife, as a girl of eight or nine, told a schoolfriend’s mother that her own mother lived with a man to whom she was not married.  That schoolfriend’s mother barred her own daughter from ever speaking to my wife again.  That was in the early 1970s.

We have grown up in many ways.  As a society, we appear to be more tolerant, liberal, perhaps even forgiving, but as individuals it is a different story.  We all harbour our own personal discriminations, our preconceptions, our unfounded and judgmental attitudes, and they influence the way we speak to people, deal with people, handle people.  I was once asked what I believed to be the fundamental difference between a child and an adult.  It was an interesting question.  My answer, regardless of whether it was right or wrong, was simply that a child appeared to trust other people until they were a given a reason not to trust, whereas an adult appeared to instinctively mistrust until they were given a reason to trust.

The newspapers and television news would have us believe that society is dangerous, crazy, unpredictable, potentially hazardous in every imaginable way.  That is a lie.  The newspapers engender, foster and encourage our cynicism and mistrust.  It seems to be their primary purpose.  How many times have you yourself been involved in or witness to an act of murder, rape, kidnapping, even physical or mental abuse?  If at all, then you are in the tiny minority.  Such things happen of course, but they are far less frequent and prolific than the media would have us believe.

The true criminals here are racism, religious intolerance, misogyny, greed, corruption, vested interest, and all the other ills that plague this society.  Beneath all of these is ignorance, perhaps the greatest crime of all, and a society that permits a decline in educational standards, a society that regards ‘celebrity for celebrity’s sake’ as something of value, a society that promotes the ‘let’s all get something for nothing’ viewpoint that appears pandemic, certainly in the West, is a society not only in dire need of change, but also very possibly on the way out.

We are all human.  We are all ridiculous in our own special way.  That old saw, never successfully attributed to a specific author, regarding holding onto anger being much the same as taking poison and hoping the other person will die, has a relevant place here.  Let others be who they are and they may very well let you be who you are.  If everyone was themselves, truly, and we accepted that others were also different and had just as much right to exist as we did, then wouldn’t the world seem different?

I guess it would.

Try it.  You never know, you might just like the world a whole lot better, and find that world likes you just as much in return.



On numerous occasions people have tried to identify Roger’s work with a particular genre – crime, thriller, historical fiction – but this categorisation has been a relatively fruitless endeavour. Roger’s ethos is merely to work towards producing a good story, something that encapsulates elements of humanity and life without necessarily slotting into a predetermined pigeonhole. He attempts to produce an average of forty thousand words a month, and aims to get a first draft completed within three to four months. His wife thinks he is a workaholic, his son considers him slightly left-of-centre, but they put up with him regardless. His son has long since been aware of the fact that ‘dad’ buys stuff, and thus his idiosyncrasies should be tolerated.


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8 thoughts on “Reflections on a certain crime by R.J. Ellory

  1. Trish Jackson

    Sadly, what you say about today’s society is all true and very sad, and it can’t — or won’t — be turned around in our lifetimes, and maybe never. I particularly agree with your suggestion that the media go out of their way to spread alarm and despondency, and I sometimes find myself wishing I lived on an island someplace where I didn’t have to deal with ‘the news’ or society’s crazy mixed up so-called laws. Great article. Thank you.

  2. Roger

    Thanks, Trish. Being the eternal optimist that I am, I can see change coming, but slowly. It is simply a matter of awareness, that’s all. The more aware we become, the more understanding, tolerant, accepting and trusting we become. Just as people are wising up to the fact that big pharma and the food corporations are poisoning us for profit with GMOs and drugs, so people are beginning to see that politicians, bankers, industrialists and the media are serving their own vested interests by generating poverty, racism, division and a fundamental ethos of ‘we are all different and cannot cohabit’. At some point the world as a whole will have a Peter Finch ‘Network’ moment and refuse to take it any more! Long live the ‘evolution’!

    1. James L. Secor

      I can’t help falling into this wonderful wish but it comes from your middle class placement. The more affluent working class has a less Wonderland sort of outlook and further down the ladder, into the poor working class and the poor, this kind of thinking is outre. The attitude here is more aggressive, as in making people adjust to the way they think. And don’t we all do that? Not so much everyone should think as I do, as seeing and imposing (I can’t think of another word just now) our point of view on the situation. As an example, the way the policing organizations look at criminal profiling more along the lines of “if I were. . .” and that misses the point completely, for it is their middle class/high end working class mentality forming the picture. Even psychology, which is beyond the poorer elements (outside of yukky behavioral therapy, which, really, is no help at all). We have to have a “way” to make the world better; satirists more than anyone else write for this reason. If our thinking, the thinking of middle class and/or intellectually upper people, is righter, as it were, then how to disseminate it to the “lower” classes? These people are, to a great extent, non-readers. I’ve been relegated to living at this end of society via SSA’s guidelines in retirement, so I’m beginning to understand the ideation of this level of society, behavioral problems aside, though, too, I find it difficult to breathe sometimes.

  3. Paul Hansper-Cowgill

    Fantastic article. Your usual eloquent self coming through in prose-like sentences. I like your analogy about hate – so true!
    The thing about Churchill and other ‘great’ leaders is the fact they are eulogised to the extent that their darker deeds are masked or even obliterated.
    The Wars – both the first and second – were obviously periods where the lines between good and bad were so blurred as to be indistinguishable; only in recent years have some of the real facts come to light.
    Today organisations such as ISIS exist mainly due to American foreign policy; I can’t help thinking how different the world would be today without their interventions, in countries they had no right to be in.

  4. James Secor

    And yet, the justice system of the US, at least, is so antiquated and built on certain people’s biases that it is all but hate filled. How do you deal with this? You can’t tell people to be themselves and then have them castigated by the justice system. That’s setting them up for failure. . .and hatred. Hatred of you and hatred of society in general. The biases that beset the system, the inhumanity that runs through society like a red thread in a white scarf is a crime but it is not brought to justice because it breaks no law. People are so beloved of their biases, the seek, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, to rationalize their irrational proclivities in any way they can, often enough via religion, giving, then, the lie to their religion. We lie to ourselves every day in order to make our belief system rational to ourselves, we lie about the things that do not fit into our belief system. And it’s all so petty. It infuriates me, a very irrational person. So, I write. It is from this, personally thrust in my face, that my Detective Lupée stories have arisen. French but more than likely mispronounced as Loopey (crazy) and working in Liverpool, a classist, crime-infested, truly interesting and messy city. Our detective/mystery stories deal with murder and find justice at the end. In fact, all of our detectives are homicide detectives. There are other forms of murder. And the justice is what we want, not, shall we say, the truth of the matter. Thank the gods for a satire like Castle! As you say, murder is not that common, but it is the only crime most all detective, police or otherwise, deal with. Is there, then, only one crime in society? Hmm. . .how irksome that would be to Dashiell Hammett.

  5. James L. Secor

    Keep on, Roger. We need this, though we don’t know just what is right. I ain’t got no anser. But I know it’s not the traditional, conventional, cliche sort so many people put forward. I’m more of a satirist and so I’m more atuned to showing up the faulty behavior and thinking of people, rather than giving answers. Even when I’m not being a satirist. As if to say, “Aren’t we better than this?”
    I think, too, that trying to change the world or society is missing the point. All we can do is change our little corner of the world because people will carry things outward. Unless I’m lying to myself.
    It’s so nice to have something that begets thought, so we can actually say something!

  6. stuart

    An interesting article but I take issue with one point:
    “Why did no-one step in to save Turing? Answer: Because he broke the law. It was that simple. ”

    On one point you’re correct, it was a time before people could make petitions and have the rules changed to suit themselves but the other point is that he was effectively no one. he wasn’t famous like a General would have been. The folks that did secret missions for any country went to their graves never telling anyone what they did.

  7. Mick iPeluso

    Thi sis a very interesting and informative article which I agree with on many points, but not all. I especailly like your last paragraph. I fear, too, that society will never improve to any great degree as long as it is filled with humans.


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