First, the declaration of interest. I came across No Place for Dinosaurs long before it was finished, and played some small part in its construction. John Morrison joined a select band of people who were prepared to gather round me – I got paid, they did not – and see if I could help them to become writers in any way. They weren’t writing classes, because I thought then as I think now that writers are born, not made. It’s like being a good sub-editor, or being able to sail a boat – some people can, some people can’t, and no one knows exactly why. I couldn’t catch a criminal if he came and begged me to slip on the cuffs. John Morrison is an ex Detective Inspector with a huge Yorkshire force.
The book is a police procedural, as we call them nowadays. But most police procedurals (ask any policeman) skate so lightly across the reality that they are in fact a sort of fairy tale. None the worse for that, of course. Look at the Dragon Tattoo books. The heroine is actually Superman, right down to the magic powers, and even Cally Blomkvist’s name is out of Pippi Longstocking. Don’t believe a word of ’em – but my, what glorious fantasies.
John’s take on it could not be more different. The heroes are policemen, true, but they are anything but heroic. They are not cowards or run-of-the-mill bent coppers, either, they are just normal policemen doing the Job like normal policemen do. Detective Superintendent Bob Menzies drinks like a fish, smokes like a chimney, and despises the time-servers and arselickers who make up most of the ranks above him. His friend and sidekick Harry Grice is not dissimilar. And they share a secret from their past which one day might bring them down. Or maybe not.
The story is likewise the stuff of hundreds of such novels. A young girl is sexually assaulted and battered to death with a hammer. There are no clues, no witnesses, and nothing but a crippling round of fruitless searching. In most books, though, there would be a breakthrough. In real policing, and in Dinosaurs, it’s no such luck. The policemen work their days out, watch the parents of the dead girl fall to pieces, drink and politick and bicker. They involve the press, and get rolled. They involve academic experts, and get nothing. Written about, it sounds boring. Written by John Morrison it is fascinatingly authentic.
There is another incident at last, when the first one is landlocked and derelict. Another girl – nineteen this one, a student – disappears off the face of the earth in similar circumstances and in almost the same place. Oh joy, oh rapture! Now the machine can swing again. Except for family misery, and department budget cuts, and more dead-ends, brick walls. This time, though, there is a sort of breakthrough. Except that the perpetrators are not the same, the abduction probably an ‘accident,’ a whole new can of worms.
Now more police forces are involved, the bureaucracy runs crazy, and Menzies and Grice get involved in a mess of allegations of misconduct. And the exhausting, painstaking day-to-day rolls ever onward. Barnaby it ain’t. Nor Frost, or Maigret. It is tired policemen, overworked and undervalued, being backstabbed by their bosses and the system.
I found it compulsive, from the beginning to the end – which is not to say that everybody will. Most such books are read for pure escapism, but this one portrays a harsher world. Its ending is a complete surprise, however, and parts of it are extremely exciting. It’s a little overwritten in places – the ‘tutor’ did try, honestly, but who is he to judge? – and the punctuation could do with a fair bit of tidying up. Which can be rectified on ebooks, and will be, I’m sure.
I wouldn’t wait around for that though. As a police procedural it’s a genuine eye-opener, and I’ve read oodles of the damn things. I’m proud to have been a part of it from an early stage, and I look forward to the next one, which I think is coming soon. No input from me this time, though – they couldn’t get the funding.
Find out more about John Morrison via Skinback Books