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Learning the unpleasant differences between crime fact and crime fiction...

May 1997. Myself and my writing partner Peter Cocks were in Manchester working on a TV series we’d written. On this, our third night, we’d decided to stay in my room, take advantage of the hotel’s pizza-and beer-for-a-fiver offer, and veg out in front of the television. When the knock came on the door I guessed it was a member of staff come to collect the tray. I opened the door. It wasn’t room service. Not unless they’d begun working in threes and wearing balaclavas.

That moment, that frozen instant of strangeness and horror as I stared at three masked men, would be what came back to me later, both as memory and nightmare. In reality, it was probably no more than half a second, but time seemed to slow down, to distort and wobble, before speeding back up quickly as I was smashed in the face and driven back into the room.

The three men charged into the room after me, slamming the door, turning up the sound on the TV, spraying the contents of an open beer bottle around, screaming down on the floor or you’re fucking dead. They wanted us disorientated. They wanted us afraid. They got what they wanted.

In less than a minute I was bound and gagged, face down on the carpet, a coat over my head and my own belt wrapped tightly around my wrists. They found my wallet, lined the credit cards up on the carpet in front of me. One of them knelt down and whispered. Do what we want or we’ll hurt you. I was punched in the face, Peter had his neck trodden on and what felt like the barrel of a gun pressed against the back of his head. PIN numbers were duly given and I guessed that they would take what they could, grab watches and phones and go. They were however, rather more professional than I had guessed. Yes, they planned to take money from cashpoint machines, but they were going to do it either side of Midnight to make sure they got two days worth. While one of them went out with the cash cards, the other two watched over us, any grunt of pain greeted with a punch or the threat of something far worse. We were held in that room for an hour and a half.

The length of time, the interminable silence from the two men sitting on the bed and the noise from the TV as we lay there through Friends and E.R. was the worst, the very worst thing about the whole experience. Not the physical discomfort turning gradually to agony, but rather the waiting. Not knowing what they had planned for us once they had got what they wanted. Listening for the gentle knock on the door as the third man arrived back, my heart thumping hard enough to make my ribcage bounce off the floor. I lay face down on the carpet, thinking of my wife and children and wanting more than anything for it to be done with, wanting them to finish with us and go. I would have welcomed a good beating. Having my face kicked in right then, at that moment, would have been preferable to another five minutes of waiting and wondering.

Eventually, they did go, silently and without telling us. After freeing ourselves, the two of us ran, screaming, brandishing a chair and a fire extinguisher into the lobby, where the hotel staff looked at us as if we were madmen, oblivious to what had been going on in their nice hotel.

For the rest of that night, while the room was cordoned off and worked on by Scene Of Crime Officers, we were questioned by CID. As we spoke, some of the more sinister and quirky details emerged or were recalled - my friend’s wallet, discovered wrapped in tissue paper and pushed beneath his pillow ; the pristine white training shoes that moved across the carpet past my head ; the fact that one or more of them had taken somewhat messy advantage of the ensuite facilities. Were they just as scared as we were? No, I thought. Probably not.

The police left, mouthing gung ho platitudes of the “we’re going to get these bastards” variety. Even considering that the robbery was an inside job, (CCTV evidence proved that our attackers had come straight to my room), the fact that they didn’t “get the bastards” was not in itself surprising. What was surprising and extremely alarming, was that from the moment the police swaggered out of that hotel in the early hours of the morning, we never heard another word from them. Not a letter. Not a phone call. Nothing. Though we chased them for information, basic levels of efficiency, aftercare and plain courtesy were conspicuously, shockingly absent. The whole incident was, in many ways defined by shock - the shock of being mistakenly secure. I’d felt safe in that hotel. I’d felt safe in the knowledge that the police would try their best to do something about what had happened...

Afterwards, though a couple of nightmares certainly would not constitute post-traumatic stress disorder, I developed a somewhat debilitating “hypervigilance” - a wariness, a tendency to jump at my own shadow - as well as an inconvenient problem with staying in hotels and a nasty aversion to white training shoes. When I began to write crime fiction, it became clear that the experience in that hotel room had made its mark in a number of ways. I’d learned about a victim’s fear and importantly, how that fear later distils into a powerful anger. I’d learned that there are few places where any of us are really safe. And I realised that if I wanted to write about a police officer who is motivated by a concern for victims, who does what he does, for good or ill on their behalf, seeking justice for them rather than results for himself...that I was creating a character that could probably only exist in fiction.

It is the fear of the victim that has come to dominate much of my writing. We all know what it feels like to be hit, even if the last time it happened was in the playground, but slippery-gutted, adrenaline in the mouth fear is, thankfully, something which most people have to imagine. As an adult, being made to feel as helpless and terrified as a small child is an experience that it is not easy to forget.

After what happened, a lot of people, police included, asked if the men that attacked me had weapons. I certainly never saw a gun or a knife, but they didn’t really need them. When you have the ability, and the motivation to inspire terror, you have the most powerful weapon of all.


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AboutNews & eventsBooksOther writingStandupReviewsContactLinksTom ThorneVideosUS version of Mark's website