Sir, You Bastard
(WH Allen, 1970)
Many years ago, on a long-ish train journey north, I bought a detective story at a station bookshop and, at some point in our travels, explained to my companion that the plot involved one CID officer having to investigate his friend over misconduct allegations. Gripping stuff.
She, despite never having read the book in question, suggested the suspected detective would be cleared, assuming the two officers involved were called, respectively, Brown and Wilkinson (let’s say). How could she know? Because, unlike me, she had spotted a giveaway strap line beneath the title on the front cover: ‘A Brown and Wilkinson novel’.
Sir, You Bastard, opens with Detective Inspector Terry Sneed in deep shtuck (a drawback of reading this sort of book is that one ends up sounding a like a minor character in an episode of The Sweeney). Sneed, who serves in a division of the Metropolitan Police, has been caught by ‘the rubber-heels’, the police who police the police, taking a bribe in a pub.
As he waits for what will be a painful and possibly career-terminating interview with his boss, a Detective Chief Superintendent, Sneed reflects across his seven-year career and his meteoric rise from a rookie constable to his present, suddenly-vulnerable, eminence.
Is it all over for him? Well, there’s a little clue on the cover of my New English Library paperback edition of 1971: Sir, You Bastard is, we learn, ‘Terry Sneed 1’.
In November 1969, The Times published allegations, shocking at the time, of corruption against three Met detectives. Newman, a writer and television producer rather than a former police officer, could quite legitimately have used the paper’s findings to inform this novel, and indeed the line from one of the accused officers that he belonged to ‘a little firm within a firm’ is adapted by Sneed.
But there is no way Newman could have gleaned from The Times reports at that time the level of routine corruption in the CID depicted here, depicted pretty accurately if the court cases of the 1970s are anything to go by. That suggests Newman had excellent sources inside the force and made good use of what they told him.
Early in his career, during a spell as a temporary Detective Constable, Sneed learns all about corruption.
Sneed was quick to learn that involved in his acceptance [as a detective] was an unofficial factor, not always taken into account even though it pervaded the system in six-foot capitals: susceptibility to corruption … Corruption in the CID had reached saturation point and an un-corrupt detective might easily blow the whistle.
His own attitude to ‘earners’ (bribes) is straightforward:
He never considered himself guilty of a felony, although he was, but never accepted the fact as being applicable. Perks were part of the profession, he didn’t wake trembling and sweating cold with fear over past deeds. For a hard job he was underpaid, so he made up the deficiency by his own private enterprise.
On secondment to Scotland Yard, he is attached to the elite team known variously as the Robbery Squad, C8 and, of course, the Flying Squad.
The Squad was the CID plus, and whatever thumbscrews the CID used to obtain the desired result, the Squad applied bigger, more effectual pressures.
Suspects being questioned by Squad officers address their interrogators as ‘sir’. There are plenty of ‘earning’ opportunities in the Squad, but Sneed yearns for the relative independence of his life in divisional CID.
The Yard meant restrictions. No DC was his own man there but an automaton possessed of a senior officer.
Back on his own patch, Sneed climbs the career ladder and continues to ‘earn’, not least from a major-league criminal whose payroll includes Sneed and others. The narrative starts and ends with the ‘earner’ that went wrong; as hinted earlier (spoiler alert) Sneed bounds free from that one in such a way that his boss feels guilty for ever having suspected him and forecasts a glittering police career:
‘It needs no seer to divine your future. One day, you’ll occupy this office, and at an unprecedented early age.’
What, if anything, is wrong with Sir, You Bastard? For a start, giving a corrupt detective a name such as Sneed (I’ve Googled it and found real-life Sneeds few and far between) looks a little pantomime-like. So does having Sneed’s wife give birth to a Down’s Syndrome baby whom Sneed disowns.
Sneed’s brilliant manipulation for career-advancement purposes of both his colleagues and the press seems a little curious, as does his work rate, given he joined the police straight from the labour exchange, where he had been, aged nineteen, reasonably happy to live on benefit until chivvied to apply by an employment-service official.
That said, this is a terrific book. The world it conjures up is one in which detectives manage crime on behalf of (reasonably) respectable society and take a fee (the ‘earners’) for their trouble. Despite the amount of ‘earners’ paid over by the villains, each will, eventually, find it is their turn to go to prison, regardless of their guilt or innocence for the particular crime for which they are being ‘fitted’.
In a sense, Sir, You Bastard, was a first sketch for GF Newman’s Law & Order series of novels, published in 1977 and televised (BBC 2) in 1978. In these books, Sneed has given way to a colder and more clinical corrupt DI, Fred Pyle (brilliantly played on TV by Derek Martin). Pyle’s view is that villains have no rights, and when they are overdue for a stretch inside, the police are fully entitled to ensure the evidence is available to send them down.
In a frightening but entirely plausible – for that time – conclusion, Pyle is transferred to the ‘rubber heels’, assuring a colleague over a drink that no-one has anything to worry about.
It is a vanished world, of course. Neither Sneed nor Pyle spend any time investigating complaints of ‘hate speech’. Nor do they and their colleagues seem to have targets for the percentage of crimes that will not be probed.
Oh, and housebreaking incidents are investigated. In person. By a police detective. Sometimes two police detectives.
Yes, you read that correctly.