On 5 March 2014 Nicholas Robinson, a 19-year-old student bricklayer, was stabbed in the stairwell of Ron Jones House, the hostel where he lived in St Paul’s, Bristol. Having run into the street, and thence into an alley nearby, he rang the emergency services. “F***ing hell,” he said into his mobile. “I’ve been stabbed real bad.“ A few moments later he died of his wounds.
The teenager who killed Robinson was 18-year-old Luchiano Barnes. For him, 5 March was – outwardly – just another ordinary day. He had a driving lesson. He performed a wheelie on his bicycle. He went to buy chicken for his mother. And then he killed someone. What was going through his mind as he lay in wait that evening at Ron Jones House is anyone’s guess. All we know is that he was by then in possession of a long-bladed knife, a hoodie to protect him from the CCTV cameras, and a stupid grudge born of a gun deal gone wrong. Later, when the police arrested him, he gave nothing away. “No comment, no comment,” he kept saying, not a single bead of sweat betraying what his mouth refused to utter.
How banal murder is: this was what I thought as I watched The Murder Detectives, a documentary that followed the investigation into Robinson’s death from start to finish over three nights (30 November to 2 December, 9pm). Realising this, perhaps, its director, David Nath, had worked hard to show the unending pain involved for both families. His cameras were present at Robinson’s funeral, and they were there, too, when Barnes’s desperate parents were arrested for having helped him flee to the US.
Somehow, though, his efforts only underlined the disturbingly quotidian nature of both the crime and the investigation that followed it. I’ve seen The Murder Detectives described elsewhere as “gripping”. However, I’m going to come over all honest and transgressive, and tell you that I was quite often quite bored. In terms of Sturm und Drang, it would have done for about ten minutes of Scott & Bailey or Happy Valley.
Writing and real life: for all that the former can help us better understand the latter, they remain so much more different from each other than most dramatists, or novelists, will allow. Murder is rarely planned, and when it is, then only barely. It’s a moment, that’s all. As for police work, it is plodding, desk-bound stuff. An exciting outing might involve sucking the sludge from a suburban drain to locate the murder weapon. A vital discovery will most likely come in the form of a mobile-phone record appearing on a computer screen. The senior investigating officer in the case, DCI Andy Bevan, was no troubled maverick; as Kay Burley might have it, there was no sadness in his eyes. He simply ran his meetings efficiently, like any good office manager. Police officers, it turns out, don’t make poetic speeches about justice, nor do they rely much on instinct. Barnes, by all accounts, was a good kid, with a mother who always encouraged him to keep the right company: instinct, in his case, suggested he was not at all the sort who went about longing to sever arteries.
One lesson did, however, emerge from all this: the continuing importance of community policing – and yes, it does still (just about) exist. Ifor Williams, the St Paul’s beat manager, brought to the investigation a depth of knowledge no bean-counter could ever quantify. It wasn’t that he’d known the Barnes family for many years (though he had); in fact, he was one of those left scratching his head when Luchiano was finally charged. But he was alert to the mood on the streets. He heard things, and he saw things, and his observations lent the investigation a certain confidence: Robinson’s killer, it was clear, had come from within the gang-stricken local community, and it was only a matter of time before someone, somewhere, would whisper a name.
Hmm. I need to watch it: “whisper” is precisely the kind of word a TV writer would use. Though we didn’t ever hear him, I wouldn’t mind betting that the grass in the Robinson case used his ordinary voice, shouty and slang-strewn, and that he didn’t stop messing with his PlayStation for as long as the call lasted.
This article appears in the 02 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria and the impossible war