A very unexpected thing happened soon after I released my debut DCI Miller story One Man Crusade. I had my fifteen minutes of fame, albeit for all the wrong reasons. It was quite an extraordinary and regrettable thing.
My first book was called The Clitheroe Prime Minister, a satire novel about a random working-class man who suddenly became a major national celebrity by accident. The story was driven by the fact that the British public loved his straight-forward views and demanded that he became PM. It was a good laugh, but during its remarkably short life, the story has become largely obsolete due to Brexit, Tory austerity and Jeremy Corbyn. However, it was set in Clitheroe, where I live, so I’d decided to promote the book’s existence by putting up posters all around the town and the outlying villages. (I saw one not long ago, a little faded now, in a phone box, still held up with blu-tack!)
Anyway, my next book came out the following year. This one was called One Man Crusade and it was an entirely different type of story. This one was set in Manchester, it was a crime thriller centring around a very interesting moral dilemma. I decided to have another go at the poster campaign, this time in the areas that the book is predominantly set, 35 miles down the road from here in Greater Manchester. I considered that the USP for the story was the fact that it was largely set in Tameside and Bolton. My plan was to try and grab some attention for the book from people who might think “Ooh, a crime thriller set around here.” There aren’t many, after all.
Now, before we go any further, it’s worth mentioning that the tag-line on the front cover of One Man Crusade was and still is “Manchester has a new serial killer.” It is generic enough to explain that the book is set in MCR and that it is about a serial killer. I had hoped that this simple strap would connect with my target audience. For my poster campaign, I thought that adapting the strapline for localities which featured in the book would pique local interest, and this was where my mistake was born.
The Tameside posters went up and my next night’s efforts were intended to take place around Bolton with a set of posters bearing the tag-line “Little Lever has a new serial killer.” But these posters would never see the light of day because mission publicity had very quickly been accomplished. But for all the wrong reasons.
Call me stupid, but what happened next genuinely shocked me. The first batch of posters had been put up around Tameside, the district of Manchester that I had grown up in. I spent about five hours driving around and sticking the A3 photocopies up in bus stops, on boarded-up buildings, at train stations and so on. The next day Karen Shaw, my editor from Northern Life magazine phoned me up and asked if it was okay to give my mobile number to somebody from the Manchester Evening News. It was a bit of a weird question so I asked Karen if she knew what it was about and she replied, “I think you’ve dropped yourself in the shit, Suttie!” You got that right, Karen.
A few minutes later, my phone rang and sure enough, it was a lady called Sue Carr from the MEN. What she said next had me face-palming myself. “The son of one of Harold Shipman’s victims has contacted us about your poster.” “Right?” I said, completely lost by the remark. “He’s very upset. Don’t you think that it was insensitive to place a poster near his surgery, announcing that there was a new serial killer in the area?” “Oh shit,” I said, as the gravity of the situation began to catch up with me.
You see, wrapped up in my own little marketing bubble, I had totally overlooked the fact that my poster was completely inappropriate in an area that has the dubious claim of being home to the world’s most prolific serial killer, Dr Harold Shipman. The Hyde GP had killed at least 250 of his patients over a thirty year period. Let’s not forget that Tameside was also home to Brady, Hindley and Dale Cregan.
“Are you still there?” Asked the journalist, I think she realised I was having a moment of clarity. I’d sat down, I was completely gob-smacked by the fact that I hadn’t thought of this. It was a ridiculous oversight, especially when you consider that the first proper book I’d ever read was “Devil’s Disciples” which was about Brady and Hindley and the Moors Murders. The fact that most of the facts and details took place around Tameside had kept me gripped throughout this well-thumbed paperback as a twelve-year-old. And now, that grisly mark on Tameside’s reputation had been refreshed by Shipman, and then the cowardly crimes of Dale Cregan in more recent times had only added to a very disturbing claim to fame for the town of Hyde. I’d really cocked up here and I was becoming increasingly aware.
As I was driving back to Manchester to start pulling the posters down around Hyde, Dukinfield, Denton, Mossley and Ashton, my phone was pinging non-stop. The MEN had published the story on their Facebook page and everybody I knew was tagging me in the comments. I was really embarrassed, but I could handle that. What I was more concerned about was the fact that my ill-conceived actions had upset somebody whose mother had been killed by Shipman. It was a truly horrible feeling and I was desperate to make amends and explain that this was a daft oversight rather than something sinister and deliberate.
As I was driving around, the BBC were phoning me so I pulled up on Asda car park and answered. It was a producer from BBC Radio Manchester, she said that I was booked in for an interview straight after the 8am news the following day. This was without doubt the most surreal day of my life. Allan Beswick was the host of the breakfast show, but he was also a personal hero. I had been a fan of his since being about 10 years old. Beswick’s “shock-jock” show on Red Rose Radio in the 1980’s had first inspired my life-long love of radio. I agreed to the interview and carried on with my mission of pulling down the posters, which still wasn’t accomplished.
The next morning, I got up and waited nervously by the phone. In his typically bombastic style, Allan Beswick started ripping me a new arsehole, and I humbly accepted that I’d messed up and apologised. But he kept going, bless him. “Can’t you see that folk from Tameside want to put all of this behind them?” He said. “It’s upsetting for them all, constantly being reminded of Tameside’s dark past.”
I finally decided to have a go back. “Allan,” I said, “I just heard the news bulletin at 8 o’clock. The top story in Manchester this morning is the fact that a sixteen year old lad has been stabbed. That’s a big story, so why are you concentrating on this, reminding Tamesiders of the past, instead of focusing on this stabbing? How can they forget if you are going out of your way to remind them all on Radio Manchester, in the prime-time slot?” It was a good point, I thought. Why pretend to be furious about something that you are cynically pushing to the top of the news agenda. I ended the call thinking that we could both call that a draw. As on air bollockings go, I took it gracefully and was slightly bemused a little later when Beswick said “it does sound like a cracking book, to be fair!”
An hour later, the phone rang again with another BBC Oxford Road number. This time it was the region’s biggest news show, North West Tonight. The young chap explained that they were running the story on tonight’s show. “Listen, ” I said, “I’m not interested. If I come on North West Tonight, people are just going to think that I’m dragging it out, milking it for all its worth. The story was fresh yesterday, I’ve since apologised and I’m not taking part.” “But think of the book sales!” Said the producer. “You’re missing the point, I’m not interested, I’m not doing it.”
With that, the conversation came to a conclusion and I had a very long wait to see how they portrayed the story, wondering all day long if I should have agreed to meeting with the camera crew and reporter in order to put my side of the story across. 6.30 finally came around and I watched on, wondering what I should do now instead of writing books. The report came on at about quarter to seven and I don’t think I breathed once until it ended. Luckily it was only two minutes of a job, where two of the three vox-poppers played it all down and Stuart Pollitt, the reporter I’d refused to meet with had been very easy-going given the circumstances. Maybe the NWT team realised that I was genuinely upset about the mistake when I refused to go on, they could have done a lot worse to be honest.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. The producer had been right, I had sold a lot of books off the back of the North West Tonight package. In normal times I’d have been celebrating. But I wasn’t interested at all, I was more bothered about the fact that I had upset some poor bloke who must have been to hell and back throughout the Shipman arrest and subsequent enquiries. I was gutted that I had reminded him of what he’d had to go through, and what his mother had suffered at the hands of the local GP. I got out of bed at about 3am and stalked out his e-mail address and wrote him a long, profound message trying to explain my actions. The story disappeared almost as quickly as it had appeared and I was glad. It taught me a very valuable lesson though, if you are seeking publicity, be careful that you don’t get it for the wrong reasons.