I have a special reason for sympathising with the crime novelist Ian Rankin, who
found himself at the unwelcome centre of his own little crime drama last weekend.
Mr Rankin described the experience on social media: 'Two cops at the door. Someone suspicious in the neighbourhood. "From the description, a neighbour thought it might be you". It was actually me and Jack, acting suspiciously apparently, walking down the street we live on. I’d just been helping son move from his flat, so all cops could see behind me were boxes, stuffed bags and computer stuff. Suspicious? Moi?'
According to press reports, the police officers who turned up at the writer’s home 'laughed it off’ – having satisfied themselves that the creator of Inspector Rebus was not after all a burglar making off with the swag. Two overlapping theories are possible in this case: that prosperous Merchiston has an unusually vigilant neighbourhood watch or that, with neighbours like that, you certainly don’t need enemies.
The incident is a reminder of one of the occupational hazards of celebrity:
that it makes you vulnerable. In my own years of celebrity as a television presenter, I too had a visit from the police. But the alleged crime was a bit more serious than burglary.
Eat your heart out, Rankin. For a while I was suspected of murder.
The cops appeared at my home in south Ayrshire and might have been impressed to learn that I lived in a castle: not a flat in a castle, not a wing of a castle, but the
castle in its 16th-century entirety. (Those were indeed the days.) But it was a wasted journey. The suspect had gone. Fled – as they might have preferred to put it. The cops spoke to a neighbour – for this happened to be a castle in a high street – and ascertained (how quickly one falls into the patois) that the suspect could probably be found at a locus in the far east.
Note in this case, as in Ian Rankin’s, the utility of neighbours.
The scene now moves to the studios of the BBC in Queen Street, Edinburgh, where I was presenting 'Good Morning Scotland’ on the quite reasonable basis that somebody has to do it. Midway through the programme, around 8am, I received a disconcerting message in my earpiece: 'The police are here to see you, Ken. They’re downstairs waiting for you’.
The police? To see me? At this hour? I had a vision of a shabby figure in a raincoat, come to inspect my life. The only consolation was that I was being allowed to finish the programme, so it couldn’t be that serious. Could it?
There was only one; and he was indeed wearing a raincoat. And he wasn’t smiling.
And he called me 'Sir’, which I took to be a bad sign. He flashed his ID card, just like they do in the films, and announced that although he was based in Edinburgh he was attending on behalf of his colleagues in the Metropolitan Police.
His first question floored me. He asked me to account for my movements on a certain night several months before. Again I was struck by the remarkable similarity to police procedurals on television. 'Where were you on the night of [such and such]’...followed by the menacing 'Sir’ – yes, it was all too uncannily resonant of fictional cliche.
'I have absolutely no idea’, I said truthfully – adding that I was 'probably’ at home in my castle.
'Don’t you keep a diary?' he persisted.
'I’m afraid I don’t’. He may have looked slightly disdainful at this point; it was clear, at any rate, that my answers were failing to impress.
After an awkward silence, I said I wondered if he would tell me why he wanted to know where I was on the night of such and such.
'We’re investigating the murder of a man in London’, he replied darkly, 'and we have received a report from a member of the public that you answer the description of the suspect'.
'It has been reported to us that you bear a resemblance to a photofit of the suspect which has been circulated in London.'
'Could you let me see this photofit?’ It was a long shot: I didn’t expect that my inspector of police would have the photofit on his person or, if he did, that I would be allowed anywhere near it. But he promptly retrieved it from the inside pocket of his jacket.
I stared at the image in disbelief. 'But this man is nothing like me’, I protested. 'I mean, do you think he’s anything like me?’
There was no reply. I simply got another of his non-committal looks.
'Anyway, it couldn’t have been me. It’s ages since I was in London.’
Without comment he gestured to me to hand back the photofit, which he returned to his inside pocket. There was a further awkward silence.
'Well,’ he said finally, 'perhaps when you get home, you’ll have a good think about where you were that night.’
'I’ll do that,’ I replied.
He started to walk towards the door. It seemed there was to be no goodbye.
'So you’ll be in touch, then?’ I asked.
'We’ll see,’ he said.
He never was. I never heard another thing about the unsolved murder of a man in London and I was never able with complete certainty to explain – even to myself – where I was on the night of such and such. I supposed it had been a night like any other. It had come and gone.
But 400 miles away, a man was being brutally murdered. Is there any need for the adverb? Is there ever any need for the adverb? Enough, perhaps, to say that a man was being murdered while I was at home in my castle, or somewhere else that I couldn’t remember, and soon a 'member of the public’ would be looking curiously at a photofit of the suspect and thinking to himself (or herself) that it looked exactly like that guy from the telly.
I hadn’t thought of this strange incident for years, until Ian Rankin’s experience reminded me of it. And now it occurs to me that the murder of the man in London may never have been solved and that, somewhere deep in a police vault, there is a report naming me as a suspect: the dodgy one who claimed to live in a castle in Scotland, swanned about the BBC, and could never account for his movements on the night in question.
The Weekend Essay will be online every Thursday morning