18 May 2016

Every book starts with a gut feeling that haunts the writer’s dreams. And The Hanging Club, the third adventure for Detective Max Wolfe, began with an awareness of one cruel truth - Londoners have always loved a good hanging.

For most of its two thousand year history, the city was a place of execution. In the eighteenth century you couldn’t enter London without seeing a line of gibbets. Massive crowds thronged the most famous public execution sites - Tyburn for 800 years and then Newgate from the late eighteenth century, a jail that would come to symbolize all the cruelty of British justice. Newgate was called the human zoo, a chamber of horrors, ‘an abominable sink of beastliness and corruption.’ Londoners excitedly flocked to Newgate’s public executions as they later would the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park. 

Not everyone approved. Charles Dickens was a passionate campaigner against capital punishment, although most of Dickens’ objections stemmed from the attitude of the crowds, who treated public hangings as a fun day out for all the family.

'The crowd were pushing, quarrelling, and joking,' Dickens wrote in Oliver Twist. 'Every thing told of life and animation, but one dark cluster of objects in the very centre of all – the black stage, the cross-beam, the rope, and all the hideous apparatus of death.'

The execution at the climax of Oliver Twist is the end of one of Dickens most celebrated characters – old Fagin, the professional thief and gang master. In Lionel Bart’s wonderful film Oliver! Fagin gets to stroll off into the sunset arm-in-arm with the Artful Dodger. The book’s ending was much closer to reality of Victorian England. 

Tony Parsons on the inspiration for The Hanging Club

Beneath the courtrooms of the Old Bailey, the ruins of Newgate still exist. The holding cell where the condemned man (or woman) could hear the raucous crowds gathering outside

But attitudes were changing. Public executions were abolished at Newgate in 1868 and although the country would keep capital punishment for another hundred years or so, Newgate – 'the grimy axle around which British society slowly twisted' – became a reviled place, a symbol of all that was murderously inhumane about British justice. Newgate was torn to the ground in the early twentieth century. In its place was constructed a building that would represent a different kind of justice – humane, rational and fair – The Central Criminal Court, better known as the Old Bailey. 

But it is a little known fact that buried deep beneath the courtrooms of the Old Bailey, the ruins of Newgate still exist. The holding cell where the condemned man (or woman) could hear the raucous crowds gathering outside, and the dreaded Dead Man’s Walk – a corridor with walls that contract and a ceiling that gets lower as the condemned approached the scaffold (the idea was to limit their freedom to fight for their life). These ruins – said to be haunted by the restless spirits of the dead - are not conserved or preserved or marked with a blue heritage plaque, for no-one was ever remotely proud of Newgate. But much of it is still there. You just go down to the basement of the Old Bailey – and then you keep on going down. And down there among the haunted of ruins of Newgate, jostled by all those ghosts, is where I first got the idea for The Hanging Club

The Hanging Club is the story of a group of vigilantes who roam the city after dark abducting evil men who they believe have not been punished nearly as much as their crimes deserve. A child groomer. A hit-and-run driver. A drug addict who left a pensioner in a coma while robbing him. And a hate preacher who calls for the murder of western troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. 

The vigilantes known as The Hanging Club kidnap them, sentence them to death and hang them – and then post the film on social media where they appropriate the avuncular image of Albert Pierrepoint – Britain’s most famous hangman, the Elvis Presley of executioners, who hung 434 men and one woman before he retired to run a pub.

In the end, Albert Pierrepoint, like the nation that sanctioned his fatal trade, sickened of capital punishment. 'Capital punishment in my view, achieved nothing except revenge,' Pierrepoint wrote in his autobiography. And yet there was a time when the prevailing belief was very different - especially when a nation ravaged by war sent Albert Pierrepoint to Germany to hang 202 Nazis found guilty of hideous war crimes. And as Sergeant John Caine rhetorically asks Max Wolfe when he is seeking advice at the Black Museum, the Crime Museum of the Metropolitan Police, a two-hundred-year-old repository of London crime and detection: 'What’s wrong with a bit of revenge?'

The Hanging Club are, inevitably, heroes to a public who agree that these evil men have got off with their crimes too lightly. But a policeman is like a soldier – they do not choose their wars or the battles they must fight. And Max Wolfe must hunt down The Hanging Club – no matter how many devoted followers they have on Twitter, no matter how many adoring friends they have on Facebook. The good cop goes where he or she is sent – even after the murderers of wicked men. 

Tony Parsons on the inspiration for The Hanging Club

The last time anyone was hung in this country, the Beatles were still together. Yet human wickedness is still rampant.

All good crime novels, it seems to me, are contemporary stories that reflect the world that is right outside the writer’s window. Raymond Chandler wrote about contemporary Los Angeles. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about the London he knew.

And so I would hope that The Hanging Club is a modern book that says something about my city and our time – an era when soldiers are sent to war by politicians who have never heard a shot fired that wasn’t on the grouse moor, an age of using (and abusing) social media as a means of getting your message to an increasingly connected world, and an epoch where hideous murders by terrorists are never more than a mouse-click away. A time when public executions made an unlikely comeback. 

For the London writer the past is always present, for the London writer always has two thousand years of history bearing down on their dreams. And at the heart of The Hanging Club is a theme that runs through all of the Max Wolfe books – London is a city of secrets.

The Hanging Club and Max Wolfe are aware that their city has a history that has lasted two millennia. The past is not over, it is merely buried deep – like the Tyburn River that once flowed over ground, like the public square where Dickens saw public executions and the cheering crowds, like the underground stations that have been abandoned for a century. They are all still there but London built on top of them. 

That is my one wild hope for The Hanging Club – that the reader will discover a modern story that carries with it two thousand years of bloody history, reflecting a digital world that – beyond the screens we constantly stare into – is still red in tooth and claw, and where all the old passions still roar, and where we always long to even the score when we have been crossed.

This is the hunting ground of The Hanging Club. They exist on that thin line between justice and revenge, good and evil, the innocent and the guilty, the needs of civilization and the longing for retribution.

Society changes but human beings remain stubbornly the same – full of jealousy and hate and lust. In the years after Charles Dickens witnessed public executions at Newgate, Britain became a much more enlightened, caring, liberal nation. The last time anyone was hung in this country, the Beatles were still together. Yet human wickedness is still rampant. Good soldiers are still sent to fight dirty wars. Cops go where they are told.

And some people get away with murder.

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