Inspector Whicher and the green biro

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 28, 2013

A few years ago a modern English detective published an exceptional blog, for a time, called NightJack. It was fantastic stuff; it won the Orwell Prize and while I only heard about it after it had essentially finished, I’ve read the whole thing more than once.

I also found myself recalling some of NightJack‘s comments about the realities of policing a year or so later, while reading about one of his earliest predecessors, Jonathan Whicher. Despite a gulf of 150 years between them, I suspect that England’s first Detective Jack and one of its more recent could readily commiserate about certain hazards of the job.

Life as an English detective, 1851 (from Brilliant Deduction):

…after nearly a decade observing London’s criminal fraternity come and go, Sergeant Whicher immediately recognized two men stopping for a chat near the London & Westminster Bank. One was a familiar ex-con, returned from an involuntary sojourn in Australia; the fellow joining him on a bench facing the bank was “another old lag.” Whicher and a colleague kept up observation of the pair, who spent the following weeks absorbed in their own surveillance of the bank’s schedules and security. When the would-be bank robbers, confident of their preparation, finally moved on the bank on June 18, they were completely surprised by police lying in wait and their attempt to escape on foot was easily foiled. The result of Whicher’s keen observation and patience: letters to The Times criticizing this reckless, inefficient and entirely unsporting approach.

Life as an English detective, 2008 (from NightJack):

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, there are a certain number of letters received by public bodies each year that are written in green biro. When you see that green biro writing, it is almost certain that the communication will be a pointless rant of epic proportions and usually anonymous.

The biro (i.e. ballpoint pen) didn’t actually exist yet in Whicher’s lifetime. But had they been available, one imagines that more than one of those letters to The Times would have been penned with a green biro.

The same probably goes for many of the letters that deluged the papers, and Whicher himself, in response to his efforts in the vastly more controversial Road Child Murder and Tichborne Claimant cases. From most accounts at least, “pointless” and “epic” rants could certainly describe the bulk of them.

Jack Night would probably relate here, too. His blog naturally received its share of the green biro letter’s cyberspace analogue, the troll comment. But he also found himself eventually thanked for his thoughtful and diligent work with a very public controversy; his “outing” by The Times was of a somewhat different nature, but if nothing else, both Jacks would probably agree that being a famous detective is more trouble than it’s worth.

Interestingly, in searching out links for this post I’ve learned of one further parallel, as Richard Horton, i.e. Jack Night, has also received at last a surprising and significant vindication. Mr. Whicher would probably extend the heartiest of congratulations.

(For those interested in reading more from NightJack, the blog is archived here and accessible free of charge. A year or so ago, however, I collected most of the posts into a book for my own enjoyment, and you can purchase a copy of that if you like. Neither I nor Mr. Horton receive any money from its sales; if you should feel like expressing your appreciation after reading NightJack in any form, the author suggests making a donation to the Police Dependants’ Trust.)

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