The Pools is based on a true story. When I was nine years old, something dramatic happened in a village next to the small town, Abingdon, where I lived. A 13 year old boy was stabbed to death on his way home from a Christmas job, plucking turkeys at the local farm. The killer was later found to be a seventeen year old boy from the same village. I didn’t know either of the boys, but they went to the same school as my brother.
The local press ran lurid headlines and the national tabloids also featured front page stories about the event. It was particularly terrifying, because it was so close to home, it was Christmas, and a little boy seemed to have been lost in the frozen wastes near Didcot Power Station. For me, it was a time of fear and excitement: fear because for a while there was a ‘killer on the loose’ (as the tabloids put it); excitement because something dramatic was happening to us, in this small town where nothing ever happened. It strikes me now that what you’re afraid of is a pretty good starting point for stories.
I started writing the book, which is loosely based on these events, in 2002, a time when child murder seemed always to be in the press – it was the time of the Soham murders – and hysteria and sentimentality were being whipped up by the media. I remembered the murder of that young boy and felt compelled to write about the story. It wasn’t that I’d been obsessing about it for all those years, more that the story had been brewing in the back of my head somewhere and the contemporary climate made it come to the front.
So the book began with two things. The event which I remembered very vividly, which had an emotional pull for me; and my more intellectual response to the tabloid frenzy around me. I wanted to explore the real story behind the headlines.
The Pools is based on a true story, but it’s a story I’ve fictionalized. The where and the when are based on truth, the who, why and how are almost entirely fictional.
Coming from a TV documentary background, I did consider getting in touch with the real people involved and interviewing them about the events. But as I started writing, I soon realised that real events would, in fact, get in the way. What I wanted to write was a fiction – only through fictional characters could try to understand what happened.
So I found myself inventing characters who would be involved in a similar drama to the original story; I realised I was interested in their lives up to the point of the murder (in other words, who they were and what motivated them), rather than the fallout and the tabloid response and the hunt for the killers.
The Pools isn’t a detective story or even a crime novel. When people ask me what kind of book it is, I’m completely stumped. The only word I can come up with is dark.