Crime writer David Weeks on real life criminals

Writer David Weeks.  Picture:  Neil Hanna
Writer David Weeks. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Speaking with some of the nation’s scariest convicts as a forensic psychologist was the inspiration for author’s new book.

Behind bars and with Saughton jail’s doors firmly locked behind him, David Weeks would stare into the eyes of some of Scotland’s toughest criminals and try to figure out what on earth made them tick.

Across the room would be hard-faced men with brutal lives, their criminal deeds perhaps driven by substance abuse, alcohol, mental illness or sheer badness. And here he was, some soft-talking “shrink”, invading their prison space, asking about why and when and how this happened.

Slowly, sometimes painfully, the layers would be removed. Usually there was no sudden vicious outburst or threat of violence and eventually the locked door would open and Dr Weeks would walk away, the folder of notes in his hands often telling a surprisingly tragic story of wrecked lives, disturbed childhoods, pitiful emotional baggage or hints of mental illness.

A forensic neuropsychologist for the past decade, Dr Weeks’ real-life Cracker role has seen him work alongside police and lawyers, analysing suspects and criminals, often interviewing them behind bars while they await trial, delicately picking over their thoughts and lives to build up a picture of their state of mind.

It gave him a unique ringside view of an area of society’s underbelly that most of us can only imagine and few might want to be a part of. And it’s left him a wealth of background for a change of role – as one of Scotland’s newest members of the nation’s thriving crime writing community.

The result is his first murder mystery novel, The Very Eye of the Night, set in his native America and featuring – obviously – a forensic psychologist character at its heart, a gritty detective and a female deputy working to unravel the twists and turns 
surrounding a former nun’s murder.

It’s a first book that certainly comes with a stamp of authenticity, for in his forensic psychologist’s role – similar to television’s Cracker, played by Robbie Coltrane – Dr Weeks has encountered all forms of human behaviour, not much of it particularly good, some downright terrifying.

“I’ve met lots of lawyers, prisoners and suspects, prepared reports for court and appeared as an expert witness,” he says, reflecting on a career that’s taken him behind bars and on to the witness stand on many occasions. “And my general feeling is that you are safer in a psychiatric hospital than you are on the street.”

Quite a chilling thought, particularly when it comes from someone who knows more than most of what goes on in the minds of the criminally deranged.

From cases involving elderly men who suddenly turn on their wives after 50 years of contented marriage to inflict dreadful assaults, to young fireraisers locked up in children’s units – in one case, burning down the top floor of the home – and blackmailers intent on squeezing money with threats to supermarkets, he’s dealt with them all.

Thankfully, unlike the female 
associate who found herself locked in a prison room with an angry inmate, her back to the window, his pressed against the door preventing her escape, he’s never felt their full wrath or rage as he’s tried to decipher the demons that torture their minds.

“There have been cases where it can flare up,” he reflects. “The last session of the day can be difficult, or maybe if the seating arrangements aren’t quite right. But there are alarm systems in place so you can signal for help if you need to.

“One problem is that quite often there are psychiatric-type patients in prison when they really should be in hospital. Maybe it’s cheaper to keep them in jail, I’ve no idea, but it’s a 
vicious cycle.

“Many people in prison have one form of psychological disorder or another. They often have issues with substance or alcohol abuse, too – I’d say at least 40 per cent of prisoners are affected that way.

“Then include brain damage problems, which could be the result of fighting or alcohol abuse and there are many people in prison whose mental health has been compromised.”

As well as his role in CSI-style forensic psychology, Dr Weeks’ research has ranged from a study into eccentricity to, more recently, one which analysed the benefits of a healthy, regular sex life in old age. It captured headlines around the world with the conclusion that a regular wrestle under the sheets can not only help us live longer, but keep us 
looking young, too.

Internationally recognised and with a mass of experience under his belt, it may seem strange then that he should suddenly decide to dip his toe into a bustling fictional world of crime and mystery. Yet it’s precisely his range of different experiences – from working alongside real-life crime fighters while on shore patrol with the US Navy, to coming face-to-face with accused in jail – that he believes gives him the edge when it comes to writing about the criminal world.

“The book has been something of a weekend hobby,” he says. “It’s taken six or seven years, I’ve revised it 30 or 40 times, adding things in and editing things out until I’ve been happy with it.”

The result is a book that begins with the brutal murder of a former nun in a peaceful American town, with two suspects – a redneck truck driver and a wealthy psychiatrist. To secure enough evidence for an arrest, a controversial undercover operation is mounted. “It becomes part 
detective, part adventure and there are lots of clues on the way,” adds Dr Weeks.

While the novel is entirely fictional, Dr Weeks, 59, has had no shortage of real-life dramas to draw on.

He served with the US Navy for over eight years, mostly in the Submarine Service on board a Polaris sub, at one point voyaging under the polar ice cap. Some shore leave was spent shadowing police in New York and Connecticut – where the characters he encountered turned out to be stranger than fiction. While based at Holy Loch he fell in love with Scotland and a local girl, opting to stay here to study psychology and English Literature at Strathclyde University. After further studies at Edinburgh University, he became a consultant clinical neuropsychologist and head of old age psychology at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital.

He has worked in forensic psychology for a decade – an area that has expanded as the criminal justice system broadened its outlook on how to deal with suspects whose behaviour may have been driven by complicated mental health issues.

“It used to be that psychology was mainly used in cases where, say, a man would be in trouble because he had assaulted his wife after 50 years of peaceful life together. On one hand, a serious crime has been committed and on the other, no-one really knew what to do with a man at 75 years old whose memory is beginning to slip. I had a referral for a case like that.

“Then there would be those cases where there is a history of brain injury or alcohol or substance abuse and the question would be whether that had made them disinhibited to the extent that they commit a crime.

“Sometimes I see people when they are on bail, sometimes it could be related to a messy divorce where one partner claims violence or inappropriate behaviour and they want the court to establish who is telling the truth and who isn’t.”

One thing he says his work has taught him is that prison is not always the solution. And he believes that many convicted of crimes require hospital help while good rehabilitation programmes can change the lives of others.

“I think a lot of the people in prison think that’s basically what they are there for, to be punished,” he adds.

“And there can be a tough attitude from some that prisoners come and go over the years and are so recalcitrant that there’s no changing them for the better.”

“Unfortunately some prisoners do feel their 
voices have never been heard.”

The Very Eye of Night by David Weeks is available to download on Amazon.co.uk.