In Pilton the 'neds' call her The Trunchbull, but Edinburgh police officer and crime-writer Lee Cockburn loves being on the front line

In Pilton, Lee Cockburn is known to the local ‘neds’ as The Trunchbull, and like her counterpart from the Roald Dahl story Matilda, the Acting Inspector with Police Scotland cuts an imposing figure.

By Liam Rudden
Saturday, 26th October 2019, 7:43 am
Updated Tuesday, 29th October 2019, 7:22 am
Crime-writer Lee Cockburn
Crime-writer Lee Cockburn

At six foot one inch tall, the 51-year-old mother of two has been on the front-line, policing the Capital for nearly 20 years, she is also just about to release her third Edinburgh-set crime novel, Demon’s Fire.

Gregarious by nature, she laughs as she admits her blossoming career as a writer is something she’d never imagined until 10 years ago.

“At school, I was held back in English. My teacher didn’t think I’d pass my O’Grades because I was swimming five hours a day and not focussing enough.

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Crime-writer Lee Cockburn

“Even when I got my O’Grade and my Higher I still never thought about it, then, just before I was pregnant with my child, I was 200 pages in to a book by a very famous author (I’ll never say who it was) and I thought, ‘This is dullest book ever, I’m not reading anymore’.

“I thought, ‘I’ll write a book the way I would like to read one; really pacey and unpadded.

“So, my books are murder and mayhem from page one to page 333 and the new one, Demon’s Fire, is really brutal and graphic.”

Being a serving police officer gives Lee a unique insight into the darker side of life, which informs her novels.

Demon's Fire

“I have to go to every death, every siege and every major incident in Edinburgh,” she says, matter-of factly.

“You never know what you are going to see, which is good because you don’t want to be pre-nerved or uncomfortable about what you may encounter.

“You have to get there and be able to make an instant decision on what needs to be done, whether it is people or the scene to secure - life always comes first, save the person who is alive.

“It doesn’t happen every day, but we get a lot like that at the Bridges, suicide and that.”

Crime-writer Lee Cockburn

Despite the horrific nature of some call-outs, Lee, who was brought up in Silverknowes and Blackhall and attended the Royal High, considers herself lucky so far.

“I wouldn’t like to go to anything involving children. I’d get too sad,” she explains, adding candidly, “but I often have a wee cry at some of the deaths I do attend.

“You can see the sadness in the partner, the kids, the mother... I think if you loose that, that’s when you get broken.”

Lee joined the police at the age of 32 having spent 12 years as a Duty Manager at the Commonwealth Pool. Sporty as a youth, she represented Edinburgh at the age of 15 in the Youth Olympics in Denmark before taking up rugby. Some 77 Scotland caps and four British Lions caps later, Lee is officially a Classic Lioness, despite having first declined the invitation to play. Six months later when she was asked again, she said yes.

“It was the best decision I ever made. I got into the national women’s squad and played for Scotland for 15 years.

“We were the first ever Scotland national women’s team,” she says proudly.

Having failed to get into the police at the age of 18, Lee’s love of sport and swimming brought her the Commonwealth Pool, which she reflects was the perfect environment to prepare her for life as a police officer.

“It was a definite advantage. Working for the Council you dealt with a lot of hard guys and folk who didn’t want to listen to the ‘wee jumped up 23-year-old’ who was now in charge.

“I respected that and learned how to manage people. We also saved a lot of people, had to deal with violent situations, sexual offences... everything.

“The police would come in to help us and I’d think, ‘I want to join. I want to join’.”

A shake-up in rosters, which saw her relocated the Jack Kane Centre, proved the push she needed to follow her dream.

“I loved working at the pool. I was the wet-side trainer, but the Jack Kane has no water, there was no wet-side training, it wasn’t what I did.

At 32, her long held ambition was fulfilled and it wasn’t long before Lee found herself in the thick of the action.

“I was in the Public Order Unit for three years, that’s your riot squad... I think I was built for it,” she laughs. "But when it came to shields and helmets, the first time they were on the streets of Edinburgh was the G8 Summit in 2005 - I was in that. That was an experience.

“We did one 25 hour shift, doing running lines on the M9 and chasing folk over fields. We could see 400 protesters ahead of us with flames... and we were a squad of 26. I have to say I did have a wee nervous shudder being that out-numbered.

“I was the Medic on duty and my kit weighed four and a half stone - I remember going around putting Dextrosol tablets into each officers’ mouth, baby feeding them, and then tipping water in because their arms were all linked together. It was frightening.”

Today, Lee’s duties find her working in all areas of the Capital, covering four or five stations at a time.

While this experience brings a authenticity to her novels, she is keen to point out that the investigations of her creations, DS Taylor Nicks and DC Marcus Black, are pure fiction.

“I have rules,” she explains. “Fiction only. The baddy in my first book, Devil’s Demise, is more bad than anyone I have ever met and, touch wood, I hope I never meet anyone as bad as him.

“Book Two, Porcelain: Flesh of Innocents, was all about reaping what you sow... karma. They are my topics and very much fiction only. I’m not allowed to use real characters although the procedures are all there and they are no secret. There’s a wee bit of swearing in the books and the normal police banter; the Public Order Unit teasing the CID when they get their feet dirty. That humour has to be there because sometimes the things we deal with are so gruesome you need a smile. If you don’t, you can become very ill.”

Likewise, violence has consequences in Lee’s books, the latest of which focuses on human trafficking.

“Baddies aren’t going to hurt you without breaking your face. I want that to be scary,” she says.

In real life, Lee reveals that she has only met “two or three people” she believes were truly evil.

“They never said a word, but I felt the hatred, the oddness and the uncomfortableness... They don’t tell you they hate you, they look at you and you know.”

By contrast to world she creates in her novels and her day job, home life for Lee could not be further removed.

She still lives in Edinburgh with her partner Emily and their nine-year-old sons, “Two beautiful boys, Haz and Jaz,” she smiles. “Emily and I joined the police on the same day - I sat beside her in training and used to scribble wee faces on her book because she was the neatest person ever,” she laughs. “Five years later we got together and we’ve now been together 14 years.”

Despite the success of her novels, Lee has no desire to give up the Force.

“I am proud to serve. I have no qualms about telling someone I am a police officer. I love the weekends, going out on the night guard dealing with the city centre. I like being on the front line."

And the good news for fans of her books, is that a fourth Nicks and Black investigation is already in the planning: “It’s going to involve water. You’re going to die by water... knowing that you are dying,” she teases.

Demon’s Fire is published by Clink Street, on 7 November, priced £9.99/£2.99 ebook

Book One - Devil’s Demise:

Book Two - Porcelain:

Book Three - Demon’s Fire: