A freshly retired crime correspondent might be happy to hang up his mac and never darken the Old Bailey again. Not Duncan Campbell. “I get terrible withdrawals,” he says when he reads about cases such as the recent £40m jewellery robbery in Mayfair. “It was exciting, fascinating, another world. There was never a dull moment.”
He has an expert's eye: the Mayfair robbers, for example, enlisted a make-up artist from a salon in Covent Garden to alter their appearances. “That was a mistake,” he says, knowingly. “The inside man is always the weak link. They’re the ones that crack”.
But he also has a writer’s feel for crime’s black, often comical, turn of events. “There was the 1991 tale of the Suffolk barrister’s wife and her flying instructor lover who plotted to kill her husband by luring him naked into the living room and drowning him in the duck pond in a fake lawnmower accident. Whatever happened to them?”
Campbell, a law graduate, covered some of Britain’s biggest cases: James Bulger, Stephen Lawrence, Rosemary West. But he doesn’t fit the profile of a hard-bitten hack: he’s a self-confessed hippy, former commune-dweller, world traveller and culture fan – when we meet, he’s just back from a week at the Edinburgh Festival.
In this latter respect he’s no different, he says, from many criminals. “The crowd I got to know best were bright armed robbers who’d got degrees in prison. On the outside they were all ‘fucking this, fucking that’. But they were extremely well-read. One told me he was reading Virginia Woolf’s ‘To The Lighthouse’. When I mentioned this to another robber, he sucked his teeth: ‘It’s not her best.’
“The police were the same, listening to Bob Dylan, quoting Harold Pinter. You couldn’t put them in a novel, they’d be too florid. It was a great lesson in never to assume anything about anybody.”
Campbell’s first big case was the Torso Murder in 1977, which he covered for Time Out: back then it had a radical news section. The wrong people were convicted – Bob Maynard and Reg Dudley, victims of a witness who later admitted to Campbell he’d made up his evidence. They were eventually cleared but only after 20 years in jail. It was Campbell’s first proper brush with wrongful imprisonment, a cause he has a championed ever since.
He joined the Guardian in 1987, aged 42, after a couple of tries. His most memorable trial was Rose West – convicted in 1995 of 10 charges of murder of young women and girls. “What struck me most was how all that horror had taken place in such a small space,” he says of Cromwell Street. Reporting on the trial was like covering the end of a more innocent time, he says, and it marked a sea change in how seriously crimes against women were taken.
He stood in the dock himself in 1997, when the police sued the Guardian for libel over an article Campbell had written about police corruption. “I didn’t sleep the night before,” he says. Against the odds, the paper won. “We had a smart jury. But it made me more cautious about everything I wrote after that.” Operation Jackpot subsequently became one of the biggest inquiries into police corruption.
Seeking a change, Campbell headed to Los Angeles as the paper’s correspondent. “Someone once said LA is a a great place to live, but you wouldn’t want to visit. I agree – it has many layers, but you have to unpeel them slowly.” The job took him far afield: Colombia, Chile, Mexico, even Sydney.
Unlike many young thrusters, Campbell was 26 – almost certainly a ripe age in 1971 – when he realised he wanted to be a journalist. So he took himself, his long hair and his bell-bottoms off to India in search of adventure and stuff to write about.
He kept a journal from that long trip, which also took him east to Laos, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong. “I’m glad I did: you think you’ll remember things, but you don’t.” He discovered it when he came to write his debut novel, 2008’s thriller The Paradise Trail, set in a traveller’s hostel in Calcutta in 1971. It’s full of delicious period details: the books (Siddhartha), the music (Velvet Underground) and the late-night discussions over a smoke (how to change the world and what Bob Dylan lyrics really mean). “I loved writing it.”
His second novel, If It Bleeds, is a thriller about a British crime correspondent on a national newspaper (the title refers to the news editor’s axiom ‘If it bleeds, it leads’). “It’s a strange world, writing fiction. You end up giving away a bit of yourself,” he says.
“You were a bit of a hippy back then,” said Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger at Campbell’s leaving party a few months ago. “Still am,” said Campbell proudly. Hippy ideals, crime writing and campaigning against injustice, it seems, do go hand in hand after all.
If It Bleeds and The Paradise Trail are published by Headline.
Photograph: Beth Evans (bethevans.com)