For many years I flirted with the idea of doing a PhD. The academic world suits introverted swots like me, and I am a past master at concentration and at spending a long time learning a great deal about very little. (Hence my quarter-century career in anti-money laundering; that’s one crime, folks, for twenty-five years. You can’t call me flighty.) I thought my area of study would be something to do with money laundering (I know: colour you surprised), but every department of criminology I spoke to said, well, of course there will need to be robust statistical underpinning to your research, and so I lost interest. Statistics and I parted company by mutual consent shortly after my “O” level exams.
But the PhD has come back into my life in a big way in recent months. As you know, I am currently knee-deep in research: first I was working on the Gregory series, and now I have returned to more familiar ground with the Sam series. But things are changing for Sam and Wilson: the first patrol for the Metropolitan Police took to the streets at 6pm on Wednesday 30 September 1829. There is an enormous amount to learn about the genesis of the Met and about its first few months of operations – I’m not complaining! (Far from it: the words “lots of research” are catnip to me.) And an unexpected source of terrifically detailed information has been PhD theses.
When I was researching the Gregory series, I knew pretty early on that I would need an educated man with whom Gregory – largely self-taught and endlessly curious (yes, yes, I know: so far, so Sam) – could discuss his cases and concerns. (Like Conant and Harmer in the Sam series.) No-one at the University would be suitable (too political, too linked to a specific college, too snooty) and suddenly the idea of a coroner came to me. In Gregory’s time it was a part-time role to which a man – usually a solicitor – would be elected for life. And (joy of joys) I realised that I knew very little about coroners and would need to do lots of research. One of the sources I turned up with a Google hunt was a PhD thesis on “Coroners in London and Middlesex, c. 1820–1888: A Study of Medicalization and Professionalization” by an Open University student called Yvonne Fisher. Readers, the wealth of information! The clear explanations! The pages of references to sources for further research!
And so when one of my Met Police truffle hunts revealed another thesis – this one called “Criminal and Constable: The Impact of Policing Reform on Crime in Nineteenth Century London”, by Gregory Durston of the London School of Economics – I knew I was in for a treat. Mr Durston and I have been together for two days now and my understanding of the early days of the Met has increased immeasurably.
So if you’re doing research, don’t discount those unpromising-looking PDF file links you find: they might look dry and dusty, they might be clunky scans of paper documents, but they are gold dust. Imagine: someone has spent three years or more distilling and digesting all that information, and we get to swoop in and reap the benefit. We’re the top-level carnivores of the research world – yum yum! (And here’s a site to get you started, with links to more than five million theses and dissertations.)