DARK OBJECTS AND WHY TRUE CRIME IS STRANGER THAN FICTION
By: Simon Toyne
“Where do you get your ideas from?” is pretty much top of the list of questions I get asked at festivals and signings. It’s a question I usually dread because normally I have no idea, ideas just seem to form out of nothing in the darkness of my brain. But for once, I have an answer, because I know exactly where the idea for my latest book came from. It came from Glasgow and a real-life double murder in the early eighties.
I found out about this particular crime in an unusual way. I had been asked to present a true-crime TV show called “Written in Blood” where I interviewed bestselling authors such as Karin Slaughter and Tess Gerritsen about real-life crimes that had influenced their work. The author in Glasgow was a UK writer called Mason Cross, and the crime he told me about was this.
On the evening of October 30th 1982, a thirty-six year-old taxi driver called Catherine McChord was found stabbed to death in the trunk of her cabin an area of Glasgow called Cambuslang. She had been stabbed in the back of the head and chest and her purse had been emptied and the contents left carefully laid out in a neat line on the back seat.
When the police did a background check on the victim they discovered that she had done jail time for fraud after she had been caught fixing a weekly football competition at the local newspaper she’d worked at, enabling friends and associates to net £143,500 in winnings (around $175,000). Because of this background police initially thought her death may be connected to local organized crime, a debt gone bad, or a favor not returned.
But then a little over a month later, on December 2nd, another woman was found murdered in Cambuslang. This time the victim was a forty-eight-year-old nurse called Elizabeth Walton who’d been walking the short distance home from the train station when someone had grabbed her, beaten and kicked her, then stripped and strangled her before mutilating her corpse with what looked like ritualistic cuts. The body was then left on a railway embankment next to West Coats Primary, also in Cambuslang, where, in a bitter co-incidence, Elizabeth Walton’s young daughter went to school.
Because of the seeming randomness of this violent attack, the local police set up a huge task force to comb the area looking for clues and witnesses to try and catch the killer. Mason Cross was only a boy at the time but he remembered the police knocking on his door and talking to his dad about what had happened. They also set up a trailer as an incident centre in Cambuslang to co-ordinate the investigation and into this trailer a witness appeared saying he had seen someone hiding in the bushes at around the time the murder was believed to have been committed. The police took a statement that identified the witness as Iain Scoular, a fork-lift driver who lived locally with his parents. He said he had seen the suspicious individual shortly before he had arrived home at around 11.00pm, which was also believed to have been when the murder had taken place. However, when the police later questioned his mother to confirm her son’s story she told them she’d waited up for him that night – which she always did when he was out late – and, when he hadn’t come home by 1.00 am, she had gone out in her car looking or him and eventually found him walking along the street saying he’d been with a friend and then been in the park “thinking things through.”
The police interviewed Scoular again, formally this time, causing his father to write a letter of complaint to the Chief Constable, and Scoular’s mother to storm into the incident centre trailer to confront the lead detectives and protest her son’s innocence. During this angry encounter she said at one point, “you’ll be blaming him for that taxi driver next.”
Up to this point the police had still been operating on the assumption that the earlier murder of Catherine McChord had been gang related, but when they looked at the case again and held it up to the murder of Elizabeth Walton they were struck by the number of similarities. Both women had been alone and had been killed at night. Both had been stabbed by someone who was left-handed. Neither had been sexually assaulted. And the clothes the killer had stripped from Elizabeth Walton’s body had been tied into knots, then left in a neat line next to her body.
Believing they were now investigating a double murder the police got a warrant and searched Scoular’s bedroom where they found a pair of pants with hairs on them that matched the synthetic fur collar on Catherine McChord’s jacket.
Scoular was charged with both murders.
His trial in May 1983 lasted just 2 weeks during which Scoular showed no remorse, not even when an expert witness diagnosed him as a psychopath. He was given just 20 years for the two murders, was released in 2003 and is now believed to be living somewhere with his widowed sister.
It was a pretty startling and macabre story, especially given that Scoular came from what appeared to be a good family and had shown no earlier indicators of violent or homicidal tendencies. But the thing that really lodged in my brain was those objects taken from the first victim’s purse and laid out in a neat line. There was something so peculiar and deliberate about that act, something that was further underlined when one of the investigating officers said that usually at a murder scene they were never entirely sure exactly what might be useful in evidence, but in this case they knew for sure that the last person who had touched those objects was the killer.
That thought stayed with me. It stayed with me until, like a piece of grit in an oyster, a story started to form around it, a story about a woman found murdered in the fortress of her mansion home, surrounded by four strange objects that don’t belong there – objects that only the killer could have placed there.
DARK OBJECTS – published by William Morrow July 2022
Location stills from the filming of the true crime CBS Reality show “Written In Blood”
Picture 1: Simon Toyne and Tess Gerritsen in Oregon City, Oregon.
Picture 2: Simon Toyne and Karin Slaughter outside a jail house in rural Georgia.
Picture 3: Simon Toyne and Mason Cross in Cambuslang, Glasgow.