I meet Frank Haskins in a pub in central London. It’s one he picked and the moment I step through the door I can see why. The walls are covered with pictures of Sherlock Holmes, London’s greatest detective in every single one of his guises. Basil Rathbone’s lightfooted near-swashbuckler, the precise, hawk nosed intellect of Jeremy Brett, the elaborate flamboyance of Robert Downey Junior and the quiet, drawn, drug addled desperation of Jonny Lee Miller. I order a coffee and a plougman’s, take a seat and wait.
I don’t wait long. Frank Haskins slips into the pub a few minutes later. He’s a tall, neat to the point of dapper, man in his mid-40s. His red hair is cut just north of military length, his suit is individually tailored and he’s carrying a briefcase. It’s only when he sees me, walks over and extends a hand that the façade cracks a little.
‘Hello, I’m Frank.’ The cockney accent is there, dialled back but strong. It’s when he sits down that he shows me the real tell though. Frank Haskins has a boxer’s upper body, his suit creaking as he sits. It’s not the physique you get from white collar boxing twice a week either. He’s an East End boy, brought up to fight. He just chose a different side.
We talk, and I accept early on that this is a friendly interrogation. He asks about my work and I tell him, he feigns ignorance about podcasting and I explain it to him and he even takes a couple of notes . I know for a fact this man has run everything in my background before even consenting to answer my email let alone meet me for lunch but this is the way he likes to play the game so this is the way the game is played. Given what Frank Haskins does for a living I don’t begrudge him a little control.
‘So.’ He says, looking at my latte with something approaching pity, his second tea in front of him. ‘It started when I was a kid. I loved comics, my dad got me some of the classics when I was sick one year.’ He smiles.’ I didn’t read too well, until I was ten. Other things to do.’ The smile widens. ‘My dad never said anything about it but I could tell he was worried, even then. So one year I get Scarlet fever. Ever had that?’
I nod. He flat hands the table and laughs, pointing at me like his long lost brother. ‘Isn’t it SHIT?! You want to scratch, ALL THE TIME, and every time you do you make it worse and it just never stops. Did you get the light sensitivity too?’
‘Couldn’t even watch telly, too young to wank, cruel and unusual illness that was.’ I chuckle as he raises the tea to his lips, eyes never leaving mine. Still being assessed, I see.
‘Anyway, my old man was something of an opportunity parent so when I was ill with this thing, he went and got me a handful of comics and a torch. All the classics, Spider-man, Batman, all that stuff. He got me ten and said he’d get me some more the end of the week.’
Frank grins and there’s something child like to it.
‘He had to go back the next day. And the day after that. I loved them. Couldn’t get enough of them. Why I became a police officer.’ Haskins’ smile is boyish, filled with wonder. ‘I didn’t look good in a cape anyway.’
Our food’s delivered. My ploughman’s looks small and apologetic next to a steak and kidney pie so huge it may have needed planning permission. Haskins chats to the waitress for a minute and I watch him do it. He’s unforced, natural, and completely friendly and at the same time he’s dug down into her life in the space of a minute. Frank Haskins made hardened criminals weep with fear during interrogations, back when he was a working plod. He’s nowhere close to that here but he’s as relentless, as fierce, it’s just wrapped in courtesy and more than a little gentle, old fashioned flirting.
He turns back to me, eats a chip and looks at my salad. He chuckles, takes pity on me. ‘Grab a few chips, I won’t tell. Won’t finish ‘em anyway. Lovely girl, went to school with her mum. Saved my life one day.’
‘Turned me down when I asked her to marry me.’ I’m laughing before I know it. That’s Haskins’ secret, why he was such a good interrogator why, I suspect, he’d be a terrifying opponent. He gets behind your guard, sees what makes you work, disarms you.
I wipe my eyes and he eats a chip whole, the cockney cat with the cockney cream. ‘Where were we? Oh yes, my secret past as a nerd. So, I joined the force, made a name for myself, got promoted to the point where I was stopping other people doing damage instead of getting some done myself.’ He takes a drink, steels himself a little. ‘It’s difficult, the transition not just from uniform to plain clothes but from detective to administrator. It’s a little bit like having kids, except some of your kids have firearms and may not know how to use them responsibly.’
‘How did you get on?’
‘I had a nervous breakdown. I just never told anyone.’ More refreshing, devastating honesty. ‘I watched my force collapse under the weight of the paperwork it was filling out, in some cases, for me. When I was promoted, we only had to worry about the Yardies, the Tong and a little light seasoning of the Irish mafia. All of them proper villains but you knew where you stood with them and they with you. There was a code, not ethics.’ He points at me. ‘NEVER ethics, not for people like that, but there was a code. The criminals broke it, and we broke them. We broke it, and they broke us.’
I think of the corruption cases, of Haskins bringing in his own colleagues. Of the men who were never brought in at all. I wonder how many times Haskins broke his code and I don’t say a thing.
‘It wasn’t working anymore, and I was running out of booze, so I did what any respectable troubled copper would do. I started reading comics again.’ He winks. ‘Good stuff too, still black hats and white hats, like before, but subtler, more nuanced.’ He drains his mug and looks at me. ‘Shades of grey. Got me thinking, about names, and secret identities and what happens when they’re not.’
He leans forward, a little conspiratorial. ‘You’re a clever chap. Ever come across the names Jack Regan and George Carter?’
I nod. ‘Old school Sweeney officers., worked in the 1970s. Regan was a legendary headcracker, Carter was his bulldog.’
Haskins smiles at me. ‘Perfect description, I can see why you’re a writer. I got thinking about them, about their reputation. Criminals are a lot like us, they have a rich oral history and the men who Jack Regan messed up? All have kids.’ He raised his eyebrows, once. ‘So I got thinking and then I sobered up and I was still thinking, so I made my pitch.’
‘The SWEENEY. Rebooting the Flying Squad for the 21st century. A unit of police detectives with full powers of arrest and search and free reign to play as rough as was needed. I specifically asked for officers with a fondness for violence, officers with emotional or temperament issues, diamonds in the rough.’ Haskins shovels pie into his mouth and chews for a moment. ‘There was this one bloke, half Irish, brilliant copper, utterly brutal. He was the only one I wasn’t allowed because you literally cannot put this man in a room with other police officers and not expect him to pick a fight. The others though, got all of them.’ He inclines his head slightly, squares his shoulders. ‘I took their names.’ Something like pride, with regret mixed in. ‘Just two of them. The first two. I sat them down and I told them what I’m telling you. That the logic in the comics works, that a name is bigger than a man, or a woman in this day and age. That if they gave me their names, I would give them new ones that would strike terror into the hearts of every man that heard them.’ He holds my attention and then he lets it go, lets the grin spread wide and nasty across his face. ‘I offered them secret identities. I made them superheroes.’
‘What did they say?’
‘What do you think?’ He chuckles. ‘Regan and Carter, knocking heads together all over again. Copper’s dream. My Regan? Knew the old one. He was a bad lad growing up, so Regan trod on him. Put the fear of God into his black little heart and propelled him up the ranks to me.’ Haskins chuckles. ‘He’s a right bastard too. Unhealthy, cocky, ruthless, brutal. He’s PERFECT. As for my Carter?’ Haskins’ tone softens noticeably. ‘He’s a good boy. Horrific childhood, real tragedy in his life. He refused to break, refused to bend. Joined the force, graduated top of his class and is absolutely, categorically, the most merciless, violent little bastard you will ever see. ‘
Time to push back a little bit. ‘These are the men involved in the shootout in Trafalgar Square.’
‘That’s right.’ Haskins nods, all business. ‘One officer dead, three seriously injured, hundreds of thousands of pounds damage done to vintage books, over a hundred traumatised civilians and one of them got away on a fucking bicycle.’ He snorts, tries to laugh. ‘Only in London, eh?’
Haskins nods to my right side. ‘Turn that tape recorder we’ve both been pretending you haven’t got running off and I’ll tell you.’ He’s not angry, just laying his cards on the table and telling me to do the same. I, of course do.
‘Jack lost his girlfriend, who I should point out, is a colleague of mine’s wife. George killed two men, kneecapped another couple and got ran over. Tough little bastard bounced straight back up too, and the pair of them closed down some very nasty villains in the middle of a caravan park.’
‘Did they arrest them?’ I already know. Haskins’ shark smile, when it returns, tells me the rest. ‘Would you?’
I shake my head. He smiles and pats me on the shoulder. ‘That’s why you’re a good boy. You know what needs to be done in certain situations. ‘ He checks his watch and tuts. ‘I should be getting back, don’t want any other lunatics running the asylum.’ He shakes my hand and stands, and just like that the meeting’s over. I blink. ‘Will you let me run the story?’
Haskins shakes his coat back on. ‘Absolutely not, not yet anyway.’
I flush. ‘Then why the hell did you ca-‘ Haskins looks up and I shut up. There is nothing in his eyes but cold, hard intent.
‘Because if you don’t keep this secret, son, I know people who will make you go away. If you do, I can give you stories that will not only turn your reader’s heads but keep my boys and girls in the manner I have grown accustomed to keeping them.’ He winks again, the cockney scholar back. ‘I made superheroes, son. Just like in the comics. Do you really want to reveal their identities to the world?’ Slowly, imperceptibly, I shake my head. He pats my shoulder and smiles once more. ‘I look after my own, son, you’ll get stories from me you can use. All you have to do is have lunch with me every now and then.’
‘That’s a good deal, sir.’ I stand, put my own coat on and head to the bar. ‘I’ll get the food.’
‘Call me Frank.’ He stops me, looks at the bartender, smiles, receives one in return. ‘This one’s on me. I appreciate the sympathetic ear.’
We talk out together, me heading left, Haskins right. He shakes my hand once more and says. ‘Same time next week?’
‘Excellent, it’s your shout. I’ll give you something you can use. In the meantime…’ He raises his eyebrows theatrically. ‘I have superheroes to stop drawing on my walls in crayon. Have a good afternoon, son.’
‘You too, Frank.’ He nods, once, then turns and strides back towards his office, his police officers, the names they wear. As I watch, his coat billows behind him. It isn’t a cape, but here, now, it’ll more than do.