In his introduction to Night Shift, Stephen King talks about writers having a brain filter. It’s like, he says, the grille over a drain; depending on size, some stuff falls through and is washed away, while some sticks, and stays. In the case of a writer, the stuff that sticks and stays becomes what you write about.
Some stuff sticks and some doesn’t, and what gets caught in the filter sometimes seems to be without rhyme or reason. In my case, it tends to be the weird and the odd, peculiar little ‘what-ifs?’ or ‘what-happened-nexts?’ Sometimes it’s stuff out of history (and that can be a ballache, given the need to research, although the internet makes it a lot easier – to the point that you can get happily lost in the highways and byways of it, forever clicking just one more hyperlink on Wikipedia to learn about this or that.)
Disasters often catch my attention, though not always the obvious ones: the Titanic fell through my personal brain filter whole, but the R.101 airship stuck, resulting in a book I can’t seem to sell and an ability to put people into a light coma by telling them stuff about airships that they never knew and never particularly wanted to.
Big things, little things, without rhyme or reason. The latest among them is a young woman who died thirty-one years before I was born. Her name was Caroline Trayler.
You’ll read about Caroline Ellen Trayler, nee Stapleton, in a number of true crime books. One or two of them may even have a picture of her. But – at least in Britain – you’ll be hard-pressed to find one on the internet. There's one here - which I was unable to copy - but it won't show up on Google Image searches. I'll have more to say about that shortly.
Caroline was eighteen years old, with auburn hair. She was a very pretty, even beautiful, young woman; she’d just married Sergeant Edgar Trayler, of the Durham Light Infantry, who’d shortly after been posted to North Africa. Lonely and bored, she was a popular girl in the dance halls in Folkestone, rarely without a dancing partner. How much further it went than that is debatable, but on Sunday 13th June, 1943, when she left the Mechanics Arms pub on the arm of a soldier on leave, it went far enough. She was never seen alive again.
Caroline’s body was found four days later in an abandoned shop. She’d been raped and strangled, and her wedding and engagement rings taken. Gunner Dennis Edmund Leckey, originally from Manchester, now of the Royal Artillery, went AWOL the same day. He admitted leaving the pub with Caroline, but claimed she’d been alive when they parted. He’d run off because he was overcome with guilt at his infidelity and wanted to get home and tell his wife. The claim might have been more believable had Leckey not been in another woman’s bed two nights after Caroline Trayler’s death. A friend testified Leckey had shown him an engagement ring he claimed another woman had given him.
Leckey was convicted and sentenced to hang, but the sentence was quashed on appeal. The judge, in his summing-up, made much of the fact that when picked up, Leckey had refused to speak until his solicitor was there. A guilty man might well have more to fear from the truth than an innocent one, but – at least in those days – the law was clear that no inference of guilt could be drawn from a suspect exercising his perfectly legal right to silence.
In the films, of course, blatantly guilty men escape justice on some tiny technicality all the time. Just as all a psychopathic killer needs to do is hire a smart lawyer and the copper’s hands are tied, and there’s always a ticking clock, somewhere, that means we’ve just got to throw the Declaration of Human Rights out of the window and torture this suspect. That’s in the films. In real life, it almost never happens. Almost.
That one technicality – an inexplicable error in an experienced, well-respected judge’s summing-up – meant that Dennis Edmund Leckey walked free. No-one else was ever charged with Caroline Trayler’s murder, for the excellent reason that the killer had, almost certainly, already been caught and brought to book.
Caroline’s husband went AWOL too, rushing home when he heard of his wife’s murder. And Leckey? Well, a copy of The London Gazette dated 11th February 1944 declares thata Dennis Edmund Leckey – of Manchester, currently serving with thearmed forces – was changing his name to Haines. A question on agenealogy forum mentions a Dennis Edmund Leckey dying in 1997. (Interestingly, another Dennis Leckey, also from the Ashton-under-Lyne area where Gunner Leckey originated, was convicted of multiplecounts of child abuse in 1997.)
But there’s very little else. And if you type the names of either killer or victim into Google and search for images of them, you’ll find none. You will find a note at the bottom of the Google search page telling you that some results may have been removed under European data protection law. When you follow the link to learn more, you’ll see it refers to the right to be forgotten.
Given just how much a complete stranger can learn about you through those means, it’s no bad thing that you can effectively make your personal data invisible to web searches. It’s still out there, of course, but it’s a hell of a lot harder to find. And of course, if you have had something like a wrongful murder conviction hanging over you, you might well want to exercise that right.
Maybe Caroline’s family wanted her to be forgotten, rather than have her cruel and ugly death dragged out into public view. Or maybe it was to protect the man convicted of her murder. In which case – as her name would invariably come up in connection with his – Dennis Leckey, or those acting on his posthumous behalf, have largely erased Caroline Trayler. You could almost say that for the second time, he killed her and got away with it scot-free.
This is the kind of thing that sticks in my personal ‘filter’, anyway. It’ll probably become a story at some point.
The right to be forgotten is one thing; being condemned to it is something else. Caroline Trayler didn’t deserve to die that way, didn’t deserve to have her killer escape justice. No-one can do anything about that now – unless you believe in an afterlife – but she doesn’t deserve to be forgotten either. Whatever I write will be a tiny act of commemoration, like a candle lit in memory.
You might ask – quite reasonably – why I feel that way about one of the millions of the world’s dead – a woman I never knew, dead three decades before I even popped out into the world. But I can’t give you an answer to that. Any more than I can answer why her case, out of so many others in a true crime book, stuck in my memory. Why I wrote a novel about R.101 and not the Titanic. Why I write ghost stories instead of Westerns, crime stories instead of romances.
It’s just the way I’m built.
I can live with that.