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hanratty, the a6 murder, and me.

i remember that the house was very quiet the day i found the picture. the funeral had been the day before but the rooms already felt as if they\'d been empty for a lifetime. i\'d gone home to sort through the documents that had accumulated in the thirty years my mother had lived there, first with the family, then with my father, and then alone.

the most interesting papers belonged to my father, detective chief superintendent brian kelly. there were piles of handwritten notes on cases, faded and smudged, and with the distinctive aroma of his office at old scotland yard – a subtle blend of polish and nicotine. i was trying to make sense of some of them when the picture fell out of the pile - a small black and white snapshot, unquestionably a \"mug shot\", and unmistakably the face of james hanratty.

hanratty was one of the last people to be hanged in britain before the abolition of the death penalty. i was five when the hangman threw the switch which let his body plummet down the \"long drop\" and so i knew little of the case, beyond a vague awareness that the name sat alongside that gallery of sordid murderers who seem to punctuate british criminal history; men like christie, seddon, crippen and haigh.

so when i first came across the case, nearly a decade before finding that picture, i didn’t know much about james hanratty and it nearly cost me my job. i was working for the bedford record, my first paper, and my first job as a reporter. it was “press day”, a monday. normally when a decent story broke the newsdesk sent an experienced senior journalist out to make sure they got the facts, and got them quickly. but when they sent me out that monday morning they didn\'t know it was a big story.

the police had reported an \"incident\" under way on the a6 near bedford. i drove out with a photographer imagining it would be a car fire, or a minor accident, only to discover a camper van, cordoned off by scene-of-crime tape, in a wooded layby at a bleak spot known as deadman\'s hill. there was little official information but we did find out that a teenage boy had been found dead inside the camper that morning, although the police said they were not looking for anyone in connection with the death – usually code for suicide. we squeezed out a surname from a witness at the scene, found a telephone box and got the office to trace an address using the electoral roll. then we set out to try and find out more from family and neighbours.