Monthly Archives: December 2014

Dorothy L. Sayers and “The Nine Tailors”

Dorothy L. Sayers’s famous detective novel begins on a snowy New Year’s Eve in a lonely spot in the Norfolk Fens, as the afternoon fades into early evening. Lord Peter Wimsey has accidentally nosed his Daimler down the bank of a dyke into a deep ditch. He and the estimable Bunter set off for the nearest habitation, guided by a muffled church bell then a fingerpost to the village of Fenchurch St Paul.

So opens one of the best-known novels of the Golden Age and with good reason. The plot is first class, though for us, what makes this story stand out among its peers is the superbly done sense of place. The evocative descriptions of landscape and weather were fairly uncommon at a time when a pared-down style of writing was fashionable.

The title refers to the nine tolls of a passing bell – the teller strokes – rung to mark the death of a man. The ancient bells and church of Fenchurch St Paul are almost characters in their own right – in the same way as that of Morse’s Oxford. The novel is a masterpiece of atmosphere conveyed through the tradition of change-ringing and the watery fenland encircling the village.

In 1933 the writer J.B Priestley toured the country, researching his great social commentary English Journey. He described finding at least three Englands. One was ‘Old England, the country of the cathedrals, manor houses and inns, of Parson and Squire.’ The Nine Tailors, published in 1934 evokes that timeless portrait.

Sayers was writing about a landscape and way of life far from the modern England of arterial roads, art deco cinemas and road-houses. It was just as far from the hunger-marches and dying industries in the North and Wimsey’s flat in teeming Piccadilly.

In Fenchurch St Paul the only telephones are at the big house and the post-office. Even the rectory does not possess one. There are few cars, the homes are lit by candle and oil-lamp. Most villagers work on the land or in service to the rector and the squire. In essentials life has changed little since the nineteenth century.

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) grew up in a village on the edge of the Cambridgeshire Fens. Her father was the rector of Bluntisham and the surnames of several of the villagers in the novel are to be found in the churchyard. Her parents are buried in Christchurch, a village on the Cambridgeshire-Norfolk border where her father held his last living. It is thought that the church at the heart of the novel was partly inspired by the Fen churches of Upwell and Terrington St Clement in Norfolk.

We visited Upwell in September. Situated on the Cambridgeshire border it is now a large village bearing no resemblance to the lonely setting of Fenchurch St Paul. Even so it is well worth a visit for St Peter’s is very like the building Wimsey sees. The descriptions of the interior fit almost word for word.

There are several delightful features including two Georgian galleries. These are sadly uncommon as the Victorians tended to dislike them and had them ripped out in their many ‘restorations.’ Reverend Venables in The Nine Tailors had his galleries removed ten years since, though one plays a significant part in the story. The church’s greatest treasure is its breathtaking angel roof and the galleries enable visitors to get close to examples of the wooden carved figures soaring from the hammerbeams.Norfolk 2014 064

If you want to curl up with a superb detective puzzle by one of the Queens of the Golden Age – or should you want to know what English rural life was like in the 1930s – you can’t do better.



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Sherlock Holmes and the Blue Carbuncle

Sherlock Holmes and the Blue Carbuncle

As far as I can remember the Sherlock Holmes story The Blue Carbuncle is the only tale in the canon with a Christmas setting. In fact the story opens two days after Christmas, though throughout there is a Christmas feel about it. It is not surprising that the producers of the two television versions I want to look at here set their productions before Christmas day. The Blue Carbuncle is, for me, a Christmas tale which ranks alongside the great Christmas stories of Dickens. It has been served very well by the television writers who have adapted it for the screen, and by the wonderful casts that have brought Doyle’s story to life.

The Blue Carbuncle is an early Holmes story, featuring amongst the first short stories that Doyle wrote for the Strand magazine. It made its first appearance in January 1892, and has always been a favourite yarn for many Sherlockians. It appears in the first collection of Holmes’ stories, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It is very much a London tale. It is interesting to note that Doyle was still relatively unfamiliar with London at this early date, though he conjures up the atmosphere admirably. There is an occasional slip. Covent Garden Market which features heavily in the tale was better known for selling fruit and vegetables than poultry. But these are minor matters. Few writers have ever captured London on a wintry night with such fidelity.

I have recently watched once more two splendid television versions of The Blue Carbuncle. The 1960s version featuring Peter Cushing as Holmes and Nigel Stock as Watson, and the 1980s production with Jeremy Brett as the detective and David Burke as Watson. I love them both.

Peter Cushing had already played Holmes in the Hammer film of The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1958, before taking over from Douglas Wilmer for the BBC television series a decade later, inheriting Nigel Stock as Watson. The production was very studio bound and was probably made on a shoestring budget. Nevertheless, the acting and the very intelligent script are superb, the rest of the cast giving great support to the two leads. Madge Ryan gives a scene-stealing performance as the Countess of Morcar, whose jewel is stolen at the beginning of the story. It is interesting that the Countess doesn’t actually appear in the original story, simply being referred by Holmes and Watson. This shows how well television scriptwriters can draw out elements of a tale so that the viewer may see the back story.

Frank Middlemass, a fine English actor, plays the commissionaire Peterson in this production. Interestingly, he reappears in the Jeremy Brett take on the story as well, as Mr Henry Baker, who loses his goose and hat in Goodge Street. From this 1960s version I would single out James Beck (better known as Private Walker in the TV series Dad’s Army) for his role as the hotel under-manager James Ryder. This actor, who died far too young, had a tremendous gift for playing rogues. His portrayal of Ryder, one moment bold, then shifty, then cowardly, is a masterpiece of acting. In the detective’s room at Baker Street, he quite steals the scene even from the talented Cushing and Stock.

The 1980s version of The Blue Carbuncle had greater production values that the BBC’s, very convincing sets and more use of film. It has, in David Burke, a very good Dr Watson. But above all else it has Jeremy Brett. If anyone was born to play Sherlock Holmes it was Brett. His portrayal remains, for me, definitive. I don’t believe that any actor has ever come closer to the character Doyle created. He brings out the lethargy in Holmes’ moments of boredom, the humour of the character – for very often in the original stories Holmes laughs and is amused – the urge to dismiss people, when some character has told all that Holmes need to know. And then again there are the sudden bursts of energy and physicality, for, like the Holmes of the stories, Brett reminds us that this is a man of action as well as a man of the mind.

Jeremy Brett’s performance as Holmes is so terrific that I am running out of superlatives. Watch him carefully. See how he not only acts but re-acts. Notice the tiniest gestures and the expressions that cross his face. One of the greatest examples of television acting that I can remember. So good that I intend to devote a whole blog to Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes sometime in January.

Brett is supported by a great cast. Here his Watson is David Burke (Edward Hardwicke in later series). Burke was a wonderful foil to Brett; the way they act off each other is a master-class of how good actors should interrelate. The other stand-out performance is Ken Campbell as James Ryder, very different to James Beck’s, but very much playing the character that Doyle intended – the weak man tempted to cross a boundary and who is then not able to deal with the consequences.

I am sure that Arthur Conan Doyle would have been thrilled with both versions. So, if you can, before Christmas, do try to read or re-read The Blue Carbuncle. And if possible try to see these two excellent television versions of the tale.

And please do click “Follow” to see our future blogs. If you would like to join the Gaslight Crime mailing list and receive news of our latest publications as they appear, please use the form in the “Join Us” page above and let us have your email.

A big thanks to everyone who has bought our books during this past year.
We shall return with another blog about classic crime stories in the week between Christmas and New Years’ Day. In the meantime may we wish all of our readers The Compliments of the Season.


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Christmas Crime Classics

Welcome to our new Gaslight Crime blog.

As the name suggests, we’ll be focusing partly on crime and thrillers written or set loosely from the Victorian period to the inter-war years of the twentieth century. As John is a great trespasser, we’ll be straying into modern crime fiction that owes some influence to this era. From Wilkie Collins’s sensation novels, to John Buchan’s ‘shockers’ and the Queens of the Golden Age, we love ‘em all. There will also be posts about crime writing research, guest blogs and (not too many) mentions of our own work.

As the festive season approaches we enjoy revisiting classic detective fiction with a Christmas setting. The kind of novels and short stories that transport you to a world of steam trains, snow scenes, log fires and murderous house parties in the English countryside.

One of the best known is Dame Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. It’s interesting to reflect that it was published in 1939 and so depicted a just vanished world. It contains the classic ingredients of a Golden Age detective novel – a country house party, an enclosed list of suspects with something to hide and even a locked room mystery. It features the return of a prodigal, a device used several times by Christie and the solution is a clever example of her gift for misdirection.

Christie is often criticised these days for lack of depth in her characters. This seems to me to be unfair. She had the ability to convey a character in a vivid thumbnail sketch, combined with a masterly understanding of human nature. Fat crime novels of 400 pages or more are currently fashionable (though this is often helped by a large font and wide spacing). Agatha Christie is a superb example of less is more.

Redemption by the late Jill McGown is a highly recommended Christmas crime novel. (Published in the USA as Murder At The Old Vicarage). She described it as “an homage to Agatha with her kind of setting and a modern, decidedly uncosy twist.” Although the setting was contemporary when it was published in 1988, it already feels nostalgic to escape back to a time where detectives weren’t waving mobile phones and their notebooks were paper.

The story is set around the dark events of Christmas Eve in a snow-bound village which has a castle. The village was inspired by Rockingham in Northamptonshire, a setting Jill McGown knew well. Her complex plots were always wonderfully satisfying puzzles, written with great psychological insight. She wrote 13 novels featuring her engaging detectives Chief Inspector Lloyd and Sergeant Judy Hill as well as 4 standalones. Jill was taught Latin at school by the legendary Colin Dexter, creator of Chief Inspector Morse and her work has a similar feel. Her work deserves to be much more widely known.


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Christmas Reading

Just a reminder that we will be starting our series of blogs on mystery and detective novels in the next couple of weeks, so please click Follow and tell anyone who might be interested.

In the meantime…

If you are looking for a stocking-filler for anyone please do take a look at our book “A Christmas Malice”, which is now out in paperback.Christmas Malice Kindle Cover




















If you prefer eBook versions “A Christmas Malice” is also available on Kindle, Kobo and Nook.

“December 1873. Inspector Abbs is spending Christmas with his sister in a lonely village on the edge of the Norfolk Fens. He is hoping for a quiet week while he thinks over a decision about his future.

However all is not well in Aylmer. Someone has been playing malicious tricks on the inhabitants. With time on his hands and concerned for his sister, Abbs feels compelled to investigate..”

This complete tale is a novella of around 33,000 words. The events take place one month after the conclusion of Inspector Abbs’s first case, A Seaside Mourning.

Just click on the link below for further details



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Writing an historical thriller

Writing an historical thriller

My new thriller novel Balmoral Kill has a long history.

I began work on it even before I started writing “The Shadow of William Quest”, got to 24000 words and then put it to one side. A novel and a couple of walking books later, I came back to it, changed it to fit a new theme and outcome and wrote the rest in a couple of months.

I like historical thrillers and couldn’t imagine writing one set in the present. I prefer a world where there are no mobile phones or modern forensic techniques. A Britain where people travel more on foot or in trains than in motor cars. Where the righteous still have a moral compass which, sadly, seems to be vanishing from the consciences of people in our present-day UK.

Having recently spent a lot of time writing and mentally inhabiting the Victorian era, it was almost a shock to find my mind examining the 1930s.

By 1937, when Balmoral Kill is set, it was clear to everyone in the UK that war with Hitler was inevitable. I was intrigued how, even at this late date, so many people in the British Establishment, including mainstream national newspapers like the Daily Mail, were still pro-Hitler.

Many British politicians favoured giving Hitler a free hand in Europe, as long as he left the British Empire alone. It was, as history proved, a crazy philosophy. There is no doubt that Hitler would have rolled up Europe and then turned on the UK anyway. Had we not fought Hitler as early as we did in 1939, it is very likely that he would have had an opportunity to refine his rocket programme so that missiles would have reached the eastern seaboard of the United States. It is quite likely that an unimpeded Hitler would have developed an atom bomb.

It was touch and go for a while whether the British Establishment view would win. Voices crying in the wilderness, warning of the danger of Hitler, such as Winston Churchill, were popularly derided.

Britain in 1937 was in a mess. There was massive unemployment and depression. People starving in the working class areas. A sharp division between the right and the left in British politics, with little middle ground for the safety first British to seek shelter.
There had even been upheaval in the royal family. In December 1936, Edward VIII had abdicated and been succeeded by his brother George VI. Edward had been an extrovert playboy, George an introverted man suffering from a speech impediment.
Many people, not yet having had a chance to get to know the new King, were still yearning for the colourful Edward and, quite frankly, wanted him back.

Few Britons at the time knew anything about Edward’s flirtations were fascism or his admiration for Hitler. Even when I was growing up in the 1960s these things were not mentioned.

Fortunately, sanity won and Britain decided to take on the Third Reich..
The characters in Balmoral Kill represent all sides of these arguments. There are the left leaning characters, Sean Miller has fought for the republicans in the Spanish Civil War, and those from the Establishment itself who, despite being in the minority with their anti-Nazism, decided to back Churchill and oppose the rise of the Third Reich.
But I wanted to show characters who took the other point of view. Many members of the Establishment were closet Nazis, anti-Semitic and so on, but there were others who were just desperate to avoid the slaughter they had seen in the trenches of the First World War.
None of the characters are the least autobiographical, though Sean Miller is – like me – a hillwalker and stravaiger. He is a veteran of the 1932 ramblers’ mass trespass on to the Peak District hill of Kinder Scout. Had I been alive at the time I would have been as well. But that’s as close as we get.

The action of Balmoral Kill begins in the East End of London and rapidly moves to Scotland, first the Borders and then the Highlands.

I spent many a day in the past walking the streets of London by day and night. It was good to bring the knowledge I acquired into the novel. I know the Scottish Border country well, having tramped much of Tweedside and the hills and glens around Peebles.
I knew that the thriller had to have a Scottish conclusion.

And I knew it had to involve George VI, who was at Balmoral, at this period of 1937.
So we visited the place, roamed the grounds of Balmoral to get the feel of what it might be like to live in such a house. But I still had trouble finding a location for the ending of the novel.

And last year we explored the area around Loch Muick (you pronounce it without the u). Even as I walked the banks of the loch I could see my characters there. I could see how my long chase across Britain could come to a conclusion there…
So there we are. Balmoral Kill was a long time in the creation and was harder to write than anything I have done before. Reading it myself now that it’s out I feel curiously distanced from what I have written, almost as though it had been written by somebody else.
If you haven’t read it yet do give it a go. Just click on the link.

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