Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Country of Balmoral Kill

I always like to root my plots and characters in a real landscape whenever that is possible. I might alter it, fictionalise it, or just change the odd feature – but I like to start with a reality. And at some point in my fiction I like to use an actual place I know, walk around it and imagine my characters playing out their adventures upon it.

Loch Muick (c) John Bainbridge 2015

Loch Muick (c) John Bainbridge 2015

I always knew, right from the beginning, that my Victorian thriller The Shadow of William Quest would come to a dramatic conclusion on Holkham Beach in Norfolk. And I knew that the final duel between my hero and villain in Balmoral Kill would have to be in some remote spot in the Cairngorms, though within easy reach of the royal residence of Balmoral Castle.

But I wasn’t sure where.

In all my Scottish stravaiging I had never been to Loch Muick (pronounced without the u), though I had read about it in my numerous Scottish books and looked at it on the map. It seemed an ideal location for the conclusion of a thriller.

Glas-Allt-Shiel House (c) John Bainbridge 2015

Glas-Allt-Shiel House (c) John Bainbridge 2015

So last summer, when we were staying in Ballater, we walked up to take a look, circling the loch and examining the wild mountains and tumbling rivers round about. Plotting a gunfight (even a fictional one) takes some care. I wanted it to be as probable and realistic as possible. This is, after all, a book about experienced assassins. I wanted the line of sight of every rifle to be exact.

We also had to check out the hills around. Both my hero and villain are great walkers and “walk-in” to places where they expect to see some action

And a beautiful wild place Loch Muick is. It was a favourite picnicking place of Queen Victoria, who used to linger for days on end at the lonely house of Glas-Allt-Shiel, in mourning for her beloved Prince Albert. Today’s royal family picnic there even now. The house is as I describe it in the book, as is the surrounding scenery. Believe me, I checked out those sightlines. Every shot described in the book could be taken in reality. Even now when I think of that loch and the Corrie Chash above it, I think of my characters being there. Sometimes they are all very real to me.

Loch Muick looking up towards where Balmoral Kill comes to its conclusion. (c) John Bainbridge 2015

Loch Muick looking up towards where Balmoral Kill comes to its conclusion. (c) John Bainbridge 2015

We also revisited Balmoral Castle (actually they only let you into the ballroom!), strolled through its grounds and examined the countryside round about. I was able to work out the exact routes taken by all of the characters who found themselves on the shores of Loch Muick on a late summer day in 1937.

Other areas of Scotland feature in the book too. I partly fictionalised the places I used in the Scottish Borders, though those scenes are based on the many walks I’ve done around Peebles, the Broughton Heights and Manorwater. In one flashback scene in the Highlands I have a character journey from Taynuilt and out on to the mighty twin peaks of Ben Cruachan, and then into the glens beyond, to kill a man in Glen Noe. Some years ago I did a lot of walking in that area and had considerable pleasure in reliving my journeys as I penned those scenes.

Balmoral Castle (c) 2015 John Bainbridge

Balmoral Castle (c) 2015 John Bainbridge

The book begins in London and journeys into the East End. I’ve walked the streets and alleys of Whitechapel, Stepney and Limehouse by day and night over the years. Balmoral Kill is set in 1937, so there has been a great deal of change in nearly eighty years. The East End was very badly bombed in the War and thoughtless planners have destroyed a lot more. But enough remains to give you the picture. Once more, I could take you in the steps of my characters through every inch of the places mentioned.

Very often going to these locations inspires changes to the writing. Balmoral Kill was half-written by the time we explored Loch Muick. The real-life topography of the place inspired me to make several changes to the novel’s conclusion.

And now I’m writing an historical novel set in the 1190s. The landscape where it is set has changed very considerably in the centuries since. So more imagination is needed, though I still try to root my scenes in reality.

As a walker as well as a writer I find going on research trips is the best way to conjure up locations with the written word.

If you haven’t yet read Balmoral Kill please do give it a try. It’s out now in paperback as well as in eBook form on Kindle, Kobo and Nook. I’d be pleased to know what you think of it. And if you ever do get the chance do take the journey from Ballater up to Loch Muick. It’s well worth while.

Click on the link below to read Balmoral Kill.



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John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps

It’s hard to believe that John Buchan’s classic thriller “The Thirty-Nine Steps” was first published a hundred years ago, in October 1915, following a serial publication in Blackwood’s Magazine the previous summer.

John Buchan Country near Broughton

John Buchan Country near Broughton

John Buchan Country

John Buchan Country

The adventures of Richard Hannay as he is pursued both by the police and German spies across the lonely hills of Galloway and Tweeddale have entranced readers ever since. It is, without question, the finest chase thriller ever written (though, arguably, Geoffrey Household’s “Rogue Male” comes in as a close second.)

“The Thirty-Nine Steps” was written in the first months of the Great War. Many of Buchan’s friends were already fighting in France and Belgium, but Buchan himself was ill and confined to bed. He spent the time writing what was to become his most famous work, though he always referred to it as a “shocker”.

In his dedication to his friend the publisher Tommy Nelson, who was later to be killed in the trenches, he described his new book as ‘a romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible’ – a definition that Raymond Chandler considered ‘a pretty good formula for the thriller of any kind.’

And the pace of “The Thirty-Nine Steps” is terrific. It could have been written yesterday, with its immediacy and non-stop action. The fate of Richard Hannay has inspired hundreds of ‘innocent in peril’ thrillers ever since, both books and films. It has been, of course, an enormous influence on filmmakers, particularly Alfred Hitchcock who made an film of the book in 1935 – even if he did fiddle considerably with Buchan’s plot.

And on the subject of the film versions, there have been three. Hitchcock’s starring Robert Donat, a 1960 version with Kenneth More and a 1970s take – actually properly set in 1914 – with Robert Powell (who went on to play Hannay again in an off-piste but entertaining TV series). All three are enormous fun and worth seeing, but they do take quite a few liberties with the original. There was also a recent BBC TV film about which the less said the better!

Where Buchan is very good is in his spirit of place. A considerable walker in wild places, he captures the Scottish landscape in a way that no other writer ever has, exceeding the descriptive powers of even Scott, Stevenson and Munro. You smell the heather, feel the wet of the hill-rain, sweat under the sun of a hot day in the Borders. You experience the physically exhausting – though sometimes exhilarating – experience of the man-hunt, as Hannay is pursued from one adventurous peril to another. Buchan put his great knowledge of every corner of these Scottish hills to very good use.

For decades Buchan was dismissed as a very slight writer, but he had had a considerable re-evaluation in recent years. His stature as one of the masters of Scottish fiction has at last been recognised. And he has a real relevance to the modern world. “Greenmantle”, the sequel to “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, gives a take on middle-eastern politics that seems very contemporary and shows a deep understanding of much that confronts the world today.
I have lost count of the number of times I have read “The Thirty-Nine Steps”. I could probably rewrite it from memory. But how I long to set out again with Richard Hannay as he flees a busy London and begins his long chase across the Border hills from some lonely railway station in Galloway.

Since I first read the novel as a boy, I have come to know some of these hills myself and can vouch for the accuracy of Buchan’s descriptions. In many ways Buchan has influenced my own writing. I was as pleased as punch when a reviewer, very generously, compared my recent thriller “Balmoral Kill” to the works of Buchan.

If you’ve never followed the adventures of Richard Hannay through “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, “Greenmantle”, “Mr Standfast”, “The Three Hostages” and “The Island of Sheep” please do try them.

And if you can, in the centenary year of the “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, why not see if you can get up to the hills of the Scottish Borders and pretend, just for a delicious childish moment, that you ARE Richard Hannay, being chased through the heather by some sinister and very deadly gentry with guns.

You might also like to seek out a lovely book of essays on the novel by John Burnett and Kate Mackay entitle “John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps”, published by National Museum Scotland. The website of the John Buchan Society is worth a visit too.

The town of Peebles has a very good museum dedicated to the life and works of John Buchan. And for a taste of Buchan country try walking the thirteen-mile John Buchan Way from Broughton to Peebles. You can download a route leaflet from the internet.


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Arthur and George

Arthur and George is a three-part British television production based on the historical crime novel of the same name by Julian Barnes. Now I make all of my judgements from the television series as I haven’t read Mr Barnes’ novel.

Arthur and George is a fictionalised account of the successful attempt by Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to clear the name and criminal conviction of the Anglo-Indian George Edalji in 1906. Edalji had served a period of imprisonment following a conviction for animal mutilation. The case attracted the attention of Conan Doyle after he read about it in the newspapers.

In reality, Conan Doyle was successful in clearing Edalji’s name. Much like his creation Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle interviewed all parties concerned, visited the scenes of the crimes, sifted the evidence and, finally, was successful in exposing the folly of the original prosecution.

You can read some very good accounts of what actually happened in the better biographies of Conan Doyle. It was in many ways a most important case in the annals of British jurisprudence. It led to the creation of the Court of Criminal Appeal. In itself, it is a gripping yarn that might well have come from the pen of the master himself.
The television production is, I think, a bit of a mixed bag. It is extremely well acted, though I find – as a Black Country boy myself – some of the Midland accents rather on the dodgy side.

Martin Clunes makes an admirable Conan Doyle, catching something of the bluff and determined nature of the man himself.

(For collectors of TV trivia, this production has some interesting Doylesian and Sherlockian links: Martin Clunes is the cousin of Jeremy Brett who played, I think, the definitive Holmes on television in the 1980s; Charles Edwards – who plays Conan Doyle’s secretary Wood (almost his Watson) in this programme – portrayed a younger Conan Doyle in the wonderful TV series Murder Rooms; the Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes, alongside the late Ian Richardson as Dr Joseph Bell. Both series are well worth buying on DVD.)

There is a sub-plot in Arthur and George dealing with Conan Doyle’s guilt over his long relationship with Jean Leckie (later the second Lady Doyle) following the very recent death of his first wife Louise.

The production, certainly in the first episode, portrays the Edalji case more or less accurately. The second (the third is on this Monday night – you can see the first two on ITV catch-up TV) goes wildly astray from what actually happened, with chases, fights, and a good old-fashioned murder thrown in.

Now I know that fictionalising a real event is perfectly permissible, but in an account of the Edalji case it really wasn’t necessary. What actually happened to Edalji is gripping enough.
Despite these flaws the production has much to commend it. The acting (Midlands accents ignored) is generally very good. The set dressings and photography are quite superb. You really have the feeling that you are there. There have been some criticisms of Clunes’ Scottish accent. I thought it was rather good for an English actor.

It is worth seeing Arthur and George and it would be pleasing to see Martin Clunes play Conan Doyle again in some of the other real-life cases that the creator of Sherlock Holmes investigated.


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Francis Frith and the Writer

One of the most useful tools for the writer who sets the scenes for his or her work in Britain’s recent past are the photographs of the Victorian photographer Francis Frith (1822-1898). Frith was one of those Victorian entrepreneurs who made a fortune in one field – a grocery empire – and then sold up to pursue and turn a hobby into a new business.

An avid taker of pictures, Frith photographed most of the great sights of Europe, and even ventured into relatively unexplored parts of Africa.

In 1859 he established the Francis Frith Company with the considerable ambition of photographing everywhere in the British Isles, partly to cater for the Victorian passion for picture postcards.

His legacy is vastly important for historians and writers. If you want to know what some English village looked like in, say 1887, how the people were dressed, what modes of transport they were using, then the pictures of Francis Frith and his firm of photographers are a vital primary source.

The archive of tens of thousands of pictures are of national importance and are now preserved by the Francis Frith Collection Photographs are available in a variety of ways, as illustrations for books, pictures for your wall at home or business, and as books based on various parts of the British Isles.

Around the turn of this century, I became involved with the work of Francis Frith when I was commissioned to write the accompanying text to the pictures in a series of popular books, giving some history of the places concerned; volumes on towns and villages, counties, tourist attractions, and stretches of coastline etc. I also wrote a couple of more detailed histories for the Devon towns of Torquay and Newton Abbot (just back in print in a partnership between the Frith Collection and Sainsbury’s).

It was one of the most pleasant tasks I’ve had in a long writing career, journeying to some fascinating places with the Frith pictures to hand, to try and identify where the photographer had stood and what had changed since. Seeing how places had changed over a period of time from the 1860s until the 1950s (which the broad range of pictures cover) and indeed up to date.

Despite some hideous modern developments, quite a lot of places would still be recognisable to the Frith photographers. Type my name (John Bainbridge) into the “Search” on the Frith website and you can see some of the titles I did.

Here is a Britain of horse-drawn cabs and farmers’ carts, bathing machines on a hundred beaches, old trains and battleships, the grand hotels of British resorts, the workplaces, the homes of the rich and the poor, ancient churches, cathedrals and abbeys, hilltop views and a countryside often still being worked as it had been for generations.

Here you see real-life Victorians, caught in a moment of time, doing much of the things we do today; busy at work, seeing the sights, just standing around holding conversations. All of these people long dead and gone, but still there for us, just as we see people on today’s streets.

Well worth a look if you are writing a novel set in the British past, not just so you get the settings right, but also so you can discover the way people dressed and the transport that was in use at the time. A good browse of the Frith photographs of your setting will really get you in the mood for writing that historical novel or crime mystery set in the past.

The Frith Collection is a very precious archive indeed.


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