Monthly Archives: April 2015

The Writing Legacy of Robin Hood

When it comes to writing about crime you can’t go much further back than Robin Hood.
Put on a detective story level you could argue that Robin is the master criminal of Sherwood Forest and the Sheriff of Nottingham is the representative of the law dedicated to hunting him down.

Only that isn’t how we usually think of Robin Hood, because traditionally he’s a rebel engaged in fighting against an unjust society, with all the odds against him.
Robin is an outlaw.

Literally, in English historical and legal terms, someone outside the law. A man denied the law’s protection, who can be hunted and slain like a wolf by anyone at all for a reward, hence the description “wolfshead” attached to medieval outlaws.

In the terms of crime and mystery stories, he’s much more on a par with characters like Leslie Charteris’s Simon Templar, the Saint, who sees off very nasty villains, despite being on the wrong side of the law himself. All the time being hunted by the long-suffering Inspector Claude Eustace Teal.

In fact, there is quite a tradition of such characters, such as Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond (though Drummond’s a bit politically dubious), Bruce Graeme’s Blackshirt, John Creasey’s Baron and some of the characters in the novels of John Buchan, whose Richard Hannay in The Thirty-nine Steps (see blogs passim) is hunted across the wilds of the countryside by villains and the law together as he tries to do the right thing. In Buchan’s Midwinter we have an outlaw network operating on the side of right, not very different from Robin and his merry (or these days usually not so merry) men.

And going back to the comics of my childhood, wasn’t this the position of many of the superheroes? I recall that the early Batman worked somewhere between the forces of Right and certain legal niceties in American comic books. And my British boy’s comics were full of heroes who fought villainy from questionable sides of the law.

A great deal of crime literature, high, middle and low brow, depicts people determining their own view on what is right and then carrying through acts of justice regardless of the irritating letters of the law. Even Sherlock Holmes makes the occasional decision to let some offender go.

In real life vigilantes are unacceptable, but between the safe covers of a book, they make for some great reading.

These influences must have soaked into my psyche because they inspired me to create the Victorian vigilante William Quest in my thriller The Shadow of William Quest (I am at the moment writing the sequel). Quest operates outside the law for what he perceives to be the cause of justice. Whether he is right or wrong is up to the reader. Like Robin Hood he has a gang of fellow participants, all members of a rather sinister society dedicated to promoting their own interpretation of what is right. Even if it means breaking the real law to do it.

I suspect many of us have been tempted in such ways when we’ve come across some present day cruelty or injustice. The fleeting thought sweeping through our minds, then just as readily dismissed when we consider the consequences.

And so I come to my new book Loxley – The Chronicles of Robin Hood, which is published this week.

Having been brought up on the stories of England’s original outlaw, I couldn’t resist writing my own version of his deeds. From childhood I’ve loved the many retellings, adored the films and television programmes, even roamed around the remnants of Sherwood Forest. From my first memories I’ve loved the adventures of that outlaw.

So this was the book I always had to write. In fact, in my mind, I’ve been writing it for more years than I care to remember. But, having re-read the original ballads last year, I actually found a few months to sit down and write this first book which, while complete in itself, will be the first of a four-part series. I’ve gone back to the original roots of the legend, but not in some slavish retelling, but more my thoughts on a Robin Hood living in a real medieval landscape, where the men and women are not so merry and where there is some understanding of just what motivates the baddies.

In a world where the weak seem to be back-footed, their opinions ignored, the tales of Robin Hood seem peculiarly relevant and the idea that Right should always defeat unjust Might more important than ever.

All of my novels so far have been historical, though I haven’t before gone back so far in time.

I’d love to know what you think of it?

Loxley is out now in paperback and on most eBook readers. Just click on the link for more information:


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The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie

I’ve just finished re-reading Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse and though I remembered enjoying it years ago, I’d forgotten just how good it is. Some might say it’s a piece of hokum but there’s nothing wrong with that – we love watching Midsomer Murders. Readers are always required to enter into a tacit agreement with an author to suspend disbelief and I’m happy to do that for an exciting tale. This is a real page-turner with great insight into human nature.

People tend to think of Agatha Christie as one of the four ‘Queens of Crime’ from the Golden Age of detective fiction (between the wars) and rightly so. Yet she wrote thirteen novels between 1961-73. Her final published novels Curtain and Sleeping Murder had been written many years earlier.

Although I love Christie’s earlier novels for their period setting, it is interesting to read her descriptions of changing times. Detective novelists with their eye for detail are some of the best chroniclers of social history. Published in 1961 – before the legendary swinging London of the sixties had begun – The Pale Horse starts in a coffee bar in the King’s Road, Chelsea. Not a setting you could ever imagine for Miss Marple.

The first sentence reads “The espresso machine behind my shoulder hissed like an angry snake.” Then comes a heartfelt paragraph on ‘contemporary noises’ which is surely the author reflecting on the modern world. Followed by a vivid sketch of the young customers – the beat generation. I felt I was there, seeing people she’d seen. The setting also has wonderful descriptions of seedy London streets and much of the novel takes place in familiar Christie territory, a peaceful village.

The Pale Horse is largely narrated by an academic who stumbles upon a mystery and begins to investigate. Although Christie is most famous for her series detectives, some of her finest novels were stand-alones. Another of my favourites with a one-off chance detective is Murder Is Easy, published in 1939.

I’m always struck by the astute way in which Agatha Christie wrote about evil. Often dismissed for writing cosy puzzles with an absence of blood, it seems to me that her characterisation of murderers is chilling. She didn’t need to describe violence and gore. Her forte was writing about the ordinary suddenly becoming sinister, wickedness glimpsed from the corner of an eye. Did you imagine it or could you just possibly be right?

The plot of The Pale Horse has one of Christie’s trademark distractions and there’s a final dazzling twist which I hadn’t recalled. Great fun and a deeply satisfying read.


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Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

Geoffrey Household’s “Rogue Male” has always been one of my favourite thrillers. I’ve read it countless times, not just for the exciting story but for Household’s wonderful descriptions of the countryside.

It jostles in position with John Buchan’s “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, as the greatest chase thriller ever written.

The novel was first published in 1939 on the eve of World War Two, and was immediately popular. Household wrote some memorable and very readable novels afterwards – many with a chase theme – but never quite again touched the greatness of “Rogue Male”, though all of his books are worth seeking out.

The tale of a man who flees to the lonely countryside of Dorset after an attempt to kill an unnamed dictator, in point of fact Adolf Hitler, is gripping and a real page-turner. Even after all my many reads I never want to tear myself away when I pick up the volume once more.

As a fugitive the hero crosses Germany to reach England. There are memorable chapters in a very threatening and sinister London, and a long section set in Dorset.

Household, like Buchan, is particularly brilliant at giving a sense of place. For a thriller there are some quite beautiful portraits of landscape: the long reaches of the Wessex hillsides with their ridge-paths and hollow ways, the forests and rivers of Bavaria, the rural towns where danger lurks.

And the people encountered are realistic too. A shrinking dissident trying to survive in the Nazi state, the farmers of the Westcountry, a merchant navy sailor, shopkeepers, working people on holiday. Every single one beautifully drawn.

And a memorable villain, which to me is a requirement of all good thrillers.

Household really gets over what it’s like to be the subject of a manhunt. The fear and often sheer desperation and tiredness that drives you on and on. The need to cross ground without being observed. The knowledge of when to lie low and when to move on. When to go to earth – which the hero of “Rogue Male” does, literally.

If you’ve ever had to cross country without being seen you’ll know the veracity of Household’s treatment of the theme. Few writers have captured these feelings of escape and evasion quite so well as Household does. And in a writing style that is not only literate but quite beautiful in its descriptions.

There is now a splendid new edition of “Rogue Male” available with a perceptive introduction by the writer and landscape interpreter Robert MacFarlane. I commend it to you. MacFarlane describes an expedition he made with the late Roger Deakin into the depths of the Dorset countryside, in search of Household’s locations.

MacFarlane does an excellent job, whether writing about the tropes of the chase thriller or the countryside that provides the setting of “Rogue Male”. This novel benefits from having an introduction by a writer who loves the English countryside as much as Geoffrey Household clearly did.

I’ve tramped these same places myself and lived rough alongside the ancient paths and hollow ways of Dorset, often for weeks on end. I often used to take my own battered old edition of “Rogue Male” with me, and read it as the dusk fell and the owls began to call.
Fortunately, I never had the Gestapo on my trail.

“Rogue Male” is the hallmark against which all good thrillers should be tested.

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Damn His Blood by Peter Moore

In the quiet Worcestershire village of Oddingley, in the year 1806, the local vicar George Parker was found shot and beaten to death in his own glebe fields, following a long period of conflict and aggression between him and a number of his villagers.

This set off a chain of events and subsequent trials that became one of the most notorious true crimes of the century – made all the more fascinating in that the investigation came under the remit of parish constables and local magistrates, as there was no police force at the time.

As with all good murder stories, there were a number of suspects and a sinister second killing.

The Oddingley Murders are now the subject of a quite excellent book “Damn His Blood”, an astonishingly confident debut book by Peter Moore.

If you enjoyed “The Suspicions of Mr Whicher” this is a read you’ll really enjoy. In fact I think Mr Moore’s book surpasses the recently published accounts of the more famous Road Hill House murder.

Oddingley was a very small village. Peter Moore introduces us to most of the villagers. Who they were, what they were doing at the time of the crime, and tells us whether they bore Mr Parker a grudge.

This is superb and gripping writing, really conjuring up a Midlands village of that time, during a particularly lawless age.

I really felt I was there, walking the fields, following the victim on his last journey, and looking over the shoulders of the investigators.

It’s a tale not just of murder but of conspiracy.

I couldn’t put this one down. Do seek it out. It’s the best true crime I’ve read in years.

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Clerical Crime

Easter seems an appropriate time to talk about an interesting sub-genre of detective fiction, the clerical mystery. From Cadfael to Sydney Chambers by way of Father Brown, a religious sleuth and setting has an enduring popularity. I’m always drawn to this background and two of my favourite non-crime novels are Trollope’s The Warden and Barchester Towers, full of machinations among the clergy.

It has been said that Vicarage is one of the most popular key words that will sell book titles, particularly in the United States. Why is this so appealing? Perhaps because in detective fiction it’s an effective shorthand. There’s something about the word vicarage that conjures images of an English cosy mystery, summer fetes on the village green, eccentric characters for afternoon tea and the cake-stand laced with poison.

The Murder At The Vicarage (published in 1930) is one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels, featuring her classic setting of Miss Marple at home in St Mary Mead. Two more terrific novels where things are far from rosy at the vicarage are Sheila Radley’s A Talent For Destruction and Jill McGown’s Redemption (mentioned in our blog on Christmas Crime).

The Church of England provides a background with a hierarchy and some sort of modus operandi which should not be transgressed. Both give plenty of scope for worldly motives. We are introduced to a seemingly peaceful, ordered setting where the contrast of murder is all the more shocking.

The detective in a series of clerical mysteries is usually an amateur sleuth, with some interest in that religious world, though not necessarily a full member. Writers have come up with some ingenious backgrounds for their protagonists. Michael David Anthony’s superb mysteries are set among the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral where his detective Richard Harrison is Secretary to the Diocesan Dilapidations Board. Kate Charles’s engaging Book of Psalms series, set in Norfolk, feature David Middleton-Brown, a solicitor who has a passion for churches. Kate Charles’s other series detective is a lady vicar Callie Anson who works in a London parish. D.M Greenwood’s sleuth is a likeable deaconess Theodora Braithwaite.

Where the detective is part of a religious institution they are of necessity something of a maverick who likes to get into the outside world. Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael is a herbalist who journeys around the Welsh Marches and Veronica Black’s Sister Joan runs errands from her convent on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall.

Amateur sleuths invariably require a police ally – in Cadfael’s case in 12th century Shropshire, the Deputy Sheriff. Even in a contemporary setting though, ‘clerical’ detectives tend to solve the crime with their knowledge of human foibles rather than forensics. In a sense they are morality tales for our time, often posing questions about moral versus legal justice. The serpent slithers into Eden and at the end of the novel, order is restored. Though almost all detective fiction is concerned with good and evil, a background of clerical crime can be uniquely effective, cosy or sinister and often very English.

All the novelists mentioned are recommended. Notable examples of single novels with some sort of clerical setting include P.D James’s Death In Holy Orders, Colin Dexter’s Service Of All The Dead, Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Nine Tailors, S.T Haymon’s Ritual Murder, Robert Richardson’s An Act Of Evil (first published as The Latimer Mercy) and Ann Granger’s Candle For A Corpse.

It’s never easy to pick favourites from a distinguished selection but my best-loved single ‘clerical mystery’ has to be The Reaper by Peter Lovesey. Told in first person by a vicar, it has a wonderful plot and characterisation, black humour, a cosy Wiltshire village setting and Lovesey’s inimitable flair. Favourite series is by Michael David Anthony which we’ll save for a future blog.


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