Monthly Archives: July 2016

The Dead Woman of Deptford by Ann Granger

This is the sixth in Ann Granger’s series of historical mysteries featuring Inspector Ben Ross and his wife Lizzie. I was pleased when Ann Granger began a Victorian crime series as I’ve been a fan for years, really enjoying her Mitchell and Markby series, set in the Cotswolds, as well as her later Carter and Campbell novels. A prolific lady.

Ben and Lizzie Ross are very likable characters. The series is set in the late 1860s and began when Lizzie Martin came to London to be a companion to her ‘Aunt’ Parry – actually the widow of her late godfather. Her predecessor left in mysterious circumstances and Lizzie is drawn to investigate. The novels are mostly set in a particular district of London, though the second in the series took Lizzie to Hampshire’s New Forest. Much as I’ve liked them all, The Dead Woman of Deptford is my favourite so far.

On a cold November night, Inspector Ross is summoned to Deptford. The body of a well-dressed, middle-aged woman has been found in a rat-ridden yard between dilapidated buildings near the Thames. As always, the narrative is shared between Ben and Lizzie, both in first person.

Ann Granger has a lovely flow to her writing, making it hard to put down. Her characters and setting are vivid and believable. She writes with moments of humour, compassion for social injustice and shows many different layers of Victorian society; from the wealthy squares of the West End, Ben and Lizzie in their modest terrace near Waterloo station, to the bent old man collecting cigar stubs in the gutters.

The sights, smells and sounds of Deptford, its warehouses of spices and tobacco, raucous streets of dock-workers and foreign sailors, tenements and drinking dens are richly depicted. Rather like one of Atkinson Grimshaw’s moonlit quayside paintings come to life. It’s surprising that no production company has grabbed these novels for a television drama.

The solution to the murder is extremely satisfying. Ann Granger had me fooled, which is what I want as a reader. A lifelong love of reading detective fiction means I work out – or get an instinct for – the murderer far too often. It doesn’t necessarily detract from a great read but we all want to be hoodwinked. (Peter Lovesey is my benchmark for an author who dazzles with his deceptive plotting.) This time Ann Granger used a classic piece of misdirection worthy of Agatha Christie, very simple and effective. I’m kicking myself. In addition, I thought the psychology of the motive was eminently believable and thought-provoking.

Ann Granger’s name on the cover guarantees an excellent, detective novel in the classic English style. She’s always a pleasure to read.

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Our Next Historical Thriller

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know I’m currently completing a Victorian thriller, the sequel to my novel The Shadow of William Quest.

Writing a sequel is usually hard, particularly when the first book in a series has been generally well-received. I do value the kind comments and support I’ve received re the Quest adventures. I want everyone to enjoy the new book.forgotten_00051

The second William Quest adventure has taken a while to complete, not least because I had break off a quarter of the way through to pen Wolfshead, the second in my series The Chronicles of Robin Hood.

I also had, originally, a false start, when I put in a character with his own sub-plot, and then found that sub-plot and the main thrust of the story didn’t arc together. So I had to spend some time removing that character and all his interactions. It took a time. Nothing’s wasted though, for those thousands of words are not lost. They’re already growing in my mind into a story of their own, which will, eventually, also have Mr Quest in it.

Those of you who’ve read The Shadow of William Quest, will know we get quite a lot of back story about Quest’s origins. In fact, I used up all his back-story in that one volume.

In a way that’s been good, for in the new book Quest comes to us fully-formed, and it gives me an opportunity to explore some of the other characters in more depth.

It also gives me a chance to set my characters against a London – and the setting of this one is entirely London – that was rapidly changing.

The 1850s was an important decade, both in terms of the physical city – buildings were going and coming, and new streets built – and the morality of its inhabitants. Up until that point, some of the mores of Georgian London still prevailed. By the 1850s, the stamp of Victorianism was beginning to make its mark, for good or bad. If you read Dickens, note how the city has changed between the early and later novels. By the way, if you want to get a feel of London in the 1820s, you can do no better than read George Borrow’s autobiographical novel Lavengro.

Now I’d like to be able to tell you the title of the new Quest novel, but I still haven’t decided. Quest’s name will be there, but I’m still torn as to the rest of it. I shall make a final decision very soon, not least because it’s due out in September and is going to be available for pre-order at a cheaper price for a couple of weeks before that.

If you haven’t yet read The Shadow of William Quest, it’s out in paperback and as an Ebook on Kindle. Just click on the link below for more information or to read the readers’ reviews. If you’ve read it and enjoyed it – or any of the other books – please do leave a review if you bought it from an online seller such as Amazon. Reviews really do help get us more sales. Thank you, John.


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Adam Adamant Lives!

We’ve recently been watching the surviving episodes of Adam Adamant Lives! – that iconic British television series first broadcast in 1966-67.Adam Adamant Lives! - The Complete Collection (5 Disc Box Set) [1966] [DVD]

I say, surviving episodes, for about half the episodes from the two series have been lost, the recording tapes wiped by the BBC soon after original broadcast. What survives makes you yearn for what we cannot see. The BBC is still searching for lost episodes of this and other programmes. See their website and contact them if you can help. Some taped episodes were transferred to film for foreign sales and it’s quite possible that some survived.

For those who haven’t met Adam Adamant, the premise is simple: Adam Adamant is a gentleman adventurer at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign. In 1902, he is lured into a trap by Louise – the woman in his life – and a masked villain called The Face. He is frozen in a block of ice and emerges in 1966, to face a very different world, an England that is truly swinging.

Being a Victorian gentlemen, in every sense of the world, courteous to women, shocked by some of the modernities of life in 1966, there is a great deal of fun to be had here, as Adam is called upon to help fight present-day evils and villains and re-encounter some old enemies.

He is helped in this task by a 1960s girl called Georgina Jones, an admirer of the adventures of the historic Adam, who has a penchant for crashing into his cases, and a valet William E. Simms, whose provides us with cynical limericks and a supposed detestation of Miss Jones.

This sort of series succeeds or falls on the casting of the leads. Gerald Harper, as Adam, is the very epitome of the English gentleman, suave and handsome, polite and brave. Juliet Harmer, as Georgina, is so 1960s girl it’s quite incredible. She sums up that whole very colourful era and is real fun. Jack May is terrific as Simms, often stealing his scenes.

Adam is a superb fighter, both with fisticuffs and his sword-stick. I remember watching this as a boy and quite envying the sword-stick. This image of a man in a cape with one of those deadly weapons, never quite vanished from my mind, as you’ll know if you’ve read my novel The Shadow of William Quest, which owes something to the notion of similarly-armed gentlemen adventurers – though my Quest is nowhere near as pleasant to people as Adam Adamant.

Much of the joy of Adam Adamant Lives! is revisiting the 1960s, the last optimistic decade for us Britons, before it all started to go downhill. A time when it was taken for granted that there would be social justice and the world would become a better place. Ah, well… But how lovely to have programmes such as this, to see London again before it was wrecked by skyscrapers, the fashions of the time, the Mini car that Adam drives. And the lovely thought of Adam reconstructing his Victorian home on top of a multi-storey car park!

All this and terrific adventures too. The stories hold up really well, and there are a number of familiar acting faces both as friends and enemies. With Adam Adamant Lives! there was a crossover of production staff and writers, with other great series of the time, such as The Avengers and Doctor Who. The basic idea seems to have come from Sydney Newman, the producer was Verity Lambert, writers include Tony Williamson and Brian Clemens. If you love The Avengers you should enjoy Adam Adamant Lives!

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Brilliant Beamish!

Beamish is a living history museum, just down from Newcastle, which celebrates the lives of working people and the culture of England’s North-East. Many of the buildings originally stood elsewhere and would have been lost altogether if they hadn’t been moved to this old colliery site.DSCF7276

There is an Edwardian town, a coal-mine and pit-village, a farm set back to the wartime period of the 1940s, an 18th century manor and farmhouse, an old railway station – all with staff and volunteers, dressed in costume, and living in the past.

It’s almost like time-travelling, as you follow miners into the original old drift mine, wander into cottages and offices, a printers, bakers and a sweet-shop, a freemason’s hall and a bank set back in the Edwardian period. Not to mention a pub, a steam wagonway and and church – just a few of the places to visit. The period fish and chip shop, where the food is cooked on a coal-fired range – and, golly, they’re good!DSCF7277

You can even have your picture taken in costume in a photographer’s studio.

For a writer, Beamish is particularly valuable. Where else can you see how a lawyer’s office of the early 1900s might actually have looked? Or ride on a tram of the period or an old bus or railway train?

I had ancestors who worked in coal-mining, so I particularly like the pit-village. My first school was in a pit village in the Black Country of the English Midlands. Not very different from the pit village at Beamish.DSCF8128.JPG

Beamish presents the real history of Britain; the kind of environment in which most of our ancestors actually lived. The history of the working and lower middle-classes which tends to get neglected by most historical novelists.

They also stage events set in their relevant period, and there’s something on most weeks. We visit Beamish quite often, most recently as part of the commemoration of the centenary of the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. Beamish is also a very valuable teaching resource, giving talks and with an outreach programme. They have a particular interest in aiding people with dementia, giving sufferers links with their own past.DSCF8127

Re-enactment groups were there, both as infantry and lancers, their uniforms reproduced in great detail, explaining to visitors just what life was like in the trenches of the Great War. These volunteers go into schools and relate this knowledge, which is particularly valuable now that all the veterans have passed away.

A great many local children visit Beamish in school-parties, which I’m thrilled to bits about. It’s important that British children are taught that history doesn’t stop and start with a procession of Kings and Queens. DSCF8129

These are the kinds of communities where our ancestors really lived.

And Beamish is still a work in progress. They are already planning to recreate a Georgian coaching inn, and a 1950s townscape.

A wonderful place for a visit – and your admission fee covers a year of visits.

We shall certainly be back – and often.

It positively inspires our writing.



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Went the Day Well

Made at the height of World War Two, Went the Day Well is a British film that deserves revisiting from time to time. What probably started as an Ealing film destined as much for propaganda as entertainment, has become recognised- after a long period of critical neglect – as one of the finest war films made during the conflict itself.Went The Day Well - Digitally Restored (80 Years of Ealing) [DVD]

Although released in 1942, the presumption of the plot is that the war is now over, and Hitler’s invasion of Britain has failed. It starts in the churchyard at the fictional village of Bramley End (actually filmed at Turville in Buckinghamshire) where a villager (Mervyn Johns) shows the audience a mass grave of German soldiers. ‘The only piece of England they got’.

We then flash back to the ‘Battle of Bramley End’. Set against a fictional invasion of England, a group of Germans disguised as British soldiers infiltrate the village as a vanguard. Now this might sound very familiar to admirers of Jack Higgins’ later classic book and film The Eagle Has Landed. (see blogs passim). And there are certainly similarities, though Higgins takes the initial premise in interesting new directions.

After seventy-four years it’s probably hard to appreciate the effect a screening of this film might have had on contemporary audiences. A picture postcard village, the kind of image we all have in mind when we think of rural England, taken over by Nazis, who act with some considerable brutality as they round up the villagers and herd them into the lovely old village church, even killing the vicar as he attempts to ring the bells as an alarm.

Two years after the Battle of Britain, and Hitler’s aborted invasion plan Operation Sealion, the British people might have been feeling safe from any thoughts of Nazis storming through English country lanes. If so, this film must have stunned its early audiences out of their complacency.

And not just Nazis. Fifth-columnists as well, traitors prepared to work with Hitler’s invading troops. In a stunning piece of casting (no spoiler here, for this revelation comes early in the film) popular British film star Leslie Banks is cast as the traitor. Although he’d played villains before, this revelation of an English village squire being in league with Hitler probably added to the shock value of the film.

In point of fact there was never the reality of a mass pro-Hitler Fifth Column in Britain, as there had been in some other countries in occupied Europe. But there were a number of potential traitors. Making Leslie Banks the traitor, so very English, good-looking, his character well-loved in the village, was inspired casting.

The idea of a Fifth-Columnist coming from the British Establishment is not at all far-fetched. After the evacuation of the British army at Dunkirk, when Britain was forced to stand alone against a possible Nazi invasion, a number of English landowners pressed for surrender in the hope of holding on to their vast estates. A few had considerable sympathy for the Third Reich. I used this idea in my own pre-war set thriller Balmoral Kill.

But just when the village of Bramley End is sealed off by the invaders, the villagers show unexpected courage and start fighting back. You can almost hear wartime audiences cheering by this point. I won’t spoil it for you, but I think it’s fascinating that the most gentle of the villagers are the ones forced to take the most violent actions.

The film is shot in magnificent black and white, which aids the period feel, and is based very loosely on a short story by Graham Greene, called The Lieutenant Died Last. Apart from Leslie Banks and Mervyn Johns it boasts a cast of magnificent British actors, including early appearances by Thora Hird and Harry Fowler. The direction by Cavalcanti, so familiar a name to so many fans of Ealing pictures, gives a tenseness that rarely relaxes its grip.

Went the Day Well is one of the best accounts of a Britain caught up in a terrifying war where the threat of invasion and occupation had never gone away.

There never was a Battle of Bramley End, of course, but there might have been.

Although Britain suffered badly in the Blitz from aerial attack, there was no ground invasion as there had been in so many countries around the world. But as you walk through our countryside today and see the preparations for defence against attack; the tank-traps, pill-boxes and defence lines, all covering killing-grounds that were fortunately never used, or look into the history of the Home Guard, you come very close to what might have been.

The title of the film by the way, comes from an epitaph poem written in 1918 by John Maxwell Edmonds, which has been used since then on so many British war memorials, often misquoted from the original. As this is also the anniversary week of the opening of the Battle of the Somme, I quote it here in its original form:

Went the day well?

We died and never knew.

But, well or ill,

Freedom, we died for you.

When you go home, tell them of us and say,

For your tomorrows these gave their today.

Here’s a link if you want more information about the film:


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