Monthly Archives: February 2017

The Holly House Mystery

Our latest novella, ‘The Holly House Mystery’ is on sale at only 99 pence/cents. Offer ends on the 6th March (early evening British time).

Friends, please accept this, the only intimation!”

‘The Holly House Mystery’ is set in 1931 and is the second outing for Inspector Eddie Chance of Tennysham-on-sea in Sussex.

This is our take on a classic Golden Age-style murder mystery, set at a winter country house-party. Featuring the usual suspects – including the host, the male secretary, the femme fatale, the young couple and the butler – who murdered the house-maid found in the priory ruins and why?

The setting of Holly House was loosely inspired by the real-life Michelham Priory in present-day East Sussex. (Never taken to the idea of my birth county being split). Michelham Priory is owned by the Sussex Archaeological Society and open to the public. See http://www.sussexpast.co.uk for details. 

Originally an Augustinian foundation and ravaged in the Dissolution, today’s Michelham Priory is a lovely Tudor country house. The site is idyllic, a 7 acre near-island, surrounded by England’s longest medieval moat that still has water. A 14th century gatehouse and a picturesque water-mill have survived. The moat is a haven for wildlife and wild flowers and the gardens are glorious, including a medieval-style physic garden. (They also have delicious baking in the tea-room).

Places to visit in Sussex Michelham Priory

The enclosed nature of the setting inspired our homage to the popular vintage murder mystery with a limited number of suspects.

The length is 34,000+ words – ideal for a commute or a cosy couple of evenings.

We hope you enjoy – and would really appreciate any reviews as this helps all indie authors keep writing.

Here’s the link if you want to order a copy…

 

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Sherlock Holmes: The Man with the Twisted Lip

Spoiler alert: We usually try not to give away the plots of the stories we look at, but it’s next to impossible not to with Sherlock Holmes’ short stories. I suspect most of you will have read the story. 

The Man with the Twisted Lip is one of my favourite Sherlock Holmes stories. It has a very vivid London setting and lots of those elements that plunge you back into the Victorian world of Holmes and Watson – menacing alleys, disguises, the sinister banks of the River Thames, Opium Dens etc.Twis-05.jpg

Holmes and Watson are at their best too, though I always believe the great detective is having a bit of an off day in his field of expertise, given how long it takes him to work out the only obvious solution to the puzzle – that Neville St Clair is the beggar Hugh Boone.

Who cares? Just to plunge into the murky world of Victorian London in the company of Holmes and Watson is enough for me. There is the added bonus that you get a glimpse of Watson’s home life in the company of the first Mrs Watson, though – like everyone – I’m puzzled that she calls her husband James instead of John at one point. You might like to comment your thoughts on that – whole essays have been written on what most suspect is an authorial slip.

Doyle wrote these stories for the Strand at a fair speed and such slips are not uncommon when a deadline is looming.

There is a worse slip elsewhere in the story. When Holmes and Watson visit the Kent home of Mrs St Clair, she asks that the detective tells her the worst – “I am not hysterical or given to fainting”, she says. But earlier in the tale, she has told Holmes that she fainted on  seeing blood on the window of the opium den in Upper Swandam Lane.

The Man with the Twisted Lip is one of the earliest of the Sherlock Holmes short stories, first published in The Strand magazine in December 1891. It was Doyle’s sixteenth favourite of his personal top nineteen Holmes stories. Interesting too, that it doesn’t actually feature a crime, though I suspect in reality, Hugh Boone and his alias might have been prosecuted for wasting police time and probably for begging as well.

The opium den and Upper Swandam Lane are wonderfully drawn. I once spent a happy morning in London seeking the location from the geographical details given by Doyle. Of course there’s nothing resembling the place in existence now, though not far away is a set of steps set in Victorian or earlier London Brick leading down to the swirling waters of the Thames. On finding them, my imagination swirled as much as the river.

At some point, every Victorian crime novel series should feature an opium den, and Doyle’s is one of the best in literature, menacing but quite accurate. There are, going off at a tangent, a couple of other good ones in literature. Sax Rohmer gives us a glorious one in The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu, and Charles Dickens opens The Mystery of Edwin Drood in just such a place. Opium was legal at the time – in fact the British Empire and its entrepreneurs made a fortune and fought a couple of wars out of the trade. Opium dens, which were often a front for other crimes, were perfectly lawful as well.

I like Doyle’s description of Upper Swandam Lane as a ‘vile alley’: so much atmosphere in two words. I confess to borrowing them to describe an alley in my own recent Victorian crime novel Deadly Quest. I put in an opium den for good measure as well!

Neville St Clair as Hugh Boone is not the only disguised person in the story. Holmes makes his first appearance in the Bar of Gold opium den as an addict, though he swears to Watson that he didn’t actually participate – hard though surely not to inhale in such a place.

London itself becomes almost a character in the story, the streets and alleys around the north side of the Thames vividly drawn. All the more remarkable when you recall that Doyle was a relative newcomer to the city when he penned these early Sherlock Holmes stories.

There was a silent film version of The Man with the Twisted Lip as early as 1921. More recent television versions include the BBC Douglas Wilmer version of 1964 – I almost certainly saw that as a child, as I was a fan, but I remember nothing about it.

More recently there was a very good adaptation in the Granada Television series The Return of Sherlock Holmes, with Jeremy Brett as Holmes and Clive Francis (best known as Francis Poldark in the first and superior version of Poldark) as Neville St Clair/Hugh Boone.

The latter is a superb version, even if Mrs Watson was written out of the programme concept. Upper Swandam Lane is vividly depicted, as is the Bar of Gold opium den. The casting of the small parts is very well done and Alan Plater’s script gets a real feeling for the original story.

Clive Francis makes a splendid Hugh Boone, throwing out his beggar’s repartee at the police and showing the charm that made him such a successful beggar. His quotations from Shakespeare and other poets seem so integral that I’d forgotten that they’re not actually part of Boone’s repertoire in the story. I believe the idea of having Boone acquainted with literature in this way was first trialled in the Douglas Wilmer version.

The transformation of Boone into St Clair is done to great effect. The urbane and civilised St Clair in the interview with Holmes and the Bow Street police which follows, demonstrates the considerable range of Clive Francis’ acting ability – a masterful performance.

A great Sherlock Holmes story – one I never tire of reading. A masterpiece of short story writing.

 

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The Language of the Dead by Stephen Kelly

The Language of the Dead, published in 2015, is the first in a series by American author, Stephen Kelly. I’ve read very little crime fiction set in the Second World War, though I enjoyed the detective drama series Foyle’s War. However I was intrigued by the synopsis saying that the main character, Chief Inspector Thomas Lamb, was still haunted by his time in the trenches.

The Language of the Dead: A World War II Mystery by [Kelly, Stephen]

The novel is set in the summer of 1940, where the murder takes place in a village in Hampshire. The setting had me hooked as I grew up in a small Hampshire village. It’s a county that’s not often used in crime fiction – although on television, Hampshire provided the locations for St Mary Mead, (real life Nether Wallop) and Chief Inspector Wexford’s Kingsmarkham (Romsey).

I enjoyed The Language of the Dead very much, despite a couple of issues I’ll come to later. Crucially important, I really liked the three leading detectives. They alone make me want to read the second in the series. Chief Inspector Lamb is an appealing character, a happily married, family man, deeply affected – twenty-two years on – by his experiences in the First World War. A fair man who takes his job seriously.

His side-kick Sergeant Wallace has his own problems and is the focus of a well-written sub-plot with a noir-like feel. The author made me ‘see’ those particular scenes like a black and white film. When the third of an uneasy trio is introduced, Inspector Rivers is a figure from Lamb’s past. This debut novel sets the scene for some interesting development in future titles. Stephen Kelly’s characters and their motivations are very believable.

The plot concerns the bizarre murder of an old man, while he was hedging on farmland. As the author mentions on his website, this was partly inspired by a real unsolved murder which took place in Warwickshire in 1945. Inspector Lamb’s daughter is the village A.R.P. warden.

Stephen Kelly is good at catching the atmosphere of rural southern England thrust into the desperate summer of the Battle of Britain. Traditional village life with its lingering superstitions is shown changed almost overnight by R.A.F. camps, gun emplacements, rations and the blackout. Everyone is nightly watching the sky where the flames of Southampton and Portsmouth can be seen. The villagers are already tense and fearful before they have a murderer among them.

Because Stephen Kelly writes so well, I was disappointed that he didn’t convey any real feeling of Hampshire. I’ve no problem with adjusting the map – that’s necessary for writers and we certainly do that in our own novels – but most writers keep an authentic atmosphere of place. I’d have liked some description of the fictional village of Quimby and the old cathedral city of Winchester, home to the detectives’ police station. The sparse details we do get are inaccurate, Hampshire doesn’t go in for glens or stone-built villages.

But the main jarring factor for me, was the constant use of Americanisms and sometimes lack of knowledge of British ways. Part of me feels mean saying this but American terms ‘jolt’ me out of the British fictional world that’s been created. It seems fashionable among American authors to write historic crime fiction set in England and I do understand the attraction and difficulties. I enjoy Charles Todd’s period crime novels but sometimes find the same problem. 

Despite these caveats there was so much I enjoyed about The Language of the Dead. I will read the second book The Wages of Desire and look forward to finding out more about the series’ characters.

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Busting Jack the Ripper

I’ve spent a fair bit of the past month reading Bruce Robinson’s book They All Love JackBusting the Ripper. A mammoth work of over 800 pages, filled with great detail and excellent illustrations. I hadn’t read a Jack the Ripper book for several years and was pleased I found this.Product Details

Wind back the clock: A couple of decades ago I spent a great deal of time studying Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel Murders. I read all the books, studied quite a lot of primary sources, and walked Whitechapel by day and night visiting the murder scenes. I was never a Ripperologist, but being interested in Victorian crime I felt that I couldn’t miss out these killings.

In the end I got rather fed up with it. I got tired of books appearing every year claiming this candidate or that for Jack, some of them by reputable authors who should have known better.

I also got fed up with writers who tended to treat Jack’s identity as nothing more than an academic puzzle, seemingly forgetting that the puzzle is only there because several women – each one of them a million times better than their murderer – died brutal and unnecessary deaths.

But I was intrigued by the premise of Bruce Robinson’s book, that really there is no mystery at all – except a very carefully manufactured one. Bruce Robinson’s book is like a tornado of fresh air blowing away the rubbish and misconceptions that have clustered around this miserable serial killer for the past 130 years.

I thought I knew a great deal about Jack the Ripper, but I’d forgotten much that Bruce Robinson mentions and there was a lot in this book I never knew.

Mr Robinson picks away at the “mystery” until it is a mystery no more. Along the way – often in very forthright and politically incorrect terms – he tears open the rottenness of Victorian Values, portraying what a corrupt and nasty society it actually was. I’ve spent much of the past 35 years studying Victorian Britain. I write a great deal about it, both fictionally and otherwise. There is much about the everyday Victorians to admire, particularly the poor and those who tried to make the world a better place. But what our politicians of today lovingly and yearningly call Victorian Values deserve no respect at all.

Bruce Robinson exposes the way the Victorian Establishment of 1888 – a nasty bunch I’ve always thought – conspired to send people in totally the wrong direction in the search for the Whitechapel murderer. All to protect one of their own and not caring about any of the innocent people they implicated instead.

He shows how police inquiries were muffled, how vital evidence that could have brought the killer to book was deliberately destroyed. How coroners at inquests suppressed vital proof and broke the law themselves by refusing to call witnesses who might have identified the murderer. He demonstrated that the politicians in the government of the day worked with a bent police force to make sure that the Establishment figure behind the killings gained protection.

It is a deeply angry book and all the better for that. For these poor women victims had already – like so many of the poor – been ripped apart by a greedy and patrician society long before Jack the Ripper got his hand on them.

Could the police and the Establishment really conspire in this way to cover their backs? Yes they could. We have seen elements only too recently in the Hillsborough tragedy and many other such instances how politicians, police and parts of the press will do anything to suppress the truth.

If you only read one book about Victorian crime and society this year make it this one. Bruce Robinson takes the whole case apart with the kind of forensic skill any barrister would envy. His critique of the more miserable elements of the Victorian Establishment is spot on.

Bruce Robinson is a superb writer and a wonderful historian.

A real page-turner of a book.

 

 

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Writing a Victorian Thriller

I’ve now written two William Quest thrillers set in the 1850s, The Shadow of William Quest and Deadly Quest. I’m in the planning stages of writing Quest number three. Here’s how it all began. I hope this might be helpful if you are planning your own thriller set in the Victorian period.

So how did William Quest come about?

I’ve always wanted to write about aspects of the Victorian underworld, but I wanted a setting that was London and Norfolk. For a long time I had this image of a gentleman carrying a swordstick walking along a London alley. I knew straight away that he was on some sort of quest for vengeance. His name, in these preliminary thoughts was Edward Stanton. Then one day the name William Quest flashed into my mind. It seemed to fit. I knew it would open with a killing but had only the vaguest ideas as to where to go from there.

So did you write out any sort of detailed plot plan?

Not really, and I’m glad I didn’t. I scribbled a few pages of very rough ideas in a Moleskine notebook. Many of these got rejected as I went on. I knew that there had to be some sort of back story for Quest. I had thoughts on what that should be. Then I sat down and it really wrote itself.

Did it come easily?

Much easier than anything I’ve ever written before. Whole characters just appeared, complete with names. I had no idea that there would be a character called Jasper Feedle at all. He just appeared one morning with that name. Walked out on to the pages, complete. Wissilcraft, the spy, was someone else who built up his part. He was meant to be a very minor character, just in a couple of scenes. And then there he is, driving the whole plot forwards.

Did you do much research?

I took a minor in nineteenth century social history as an undergraduate at the University of East Anglia. I always had a considerable interest in the Victorian underworld so I had most of that information at my fingertips. I have always had an interest in Victorian London and Norfolk and wanted a contrast between the London rookeries and the lonely countryside of Norfolk. Recent visits back to Norfolk gave me ideas for the scenes there and for the climax.

How do you work?

Mornings only! An early start and then only to lunchtimes, then the brain gives up. I usually write between 850 to 1400 words a day. I try to write every day. I really want to do more words.

Do you have a favourite character?

It has to be Jasper Feedle. Mostly because he saved me a lot of labour and came on like an actor, gave the performance, without any great effort from me.

Why the Victorian period?

When I was younger my period was always the 17th century. My university experiences and reading since diverted me to Victorian times. I think it a fascinating period. People think they know it, but…. And there are several periods within the period. The Regency attitudes linger on for a long time into Victoria’s reign. I found that fascinating and it was one reason why I set Quest as early as 1853. Much of Dickens’ work is driven by those attitudes. Worth remembering that there were thirty years of Victorianism after Dickens died. They were rather different years, much as the 1980s were different from the 1940s.

A good time to be alive?

If you were well off. Most of my ancestors were working class during Victoria’s reign. Many had unpleasant and early deaths. But there were wonderful people fighting for reform as well. I wanted to reflect both aspects in the novel. But at the end of the day it is a thriller and not a social novel. But Victorian values are not something, generally, we should wish back. Like Quest and his friends I would like a fairer and much more compassionate world.

But the relics of Victorian Britain are still there?

They are indeed. In Britain we are fortunate that we can walk down the same streets and often see the same buildings as our Victorian ancestors. Walk down many High Streets, look up above modern fascias, and we can still see the buildings they would have seen. A lot of Britons still live in the same houses as the Victorians. Much of our civic architecture is Victorian. We should make sure the planners and developers leave it alone.

Future William Quest novels?

The first sequel, Deadly Quest, is already out and set entirely in London. It kind of wraps up some of the stories which began in the first novel, though both are complete in themselves. In the new novel, the one I’m about to write, Quest finds himself in Victorian York, fighting new enemies and facing fresh menaces.

What advice would you give to anyone writing a Victorian thriller?

Don’t dwell too much on the plot until you have immersed yourself in the period. Sometimes the best ideas come out of that period. Read widely, walk those Victorian streets, look at their art, listen to their music, read their literature. It’s a bit like time travel. You need to be living there in a bit of your mind. Once you can get into that state the ideas should come. Better than trying to force a plot on to the period.

The first William Quest novels are now out in paperback and on Kindle. Click on the links if you want to sample a chapter or two, or order.

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Agatha Christie’s ‘Towards Zero’

 Towards Zero was first published in 1940, although the War isn’t mentioned in the novel. The unusual title comes from a remark made in the prologue about the origins of murder. Towards Zero (Agatha Christie Collection) by [Christie, Agatha]

I like a good detective story,” he said. “But, you know, they begin in the wrong place! They begin with the murder. But the murder is the end. The story begins long before that – years before sometimes – with all the causes and events that bring certain people to a certain place at a certain time on a certain day. …All converging towards a given spot. Zero hour.”

The detective in this story is Superintendent Battle, who features in four earlier stories, The Secret of Chimneys (1925), The Seven Dials Mystery (1929), Murder is Easy (1938) and Cards on the Table (1939). Battle is staying with his nephew, a police inspector, who welcomes his uncle’s greater experience.

The plot has an interesting structure, beginning with a couple of scenes whose significance only becomes apparent at the denouement. We know early on that someone is planning the minutiae of a murder. Then we switch to letters being written and plans made for the characters to come together, nine months later in September. They stay at a house called ‘Gull’s Point,’ on the cliffs above a Devon fishing village. The setting is thought to be based on Devon’s Salcombe and the Kingsbridge estuary .

Once the suspects are gathered, Agatha Christie skilfully builds an atmosphere of prolonged tension, making this a gripping read. Scenes, pleasant on the surface, are full of fear and a sense of waiting for disaster. The characters are well-rounded and Christie’s wise understanding of psychology is shown at its strongest. I couldn’t disagree more with critics who dismiss her work as cardboard characters and superficial plots.

When a murder finally takes place, everyone concerned is put in the frame in a succession of twists. Red herrings abound and twice I was convinced I’d worked out the solution, only to be foxed again. Christie uses a plot device I recall in (only) one other title, but one of her many strengths is to present recycled ideas in such a well-disguised, fresh way that they slip past the readers again. Given that she wrote sixty-six novels, many short stories and there are only so many possible plots, I think she was remarkably clever.

Apparently when Agatha Christie adapted Towards Zero into a play in 1956, it wasn’t a great success. Perhaps because it’s quite an outdoor novel with scenes on the beach and cliffs. And creeping tension is better conveyed on the page?

I suspect this novel is often overlooked due to the lack of Poirot or Miss Marple. Certainly it wasn’t high on my list of gradual rereading – until I saw a few reviews. I must have read it decades ago but didn’t remember the plot. 

Now I’d recommend Towards Zero as one of Agatha Christie’s best. A very rewarding and satisfying read.

 

 

 

 

 

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