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Writing a 1930s Detective Novel

The Seafront Corpse, was the first in our series set in the early 1930s. I liked the idea of spending time in the pre-war England of the Golden Age detective fiction I enjoy so much. Trying my hand at contemporary crime has never appealed – and I’m full of admiration for writers who deliver a compelling mystery while knowing their way around modern police procedure and forensics.

Rather than basing my detectives in London and sending them around the country, I fancied writing about a provincial town. Somewhere large enough to have plots for murders yet with a medium-sized community where people know the more prominent members, at least by reputation. I settled on a Sussex seaside resort – I lived in one for many years – within reach of a day-trip to London.A view of Clevedon Pier in Somerset, England

The Channel resorts of south-east England were at the start of their heyday between the wars. The coastal towns of Sussex and Kent were experiencing a building boom both in housing and distinctive public buildings. Lidos, shopping arcades, ice cream parlours and pavilions were appearing. Victorian piers, theatres, town and concert halls were being given an art deco or moderne facelift. Aerodromes and motor-car showrooms were being built and of course, every large town in England was getting at least one cinema.

Some of these stylish buildings can still be enjoyed today. In Sussex, Worthing has one of the finest moderne piers in England. Opened in 1935, it has featured in an episode of Poirot. Further along the coast, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-On-Sea was built the same year. One of the most important moderne buildings in England, it is Grade 1 listed and was used in Foyle’s War. Sadly, many fine examples were bulldozed in recent decades before town councils realised what important, historic townscapes they had in their care.

My initial thought was to use Brighton as a setting. A fascinating place but I changed my mind as Brighton’s real-life crime in the thirties was on the hard-boiled side, as depicted in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. So I created Tennysham-On-Sea, influenced by but not based upon any real town. I wanted to describe a genteel resort with repertory players and beach photographers, the sort of place where Miss Marple might stay for a few days. It’s been fun mapping out my fictional town and dreaming up more features for the next book.

Tennysham isn’t meant to be too cosy. I wanted to reflect the seedy back streets, something that hasn’t changed as much as you might think. (I’ve lived in a few resorts along the Channel and rented flats that would fit well in a Patrick Hamilton novel). So Tennysham has its shabby boarding-houses, the bus-depot and laundry, gas-works and coal-yard as well as its chalk cliffs and smart sea-front.

My detective, Inspector Eddie Chance, is a local who’s been transferred away from the town for some years. Newly promoted as head of the small C.I.D. department, he’s glad to be back home and working with his old pal and former mentor, Sergeant Wilf Bishop.

It’s been a pleasure to attempt to create the atmosphere of the thirties, a world where the detectives wear trilbys and pipe smoke curls over the typewriter. Where they stop off at phone boxes and press button B, the Chief Constable is a retired colonel and no one’s heard of DNA.

To get the feel of the language, you can’t do better than immerse yourself in the crime fiction of the time before you start writing. Their slang for instance – which varied according to class – as well as all kinds of popular expressions and writing style. Novels of the period are full of fascinating detail such as typical meals and clothing with names of fabrics and colours we no longer say. (I won’t be using ‘nigger’ brown, though it must be remembered it was polite usage at the time).

It’s important to me that the thirties atmosphere feels as authentic as possible but there’s a balance to be struck. Novels where characters ‘ejaculate’ expressions such as ‘what ho’ or ‘top hole, old thing,’ read like a spoof. Bertie Wooster could get away with it – or even Tommy Beresford – but today they could make the reader laugh where you don’t intend it.

I’ve started the series in 1931, as I’m interested in how people felt, thirteen years after the Great War. In the 1920s the prevailing mood was to try to forget the horrors and look to the future but of course that isn’t always easy. The scars remained, mental and physical. I’ve tried to reflect this in my characters.

These are some of my favourite reads for research, getting in the mood and enormous pleasure. In no particular order:

Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, E.F Benson’s Lucia novels, Patrick Hamilton and Richmal Crompton’s William novels.

Non-fiction: Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier, J.B Priestley’s English Journey and Martin Pugh’s We Danced All Night (a superb social history of Britain between the wars).The Holly House Mystery (An Inspector Chance Novella Book 2) by [Bainbridge, John]

The sequel The Holly House Mystery takes Eddie Chance to a village on the South Downs in the depths of winter. A take on the classic country house mystery.

 

 

 

 

 

Both books are on sale on Kindle until Monday night for 99 pence/cents each. They’re also available in paperback. Just click on our author page below to start reading for free or to order.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/John-Bainbridge/e/B001K8BTHO/ref=dp_byline_cont_ebooks_1#

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Help An Indie Author By Reviewing

A big thank you to everyone who’s bought or borrowed one of our books this year – writing can be a lonely business and it really helps to get feedback from readers.

As Indie Authors, we especially appreciate your support. If you’ve enjoyed our books please leave a quick review. 

A Happy New Year to everyone who reads this. 

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‘Balmoral Kill’ – My Scottish Novel

As a hillwalker who also writes novels, 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.

 

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.Balmoral Castle (c) 2015 John Bainbridge

So the summer when I was writing the book, 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.Glas-Allt-Shiel House (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.Loch Muick looking up towards where Balmoral Kill comes to its conclusion. (c) John Bainbridge 2015

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 back to writing my Robin Hood series 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 wo

Click on the link below to take a look at Balmoral Kill..

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MR James – A View From a Hill

Although not a story of crime, it seems appropriate to look at at least one M.R. James story on this blog – not least because Montague Rhodes James was himself a devotee of mystery fiction and particularly a fan of Sherlock Holmes.

But he is, of course, best known to us as the greatest writer of traditional English ghost stories. Ruth Rendell famously commented that “There are some authors one wishes one had never read in order to have the joy of reading them for the first time. For me, MR James is one of these”.

I couldn’t agree more – We’ve both loved MR James for a great many years and read and re-read his wonderful ghost stories, always finding some new delight. So with Halloween in mind, here goes.

Montague Rhodes James (1863-1936) was the finest medieval scholar of his generation, spending a great deal of his academic time seeking out and recording manuscripts that might otherwise have been lost. He was born near Bury St Edmunds, the son of a clergyman and, in the course of a long and distinguished life was assistant director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Provost of King’s College, Cambridge and Provost of Eton.

It’s worth pointing all that out, because many of his leading characters are academics in a similar way, solitary characters who seek out lost manuscripts or who investigate strange elements of our mysterious past – encountering the forces of the supernatural along the way.

James wrote his ghost stories originally as entertainments for his college fellows, and would read them out loud by candlelight, sometimes around Christmas. Newspaper or magazine publication would follow and then volume publication in collections such as Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, A Warning to the Curious and more. Collected Ghost Stories is a volume worth getting as it includes most of the canon, though there are a few omissions.

What I admire best about James, is that he would have been a superb writer of short stories whatever genre he had chosen. He is an exceptionally good writer. Some of his succinct descriptions of landscape are quite beautiful and atmospheric – whether the story be set in the English countryside or in the shadows of some great cathedral. He had the enviable gift of summoning up a sense of place in a very few words. There is also a subtlety that you rarely get with some writers in this genre and occasionally a delicious sense of humour.

A View From a Hill is not one of the strongest of James’s ghost stories from a chills point of view, but its depiction of rural Herefordshire is deftly done,  from its opening on a lonely railway halt to the views of a lonely landscape.

I’m not going to say too much about the story because you may want to read it and I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment. Sufficient to say that an academic, Fanshawe, visits a remote part of Herefordshire to visit his friend Squire Richards, the owner of a small country manor. Fanshawe’s host lends him a pair of binoculars with a mysterious provenance. But is what he sees of the landscape through the binoculars quite the same as what is actually there? Is Fulnaker Abbey just a pleasant old ruin or… And why is the sinister hanging tree on Gallows Hill only visible to Fanshawe? Ghost Stories for Christmas - The Definitive Collection (5-DVD set)

The BBC, in their splendid series of filmed Christmas ghost stories by M.R. James, did a version of A View From a Hill, though there were changes to the plot which took the story rather a way from what James actually wrote. Even so, as with all the films in the series, it was beautifully shot and well acted. Well worth seeing even if you admire the original more.

I see that BBC Four is showing it on Halloween night if you want to catch it. 

But do seek out the original stories which, around a century after they were penned, are as addictive and readable as ever. If you are reading them for the first time, I do envy you. If you are revisiting an old favourite, then enjoy these tales once more.

Do have a splendid Halloween…

 

 

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The Saint: Boodle by Leslie Charteris

Before I begin, I should say that Boodle was the original title of this collection of Saint short stories first published in 1934, being the thirteenth volume of the saga of Simon Templar. American and later British editions were re-titled The Saint Intervenes.

Annoyingly, later editions omitted one, and in some cases two, of the original stories. My copy of Boodle omits the tale “The Uncritical Publisher” (I wonder who that upset?) and “The Noble Sportsman” is lost from others. (Could it be because the latter is less than charitable about a British politician?)

Recent paperback and Kindle editions of The Saint Intervenes have happily restored these omissions.

The stories are wonderful examples of early Saint yarns and featured in some are Simon Templar’s delightful girlfriend Patricia Holm (surely the most delightful heroine in this type of literature) and the gum-chewing Inspector Claud Eustace Teal who, interestingly, works  with the Saint on a few occasions here.

What I love about the Saint is that – unlike, say, Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond – he has a social conscience, takes the part of the poor and the weak against the rich and the powerful.

There are no criminal masterminds for the Saint to combat in these stories. Instead, Simon Templar battles petty crooks exploiting the innocent, rich businessmen ripping off the poor, and dubious politicians. Good for the Saint! We could do with him now… The Saint Intervenes by [Charteris, Leslie]

It always amazes me when I remember that Leslie Charteris was a very young author when he created and wrote these early Saint adventures. I think barely twenty when he created the character and still a fair distance from thirty when he penned the stories in Boodle. He wrote with a confidence that many older and more experienced authors never achieve.

The stories were first written for magazine publication in Empire News in Britain. One tale  “The Man Who Liked Toys” had its first publication in The American Magazine as a standalone yarn with a different hero, but was re-jigged as a Saint story for this volume publication.

As with all Saint stories – and I have to confess to preferring the earlier ones like this volume, where Simon Templar is really well outside the law, though with a moral code of his own – the yarns in Boodle are unputdownable, superbly crafted, witty and inventive. Charteris was no hack writer, but a very skilled literary artist.

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Planning A Victorian Murder Mystery

There was never much plan to writing my first historical murder mystery, A Seaside Mourning. Like much of life, it just sort of happened. I’d always vaguely wished I could write a detective novel as they’re my favourite reading, along with the fat triple-decker classics of Victorian lit. I’d never written anything longer than free-lance articles and the very occasional short story but gradually you realise that the perfect time will never come. So one day, on impulse, I sat down and tried.Seaborough-Kindle-Cover

There’s always some impetus to a major new project. Mine was homesickness. We’d moved inland and I was missing the sea. So I started to think about setting about a murder mystery in a fictional Victorian seaside resort. Not somewhere popular and successful, no Scarborough, Llandudno or Brighton. Seaborough would be the sort of sleepy coastal town where the rise of the 19th century holiday trade never quite took off. Somewhere that never did get a pleasure pier and that today, would have lost its branch line in the Sixties. The setting became much-missed East Devon, home of my ancestors, two Victorian police constables among them.

The next point to decide on was the decade. I knew I didn’t want to venture into Sherlock Holmes territory, much as I love reading Doyle. The 1880s and 90s had such a flood of early technology and changing attitudes – widespread use of the telephone, bicycles, typewriters, women’s suffrage and so on – that in a way, the times felt too modern to appeal. The 1860s seemed to be a popular setting with historical crime authors so I went for the 1870s, which was fairly underused. I decided to stick to the first half of the decade so the detectives wouldn’t have the telephone.

I’ve always liked novels and dramas about the goings-on, plots, schemes and petty rivalries in small-town life. The secrets, large and small, in a place where its leading characters are known to everyone, at least by reputation. And for the middle-classes of Victorian Britain, reputation mattered. Without the safety-net of a welfare state, money and status was the hedge against going under. Fear would have been ever present. A return to Victorian Values, anyone?

The theme for A Seaside Mourning became murder and intrigue in a small community which is beginning to change. With apologies to Mrs Gaskell, a sort of Cranford with crime. Beneath the veneer of respectability, the townsfolk are gossiping over their tea cups and watching behind the Nottingham lace curtains.

As the title implies, the background to the story is the Victorian way of death, a subject that’s always fascinated me. No one truly mourns the first victim, despite all the macabre ritual of an elaborate funeral. Even Inspector Josiah Abbs is a widower, haunted by his wife’s death.

And after the murders, Seaborough, Inspector Abbs and Sergeant Ned Reeve, will never be quite the same again…

A Seaside Mourning was written as a stand-alone, then I had an idea for an Inspector Abbs novella, A Christmas Malice, set in Norfolk. This was still never intended to be a series as I went on to write a 1930s mystery and was de-railed by ill-health.  Abbs and Reeve have never quite gone away, though. A new full-length mystery is under way. This one takes them to Scotland Yard and should be out in the summer of 2018.

 

 

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Finding Novel Locations

We’ve been in York, searching out locations for the third William Quest novel. Interesting to walk around a city getting atmosphere for an historical thriller set in 1854. As an historical location, York is easier than most. Such a lot survives, compared to other places in Britain.

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York Minster

In the first two books The Shadow of William Quest and Deadly Quest, my hero is mostly adventuring in London – a place which has changed a great deal since the mid-Victorian period. But the Victorian elements can still be sought out even there, though they are few and far between. I’ve spent such a lot of years studying Victorian London that it seems very familiar to me. Indeed, modern London seems strange whenever I’m there.

York is a joy. Although there has been modern development and new shop fascias, many of the streets would still be recognisable to a man from 1854. In my book, William Quest has never been to York before, so he’s lost one of the great advantages he’s had while  carrying out his often dubious activities in London – which he knows like the back of his hand.

For anyone who’s never encountered William Quest, he’s a mysterious figure, usually armed with a pistol and a swordstick, who rights wrongs, defends the weak against the strong, fights corruptions and has his own occasional vigilante methods of dealing with wrongdoers.

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Grape Lane

 

But in this book he’s having to take on the role of detective as well, solving a puzzle that has baffled the citizens of York…

And it means peril, high adventure and a sinister conspiracy….

Having spent the past couple of months writing the third Quest (no title as yet), it’s great to revisit familiar old haunts in York – though I confess to spending a lot of time in bookshops. York has some great second-hand bookshops!York October 2017 011

 

 

 

We go to York quite often and always do a lot of walking around the streets, but I felt I was at the point in the novel where I wanted to see again some of the places I’d mentioned in the chapters written so far. There is one particular street, Tanner Row, which appears in the book and which I didn’t really know at all  – an important street leading to what was once York’s original railway station. The one someone like Quest would have used in 1854.

This original railway station was within the city walls, the present station, though Victorian and magnificent is outside the walls. Much of the old station still exists, though it’s been revamped as offices for the city council.

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Tanner Row

Nearer to the Minster, we walked the streets where the mystery occurs which provides my novel with its plot – the area around Stonegate and Grape Lane. I know these streets very well, but it was valuable to stroll through them with my characters in mind. It’s the little details that make the difference when you are imagining fictional characters in a real landscape.

Most of my novels are set in real places. I often get ideas for stories by just going for a walk. The whole story-line of my 1930’s Scottish novel Balmoral Kill changed when I walked around Loch Muick in the Highlands. You could re-enact the final duel in that novel across a real landscape if you wanted.

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The Old Railway Station

I find as a writer that just going out for a walk is the greatest source of inspiration.

Some areas of York have changed since the 1850s. The streets known as the Water Lanes, down on the River Ouse, were a rookery at that time.  In the 1870s a new road, Clifford Street, was driven through and much of the rest redeveloped. It’s still Victorian and charming to walk through, but not quite the setting Quest would have known.

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On the city walls

Much the same happened in London. Jacob’s Island, where my book Deadly Quest comes to an end, was a much viler rookery than the Water Lanes. Charles Dickens used it for the ending of Oliver Twist, where it is Fagin’s final lair. Today Jacob’s Island is full of very expensive luxury apartments. If the ghosts of the poor devils who lived in the diseased original Island could come back and see it, I do wonder what they would think?

I came back from York enthused by what I’d seen. The visit spurred me on to finish the book. I hope it will be out at the turn of the year.

Though I still don’t have a title!

If you haven’t read the first two William Quest novels, there are links below. Both are available in paperback and on Kindle – and there’s a free Kindle App available for your Smartphones if you like to read on the move.

 

 

 

 

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The Limehouse Golem

Last week, we went to see the film The Limehouse Golem, based on Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, which I blogged about a couple of years ago. (I’ve put my original blog on the novel below to save you searching.) The Limehouse Golem [DVD] [2017]

It’s a terrific take on the novel, with some great acting, a literate script by Jane Goldman, and some excellent sets that take you right back into Victorian London. The photography is superb.

I’m not going to say much about the plot, because I’ve mentioned the salient parts in the book blog below. Jane Goldman has made a few minor alterations to the plot for film purposes, but these make no difference to the story.

I’m always wary of filmed Victorian crime stories, because the slightest error jars. But there are no errors here. I was completely absorbed by the telling of the tale. Rarely have I seen a crime novel set in this period so well done.

This film stars Bill Nighy as Inspector Kildare, his role slightly expanded from the novel. The part was to have been played by Alan Rickman – one of our favourite actors – who sadly died early in the project. But Nighy makes an excellent Kildare, every inch the Victorian policeman. And how good to see Nighy get a lead credit.

There’s a great deal of British acting talent here – familiar faces such as Daniel Mays, Clive Russell, Eddie Marsan and Henry Goodman. All looking as though they’ve emerged from the streets of Limehouse.

But the film rises with the talents of two newcomers to me. Douglas Booth is quite stunning in the role of Dan Leno, totally believable as perhaps the greatest of music hall showmen. I’ve always had a great interest in Leno, a fascinating individual who forged the way we perceive popular entertainment of this kind, from straight entertainment, jests and songs, pantomime to burlesque, Leno was the grand master. His relatively early death in 1904 shocked the nation.

The tragedy of music hall before this period is that we have only scratchy recordings of some of the best acts (we’ve got just such a recording of Leno). Not being able to see these stars visually makes it hard to grasp how good they might have been. I’m old enough to have seen some of the early twentieth century stars live on the stage. They were good indeed – we’ll not see their likes again. But few of the Victorians were filmed, then only silently.

But Douglas Booth surely captures a great deal of Leno’s magic. Here’s an actor to watch out for in the future.

The key role of Elizabeth Cree goes to Olivia Cooke. Cooke is as good as Booth in portraying the growing confidence of a music hall singer, caught up in the murderous twists of the tale.

Try and see it at the cinema if you can with an audience around you – more like a music hall atmosphere than watching it at home on DVD.

Though we’ll be adding it to our DVD collection when it’s out.

Here’s my blog on the original novel…

Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem

Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem has now been out for over twenty years. Given my interests in Victorian crime and the history of the music hall I’ve always been meaning to read it.

Now I’ve finally got round to it and I can say that it’s a terrific read, evoking a real feel of the Victorian underworld in Ackroyd’s usual and very vivid writing style.

As a writer Ackroyd is well-known not just as a novelist but as an historian and biographer. If you haven’t read it I commend to you his London – A biography – perhaps the best of all recent histories of the city.

Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem is not your usual crime read. It’s a deeply literary novel which happens to be about crime and the low-life and middle-class existence of Victorian London. And there’s a lot more to it than that. Ackroyd has a way of plunging you deep into this imagined vision of a past age.

For those who don’t know, Dan Leno was perhaps the greatest star of Victorian music hall. But he is not the only real-life character encountered in this book. We also see the struggling writer George Gissing and a glimpse of Karl Marx during his London exile.

This is a book which begins with a hanging and works backwards. We see how his key character Elizabeth Cree progresses as a music hall turn, the murders of a serial killer, the legend of the Jewish golem, a trial at the Old Bailey and pages from the diary of John Cree delineating many aspects of Victorian life – for this is a novel of multiple viewpoints.

Ackroyd is so very good at exploring the sinister hinterlands of the Victorian underworld. The author’s great knowledge of London shines through on every page. Terrible secrets are revealed and the ending is just stunning.

A novel you’ll want to read more than once – thoroughly recommended!

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‘The Killings at Badger’s Drift’ by Caroline Graham

When a successful television crime drama started out based on a series of novels, the original books can sometimes be overshadowed. Especially when the drama series has the enduring popularity of Midsomer Murders, still going strong after twenty years and sold worldwide.

We love to curl up with Midsomer, both with John Nettles and Neil Dudgeon. But it’s interesting to strip away all thoughts of Midsomer Murders and re-read Caroline Graham’s The Killings at Badger’s Drift. This was her first outing for Chief Inspector Barnaby and Sergeant Troy. Our edition, published by Headline in 2016, has the bonus of a foreword by John Nettles, who played Tom Barnaby.

Published in 1987, ten years before the television series began, it’s easy to forget what a superb whodunit this is. Though I do recall finding this in the library in the ’80s and thinking it exceptionally good. Caroline Graham used the ever popular setting of murder in a seemingly idyllic village . Probably my favourite setting – like legions of fans, I love classic British detective novels where murder sends shock-waves through a small, rural community.

Miss Simpson, a well-liked, retired village schoolmistress is found dead in her cottage. A death that at first passes for natural causes, until her old friend Miss Bellringer, uneasy at signs that Miss Simpson behaved out of character, persuades the police to investigate.

So what sets The Killings at Badger’s Drift apart from countless other English village mysteries? Elegant writing with an interesting detective and sidekick, well-drawn characters, a strong plot and appealing setting. All a necessity for a decent crime novel, you might say. We could all reel off a quick dozen novelists who deliver all that.

The Killings at Badger’s Drift is lifted to another level by the author’s sly wit and moments of humour. The quirkiness of the television series is there, without its trademark bizarre murder methods. Some characters are almost Dickensian-style grotesques, yet they are horribly believable.

I loved the way in which Caroline Graham deals at length with some secondary characters. You get vivid glimpses of their back story and understand how life has shaped them. This reminded me of P.D. James’s detective novels. I always felt it was one of her greatest strengths and in Caroline Graham too, this adds an absorbing depth to the story.

Badgers Drift is St Mary Mead updated. There are council houses and commuters, modern bungalows with over-manicured gardens around the picturesque old cottages with their bee-hives. (The council houses were there in pre-war mysteries though rarely mentioned). Miss Marple would have said that the wickedness hiding beneath the surface of village life is unchanged.

Caroline Graham came up with a fairly underused premise for her series detective – at least in modern times. Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby is notable for his ordinariness. He’s a decent chap, happily married to Joyce and affectionate father to their daughter Cully. A member of the local art club and keen gardener, he isn’t a troubled maverick, doesn’t have a drink problem and the nearest his family gets to dysfunctional is his wife’s terrible cooking.

There’s more to him than can be shown within the limits of television, though John Nettles caught the essence of the character really well. We learn that earlier in his career, Barnaby was badly affected by certain aspects of his work and discover how he came to terms with his life. He’s an interesting character with a pithy line in put-downs – especially when he needs his indigestion tablets.

The Chief could be very terse at times. He was a big, burly man with an air of calm paternalism which had seduced far sharper men than Gavin Troy into voicing opinions which had then been trounced to smithereens.

Sergeant Gavin Troy is a wonderful contrast to Barnaby. Much younger, he’s torn between wanting to impress his boss and convinced he’s the coming man. Prone to envy and sneering, his thoughts are very funny and despite his prejudices, he’s somehow endearing. In his foreword, John Nettles explains how Troy’s character was toned down for the television series. This is from when Miss Bellringer calls at the police station and speaks to Troy:

The sergeant pretended he had forgotten her name. Occasionally this simple manoeuvre caused people to wonder if their visit was really worth the bother and to drift off, thus saving unnecessary paperwork.

The foreword is well worth having. John Nettles adds some interesting background to his rôle and warmly admires Caroline Graham’s work. He’s one of a select few actors who’ve played two lead detectives in British television series, being fondly remembered as Bergerac in the 1980s.

The novel is intricately plotted with plenty of alibis and red herrings. A point that intrigued me was that Barnaby quickly pieces together the likely motive for the first murder. It’s actually mentioned in the jacket copy. This seems a bold move by the author when the reason for murder is mostly a large part of the final reveal – often, discovering the motive is what finally gives the game away. It does make the plot less formulaic and knowing – partially – why Miss Simpson had to die, doesn’t detract in the slightest from the thrill of the chase.

The Killings at Badger’s Drift is a masterclass in whodunit writing and deserves its place on the CWA list of The 100 Best Crime Novels Of All Time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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John Buchan’s “Sick Heart River”

John Buchan’s last novel Sick Heart River is not a story of crime, nor is it a thriller. It is a novel of high adventure. But it deserves a mention on Gaslight Crime, because it is the final outing of his series hero Edward Leithen – in many ways the most interesting of Buchan’s characters and perhaps the nearest in temperament to the author himself.Sick Heart River by [Buchan, John]

Leithen made his first appearance in the short story Space and his first real outing in The Power House, which we reviewed a few weeks ago. His novel adventures include John Macnab, The Dancing Floor and The Gap in the Curtain.

Sick Heart River (sometimes known by the title Mountain Meadow in the USA) was first published in 1941, given to a world beset by World War Two. The shadow of that war hangs over this book, though it’s not in any way a novel of war.

John Buchan, in his role as Governor-General, had signed Canada’s declaration of war in September 1939, at a time when he would have been writing this book.

Buchan hated war and Sick Heart River gives a strong feeling of his known world falling apart.

He died, suddenly, in February 1940, just days after completing Sick Heart River and his autobiography Memory Hold the Door. But he had been in poor health for quite a time and much of this is reflected in the plight of his hero Ned Leithen.

Sick Heart River will never be our favourite Buchan read, but it is, in both our opinion, the finest book he ever wrote – a literary masterpiece.

It is also a book of admiration for the Canada he’d come to know and love during his five years as Governor-General, with wonderfully descriptive passages about the arctic and the people who struggle to survive there.

Sick Heart River is a novel about confronting death – something we all have to do and the prospect must have been very much on Buchan’s mind. In his early essay Scholar Gipsies, written when the author was probably not twenty years old, he writes of a friend dying of a slow disease, probably tuberculosis. A man who rather than succumbing to the traditional death bed, takes to foot to face death standing in the hills of the Scottish Borders.

“Face death standing” – the expression comes from a Roman emperor, Vespasian; in fact Buchan puts the quote in to Leithen’s thoughts in his novel – “He would die standing, as Vespasian said an emperor should.”

Leithen, survivor of so many dangerous situations, now faces death himself. Weakened by a gas attack in the Great War, he has tuberculosis. The health and strength he prided in having have fled. He is weakened, debilitated, and has just months to live.

Rather like the character in that early essay, Leithen decides to face death standing – to have one last adventure.

He is approached by the American John S. Blenkiron, a favourite Buchan character of ours, to seek out the missing Francis Galliard, a French Canadian banker in New York, who has walked away from his life and disappeared in the north of Canada. Taking a long journey, first to America and then on to Quebec, Leithen trails Galliard and his guide Lew Frizel into the great wilderness of the arctic.

This is not just a book about physical decline but about mental strain as well. Lew Frizel is obsessed with finding the Sick Heart River, a place that should be paradise but turns out to be anything but. It becomes clear that, in his obsession, Lew Frizel has abandoned Galliard. Finding both now becomes the task of both Leithen and Lew Frizel’s brother Johnny.

How they find them and what the quest does to them all is the theme of the novel. As Leithen progresses through a landscape of freezing ice and snow his health improves, he gets back his strength and his will to live. He begins to plan a quiet old age with the shadow of death removed? But is his escape from mortality realistic?

There are, in this novel, some of the finest descriptions of landscapes in Buchan.  His knowledge of the north came both from an official trip in 1937 along the Mackenzie River and the far north experiences of his son Johnnie who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company.

But the arctic, rather like the valley of the Sick Heart River, is not portrayed as a paradise. The North is given to us as a place of peril and decay, where the native Hare Indians are themselves sick and indolent – so mentally exhausted that they no longer want to bother to even save themselves by finding food and drink.

So Leithen, having achieved the first part of his quest, devotes his recovering strength to saving the Hares from themselves, providing them with food and shelter and giving them a reason to go on living. But there is a price to be paid for such magnanimity.

Sick Heart River is a novel of adventure as well as spiritual quest. A tale of a dying man making his soul and discovering what his life has been all about. But it is not in the least morbid. It is very much a tale of hope. A novel to make you think and consider what life should be all about.

Buchan projects his characters into the spring of 1940 – a spring the author was destined never to experience himself. Cut off from civilisation for many months, Leithen learns that the dreaded war has begun.

It’s interesting to me that many of the first readers of Sick Heart River, facing the prospect of death on a massive scale, must have dwelt on the same questions about mortality as Ned Leithen.

Buchan’s greatest novel has a message for us all.

 

 

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