Tag Archives: Norfolk

Our Christmas Mystery Novella

If you enjoy curling up by the fireside with a seasonal mystery, you might like to try our Inspector Abbs novella A Christmas Malice. Set in 1873 during a Victorian country Christmas in Norfolk, our introspective sleuth has a dark puzzle to be solved.  Christmas-Malice-Kindle-Cover Reduced

Several readers have asked if the setting is based on a real Norfolk village. Aylmer is completely fictional though the descriptions of the railway line across the empty Fens, an ancient flint church and carrstone cottages fit the real area of beautiful West Norfolk. The towns of King’s Lynn and Hunstanton featured are described as befits their fascinating history.

In the way of any large British county, there are several Norfolks. The saltmarshes, the Broads and the Brecks, to name just three areas are very different from one another. Our story is set on the edge of another, the Norfolk Fens or Fenland. Norfolk is famed for its spectacular wide skies where a fairly flat landscape allows the traveller to see long vistas for miles in every direction. We use fairly advisedly because Norfolk isn’t as pancake flat as is often said. Much of the landscape has gentle undulations and many a fetching slope topped with an old copse or church tower.

On the western edge of the county the Fens (a local word meaning marshland) reach into Norfolk, though their greater part lies in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and the lost county of Huntingdonshire. Flat, few trees, remote and haunting. An empty landscape of long, straight rivers and dykes. Historically a land of windmills, pumping houses, wildfowling and eels. A place of refuge for monks and rebels, the most famous being Hereward the Wake. Cromwell too was a Fenlander. Artificially drained by Dutchmen in the 17th century, the Fens are the lowest-lying land in England and have some of the most fertile soil.

Border places are intriguing, having a face in two directions. A Christmas Maliceis set in a village with the Fens starting at its back and a more pastoral landscape on the other side towards the North Sea, then known as the German Ocean. Our Inspector Josiah Abbs is a Norfolk man, living in Devon when the story begins. He comes to spend Christmas with his widowed sister Hetty. Although they grew up on an estate where their father was head gardener, this lonely part of the county is unknown to him. Abbs has only a few days to resolve the mystery, preferably without ruining his sister’s Christmas.

It was an interesting challenge to write a novella-length story (33,000 words) where our detective is alone, without the help of his sergeant or the resources of his county force. Fortunately he does find an ally in the village policeman.

Inspector Abbs and Sergeant Reeve formed an unlikely partnership in our novel A Seaside Mourning, set in Devon in 1873.

It’s available now on Kindle and in paperback if you are looking for a stocking-filler. Just click on the link below to order: 

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Our Christmas Mystery Novella

If you enjoy curling up by the fireside with a seasonal mystery, you might like to try our Inspector Abbs novella A Christmas Malice. Set in 1873 during a Victorian country Christmas in Norfolk, our introspective sleuth has a dark puzzle to be solved. As is traditional at this time of year, there will be hope and a happy ending of a sort.Christmas-Malice-Kindle-Cover Reduced

Several readers have asked if the setting is based on a real Norfolk village. Aylmer is completely fictional though the descriptions of the railway line across the empty Fens, an ancient flint church and carrstone cottages fit the real area of beautiful West Norfolk. The towns of King’s Lynn and Hunstanton featured are described as befits their fascinating history.

In the way of any large British county, there are several Norfolks. The saltmarshes, the Broads and the Brecks, to name just three areas are very different from one another. Our story is set on the edge of another, the Norfolk Fens or Fenland. Norfolk is famed for its spectacular wide skies where a fairly flat landscape allows the traveller to see long vistas for miles in every direction. We use fairly advisedly because Norfolk isn’t as pancake flat as is often said. Much of the landscape has gentle undulations and many a fetching slope topped with an old copse or church tower.

On the western edge of the county the Fens (a local word meaning marshland) reach into Norfolk, though their greater part lies in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and the lost county of Huntingdonshire. Flat, few trees, remote and haunting. An empty landscape of long, straight rivers and dykes. Historically a land of windmills, pumping houses, wildfowling and eels. A place of refuge for monks and rebels, the most famous being Hereward the Wake. Cromwell too was a Fenlander. Artificially drained by Dutchmen in the 17th century, the Fens are the lowest-lying land in England and have some of the most fertile soil.

Border places are intriguing, having a face in two directions. A Christmas Malice is set in a village with the Fens starting at its back and a more pastoral landscape on the other side towards the North Sea, then known as the German Ocean. Our Inspector Josiah Abbs is a Norfolk man, living in Devon when the story begins. He comes to spend Christmas with his widowed sister Hetty. Although they grew up on an estate where their father was head gardener, this lonely part of the county is unknown to him. Abbs has only a few days to resolve the mystery, preferably without ruining his sister’s Christmas.

It was an interesting challenge to write a novella-length story (33,000 words) where our detective is alone, without the help of his sergeant or the resources of his county force. Fortunately he does find an ally in the village policeman.

Inspector Abbs and Sergeant Reeve formed an unlikely partnership in our novel A Seaside Mourning, set in Devon in 1873. We hope to finish the next full-length novel in 2017.

It’s available now on Kindle, Nook and Kobo and in paperback if you are looking for a stocking-filler.

Just click on the link below:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Christmas-Malice-Inspector-Novella-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B00NXQR8MQ/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1447933528&sr=1-1&keywords=a+christmas+malice

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Jack Higgins’ “The Eagle Has Landed”

It’s now forty years since Jack Higgins published his bestselling war thriller “The Eagle Has Landed” and a good ten years since I last read it. Time for a re-read and a very satisfying read it was.

Now if you’ve only ever seen the very inferior film version put it out of your mind and find the book. And when I say find the book I really do mean find the extended version published in more recent years, rather than an early edition or the film tie-in edition. You can usually tell the one you want by the fact that it has an author’s preface by Higgins.

The more recent editions give the text as Jack Higgins actually wrote it. Higgins had published a number of thrillers under various names before this breakthrough novel. When he presented the idea of “The Eagle is Landed” his publisher commented that it was the “worst idea he’d ever heard of.”

But Higgins persisted. The first edition was butchered during editing, with whole scenes and characters cut. This is why I suggest buying a later edition where Higgins has restored the book somewhere nearer to his original intentions.

Not for the first time, a publisher has been proved wrong. “The Eagle Has Landed” proved to be an immediate bestseller, first in America and then everywhere else. By the mid nineties, when my copy was published, Higgins could remark – no doubt with some glee – that his book had sold 26 million copies and been translated into 55 languages.

The plot is relatively simple. Following the rescue of Mussolini from Italy by Otto Skorzeny, Hitler demands to know why his secret service, the Abwehr, can’t bring him Churchill out of England? The head of the Abwehr, Admiral Canaris, instructs his operative Max Radl to produce a feasibility study. As Radl progresses he finds that the task could actually be accomplished.

The plot soon takes wing: Radl finds that Churchill will be visiting a lonely village in Norfolk for a quiet weekend. Furthermore, the Abwehr has a spy in the village, a seemingly respectable mature lady called Joanna Grey. He sends in a skilled IRA gunman, Liam Devlin, to assist her ahead of the kidnap attempt. To carry out the mission he finds a disgraced paratrooper Colonel Kurt Steiner and his men to parachute into Norfolk and then…

I’ll leave it there, for this is so good a thriller that you need to read it for yourself.

Now if all of this sounds like common thriller material you couldn’t be more wrong. By the time he wrote “The Eagle Has Landed”, Higgins had learned a great deal about his craft. This is not just a thriller but a terrific novel full stop, written by a writer at the height of his powers. It always irritates me that, certainly on this side of the Pond, we have an awful snobbery about genre fiction. Thrillers and their like are somehow considered to be inferior to many other kinds of novel. And that’s a pity for some of the finest writing is in that genre.

“The Eagle Has Landed” becomes superior to the many similar war thrillers because of the tremendous characterisation. For a start it was written at a time when war thrillers abounded in Britain, where the Germans were portrayed – usually – almost as cartoon villains.

Higgins has said that he wanted to write about good men fighting for rotten causes. We see the horrors of the Nazi regime here, but we are also shown how people get caught up – for good or bad – by the march of history.

Max Radl, is a disillusioned war hero, slowly dying of wounds sustained on the Russian front. Kurt Steiner had been disgraced for rescuing a Jew from the Warsaw Ghetto. Joanna Grey, the Abwehr’s enemy agent in Norfolk, is being torn apart by her love for England and her hatred of the English, because of her experiences in the Boer War. Liam Devlin is a member of the IRA who’s become tired of some of the methods used to achieve a united Ireland.

Devlin is the star turn of the novel. (Higgins uses the character again at different ages in other books). He is by the English definition an Irish terrorist, though a very questioning terrorist. He is a poet who starts the book lecturing in English literature at the University of Berlin. He remains loyal to his cause throughout, but deeply suspicious of everyone else’s. This character is portrayed with such depth, integrity and understanding that any writer of literature would be glad to own him. Devlin stays in your mind a long time after you close the pages.

“The Eagle Has Landed” has one of the best openings of any thriller, with Higgins himself, as a character, visiting Norfolk in the 1970s; gradually uncovering the truth about what happened there in 1943. This beginning is a wonderful example of just how an opening chapter should be, each sentence drawing the reader further and further in. You’ll learn more from studying it than you would from a hundred text books or writing courses.

While the idea of Nazis arriving undercover in an English village is not new – it was first contemplated in an exciting film called “Went The Day Well” made during the war – Higgins was the first to portray the situation fairly from all sides. And to include an IRA gunman as a hero, well an anti-hero I suppose, in a thriller written at the height of the Troubles of the 1970s was a particularly brave move. Higgins moved the thriller genre on by providing a greater depth of understanding. Thriller writers have benefitted ever since.

The film version might pass an hour or two on a wet afternoon, but it shows none of the subtlety of Higgins’ writing. Whole sections of the book are lost and one major character is not there. Michael Caine’s Steiner looks as though he’s wandered in from some other film, Jean Marsh’s Joanna Grey is good but far too young. Larry Hagman’s American Rangers Colonel is a bit like JR Ewing doing his war service. Only Donald Sutherland as Liam Devlin comes close to the literary original. (Incidentally, Caine was originally supposed to play Devlin, but apparently thought that portraying an IRA soldier might be a bad career move. The late Richard Harris had a go as well, before the director decided on Sutherland). The direction of the film is unimaginative and some of the dialogue is occasionally risible.

“The Eagle Has Landed” deserves a more intelligent remake, perhaps as a mini-series where some of the depth of Higgins’s original could be explored.

But if you enjoy thrillers – certainly if you’re thinking of writing one – do read or re-read “The Eagle Has Landed.” Jack Higgins is a master of the craft.

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Death Walks In Eastrepps

Death Walks In Eastrepps by Francis Beeding is one of the most famous detective novels from the Golden Age and deservedly so. Published in 1931 it is an early example of what we would now call a serial killer plot. Don’t let this put anyone off. It is no more gory than Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders which came out a year earlier.

Francis Beeding was the pseudonym of two interesting writers John Palmer (1885-1944) and Hilary St George Saunders (1898-1951). They wrote over 30 detective novels and thrillers together as well as individual works and other collaborations.

The setting is based on a thinly-disguised Cromer in Norfolk, which is still a small seaside town of great charm. Eastrepps in the novel is a select resort, home of genteel spinsters and retired Colonels. A pretty town of fishermen and cliff-top villas, tennis courts, tea-rooms and tamarisk hedges. The story begins in July with the summer season at its height.

The novel is filled with fascinating detail of summer at the seaside in the early thirties. The East Coast Revellers are appearing at the theatre, featuring minstrels, “men with blackened faces carrying banjoes and girls in white pierrot dresses.” Eastrepps is gay with playbills, sunlit and safe. “Young men in blazers and grey flannels, accompanied by young women in white pleated skirts and brilliant jumpers, swarmed in the streets and on the sands.”

As the murders pile up, the atmosphere changes to one of fear and suspicion, the streets empty by dusk and the theatre dark. The white-haired gentlemen of the hastily formed Vigilance Association patrol their beats, armed with mashie niblicks. Holiday-makers flee, boarding-house bookings are cancelled and their owners fear ruin. The press descend on the town and questions are even asked in the House. Chief Inspector Wilkins of the Yard is sent to take over the case.

The sense of terror permeating the resort is extremely well realised. In a particularly effective passage we share the final moments of the sixth victim, from the creeping sense of menace in the warm night streets to the terrible realisation that he is face to face with the Eastrepps Evil.

If Death Walks In Eastrepps has a flaw, it is that eventually it is fairly easy to work out the identity of the murderer. In a sense this is partly because the novel was written eighty-odd years ago. We crime fiction fans have read so many cunning plot permutations that we’re a highly suspicious bunch. The authors here use a device that we’re more likely to consider these days.

At the time of writing, plot twists we now take for granted were being newly thought up to surprise the readership. When The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd was published in 1926, its astounding conclusion caused a literary sensation. Sadly there’s not much new under the sun for us now – which is why we value so highly, a crime novelist who can pull the wool over our eyes.

And even if the canny reader guesses whodunit, there is much more to come. A gripping court scene is followed by an exciting denouement with further revelations. The motive of the murderer is interesting and unusual. The novel delivers a really satisfying and thought-provoking finish.

Death Walks In Eastrepps is a wonderful classic, not to be missed.

Every summer Cromer stages the last end of the pier show surviving in the U.K. These variety performances were to be found throughout the summer season on every pier in Britain. They’re part of our seaside history and great fun. It’s good that the tradition is kept going and in such an attractive setting.

By the way we’re currently writing the final chapters of a detective yarn set in a seaside resort in 1930s Sussex.

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Arthur Ransome’s “The Big Six”

When boats are being mysteriously cast adrift on the Norfolk Broads, suspicious eyes are turned on Bill, Joe and Pete, the three young sons of boat-builders. The three boys have to call on the help of their friend, doctor’s son Tom Dudgeon, and visiting fellow birdwatchers Dick and Dorothea Callum to nail the culprit.

On the Norfolk Broads (c) John Bainbridge 2015

On the Norfolk Broads (c) John Bainbridge 2015

“The Big Six” is a 1930s set detective story for children, which means that adults can enjoy it as well. It is, of course, one of the famous “Swallows and Amazons” novels by Arthur Ransome. It is a thrilling tale of suspicion, chases, subterfuge and social comment.

It is the direct sequel to Ransome’s “Coot Club”, which has the same Norfolk setting and characters. In that book, Tom Dudgeon has to set loose a boat to save a bird’s nest – hence the local people’s belief that members of the Coot Club are responsible when lots of boats go adrift a few months later.

Are they guilty, or is someone trying to blacken their good name? This is a wonderful page-turner, and quite an amusing homage to 1930s detective stories.

Ransome was a fascinating character; after years of apprentice work as a hack writer in pre-Great War London, he went to Russia to study its folklore and story-telling traditions. He became a first-hand witness to the Russian Revolution, played chess with Lenin, and came away married to Evgenia, a jolly young lady who just happened to be Leon Trotsky’s secretary. He was probably a spy as well.

Settling, at various times, in the Lake District, East Anglia and London, he became an acclaimed feature writer and the author of the children’s novels about the adventuring Swallows and Amazons. Those children don’t actually appear in “The Big Six”, though there are links through their friends Dick and Dorothea Callum.

The novel, though set at the beginning of the ‘thirties, was first published in 1940 – a time when the very survival of the United Kingdom was questionable. The first readers must have perused its pages against the background of air-raid sirens, perhaps huddling in shelters against the falling bombs, or as young evacuees sent to safety in remote areas of the countryside. By that time Norfolk itself was part of an armed camp, soldiers on the march, airfields being constructed, fighters overhead and members of the Home Guard preparing to repel Nazi parachutists. Looking back a decade to a quieter England, must have been quite a relief to the book’s early fans.

A Heron at Horning (c) John Bainbridge 2015

A Heron at Horning (c) John Bainbridge 2015

The book, like its predecessor “Coot Club” is Ransome’s love letter to the Norfolk Broads. He writes quite beautifully about the countryside there. Years later, when I was an undergraduate at the nearby University of East Anglia, I used to journey up to Wroxham or Horning and hire a little boat and explore these same waters. The Broads are one of the delights of England. I was inspired very much by my childhood reading of Arthur Ransome.

Ransome writes with wonderful veracity about the Broads at a most interesting time. We see the early effects of tourism and boat hire, but there is a beautiful portrait of an eel-sett at night, the activities of an old-style village policeman, pre-war boatyards, doctors, solicitors and fishermen. More than a vanished world in so many ways. But the echoes are there if you go to the Norfolk Broads and look for yourself.

Norfolk Broads (c) John Bainbridge 2015

Norfolk Broads (c) John Bainbridge 2015

Ransome is particularly good at defining the class system, that silly institution that still bedevils so much of British existence. It’s interesting that the doctor’s son Tom Dudgeon is only very briefly suspected of being the culprit, even though he has form for casting off boats in the previous novel. But Bill, Pete and Joe, working class sons of boat-builders, are immediately under suspicion and persecuted in ways they wouldn’t be if they were perceived to be higher up the social scale. You can sense Ransome’s impatience with the class nonsense all the way through the book.

Like all good detective novels, there are lots of clues, red herrings, a race against time and a thrilling denouement. And characters that leap off the page.

If you haven’t encountered Ransome before this is a good one to start with, though you might like to try “Coot Club” first, or better still read all of the Swallows and Amazons novels in the order they were written.

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