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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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A Dark Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine

Published in 1986, A Dark-Adapted Eye was the first novel legendary crime writer Ruth Rendell wrote under the pseudonym of Barbara Vine. The name comes from her middle name and her great-grandmother’s maiden name. In interviews, Rendell said that she wanted to differentiate these novels from her other work. They would explore the psychological motives behind crime in greater depth, particularly the secrets among families.A Dark-Adapted Eye by [Vine, Barbara]

In the introduction to a new edition, Val McDermid calls this the novel that changed the thriller landscape. A Dark-Adapted Eye is a whydunit, its structure unconventional, even among novels of psychological suspense. A compelling, enigmatic mystery that explores an old crime and a deadly accurate study of British mores in the mid-twentieth century.

The opening chapter is a master-class in fine writing. We know from the first paragraph that the narrator’s aunt is being hanged that morning. The reader is immersed in the tiny details of a home in the early 1950s as the clock ticks inexorably towards eight – the time at which British judicial hangings took place.

The layers of a rich and complex plot begin peeling back and it takes much of the novel to know who was murdered. (Or rather, that was clearly Ruth Rendell’s intention but I note new editions give away too much on the jacket copy). Readers were meant to surmise, even be fairly sure though not entirely so.

Faith Severn is contacted by a biographer who is writing a book about her aunt Vera Hillyard. This sets her on a quest of remembering, over a third of a century later, the childhood visits she made to the cottage in rural Essex. Home of her two devoted aunts, over-thin, nervy, scolding Vera and Eden, fifteen years her junior. Eden, only six years older than Faith, lovely to look at and domestically accomplished, became the young Faith’s role model.

The narrative deftly weaves between past and present as Faith reexamines her memories through adult eyes in an attempt to work out what was really going on. Her insights take us beneath the surface of a conventional English family through the War and into the early 1950s. A life of rationing and thriftiness, when respectability and conformity meant everything. No one ‘washed their dirty linen in public’, keeping up appearances mattered and few suspected what went on behind the starched net curtains. Ruth Rendell was superb at evoking that time, still within living memory, but a vanished way of life.

It seems to be hard for some people today to relate to how vastly attitudes have changed in Britain since the mid-twentieth century. Based on reviews I’ve seen, some readers view the plots of vintage detective fiction with today’s liberal attitudes and can’t understand how the strait-jacket of convention affected people’s lives.

The social history is part of my love for vintage crime novels and one reason I write historical detective fiction. I’m fascinated by a long-gone Britain with its plethora of motives for murder which no longer apply. Novels – perhaps especially crime stories – are as important as non-fiction at recording social history.

The narrative of A Dark-Adapted Eye is brilliantly constructed, often cryptic, gradually filling in the gaps in the reader’s knowledge. The story makes the reader question the nature of memory and interpretation. Memory itself is an unreliable narrator and can our understanding of events only ever be partial?

This is a novel on a slow fuse – which won’t appeal to everyone. Throughout a slow build-up, there’s a feeling of claustrophobic tension as Faith’s recall nears the crime. The characterisation is masterly and the ending ambivalent. Two alternatives are set out, almost as they would be in a courtroom and the reader is left to decide. Frustrating to readers who want a clear feeling of closure but much more true to life. A Dark-Adapted Eye is a novel for grown-ups and one that lingers in the mind.

I’ll leave the last word to another legendary crime novelist and old friend of Ruth Rendell. Couldn’t agree more.

This is a rich, complex and beautifully crafted novel, which combines excitement with psychological subtlety. I salute a deeply satisfying achievement – P.D. James

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