Tag Archives: #Victorians

‘A Christmas Railway Mystery’ by Edward Marston

Recently published, this is the fifteenth in the historical crime series featuring Inspector Robert Colbeck, known to the press as ‘The Railway Detective’. Edward Marston’s murder mysteries are always enjoyable and it’s nice to have one with a seasonal setting. It’s a title I’d always find hard to resist.A Christmas Railway Mystery (The Railway Detective Series) by [Marston, Edward]

It is December 1860, Isambard Kingdom Brunel is recently dead and the mystery takes place in Swindon, Wiltshire in the workshops of his empire, the Great Western Railway. The body of a workman is found in the erection shed, where the huge locomotives are assembled. The head of the corpse is missing. No spoiler – this is revealed in the jacket copy. Inspector Colbeck and his steadfast sergeant Victor Leeming are on the case, racing against time – and not only due to the old trope of will they make it home for Christmas?

Colbeck and Sergeant Leeming are very likeable and Edward Marston includes some gentle humour with regular supporting characters. His people are realistic and clearly delineated. Plenty of suspects, all with feasible motives, make it hard to work out the murderer – something we crime fans want most of all.

Edward Marston’s knowledge and research make his mysteries very appealing. The theme of steam railways gives a terrific sense of place for fans of Victorian crime. Hard to think of a more atmospheric setting than a crowded, smoky terminus or a swaying compartment with leather straps and hat-boxes. The author keeps this series fresh with cleverly varied aspects of railway murder and readers can enjoy Colbeck’s mid-Victorian Britain knowing that everything they read is authentic.

The setting of A Christmas Railway Mystery is fascinating. Swindon was a rural market town – near the countryside immortalised by the great Victorian essayist Richard Jefferies – until overtaken by the GWR in the 1840s. It was chosen for its position – on the Wilts and Berks canal for transport and between London and the West Country. The market town became known as Swindon Old Town, once the GWR built their Locomotive Works and Railway Village for the workmen. The GWR’s land gradually became known as New Town and the mile or so of countryside between the two areas was filled, as sadly is always the way. Had Brunel never opted for Swindon, the town would perhaps be much smaller today.

Much of the mystery takes place at Swindon New Town, among the village terraces and shadowy corners of the coal sidings, locomotive sheds, machine shops and brass foundry. The Railway Village was built along similar lines to model factory villages like Saltaire and New Lanark, intended to cater for all the needs of employees’ lives. Homes came in different sizes according to position in the company, as varied as clerk, manager or blacksmith. The GWR built a church and chapel, pubs and an enlightened Mechanics’ Institute with an indoor market, entertainment, lectures, classes and the country’s first free lending-library. The workmen even had their own orchestra. (By the end of the 19th century, Railway Village also had its own health clinic and dentist).

The author evokes a claustrophobic community where residents must conform and the family of the murdered man will soon be evicted from their company home. The skilled workforce have come to Wiltshire from industrial areas and been poached from other railway companies. Strangers who bring conflict between factions and the inhabitants of the Old Town. A fraught setting for murder.

A Christmas Railway Mystery is one of the strongest outings for The Railway Detective. Darker in tone than some previous stories, it has a tense sub-plot for irascible Superintendent Tallis, one of our favourite characters. Already looking forward to the next one, I’m glad Edward Marston shows no sign of running out of steam!

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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.  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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Sherlock Holmes: A Scandal in Bohemia

A Scandal in Bohemia was the very first Sherlock Holmes short story, published in the July issue of The Strand Magazine in 1891 and collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes the following year. Holmes and Watson had made their first appearance in the longer stories A Study in Scarlet in 1887, and re-appeared in The Sign of Four (The Sign of the Four) in 1890. Neither of those two outings were particularly successful until the short stories took off in the Strand.

As a short story it is important because it presents a number of the tropes which become familiar to readers of the canon in subsequent stories – the initial consultation in Baker Street, the hospitality of Holmes’ housekeeper (though, presumably through error, she’s called Mrs Turner rather than Mrs Hudson in this story), the friendship of Holmes and Watson, the very characterful client – in this case the King of Bohemia, Holmes’ use of disguise, and the emotional coldness of the detective’s character.

It also features the character of the opera singer and courtesan Irene Adler who, although she only actually appears in this one tale and rates only brief mentions in several more, casts her shadow over the canon.

For, as the opening line of the story tells us “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.” As Watson points out, there are no feelings of romantic or sexual love in that comment. Holmes is asexual in every sense of the word and I get a bit peeved when modern re-interpreters try to imply otherwise. And just as well – Holmes with romantic feelings simply wouldn’t be Holmes.

There are several other comments about Holmes’ character in the tale, which establish further the characters established in the two longer stories. Almost at the beginning we hear Holmes’ admonition to Watson “you see, but you do not observe” – a sentiment presented in various forms throughout the canon. “It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data”. Another warning to Watson, who also presents Holmes as “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has ever seen.”

Several candidates have been put forward as possible inspirations for the King of Bohemia, including the then Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII  – who certainly led a Bohemian lifestyle – and the Crown Prince of Germany, later Kaiser Wilhelm II.

I rather tend to the thought that Doyle had the Prince of Wales in mind. It would certainly make more of the suggestion that Irene Adler, an opera singer born in New Jersey, is based on Edward’s mistress Lily Langtry, known familiarly as the Jersey Lily (as in Jersey in the British Channel Islands.)

The plot is basically very simple – you might care to read the story again before you read further here.

Irene Adler was the mistress of the King of Bohemia when he was still the crown prince. She has in her possession a compromising photograph and letters produced during their liaison. The King is now engaged to marry a princess from Scandinavia,who comes from a particularly puritanical family.

Believing that Irene is obsessed with him, he fears that Irene Adler might use the photograph and letters for her own ends, which could undermine the settled order of the European monarchies, he commissions Holmes to recover the items.

Interestingly, he is prepared to pay Holmes a considerable amount of money for his services and provides a handsome advance. A reminder that Sherlock views his role as a consulting detective as a profession. Elsewhere, in The Problem of Thor Bridge, Holmes categorically states that “my professional charges are upon a fixed scale. I do not vary them, save when I remit them altogether”. Which isn’t quite what happens in A Scandal of Bohemia.

The joy of the piece, for me, is the portrayal of Irene Adler. We get our first intimations of her character from Holmes’ notebooks, which portrays her professional character, and then from the King who describes her as “an adventuress”. Given the King’s predilections in the same directions, there is considerable hypocrisy there, though it is of course the sentiments of the time.

As it turns out, Irene Adler has moral scruples that the King of Bohemia could probably never imagine. At the end of the story she acts with a morality and sense of fair play which makes her a much worthier person than the wretched and dissolute monarch.

Furthermore, she is a worthy opponent for Holmes, and shows him a respect equal to the regard the detective comes to have for her. She is never the villain of this piece – only its heroine.

I’ve always been impressed by the Granada television version of the tale, starring Jeremy Brett – the first in the series to be broadcast, though not actually the first one filmed. (They filmed The Solitary Cyclist first as as shakedown episode). David Burke was a very fine Watson and Gayle Hunnicutt a superb Irene Adler.

 

 

 

 

 

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Victorian Thriller on Sale

My Victorian thriller Deadly Quest is on sale for Kindle readers for just 99 pence/cents until late next Monday night. Just click the link below to have a look and to start reading for free…

This is to mark the fact that I’m now writing the third book in the William Quest series – it doesn’t have a title as yet. Unlike the first two books, which were set in London and Norfolk, this one is set in the winding streets and ginnels of York.

And – as Quest has never been to York before – this puts him at a considerable disadvantage as he faces menacing new foes.

I’ll let you know how the writing goes. Hopefully, the book will be finished by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t started the series, do seek out the first two books The Shadow of William Quest and Deadly Quest

They are also both out in paperback as well. And free to borrow on Kindle Prime.

Just click on the links below:

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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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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 the same again…

A Seaside Mourning was written as a stand-alone, then an idea came 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 being written. This one takes them to Scotland Yard and should be out by summer 2018.

A Seaside Mourning is on sale on Kindle this week for just 99 pence/cents.

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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 Third William Quest Novel

I’m now writing the third book featuring my series character William Quest, which hopefully will be out at the end of the year. Quest will find himself a long way from London fighting against new enemies and even greater dangers in York, one of England’s oldest cities.

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York Minster which plays a significant part in the new Quest novel

In the London novels (see below) Quest had the advantage over his enemies of knowing every street and alley. But York is new to him, so he’s disadvantaged from the start. And it is in York’s winding medieval streets and snickets that he faces a particular and menacing foe.

As York is one of our favourite places, I’m very much enjoying setting a book there. It’s a wonderful setting for a mystery adventure.

If you haven’t read the first two books in the series, do please click on the links. They’re both out in paperback and on the Kindle eBook reader for your smartphone, Kindle or laptop – just download the free app when you order the books. And if you have read the books and enjoyed them, I’d really appreciate it if you would leave a quick review on the Amazon sales pages.

Leaving reviews helps all Indie Authors stay in business and keep writing. 

Please do tell your friends and fellow readers. Word of mouth is the very best form of advertising.

 

 

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Our Victorian Murder Mystery On Sale

A Seaside Mourning is on sale this week on Kindle for just 99 pence/cents. We thought we’d reblog this piece on the background to the novel. Please click on the link on the end of this blog to start reading or to order. It’s also available in paperback.updated-seaborough-picture-no-people

A Seaside Mourning is set in the fictional town of Seaborough, a small resort in Devon. The plan was to think hard about coming up with a suitable name. However around the same time we were researching John’s family history. When we found that one of his ancestors had the unusual first name of Seaborough, it seemed exactly right.

In the novel Seaborough is in East Devon, an area often overlooked by holiday-makers who travel to the better-known parts of the English Riviera and the South Hams. It is a timeless landscape of rounded hills, old hedgerows, meadows and heaths; villages with thatched cottages and a few quiet seaside resorts. Their railway stations and branch lines are long gone.

The unspoilt coastline has red sandstone, zig-zag cliffs gradually fading to chalk near the county border. Together with the neighbouring county of Dorset, they make up the Jurassic Coast, Britain’s first Unesco natural world heritage site. We know the area well from walking the old footpaths and exploring the villages of my forebears. One of my ancestors was a Victorian police constable, probably much like the ones in the story.

Walk through the streets of any British seaside town, trace back the architecture and you’ll most likely find the beginning was a fishing village. The rise of the seaside resort – offering buildings and entertainment designed to attract tourists – gradually began in the eighteenth century. At that time the concept of an annual holiday for the masses didn’t exist. The wealthy tended to travel abroad on the classical Grand Tour or over-winter on the Continent. Working people had neither the money nor paid leisure to explore new places.

From the mid-1700s physicians began questioning whether sea-water might have healing properties similar to those of spa water. An enterprising Sussex physician Dr. Richard Russell set up a house for patients in the fishing village of Brighthelmstone in 1753. ‘Taking the waters’ at inland spa resorts was fashionable and money was to be made from rich invalids – and hypochondriacs – so there may have been some self-interest involved!

Dr. Russell published works on the rejuvenating powers of sea-bathing and drinking salt water, claiming his treatments cured enlarged glands and all manner of ailments. As well as swimming, his patients were immersed in baths of salt water and encouraged to ‘promenade’ in the sea air. This quickly became prevalent medical opinion.

Just as today, landowners and speculative builders were quick to spot a business opportunity. Scarborough on the coast of Yorkshire had the best of both worlds. Mineral water had been discovered there in the early seventeenth century and they had a flourishing spa by the beach. Wheel out the bathing-machines and the town was well-placed to develop into England’s earliest seaside resort.

Villages along the south coast in particular offered a mild climate and an easier journey from the capital. They began to throw up lodgings suitable for well-to-do visitors. Theatres and assembly rooms were built, promenades and sea-front gardens laid out. New resorts advertised their picturesque scenery, carriage tours and health-giving benefits.

Jane Austen satirised this new enthusiasm in her last unfinished novel, Sanditon. Interestingly Reginald Hill did a witty take on Sanditon – one of his lovely literary jokes – in his Dalziel and Pascoe novel A Cure For All Diseases. Sidmouth in East Devon is a possible contender for Austen’s Sanditon, though several resorts also fit the clues. It’s most likely that Jane Austen was thinking of more than one place. The Austens enjoyed holidaying along the Channel coast. Their stays at Lyme Regis in 1803 and 04 famously inspired part of the setting of Persuasion.

Fashion played a part in putting a watering-hole on the map. When George III’s physicians recommended he try the sea cure in 1788, he chose the village of Weymouth on the Dorset coast. Liking its sheltered sandy bay, he returned many times, making Weymouth one of England’s oldest seaside resorts.

His son, later the Prince Regent, vastly preferred Brighthelmstone, nearer London. Under his patronage it expanded rapidly to cater for his younger and wilder set. It has never lost its stylish and racy reputation. The spelling changed to suit its pronunciation and a new saying became widespread. The wealthy patient often tried the cure of Doctor Brighton.

Some towns started out as the vision of a single developer. In the 1780s a wealthy merchant called Sir Richard Hotham bought up land around the Sussex fishing village of Bognor. He intended to design a purpose-built resort modestly named Hothampton and entice the King away from Weymouth, making himself a second fortune. George III never obliged and the town reverted to Bognor soon after Sir Richard’s death. He did leave the townspeople several fine terraces and a splendid park.

New resorts received a boost to their fortunes when the Napoleonic wars closed the Continent to travellers. Prosperous invalids and people living in seclusion often settled by the sea in smart new villas for the gentry. Lady Nelson came to live at Exmouth in East Devon, after Nelson’s association with Lady Emma Hamilton became public knowledge.

Hunstanton features briefly in our Inspector Abbs novella A Christmas Malice, set just after his case in Seaborough. This West Norfolk resort came about as the scheme of one man in 1846. Henry Le Strange, an architect and local landowner built a hotel on an empty headland as the flagship of his new town. A typically enthusiastic Victorian ‘entrepreneur’, he gathered investors to fund a railway line from King’s Lynn to his planned site, which was named after the nearby village of Old Hunstanton. It took another 16 years before the railway arrived and further building work began.

Many resorts can date their growth to the arrival of the railway. It became the custom for middle-class Victorian families to send their children to the seaside with nannies and nursery-maids. The first pleasure pier had been constructed at Ryde on the Isle of Wight, as early as 1814. Almost a hundred more followed, mostly in England and Wales. The Bank Holiday Act of 1871 gave workers four days off – five in Scotland. On Whit Monday and in August, railway companies laid on ‘Bank Holiday Specials’ for the day-trippers pouring into popular resorts. At last accessible for the pleasure of ordinary working people, the seaside resort as we know it today had arrived.

In A Seaside Mourning, Seaborough is expanding. It is autumn 1873 and the town has its railway branch line. New houses are going up and some businessmen are keen for a pier and other amenities to be developed.

Many of the characters are ‘on the make’, jostling for more money and social position. Some are fighting for security in a precarious society shadowed by the workhouse. Even Inspector Josiah Abbs is not safe. This was an age when policemen were not considered gentlemen. A detective was treated by the well-off as a distasteful necessity, an embarrassment who should call at the tradesmen’s entrance.

Abbs cannot summon suspects to interview if they are his social ‘betters’ and he must catch a murderer without making enemies. Dismissal without a reference is always a threat. He and his young side-kick Sergeant Ned Reeve, though very different characters, are both outsiders in Devon. They don’t quite know what to make of one another yet but they’re determined to solve the case somehow…

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