Tag Archives: Writing

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.










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‘Lonesome Road’ by Patricia Wentworth

 Lonesome Road (Miss Silver Mystery Book 3) by [Wentworth, Patricia]

Lonesome Road is Patricia Wentworth’s third ‘Miss Silver’ novel, published in 1939. I read most of these in my teens, then never re-read any until I came across this one recently in an Oxfam bookshop. I remembered liking Wentworth’s sleuth almost as much as Miss Marple and found that hasn’t changed.

The plot concerns Miss Rachel Traherne, a rich estate-owner with a strong sense of duty to her late father’s wishes and her extended family. She lives at Whincliff Edge, a large house situated on a cliff-top. It’s used as a second home by assorted relatives who come and go for free hospitality and the hope of hand-outs. A series of malign incidents make Rachel believe that one of her relatives is trying to kill her. Distraught with suspicion and fear, she consults Miss Maud Silver who had helped one of her friends.

At the writing-table sat a little woman in a snuff-coloured dress. She had what appeared to be a great deal of mousy-grey hair done up in a tight bun at the back and arranged in front in one of those extensive curled fringes associated with the late Queen Alexandra, the whole severely controlled by a net. Below the fringe were a set of neat, indeterminate features and a pair of greyish eyes.

In some ways Miss Silver has much in common with Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and might be assumed to be inspired by her but actually, Patricia Wentworth got there first. Miss Silver makes her debut in Grey Mask – albeit in a small rôle – published in 1928, two years before The Body In The Library. Their chief similarity is the ‘invisible’ quality of old ladies. Suspects and murderers overlook them, not realising they’re being keenly observed.

Unlike her famous contemporary, Miss Silver is a professional enquiry agent and lives in a flat in London. You get the impression she has a shadowy network of helpers to call upon to check background facts. Most business-like, Miss Silver makes lists of suspects, alibis etc. in her notebook. She has also had a previous career.

‘I think you had better call me a retired governess.’ Most unexpectedly her eyes twinkled. ‘And that need not trouble your conscience, because it is perfectly true. I was in the scholastic profession for twenty years. I disliked it extremely.’

In later novels, Miss Silver has a good working relationship with Inspector Frank Abbott of Scotland Yard, who sometimes sends her on a case. She is invariably found knitting a baby’s matinée coat or bootees. Her modus operandi when she’s detecting is to pose as a house-guest. A distressed gentlewoman who appears a harmless old lady, an attentive audience with a fluttery manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. As she remarks to Rachel Traherne:

I had some conversation with all your relatives. I find that the manner in which people behave to someone whom they consider quite unimportant is often highly illuminating.

In Lonesome Road, Miss Silver’s task is to prevent a murder – which makes a change from an early corpse. The pacing and tension is so effective throughout that I didn’t miss the more conventional plot. In a sense this trope is a forerunner of the woman-in-peril psychological thrillers which are currently so popular. Such novels invariably contain some love interest and that’s something I’d forgotten about Patricia Wentworth’s writing. Her murder mysteries contain elements of what we used to call ‘romantic suspense.’

There’s usually a happy-ever-after for the leading lady and often for a young couple who never really made it to the suspect list. Agatha Christie too, sometimes united an attractive young couple along the way. Being an old cynic, I don’t want romance getting in the way of the murder! That apart, I really enjoyed Lonesome Road.

Although out in 1939, there’s no reference in the novel to the gathering war. It’s set in a timeless interlude between the two World Wars and we’re never told which county we’re in. Patricia Wentworth must have had the south coast in mind as there’s a London Road in the area and characters can run up to ‘town’ for dinner. The atmosphere of the locale is very well done, especially near the climax of the novel when place and weather enhance the tension.

The characters are believable, unsympathetic ones being particularly well-drawn. Like most vintage crime fiction, this is worth reading for the social history alone, an interesting snapshot of how the pre-war British middle class lived.

Most of all I liked the vivid sense of fear and menace creeping through the story. Patricia Wentworth evokes a real feeling of danger, hatred and terror, especially in a pivotal scene and the exciting denouement. She was a very good writer and this is a terrific mystery. Miss Silver is interesting and a formidable ally. I’ll certainly be revisiting her again.


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‘Sleep No More’ by P.D. James

Sleep No More is the second collection of short stories by the legendary crime author P. D. James, published posthumously in 2017. I loved the earlier volume The Mistletoe Murder and Other Tales (2016) and hoped Faber would bring out another in time for last Christmas. Guaranteed best-sellers in slim hardbacks with stylish covers, it’s good that they’ll bring new readers to discover James’s elegant prose. (The British cover looks gorgeous but the American version is nowhere near as attractive as the first volume).Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales by [James, P. D., James, P. D.]

This title comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Subtitled Six Murderous Tales, there are two more than the first volume, though this time none featuring James’s serial detective Adam Dalgliesh. Though I’m not the greatest fan of short stories, much preferring the length and complexity of novels, these are some of the best I’ve read. Not a weak one among them, their standard is exceptionally high.

In addition to her writing, P. D. James had a long and varied career of public service. This included serving as a magistrate and working in the criminal justice section of the Home Office. In her memoir Time To Be In Earnest (1997), she mentions my fascination with criminal law. She explored the failings of the legal system in her Dalgliesh novel A Certain Justice, published the same year.

The stories here are linked by a theme of retribution and justice. Bad people may get their comeuppance but not through officialdom. We hear the dark thoughts of murderers – chilling in their ordinariness – and the testimony of unsuspected witnesses looking back many years. But does anyone really get away with murder? Killers, victims and bystanders are caught up in moral ambivalence and the ironies of fate.

Each story is like a masterclass in plotting, character and – as always with P. D. James – full of wonderfully evocative atmosphere. They’re also pleasingly varied. A classic Golden Age plot is set during a wartime Christmas, a black comedy reminded me of Roald Dahl’s Tales of The Unexpected. Without the space – or need – for the conventional structure of a detective novel, they feel as though James was experimenting and having fun. Along with her acute psychological insight, there’s an air of wry humour throughout. An interesting sidelight on an author known for the bleak tone of her novels.

Written from the 1970s to the 90s, Sleep No More is a superb set of stories that linger in the mind. It’s sad that there’ll be no more from one of the greatest ever crime authors. Few writers could evoke a sense of place so well.



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‘Vintage Murder’ by Ngaio Marsh

Published in 1937, this is Ngaio Marsh’s fourth novel and the first one set in her native New Zealand. This background adds a fascinating slant on a most British of plots – murder in the theatre – transposed to what would then have been termed life in the Dominions.

Vintage Murder (The Ngaio Marsh Collection) by [Marsh, Ngaio]

The novel begins with an impressively well-written first chapter. The suspects are introduced via one of my favourite tropes, a long-distance railway journey. Give me a steam-train travelling through the night and I’m hooked. All those possibilities for skullduggery with corridors and sleepers. The train here is particularly interesting with viewing platforms and a mountainous, switchback line.

Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn is on holiday and trying to keep his profession under his hat. Not easy when your cases get written up in The Tatler. He’s been offered a seat in a carriage occupied by a company of actors. The Carolyn Dacres English Comedy Company are touring New Zealand and on their way to the city of Middleton in the North Island. Ngaio Marsh explains in a foreword that she was no fan of fictional towns. But New Zealand had so few sizable places, if she used Auckland or Wellington, her local characters might have been mistaken for portraits or caricatures of actual persons.

Ngaio Marsh isn’t often remembered as a great descriptive writer. It’s probably fair to generalise that Golden Age writers tended to concentrate on plot and dialogue. Setting was often scanty. Well, Marsh also concentrated on plot but one of the many reasons I love her work is because she evoked a superb sense of place. She was equally at home describing London streets, the English countryside or her homeland. This is Alleyn on the train:

A violent jerk woke him. The train had slowed down. He wiped the misty window-pane, shaded his eyes, and tried to look out into this new country. The moon had risen. He saw aching hills, stumps of burnt trees, some misty white flowering scrub, and a lonely road. It was very remote and strange. Away in front, the engine whistled. Trees, hills and road slid sideways and were gone. Three lamps travelled across the window-pane. They were off again.

Throughout the opening chapter, I liked the way that the rattling, rolling rhythm of the train journey was interspersed between dialogue, making the reader feel truly in the scene. There’s a very visual feel to the writing, probably a consequence of being a renowned theatre producer.

The murder takes place on stage after a performance. A party is held to celebrate the leading lady’s birthday and a few guests outside the company are invited. These include Alleyn and a distinguished, Maori doctor. The build-up of tension is deftly handled and the murder method is worthy of Midsomer Murders. The unusual means of dispatch, popular in pre-war mysteries, are great fun. Ngaio Marsh often went in for a flamboyant slant on the murder method, possibly influenced by Dorothy L. Sayers? And if some of these wonderful writers’ ingenious ideas wouldn’t bear too close an examination, who cares? The play’s the thing..

I love a theatrical setting, it offers so much scope for being seedy and sinister. Ngaio Marsh writes about this world with an ease that can’t be faked. She acted herself and is credited with almost single-handedly reviving the popularity of New Zealand’s theatre. Not surprising that her characters are very believable theatrical types.

Alleyn is shown to be interested in and respectful of Maori culture, almost certainly echoing Marsh’s views. (Her name – actually her middle name – translates as ‘light reflected on water’ and a ngaio is also a small tree, native to New Zealand). Dr Te Pokiha is a most sympathetic character. This is surely the author speaking through her leading man:

Mr. Liversidge added that Courtney Broadhead was a white man, a phrase that Alleyn had never cared for and of which he was heartily tired.

Rory Alleyn cuts quite a lonely figure in Vintage Murder, writing to his side-kick Inspector Fox and coming close to falling for the leading lady. Until he meets his wife Agatha Troy, he has a weakness for actresses, shown in Enter A Murderer (1935). We’re told that Alleyn’s on extended leave for three months, convalescing from a serious operation, though we don’t learn the details. He’s going to be fine as he meets Troy on his voyage home in Artists In Crime (1938).

Vintage Murder is a very enjoyable read, a classic, closed setting mystery with a freshness from its vivid New Zealand background.

I’m usually dubious about series sequels/continuations by new authors – appalled by what’s often done to Agatha Christie’s legacy. But I will try Stella Duffy’s new novel Money In The Morgue, published in March. This continues the opening chapters of an Alleyn mystery which Ngaio Marsh began and put aside in 1945. Set in New Zealand during the war – Alleyn was already there in Colour Scheme (1943) and Died In The Wool (1944) – the surviving fragment is a delight.


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‘The Documents In The Case’ by Dorothy L. Sayers

Published in 1930, this is Sayers’ only novel not to feature Lord Peter Wimsey. While I don’t rate it as highly as the Wimsey stories – which I love – it was very enjoyable and I’m glad to have re-read it after many years.The Documents in the Case by [Sayers, Dorothy L]

The setting is the London suburb of Bayswater in 1928, where the Harrisons live in a tall Victorian house with their lady-help, Miss Agatha Milsom. When the story begins, their top floors are newly leased to two young men, an artist and an aspiring novelist. Harrison is a fussy, mild-mannered accountant – sounds perfect for a 1920s murderer – and his wife Margaret is much younger. She’s wonderfully described as a suburban vamp with lots of S.A.

As the title implies, this is an epistolary novel, not my favourite structure but it is addictive. No chapter breaks make it tempting to read just one more entry, which leads to many. I find the same effect when reading published diaries. I enjoyed seeing characters and events from several viewpoints, showing the vast inconsistencies in what we all call the truth.

The novel is divided in two parts and includes statements among letters. It reminded me of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, where a time period is pieced together and analysed in an attempt to unravel a mystery. It’s an effective means of hooking the reader. You’re formally challenged to play detective from the opening page.

We don’t know the nature of the murder for some considerable time – or we wouldn’t but for the blurb. While I understand the publishers’ need for hooks to tempt buyers, I wish they didn’t give away so much – one of my serial rants. I suspect the first readers in 1928 began knowing less about what was going on than we do today.

We are told early on that Harrison is an expert on fungi. Say no more – all keen Golden Age readers know what that means! A keen forager and cook, he’s writing a book on the subject, accompanied by his water-colour illustrations. Poisoning is a deliciously sinister method of dispatch. For a writer it’s full of possibilities, as devious as deadly, not requiring brute force or even the presence of the murderer. So handy for arranging an alibi and for the more squeamish killer. It’s worth noting that The Documents In The Case is Sayers’ following novel after Strong Poison.

One of the novel’s strengths is its lively characterisation, shown especially in Miss Milsom. In reality, how terrible it must have been to be a ‘lady-help,’ existing in an uneasy limbo between family and servant. Miss Milsom is engaged partly as a companion to Mrs Harrison. She sits with the family and is treated as a sort of distant relative but her duties include the cooking, which she does badly.

You could say Miss Milsom is a great positive-thinker, self-help books being as popular then as now. She busies herself in enthusiasms including handicrafts, littering the flat with her half-finished work. A letter to her sister explains:

I am experimenting on some calendars, made like the old-fashioned tinsel pictures, with the coloured paper-wrappers off chocolate creams. Some of the designs are simply beautiful.

Miss Milsom is also obsessed with sexual repression. It was fashionable at the time to read Freud, consult a ‘nerve doctor’ and worry about the state of one’s glands. Mental and physical health, exercise, faddy diets, dodgy sects and gurus were all popular preoccupations in the inter-war years. Though presumably not among people struggling with the Means Test and the Depression.

She consults these psycho-analytical quacks, who encourage her to attach an absurd importance to her whims and feelings, and to talk openly at the dinner-table about things which, in my (doubtless old-fashioned) opinion, ought only to be mentioned to doctors.

In several of her novels, Sayers satirises neurotic middle-aged spinsters seeking self-expression. Wickedly funny, though it could be argued her caricatures are unkind. It’s a mistake for us to read history through a filter of modern values. These were women who perhaps never thought of a career other than marriage and motherhood. And their best chance of happiness was lost on the Western Front.

You can sense Sayers’ impatience with foolish women who didn’t make a fulfilling life for themselves, above all with useful work. A glimpse of the theme she developed with Harriet Vane, culminating in Gaudy Night. At the time of writing The Documents In The Case, Sayers was working in the advertising agency which inspired Murder Must Advertise, a vivid portrayal of office life in the thirties.

The young artist and writer here are part of the London Bohemian scene which is a popular Golden Age setting, often Ngaio Marsh territory. Sayers uses this in parts of Strong Poison and The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club. A female character in The Documents In The Case contrasts with Miss Milsom as a level-headed, hard-working novelist, rather like Harriet Vane.

There’s a very good sense of place, both in the dull, respectable streets of Bayswater and when the novel shifts to the wild countryside near the Dartmoor village of Manaton. When we lived in Devon, this was one of my favourite parts of the Moor for walking. Sayers really captures the flavour of the landscape and its people. It’s a pleasure to read about passengers travelling the long-axed, country branch-line from Newton Abbot which climbs on to the Moor via Bovey Tracey. (Parts of the old railway line survive for walking).

Earlier editions credit Robert Eustace as co-author, though new editions have dropped his name, even from the front matter. This was the pseudonym of Dr. Eustace Barton, a medical doctor who also wrote thrillers. He suggested a crucial part of the plot and helped with the forensic side.

Overall, I don’t think The Documents In The Case works with the brilliance of a Wimsey novel. It feels expermental somehow and an epistolary form is bound to feel slightly disjointed. But the characterisation, atmosphere and a clever puzzle make it well worth reading. And as a glimpse of its time, the social detail of a vanished, pre-war England is invaluable.




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Leslie Charteris: Call For The Saint

Call For the Saint offers us two Simon Templar novellas (or novelettes as Charteris preferred to call them). The collected volume was published in 1948 and features two of the best post-war Saint stories. This was the last time Charteris used the novelette format, though it was revived by other Saint writers in the 1960s, around the time the Roger Moore television series aired.

In the first tale “The King of the Beggars” Simon Templar is in Chicago and takes to the streets and alleys as a blind beggar to investigate the mysterious individual who declares himself just that – the King of the Beggars. Not that this king is generous to people forced on to the streets. In fact, this king is running a protection racket, forcing street beggars to hand over most of what they have collected to him.

Templar is in alliance here with a feisty theatre actress, Monica Varing, who goes undercover herself.

The joy of the piece is Templar’s Runyonesque and extremely dim hoodlum sidekick Hoppy Uniatz, one of the happiest character creations in thrillerdom. Hoppy gives an added delight to the stories in which he appears. Here his ability to mouth out BB shot plays an important part in the yarn.

The second story, “The Masked Angel” is set against the world of fixed boxing bouts. Charteris captures the atmosphere of the ring rather well and we even have a climax where the Saint puts on the gloves himself – to the delight of the crowd.

The story is set in New York and re-introduces two well-known characters from the canon – Police Inspector Fernack, who shares the same love/hate relationship with Templar that Claud Eustace Teal of Scotland Yard enjoys. How frustrating it must be for well-meaning cops that they can never bring the saint to heel?

The other character is Patricia Holm, the Saint’s sometime girlfriend and partner in crime. This is one of her last appearances (she takes her final bow in Saint Errant published the same year, and she hadn’t appeared since the earlier The Saint in Miami).

Reading this story, you get the feeling that all is not well between the Saint and the delightful Patricia. He has his saintly eyes on another (unavailable) woman and Patricia isn’t very happy about it. In fact, there’s a real edginess between Patricia and the Saint in this one, as though both know that the writing is on the wall in a relationship coming to an end.

For me, the Saint is never quite the same when Patricia leaves, and I don’t recall there being any reason given for the breakdown of their relationship. If any Saintly readers know why Charteris decided to give her the elbow, please comment.

Call For the Saint is a wonderful read if you want a few hours of complete escapism, both stories are beautifully-written and full of atmosphere.

At the top of his form, nobody did this kind of story better than Leslie Charteris.


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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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‘The Dead Shall Be Raised’ by George Bellairs

The Dead Shall Be Raised is one of the many novels reissued, thanks to the British Library Crime Classics series. This is a lovely choice for Christmas reading, as it’s full of festive atmosphere. Published in 1942, this was George Bellairs’s fourth novel and the third published that year. It features his regular detective Inspector Thomas Littlejohn of Scotland Yard.

The story begins on Christmas Eve 1940, as Littlejohn stepped from the well-lighted London to Manchester train into the Stygian darkness of the blacked-out platform of Stockport. The feeling of Britain during wartime is evident throughout the narrative, beginning with a vivid account of journeying in a dim, shadowy railway carriage on an unknown branch line at night.

Inspector Littlejohn is on his way to be reunited with his wife. She is staying with an old friend in the north, after the windows of their London flat were blown out by bombing. His destination is Hatterworth, a town in the Pennines, surrounded by moorland. After missing the bus from the nearest station, Littlejohn is given a lift by a genial Superintendent Haworth, head of the local police. Hatterworth is full of Christmas spirit.

The night was still crisp and frosty, with stars bright like jewels. In spite of the black-out, there were plenty of people astir in the darkness. Sounds of merry voices, shouts of goodwill and here and there groups of boys carol-singing at the doors of dwellings and holding noisy discussions concerning the alms doled out by their patrons in between their wassailing.

There’s a delightful scene on Christmas night where a musical Superintendent Haworth is singing in a performance of The Messiah at the Methodist chapel, a big event for the town. Bellairs gives such an affectionate portrayal of a small community. Totally believable and full of charm, it’s like peering into the past. However effectively authors recreate a period setting, for me, nothing beats the writing of the time. It speaks to us across the decades. No worries about authenticity and research, the author was there.

And the past is soon making itself remembered in Hatterworth. The Home Guard are busy on manoeuvres on Milestone Moor.

The place was dotted with khaki-clad figures, running, leaping, stumbling, attacking, earnest in their mock-battling.

While some of the men are laying a trench, they find a skeleton. A generation ago, two local men were murdered nearby. The killer was generally thought to be known but never found. The old investigation is re-opened and with a Scotland Yard man on the scene, Littlejohn happily agrees to assist.

It’s a pleasure to follow the team’s intelligent, realistic gathering of evidence. Inspector Littlejohn is one of those determined, thoroughly decent policemen frequently encountered in pre-war crime fiction and the Hatterworth force are very well-drawn. Local knowledge proves invaluable as they question the witnesses still living.

Bellairs writes some lovely sketches of country folk. His characters ‘leap off the page’ and have a feeling of real figures recalled. They hark back to a bygone age of country writing with farm labourers, gamekeepers, poachers and tramps. I loved the descriptions from the wild moorland with its lonely inns to the town’s foundrys and iron-workers. His sense of place is superbly done.

If there’s any weakness in the plot, modern readers would probably point to a shortage of suspects – but this is such an engrossing read, that doesn’t matter. The story gradually becomes a how-do-we-nail-the-murderer? And how they do is very satisfying.

The Dead Shall Be Raised is fascinating for its wartime atmosphere. The detectives’ wives are busy knitting scarves and balaclavas for the troops. Even a local tramp has his ration-books and identity-card. Apparantly the author was working as an air-raid warden at the time of writing. A timeless rural community has been forced to adapt, stoically and cheerfully. It’s poignant for the reader to know that way of life will never quite resume.

The British Library Crime Classics edition is extremely good value as The Dead Shall Be Raised comes with another Bellairs title The Murder Of A Quack, set in Norfolk. Though short novels by today’s standards, they’re not novellas but full-length mysteries. There’s also the bonus of an informative introduction by Martin Edwards.

I’m a great fan of George Bellairs – the pseudonym of Harold Blundell (1902-82) – a bank manager and journalist who wrote over fifty detective novels. It’s pleasing to see his work readily available again and enjoyed by new readers. His writing has a real charm about it and this one is a perfect read for Christmas.




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Ngaio Marsh’s ‘Tied Up In Tinsel’

Tied Up In Tinsel is the twenty-seventh Roderick Alleyn mystery, published in 1972 and written when Ngaio Marsh was in her late seventies. I mention this only as there’s often a preconception that writers have their heyday and over the course of a career lasting several decades, their powers flag in their last few titles – something that’s often said about Agatha Christie. Like the majority of fans, I do prefer the earlier works of both authors for their period setting. Even so, Tied Up In Tinsel is a really good detective novel, working on every level.Tied Up In Tinsel (The Ngaio Marsh Collection) by [Marsh, Ngaio]

It always seems strange to me to read the late novels by a prolific author famed in the Golden Age. Here, a character mentions Steptoe and Son in passing, which seems out of place in Troy and Alleyn’s world. Though Ngaio Marsh and Christie, were – in a sense – seventies novelists too. I remember buying their last few novels when they came out.

The story begins as Troy – celebrated artist and wife of Superintendent Roderick Alleyn – is spending Christmas at an isolated country house. She’s there to paint a portrait of its owner, Hilary Bill-Tasman. (Alleyn is away on official business).

Halberds is a Tudor mansion, formerly owned by the Bill-Tasmans and recently bought back. It’s being restored by the wealthy owner after years of decay. Full of modern comfort and fine antiques, parts of the project are still in progress. Beneath Troy’s bedroom window is a ruined conservatory with a roof of broken glass. The gardens and grounds are a churned-up mess of earth, trenches and bulldozers. Grand plans are afoot for terraces, avenues and a lake. The house is on the edge of bleak moorland and its nearest neighbour descending in the valley is a prison known as The Vale.

It soon becomes clear that Halberds is no ordinary household. Hilary Bill-Tasman is attempting to turn back the clock and live in a pre-war style but there’s a strong sense of the author acknowledging the present day throughout the novel. There’s a wickedly accurate caricature of a young guest, full of contemporary slang and compulsive you knows.

All the servants at Halberds are male and every one a convicted murderer. As the host explains, you simply can’t get the staff these days!

There was something watchful and at the same time colourless in their general behaviour. They didn’t shuffle, but one almost expected them to do so. One felt that it was necessary to remark that their manner was not furtive. How far these impressions were to be attributed to hindsight and how far to immediate observation, Troy was unable to determine but she reflected that after all it was a tricky business adapting oneself to a domestic staff composed entirely of murderers.

I like the way in which Ngaio Marsh takes the evergreen trope of a country house-party murder and subverts the convention. The thought of a murderer preparing food, serving drinks and turning down the sheets is deliciously sinister. I’ve seen this same idea used in an American historical mystery written a few years ago. There’s some interesting discussion about the idea of ‘oncers’ being of a different nature than other criminals.

Troy is a delightful character, intelligent, kind, self-deprecating with a wry sense of humour. I especially enjoy the mysteries where she plays a part. As an artist, she’s a shrewd observer of the undercurrents and a great asset to Alleyn when he appears. I also like the portrayal of a happy, long-standing marriage, elegantly conveyed with sparing detail.

The other house-guests are a believably eccentric bunch, including the host’s business partner, his fiancée and endearing elderly relatives. They reminded me of Margery Allingham’s characters. Rory Alleyn and his faithful side-kick Inspector Fox are two of my favourite detectives. Alleyn is very well-developed throughout the thirty-two novels. It’s noticeable in this one that secondary characters are effectively summed up in a brief line of slight description – just as Troy is said to capture the essence of a personality in her portraits.

The murder takes a long time to happen with a series of unsettling incidents and a controlled building of tension along the way. When Alleyn takes charge, it’s absorbing to see how he sifts through the jigsaw of evidence and lies. The clues are fairly there, though hidden among some clever misdirection and the ‘reveal’ is superbly done.

The weather plays a big part in the novel. Heavy snow has fallen by Christmas Eve, transforming the landscape with its rubble and revealing any tracks. Lashing rain and high wind hamper the investigation and the wild night – shivering, drenched policemen in oilskins and gumboots contrasts with the luxurious Halberds, its stifling central heating and open fires. Tied Up In Tinsel is a great treat, perfect for crime fiction fans at Christmas.


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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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