The Sandringham Mystery: launched at two stellar events

The Sandringham Mystery was published by Bloodhound Books on April 19th, just after the Easter break. The Bloodhound jacket is brilliant – I’m delighted with both it and the support I’m getting from the Bloodhound team. They even sent me an inscribed mug to celebrate the publication date – a first in my experience!

I feel extremely privileged to have been invited to speak at two events very shortly after the book came out. First was the Deepings Literature Festival, where I gave a talk in the Oddfellows Hall at Market Deeping on April 29th to a very lively and engaging audience. I was so happy to be able to speak at the festival at last – I had been scheduled to make my debut there in 2020, but COVID intervened. Astonishingly, since I grew up in Spalding, which is only twelve miles away, I’d never been to Market Deeping before. (I know Deeping St Nicholas well – my great aunt lived there – and I visited Deeping St James as a child – with my father, whose job included dropping in on sugar beet farmers.)

I know of several Oddfellows Halls in Lincolnshire and, as the name has always intrigued me, I looked it up. The name ‘Oddfellows’ was first used in the early eighteenth century, but their practices were much older – the movement derived from the mediaeval guilds and there are even some suggestions that its roots lay in ancient Rome. The Oddfellows were – are? – akin to the Masons, but the two groups have always preserved distinct identities. They were/are certainly not peculiar to or especially relevant to Lincolnshire (though someone no doubt will correct me on this!) and, since they seem in the past to have had strong links to Roman Catholicism – they were keen supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie – their strong Lincolnshire associations are surprising. The county is more renowned for its championship of Wesleyanism than Catholicism.

The Oddfellows Hall in Market Deeping turned out to be a very hospitable place. I was grateful that so many people chose to attend the event – the hall was packed – and to stay behind to talk to me afterwards. Huge thanks to Linda Hill and Jenny Spratt for organising and promoting it.

A warm welcome from Linda Hill at the Deepings Literature Festival
Jenny Spratt, always supportive of the DI Yates novels

Five days later I was welcomed to the library at Papworth Everard, where I was honoured to take part in the first author event there since the COVID lockdowns of March 2020. This was attended by another large and lively audience, including at least two fellow authors. We managed to discuss many topics, including the relevance of government crime statistics, the importance of place in crime fiction, how to plan a novel and how authors use real crime stories for inspiration while at the same time being careful not to cause distress by depicting the real-life victims. Huge thanks again to Nicola and Terri, who put in an enormous amount of work to make this a success.

It is great to be back on the author circuit again. I’m certain that many other authors feel the same. This will be the best year we’ve had since 2019 – the magic created, as always, by wonderful readers and audiences. I’m hoping to take part in many more events as the spring turns into summer. If you are running a library, a festival or a bookshop and think I can make an interesting contribution, please do let me know.

The Sandringham Mystery and some personal memories of places and people with a part to play in its creation

When I was a child, the motor car was the ultimate status symbol. Families aspired to own one and felt they had ‘arrived’ when the car did, however shabby or humble it might be.

Our next-door neighbours, Harry and Eileen Daff, were the first in our street to bring home a car. Theirs was a forties Morris with running boards which looked as if it belonged on a film set, but that made it yet more glamorous in the eyes of the local children. The Daffs went out for Sunday afternoon rides in their car. Mrs Daff – ‘Auntie Eileen’ – was always promising to take me, too, but the invitation never materialised.

My father acquired our first car about three years afterwards, when I was nine. It was a two-door Ford Popular which we nicknamed ‘Hetty’. I can remember the registration number: it was HDO 734. Hetty, like the Daffs’ Morris, was not only second-hand but practically vintage. My father had saved hard to afford her and had still needed a loan from my miserly – but loaded – Great Uncle David to complete the purchase.

Great Uncle David lived – indeed, spent his every waking moment – working in the convenience shop in Westlode Street which he had inherited from his parents despite being their youngest son, presumably because he had scoliosis and was considered ‘delicate’. My paternal grandmother kept house for him. They were only a short bike ride away.

My mother’s mother, however, was the paid companion of a very old lady and lived in Sutterton, nine miles distant, which meant that in pre-Hetty days visits had to be accomplished by bus. It was usually she who visited us, invariably spending the morning of her day off shopping in Spalding and then walking to ours for lunch. Post-Hetty, we were able to make more frequent visits to Sutterton. However, I was still sometimes allowed to travel there alone on the bus. It was nearly always on a damp, foggy day when the sun never broke through the Fenland mists.

The house she lived in was the house I have called Sausage Hall in The Sandringham Mystery. It was a big, gloomy red-brick house in considerable need of repair. Sometimes she occupied the breakfast room when she had visitors, but her natural habitat was the kitchen with its adjoining scullery, in both of which roaring fires were kept burning night and day throughout the winter months. The kitchen fire had a built-in oven in which she would bake perfect cakes. Lunch would be tinned tomato soup and bread, followed by a big hunk of cake. Cherry cake was my favourite.

Her employer’s name was Mrs James. My grandmother always referred to her as ‘the old girl’. Mrs James’s first name was Florence and she was one of a large family of sisters, the Hoyles, who had been brought up in Spalding in extreme poverty. One of the sisters still lived in what could only be described as a hovel in Water Lane and occasionally, after one of my visits to Sutterton, I would be sent round with cake or chicken. Miss Hoyle never invited me in. She would open the door a few inches, her sallow face and thin grey hair barely distinguishable from the shadows of the lightless cavern behind her, and reach out a scrawny hand to take what I had brought, barely muttering her thanks before she shut the door again.

My grandmother, also the eldest of a large family of sisters, despised the Hoyles. Mrs James was not exempt. My grandmother’s father had been a farm manager, employed by a local magnate. He was a respectable, hard-working man of some substance in the community, unlike the allegedly feckless Mr Hoyle. According to my grandmother, Florence had ensnared Mr James with her pretty face, but that did not excuse her humble beginnings.

Florence, long widowed, had taken to her bed, for no other apparent reason than that she was tired of the effort of getting up every day. My grandmother delivered all her meals to her bedroom and sometimes sat there with her. When I visited I was expected to call in to see her before my departure. I never knew what to say. She would extend a plump, soft white hand from beneath the bedclothes and offer it to me. I’d shake it solemnly. Once, when I’d been reading a Regency novel, I held it to my lips and kissed it. She was momentarily surprised – I saw the gleam of interest in her eyes before her spirit died again.

Mrs James’s sons, both middle-aged gentlemen farmers, also performed duty visits. My grandmother and I were expected to call them ‘Mr Gordon’ and ‘Mr Jack’. In The Sandringham Mystery, Kevan de Vries, head of the de Vries empire, has his staff call him ‘Mr Kevan’. I lifted the idea from my experience of the two James brothers. I was about nine when I met them and could identify condescension when I encountered it.

Hetty broadened our horizons immeasurably. Instead of going out for bike rides at weekends, we drove to local beauty spots – Bourne Woods, the river at Wansford, Barnack – and sometimes on nice days even further afield, to Hunstanton, Skegness and Sandringham.

Sandringham, the Queen’s Norfolk estate, consists of many acres of forest, most of which were already open to the public, though the house itself wasn’t. It was possible to visit the church. Both local people and visitors would wait outside the wall beyond the churchyard for glimpses of the royal family when they were in residence. I saw Princess Margaret once. She had the most astonishing violet-blue eyes.

I associate Sandringham particularly with the clear bright cold of Easter holidays and the drowsy late-summer warmth of blackberrying. The blackberries there were enormous and my brother and I would scratch the skin on our arms to ribbons trying to reach the best ones. Parts of the woods were deciduous, but the blackberries seemed to flourish in the areas where the pine trees grew, planted in squares and divided up by trails (‘rides’).  When I was writing The Sandringham Mystery, I remembered vividly a clearing in the woods that had been made by the crossroads of two trails. In the novel, it is here that the body of a young girl is discovered, the start of a police investigation that not only reveals why she was murdered, but also uncovers some other terrible murders that took place in the past, in Sausage Hall itself. The Sandringham Mystery is published by Bloodhound Books today. I hope you will enjoy it.

Fact and fiction; fiction and fact – and ‘faction’ and ethics!

I spent the weekend reading a novel (no, not the one above, which I’ll mention later) that described a series of events with which I am personally familiar, although they happened more than ten years ago and my role at the time was very much that of bystander – I didn’t know most of the facts until some years later. I emphasise the word ‘facts’ – I’m not talking about a lookalike situation here. I didn’t know there would be any kind of personal connection when I bought the book. It is by an author whose work I have read before – mainly in the form of journalism – and I was curious to know how she had shaped up as a novelist.

As I embarked on the novel and the narrative unfolded, I was stunned to realise that this was an undisguised account of those very events. The only subterfuge the author had used was to give the main characters different names – though names very much in keeping with the originals.  She didn’t, for example, rename a Charles ‘Sidney’ or a Joanna ‘Edith’.

The novel tells the story of a love triangle. The three protagonists are a married couple and the man’s colleague, with whom he embarks upon an affair. Nothing special about that – it’s one of the oldest plots in the world. Think Jacob, Leah and Rachel or Guinevere, Arthur and Lancelot. Think The English Patient. This novel’s uniqueness lies in the detail: the venue and circumstances of the lovers’ first tryst, the man’s family situation, the place to which he takes his by-now mistress for a holiday, his death by suicide. Yes, indeed – the man commits suicide, unable to extricate himself from the mess which he has made of his life. And my point is: none of this is fiction.

Let me wind back to my own very tangential participation in this tale. I have never met the author, who is the mistress in the triangle. I have also never met the wife. As far as I know, neither is aware of my existence. I knew the husband as a professional acquaintance during the last months of his life – although of course neither he nor I knew that they were. I had just set up a new freelance business and I was working on a project with him. Out of the blue, his PA called me and told me he had “died suddenly”. I didn’t know it was suicide until some years later, when I worked on another project with another of his former colleagues, who had by now moved to a different company. We talked about his death and she described to me more of the details that led up to it.

As a result, and belatedly, I am much more clued up now about the course of events than I was immediately after they took place; and what strikes me very forcefully is that most of what I have just read in this ‘novel’ is not fiction at all. Except for the passages that conjecture what the main actors were feeling (including the wife, who, unsurprisingly, is not portrayed with much sympathy until the end), it is a blow-by-blow, more or less verbatim account of what actually happened. It may very well have been cathartic – and even lucrative – for the author, but what about the emotions it will have triggered in the other players in the story, particularly the wife? How could she have felt when she realised the hugely distressing events that had changed her life forever had been dragged into service as ‘fiction’? What about the two sons, now young men, who were teenagers at the time?

I have asked these questions rhetorically, but I am genuinely interested to know what others think. I am aware that authors have sometimes been taken to court for writing about characters who bear too close a resemblance – or even the same name – as someone who exists. For example, the first printing of Richard Adams’ The Girl in a Swing (great novel if you don’t know it) was recalled after an acquaintance of his objected to his use of her name and he had to change the name. Conversely, I know some authors make fictional use of their own experiences but relate them to characters who are quite different from the originals. None of my own characters is recognisable as an individual who truly exists, though I have observed and written about unusual characteristics in people I know to make my characters more interesting.

When does something billed as fiction actually become ‘faction’ – and how much should an author be allowed to get away with, not just legally, but also morally speaking?

I have chosen not to name the title of the novel I’ve been discussing here or identify its author. I do not want to add more oxygen to the publicity it has already received. I don’t wish to sound sanctimonious, but reading this book has made me feel very uncomfortable indeed.

National Libraries Week

It is National Libraries Week (see Libraries Week). This is a great occasion for public libraries in the UK to showcase all their brilliant initiatives and demonstrate how much they do to support their local communities. Each year, National Libraries Week adopts a theme; this year’s is ‘Taking Action, Saving Lives’.

Given the unprecedented events of the last (almost) two years, it could hardly be more apposite. Like almost every kind of institution, public libraries here closed down for a few weeks during the first lockdown – and, like millions of people, I immediately noticed this left a big draughty gap in my life. Some people felt the loss much more acutely – both practically and emotionally, they really had lost a lifeline.

We were fortunate that most libraries continued to be resourceful, even in lockdown – my former school friend, Jane Barber, who works at Stamford Library, told me how she had quickly mastered how to run story-telling events and competitions online. Staff at the British Library searched their world-class collections to dazzle and entertain members with a stream of online displays and exhibitions and, as a result, I have discovered more about maps, newspapers, oriental art, Anthony Gormley, ‘killer bunnies’ and many other topics that I would otherwise never have explored. Wonderful as all these things were and are, it was with great joy that I received the notification on 17th August that the British Library Reading Rooms were open again – with no need to book. Long may that last!

I have written many times on this blog about how libraries have supported me and my books by inviting me to take part in readings and other events and, most importantly, by also finding great audiences to attend them. The last event I took part in – ‘The Body in the Library’ – was at Stamford in late January 2020. 

Stamford Library, January 2020

Shortly after that, Stamford and every other library in the country had to cancel events and shut their doors. As I’ve said, the libraries didn’t stay completely closed for long – they operated click-and-collect facilities, allowed patrons to enter in limited numbers and developed other ingenious stratagems to provide essential services. Events, however, remained untenable. First to disappear from the library schedule, they have also (of course with good reason) been last to be reinstated.  

I was therefore delighted last week to receive an invitation from Sharman Morriss, librarian at Spalding Library, to kick off its celebrations for National Crime Month by taking part in an event at the library on 4th November. Sharman and I had a call about it earlier today, during which she gave me total carte blanche over what form the event should take. So far, we have just agreed that it will start at 14.00 on 4th November and last perhaps for one-and-a-half or two hours. My editor and I will come up with a programme for it shortly and, after Sharman and her colleagues have approved, I’ll post more details about it on the blog.  If you’re in the Spalding neighbourhood on that day, I do hope you will find time to come! More than anything else since the lockdown regulations were relaxed in July, Sharman’s invitation has persuaded me that we’re back on the road to normality.

In the meantime, I shall scrutinise the National Libraries Week website avidly each day and celebrate the huge variety of events that librarians are sharing to celebrate it. Sharman said that earlier today she and her colleagues had welcomed guide dogs to Spalding Library. Other libraries are posting details about initiatives that support the housebound, prisons and mental well-being. There will be more as the week progresses.

I know I’ve said this before, so I hope you’ll forgive the repetition: Librarians and booksellers are the (largely) unsung but nevertheless peerless civilisers of modern existence. They deserve our support; we’d be lost without theirs.

Happy library memories: with Lynne and her lovely colleagues at Gainsborough Library

Love is the answer

I must confess I am not a connoisseur of ‘Young Adult’ (YA) novels. I was a student when everyone was reading Tolkien and Mervyn Peake, so they didn’t appeal, but at the time there was in any case no question of their being aimed at teenagers. They were books for adults – hip, trendy adults, the same ones who liked Monty Python. YA as a genre had yet to be invented. It still lay in the future when my son was born a decade later. And, although eventually I read to him ‘The Hobbit’ and the Narnia novels, they were not billed as belonging to the YA genre. As a bookseller, I was responsible for cataloguing fiction and the genre in which we placed them was firmly labelled ‘fantasy’. Fantasy was science fiction without the science. C.S. Lewis was considered ‘a good thing’ by the librarians who were my main customers because his novels were allegories of the Christian condition, but they bought the Narnia books for the under-twelves, not for adolescents. I’ve read Steinbeck, of course (but long before some of his works were hi-jacked from mainstream adult and appropriated as YA), and I’ve read and enjoyed some of Philip Pullman’s and Jacqueline Wilson’s books, but there my acquaintance with YA ends.

Or, ‘had ended’. This summer, I read a book called ‘Love is the answer’ which took my breath away. Its publisher, QuoScript, classifies it as YA and, although I would agree that this is the primary genre to which it belongs, I’d also say it is a ‘crossover’ book, i.e., one that holds appeal for all readers from the age of twelve onwards.

‘Love is the answer’ is the debut novel of Ben Craib. It’s about loss, grieving, going off the rails and, above all, the value of love in all its true forms – love of parents, love of friends, legitimate love of self. It distinguishes between these ‘pure’ forms of love and the false and destructive love that springs from self-doubt, spiting former partners by shacking up with a ‘rebound’ lover and using an unsatisfactory relationship to bolster self-esteem. This makes the novel sound sombre and moralistic, but in fact it is the opposite – vibrant with some of the best dialogue I have ever read, extremely funny in a sitcom kind of way and lyrical without being precious.

‘Love is the answer’ tells the story of Scarlett, whose mother has died of cancer by the time the novel begins, though she appears in some flashbacks. Scarlett, who has clearly now arrived at the angry part of the grieving process, is reluctantly (and badly) keeping house for her father, who is himself floundering in grief. Although he clearly loves Scarlett, he shows it in all the wrong ways, coming across sometimes as heavily dictatorial as a Victorian papa, sometimes ridiculously over-indulgent (because he doesn’t want to lose his daughter) and always as out of his depth emotionally as Scarlett herself.

Other important characters include Elliot and Bad Ben, Scarlett’s two college friends, whom she all but abandons when she meets Hayden, her first proper boyfriend, and Jennifer, Scarlett’s father’s new girlfriend, a slim, elegant ballet teacher who seems to hold all the cards when Scarlett herself holds none. Scarlett resents Jennifer and rejects her genuine concern. She does not recognise the deep affection in which she is held by Elliot and Bad Ben. She fights against her father’s protectiveness and instead throws in her lot with Hayden, believing that she has not only found her soul-mate, but, through nurturing their relationship, the solution to all her predicaments.

That’s certainly enough of the plot, though I’ll just highlight a few of the other riches within this poised and light-of-touch but very accomplished novel.  First of all, the characters: all the leading ones are complex and self-contradictory – at times, noble and brave; at times, absurd and cowardly. Ben Craib is a master of characterisation, a gift which he extends to the minor characters, too. My favourites among these are Cenk, the thuggish Cockney/Turkish owner of Scarlett’s local convenience store, and Mikey Miles, the ageing, pathetic – but extremely wealthy – pop star whom Scarlett and the other residents of Hayden’s squat treat as a sort of demi-god. And the sub-plots are fascinating: Ben Craib wears his knowledge lightly, but he is clearly expert on  contemporary music and – more originally – superheroes, the comics in which they feature and the strange fantasy world which their fans inhabit. Ironies abound, some so subtle that it takes two or three readings to recognise the nuances in the masterfully constructed narrative. As I’ve said, Craib also has a natural ear for dialogue. I won’t elaborate further – I’ve said my piece. I do encourage you to read this book, whether you identify as a YA reader or one of more mature years, especially if, like me, you have always thought the YA genre is divided between ‘Frozen’-style fantasies and gritty, if hackneyed, works about modern teenage angst. ‘Love is the answer’ has so much more to offer than this, to readers of any age. It is the novel that has persuaded me never to pass by the YA sections in my local bookshop in future. There may well be other masterpieces hiding there! And I look forward with impatience to reading Ben Craib’s next book.

The Physics of Grief

It is my privilege to have received an advance copy of The Physics of Grief, by Mickey J. Corrigan. Mickey is an author whose work I have long admired, someone who brings wisdom, humour and gracious writing to both the mundane and humdrum grind of daily life and to the truly horrific events that occasionally engulf human beings. This book is published today, April 22nd 2021, by QuoScript.

The Physics of Grief is classic Mickey. The protagonist of the book, Seymour Allan, is initially only a semi-likeable character to whom the reader is drawn – if at all – by sympathy for his situation. He is living in a retirement complex because poverty, rather than old age and infirmity, has made this a necessity. He is broke; he is lonely; he is full of self-loathing; and he lives alone, save for a stray cat he has adopted. (Note from a cat lover: few characters in novels who love cats are entirely bad.)

Seymour’s luck changes when he is accosted in a café by the mysterious and enigmatic Raymond C. Dasher. For me, Dasher is the most intriguing character in the whole novel. Is he even a real human being? There clings about him something of the supernatural, reminiscent perhaps of Hermes Diaktoros, the “fat man” of Anne Zouroudi’s crime novels set in Greece (surely intended as an earthly manifestation of Zeus?), who comes and goes like the Cheshire Cat, or of the shade of the grim reaper who lurks in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, having a voice but never a physical presence.

But Raymond C. Dasher is both corporeal and articulate. He’s not particularly likeable, either: he has a dangerous sense of humour that verges on the cruel and he treats his employees – or perhaps I should say employee, because Seymour never meets any of his colleagues, another puzzle – with casual if paternalistic contempt. Nevertheless, the poverty-stricken Seymour does agree to become an employee of Dasher, as a professional griever (apparently this is genuinely a way of making a living in several countries today – not entirely surprising, as paid mourners, or ‘mutes’, were a definitive part of the grief landscape in Victorian Britain, too). 

Corrigan has great fun while portraying Seymour at work, as he uncovers the back-story behind each of the deceased who, without being able to muster a respectable number of personal mourners, has left cash to pay to plug the gap at the funeral with “extras”. And whose funerals are they?  You’ll be enmeshed!

However – and with a few hiccoughs at the start – Seymour begins to take it all in his stride… with what effect on himself? And how is he personally affected? What lies in his back-story? Corrigan’s skill plays delicately with the reader’s reactions to this man.

Funny, sad, ambiguous, profoundly philosophical yet grounded in the reality of the everyday, extremely erudite about the customs of death (but wearing its erudition lightly), The Physics of Grief is a hauntingly beautiful novel about people and why they do what they do – until they die. And Corrigan also manages to suggest without any hint of religiousness, that even then – perhaps – death is not the end. This is a crime novel with a labyrinth of twists, its originality breath-taking. If you are looking for a mesmerising book to read this spring, you can hardly do better than to invest in The Physics of Grief.

And so ‘De Vries’ breaks free from lockdown!

De Vries, my latest novel, is published today. It makes a more tentative entry into the world than my other books, emerging cautiously, like us, as the lockdown restrictions are gradually relaxed… and I  must say I can’t wait to visit some bookshops next week! Not being able to go to bookshops and talk to booksellers has been one of the greatest privations of this latest lockdown – for thousands of others, I know, as well as for me. Unlike all my other books, therefore, De Vries cannot be launched in a bookshop. However, Carla Green and Alison Swainson at BBC Radio Lincolnshire have kindly offered De Vries a virtual book launch on the Carla Green programme today. If you are able to, please tune in at 15.10, with your glasses charged! There are some library and bookshop events planned for later in the year and I’ll keep everyone posted.

De Vries has already been blessed by several kind and perspicacious reviewers who read it ahead of publication date. I include some of their reviews in this post. I’d like to thank you, Stacey, Mickey and Jane, for taking the time and the trouble to write such brilliant reviews. I appreciate them hugely.

I also include some photos of the Sakura (cherry) blossom, sent to me by my friend and colleague Katsunori Iino, who lives in Shiga, Japan. The ancient Japanese Hanami ritual celebrates the fleeting beauty of this blossom of a species of ornamental cherry. The ancient Japanese sages compared the precious short-lived splendour of these flowers with life itself and believed both should be enjoyed to the full before they slip away. I hope they’ll bring the readers of this blog some calm and joy as we all begin to embrace life to the full once more – and we shall, I’m sure, still find plenty of time to read!

Reviews of De Vries

From Stacey Haber:

I loved this book. A quick read and intriguing from start to finish.

It’s not your typical murder mystery in that it doesn’t open with a dead body and the central character sleuth. It opens with a mystery, just not the one we’re expecting. If you’ve not read its predecessor Sausage Hall, then you’re greeted with a man who knows he’s at risk and in a place he shouldn’t be. You are immediately propelled to the edge of your seat and the tension of a good mystery stays with you from page one. If you have read Sausage Hall, then the mysteries of ‘why’ and ‘why now’ are all the more present and shocking. 

The web of characters in this story resonates with purpose. The introduction of the many characters takes the time deserved and the unfolding of the story is like a film camera slowing pulling back to reveal that web. It’s a glorious reveal in slow motion with rich detail and intrigue.

When the protagonist and side kick DI Tim Yates and DS Juliet Armstrong finally appear, it’s a relief; a relief that things will all become clear soon and that the characters that we care about have a chance of a resolution, even if not a happy ending. Yates and Armstrong are wonderfully pragmatic and determined. Armstrong in particular has a mind that is a joy to follow and an instinct for detail that would be lost on anyone else.

Can’t wait for the next instalment in the DI Yates series.

From Mickey Corrigan:

Hijinks at Sausage Hall: De Vries by Christina James

When Kevan de Vries returns to the family home in Sutterton, South Lincolnshire, he knows he is taking a huge risk. He’s wanted by the local police for questioning in the disappearance of his former employee, a man accused of running of a child trafficking ring. De Vries’ attorney, the manipulative Ms Jean Rook, has power of attorney in more ways than the usual. And there are some ghosts he must confront. His dead wife, for one. The missing trafficker. Not to mention some hundred-year-old skeletons the police dug up in the cellar.

There’s much at stake, but de Vries is bored living on the lam in St. Lucia, idling his time while avoiding extradition and waiting for his son Archie’s school recess. Thus, his return to ‘Laurieston House’ (which the locals call ‘Sausage Hall’, in reference to the butcher who went bankrupt building it) and the dangers it represents, the demons he must face. He’s also on a quest. Not to clear his name, but to discover its secrets. His birth certificate lists his father as “unknown” and de Vries is determined to fill in the blanks.

Agnes Price is worried about one of her young students from the seasonal workers’ camp. Mirela Sala is underfed, underdressed, and bears other signs of abuse when Agnes takes her under her wing. But Mirela’s scary “uncle” takes offense, which leads to violence and threats of more. Already stressed from a previous run-in with a stalker, Agnes struggles to maintain her composure while distracting herself with a project for the local Archeological Society. That’s where de Vries meets her – and rather quickly falls for her.

DI Yates and DS Armstrong, the likeable cops involved in the child trafficking bust, are back on the job. (If you are a Christina James fan, you will recognize these characters from the DI Yates series.) Drawn in by the possibility that de Vries is hiding out at Sausage Hall, they launch another one of their intuition based investigations, only to get sidetracked when a townswoman goes missing.

Will de Vries solve his paternity mystery before the law finds him? Will he be able to explain his legal troubles to Agnes? Is the child trafficker dead—or still in business? What will the Archeological Society dig up? And where did those old skeletons at Sausage Hall come from? Are there more?

Enquiring minds must find out, which is why I couldn’t stop reading. I greatly admire a writer who can lure me in with an addictive plot and make me fall in love with a motley group of well-drawn characters as she fits all the puzzle pieces together. I won’t say more as I don’t want to spoil your read. It’s a fun one by a master storyteller.

From Jane Barber:

Kevan De Vries has spent seven years living in St Lucia and has decided to return to his home in Sutterton. The police are still interested in questioning him about his business manager’s disappearance and involvement in  criminal activity. Kevan would prefer not to answer their questions so decides to travel incognito.

He needs to spend time at his old family home of ‘Sausage Hall’ to try and find out any information about his father. His mother and grandfather never would answer his questions.

Sausage Hall has a lot of secrets – is it about to divulge some more? And what connection is there with the crimes that DI Yates and his team are investigating?

I had wondered what had happened to Kevan De Vries – this time he is the one looking for answers and finding himself attracting unwanted attention. I liked the different narratives of de Vries and the police and found myself hoping he escaped safely back to St Lucia.

The local Lincolnshire settings are so well described and enhance the story so well. I can visualise all the places mentioned.

An excellent read.

Thank you once again, Stacey, Mickey and Jane, for such perceptive and tantalising reviews. I very much appreciate them.

May I wish everyone a rapid escape from the restrictions that the pandemic continues to impose and enduring good health and happiness thereafter.

Old houses: do they live their memories?

This is the third in the series of posts about De Vries.  It explores the role of ‘Sausage Hall’ in the novel, particularly whether the house itself can have influenced the course of events that take place.

Buildings fascinate because they are so much part of the era in which they were built – which means that, to a greater or lesser extent, almost everyone lives within some construct of the past. Buildings are also the backdrop to the events that take place within them. Can they remember these events, perhaps even absorb some quintessential miasma from them? It hardly seems fanciful to think so – such a belief is sometimes even embraced by officialdom. Thus, Gloucestershire Council in 1996, shortly after the conviction of Fred and Rosemary West, razed to the ground 25 Cromwell Street, scene of many horrific murders, ostensibly to stop souvenir hunters but also because its continued existence gave local people ‘the creeps’; and the council house where Myra Hindley lived with her grandmother and Ian Brady, where they murdered Edward Evans, was also demolished, though, curiously, only twenty-two years after Hindley and Brady were imprisoned. Manchester Council eventually found it impossible to let the house because successive tenants complained of a ‘dreadful sense of brooding’ there. Imagination or fact?

As a child, I visited Hardwick Hall – built by Bess of Hardwick, the ancestress of the Dukes of Devonshire – before it was taken over by the National Trust. Despite the famous adage ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall’, the house at that time was dark and chilly and neither very clean nor in a good state of repair. There weren’t many visitors on that day – I think it was in early spring, probably just after the house had been opened up after the winter – and I was dawdling behind my parents. They had disappeared beyond the top of the shallow-stepped stone staircase that led to the first floor by the time I began to climb it myself. I glanced back over my shoulder and saw that I was quite alone. I carried on up the steps – I was looking to my right at a large faded tapestry on the wall, apparently woven in greys and browns – when something brushed against my shoulder and my leg. It was soft, a fabric of some kind. In less than a second it had passed me. When I looked back at the foot of the staircase again, I caught a glimpse of a woman in a long, dark dress smartly walking away. Although subsequently no-one believed me, I was convinced that I had seen Bess herself. Had some essence of her survived, fostered perhaps by the sheer force of her personality? Had her spirit been left free to roam when her descendants decamped to the even grander house they built at Chatsworth? Since the National Trust took over the property, I have visited the house several more times, but never again felt any inkling of an uncanny presence there. Is that because in the process of undertaking much necessary restoration work, the National Trust has ‘sanitised’ it? (Like every other NT house, it now has a tea-room, a gift shop, cordons to keep you off the furniture and attendants everywhere.) Or is it because children really can see and feel almost imperceptible elemental forces that adults can no longer detect? I still don’t believe I imagined the whole thing.

When Kevan de Vries leaves Sutterton in a hurry at the end of Sausage Hall, he has come to detest the house, the location of some of the unhappiest events in his life. Even more sinisterly, he has discovered that it was the scene of much evil-doing in the past. Yet when he returns to it incognito seven years later, as well as his quest to discover his father’s identity it is the house itself that draws him. His fascination is in part empirical: he knows there is a large number of papers and artefacts stored within the house that are likely to yield clues about his paternity. But there is more to it than that: at some level, he feels that the house, scene of his childhood, youth and married years, carries a part of himself, however much he may have tried to deny it during his exile in St Lucia.

Perhaps that is the great collective secret shared by all buildings once they have been inhabited: like light years, they don’t just exist in the present, but within a continuum reaching right back to their foundation. They face both forwards and backwards: they absorb and are shaped by the loves, fears and hatreds of those who have occupied them. They have characters, sometimes charming, sometimes terrible. As they grow older, their personality changes: they possess their own powerful kind of DNA, incremental rather than fixed. They become companions, not just enclosures of living space. Kevan de Vries is the central human character in De Vries; but in every step he takes he is shadowed, perhaps even influenced, by Sausage Hall.

Identifying parents: deep-rooted desire or dismissible distraction?

As I said in my previous post, De Vries has three major themes: whether murder can ever be justified, why some people are prepared to risk everything to discover who their parents are/were and the secrets held by old houses.

Today, I’d like to take a closer look at the second theme. Why is it that a significant proportion of people who cannot identify their birth parents – such as those who have been adopted, or whose parents have been lost in war or some other catastrophe, or who have experienced the denial of parenthood by one parent (usually the father), or who are the offspring of a sperm donor or even who have been abandoned in early infancy – grow up with an insatiable desire to discover who their biological parents were, while others in a similar situation either display no interest in finding out or are actively hostile to the idea?

My first boss and his wife had three adopted children, each with different biological parents from the others. They were adopted in the 1960s, when adoptive parents had minimal contact with the biological parents and the latter had very limited rights. Adoption societies of the time made it clear that they were facilitating a ‘clean break’ from the natural parent (usually the mother) who had offered the child for adoption. Often the mothers were very young and coerced into giving away their babies by the demands of their parents and the disapproval of society as a whole. It was considered shameful to be an unmarried mother and the welfare state did little to help girls and women who found themselves in this predicament. The prospective mothers were often sent to unmarried mothers’ homes when they began to ‘show’. Spalding had such a home, Carisbrooke House in Haverfield Road. The girls who came to it were probably from other towns; similarly, Spalding girls would be sent to towns some distance away. Soon after the birth, the baby was adopted and the girls would return home as if nothing had happened – though the experience cruelly curtailed their education and there was little psychological support for the trauma of having had to relinquish the child. The headmistress of Spalding High School was considered to be very progressive for allowing one of my classmates to return to school after she had a baby. The year was 1969.

My boss’s two adopted sons showed no interest whatsoever in their biological parents. Like Kevan de Vries, they entered the family business at a young age and enjoyed the privileged lifestyle and well-heeled standard of living it offered. His adoptive daughter felt differently. She went to huge lengths to track down her biological mother and eventually settled in the USA, where her mother had emigrated, and changed her name to the name her mother had entered on her birth certificate. Despite having been brought up in a loving and affluent household, just like the two boys, she was never able to identify with the adoptive family.

During the same period, issues of parentage frequently became more convoluted, not to say dishonest, when the woman was older and married to a man who was not the father of the child. Divorce carried a stigma almost as powerful as unmarried motherhood, so few women would choose it; on a more practical level, most divorcees and abandoned wives were forced to live in penury. This was decades before British law changed and became almost always in favour of the woman if she had children and Britain became the ‘divorce capital of the world’. The alimony awarded by courts was usually meagre and little attempt was made to force defaulting husbands to pay.

A woman who bore a child whom she knew or suspected not to be her husband’s therefore commonly passed the baby off as his. Some husbands were complicit, knowing the child not to be theirs but still preferring to raise it as their own rather than end the marriage; others were genuinely taken in by the wife’s claims. As an adult, a friend suspected that the child of one of her neighbours was in fact her half-brother. The boy was small and fine-boned, with tight black curls like her own and those of her two siblings. The mother was a tall, heavily-built woman with fair skin and hair whose other children all looked like her. My friend later discovered that it had been an open secret in the neighbourhood that this boy was her father’s, but the woman’s husband had accepted responsibility for his upbringing and treated him exactly like the others.

In the 1950s and 1960s, some early efforts were made to identify fathers reluctant to acknowledge their children and make them contribute to their maintenance. Proving paternity was, however, largely based on the results of blood tests: it was possible to prove that a man was definitively not the child’s father, but, unless he had a very rare blood group, not to prove conclusively that he was.

The advent of the much more reliable DNA tests – though the earliest ones were not as reliable as claimed at the time – helped women to assert who the child’s father was, be believed and consequently obtain financial support, which became much more robustly enforced by the law than previously. Even more crucial, however, was the shift, from the 1970s onwards, in social attitudes towards parenthood. Gradually the stigma of being born outside wedlock was removed. More and more couples elected to have children without marrying and if they subsequently split up they were much more likely to agree on joint care – or at least joint financial support – for the children.

Kevan de Vries is fifty when De Vries begins.  During his lifetime, the whole spectrum of social attitudes towards children not born to a conventionally married couple takes place. Viewed in this light, it is perhaps not surprising that as a young man he is happy to have his mother and grandfather sweep the question of his paternity under the carpet, whereas in middle age he develops a burning desire to understand the identity of his missing parent, even at the risk of losing his liberty and physical contact with his own son.

A brief footnote: John and Limming were the first and middle names of one of my close relatives. His mother named him after her own eldest brother, who was gassed in the First World War, and the father who refused to acknowledge him. She was determined that he would carry his father’s last name in some form, even though it was denied to him as a surname. He spent his whole life hating it and would omit it from official documents whenever possible.

Justifiable homicide

De Vries, the ninth DI Yates novel, will be published soon. As I mentioned in a previous post, it is the sequel to Sausage Hall, although each can be read independently of the other.

De Vries sets out to explore several themes: Why do some people become obsessed with discovering the truth about who their parents are, even at the risk of putting themselves in danger or losing their liberty? Can murder sometimes be justified? And, perhaps a little more whimsically, can buildings hide secrets and even, in certain contexts, develop personalities of their own?

In a future post, I’ll take a closer look at the mystery of parentage. For now, I’d like to consider the second of these themes. Wishing to find out more about whether murder can ever be excused, I looked up the term ‘justifiable homicide’. Unsurprisingly, I discovered that in different countries there is quite a range of legislation ‘allowing’ murder (i.e., not prosecuting the perpetrator). Internationally, the most frequently invoked law is one that absolves the murderer of blame if s/he killed while fearing for her or his own life, or the life of someone else in the immediate vicinity.  In other words, the murder has been committed in self-defence. However, the precise definition of what legally constitutes self-defence is often unclear. For example, English law allows someone to exert only ‘reasonable force’ when defending property from an intruder, even if the intruder is trespassing in the middle of the night and the householder claims that s/he was terrified. The well-publicised case of Tony Martin, who shot dead a teenage boy and injured his twenty-nine-year-old burglar companion when they broke into his remote farmhouse in the early hours of one morning in the year 2000, remains controversial. Martin was convicted of murder, later downgraded to manslaughter. He served three years in prison before being released. Twenty years on, public opinion is still divided on whether he should have been convicted at all, but his conviction was the result of careful application of the law. The plea of self-defence therefore seems to depend on a number of factors, including the circumstances of death, how the law may or should be interpreted, the verdict of the jury if the perpetrator is taken to court and, finally, the views of the presiding judge.

Some countries allow or condone types of killing that others would not hesitate to regard as murder. Abortion and euthanasia are allowed by some western jurisdictions, condemned as murder by others. So-called ‘honour-killings’, while they may still be against the law, may attract lower sentences than other kinds of homicide in the countries where they are most commonly practised. (I take a closer look at honour killings in Rooted in Dishonour.) Perpetrators of ‘crimes of passion’ – i.e., murders committed in the heat of the moment, usually against a partner or spouse who has been caught ‘cheating’ or his or her lover – may sometimes be judged leniently, even sympathetically, especially in Latin countries, and a much-reduced sentence consequently handed down.

Whatever one’s stance on this, the logic that dictates that not all murders are equal when it comes to assigning culpability is not hard to understand, even though it is often controversial. But what if the murderer were under no particular pressure when s/he committed the murder? Would it make any difference to the degree of culpability in terms of, say, such a (possibly extenuating?) circumstance as being unexpectedly accosted – perhaps at home – by someone who might not have been at that moment an obvious direct threat, but who had previously inflicted personal – or close-to-personal – harm on him or her? And what if the victim were a totally reprehensible character with no counterbalancing virtues whatsoever? Could the case ever be made for letting the murderer of such a person go scot free, with his or her crime condoned or even tacitly approved by the authorities?

That was the conundrum I had to address when I started to write De Vries.

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