Today is the last day of June and therefore today’s is the last of my daily blog posts to celebrate Crime Reading Month. I’d like to pay tribute to the CWA for coming up with the idea of CRM and to the countless people who have supported it. I’d particularly like to thank everyone who has contributed to these thirty posts by providing so many magnificent insights and vignettes and for giving up their time so generously to help me. It’s impossible to pinpoint highlights – I feel as if I’ve been on a high all month! – although a few moments stand out for me personally. I was struck by Hannah Deuce’s comment that all writers are different, so she supports each one in different ways; by Natalie Sammons’ observation that if you write to please yourself, you won’t be disappointed ‘whatever the outcome’; and perhaps most of all by Frances Pinter’s description of Brexit in one punch-packing word: ‘frivolous’. Frances’ post was all about the importance of peace and how we should dread the danger of war that is looming once again; sadly, as we reach the end of this month, the conflict in Ukraine is no nearer to resolution than it was on 1st June.
CRM has given me some humbling opportunities to read or re-read some fine works of fiction: Snegurochka, by Judith Heneghan, and The Manningtree Witches, by A.K. Blakemore impress with their originality and fine use of language, but I have enjoyed all the novels that I have written about this month and am in awe of all their authors. In this, I include Annie, the only poet featured, whose stark poems about domestic violence bring home the enormity of it more vividly than any number of newspaper and court reports. I’d also like to pay tribute to those who have always supported me as a writer and continue to do so: Annika, Valerie, Noel, Dea and now, Hannah, please take a bow. I salute those who have dedicated their lives to supporting the bookselling and publishing industries: Richard, Nick, Lynette, Linda and, again, Frances and Noel. I’d love to be a member of Deirdre’s reading group – she and her book club friends seem to have such fun! And finally, I’d like to thank Betsy, Tara and Hannah for publishing The Canal Murders to the usual high Bloodhound standards; and I’d like to take the opportunity to apologise for (temporarily) having forgotten my own publication date!
As readers of this whole series of posts will know, I have been privileged to speak at four libraries during the course of the month. I have, of course, known for many years how much librarians bring to their communities, but when I met Helen, Kathryn, Tarina and Kay and their teams, their generosity, talent and tireless efforts to help people were brought home to me all over again. I’d like to thank them once more for their wonderful hospitality – and the equally wonderful audiences to whom they introduced me, each of which taught me far more than I felt I had to offer them. I now know about ran-tanning, the use of opium for Fenland agues and many more facts about life in Lincolnshire, both past and present, than when I started out. The library visits also gave me the opportunity to research some unsolved Lincolnshire murders, including that of Alas! Poor Bailey, my favourite. My encounter with the vicar of Long Sutton church will stay with me.
When I introduced this blog series, I promised to tell my readers at the end of it why I write about the Spalding of my childhood even though my novels are set in the present. I renew that promise now, but I hope you will allow me a short delay. It is because – as I mentioned earlier this week – I am currently on holiday in Orkney – in fact, sadly, my time here is drawing to an end; and while I am still able to imbibe the magic of this place I should like to introduce you to one of the island’s serial murderers – the great skua. Called “the pirate of the seas” or, in Orkney, “the bonxie”, this formidable bird – which appears not to be afraid of humans – hunts other birds on the wing. Today my husband and I watched spellbound as a pair of great skuas systematically chased a curlew through the soft blue skies and engaged above and around us in aerial combat with greater black-backed gulls. I came to Orkney for inspiration as a writer and I have found more here than I could ever have dreamed about.
As I prepare to return home and submit myself to the discipline of the keyboard once more, I should like to conclude by thanking everyone who has read even one of these posts. I do hope you have enjoyed them. There are more to come – I was surprised and grateful to have more offers from would-be contributors than there are days in the month of June. And of course I shall not forget my promise.
I leave you with a cheerful picture of one of Orkney’s denizens.
Sometimes you can go a longish stretch without reading a book that really amazes you – a book that fills you with awe, one that you can truly say you ‘love’. Then such a book comes along and the gratitude and pleasure that you feel is redoubled by the wait. Such a book for me is The Manningtree Witches, A. K. Blakemore’s debut novel and one of my spoils from this year’s London Book Fair. I read it early in May after many weeks’ fare of enjoyable, well-made and admirable books, none of which, nevertheless, quite reached the heights that this novel achieves.
The Manningtree Witches is classified as historical fiction, but it is as surely a work of crime fiction. It tells of the witch-hunts pursued by Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General, in the seventeenth century. It is a novel at once lovely and appalling, the world which it depicts a place of ingenuousness and sin, white magic and black magic, faith and cynicism. Blakemore weaves her tale in words that are elaborately rich and beautiful; the speech the characters employ is a brilliant reconstruction of the language of people who lived only a generation or two after Shakespeare, a serious and melodious tongue which sometimes conceals, sometime reveals the decadence at the heart of their society. It was no surprise to me to learn that Amy Blakemore is also a distinguished poet.
Rebecca West, the protagonist of the story and also its narrator, is a survivor. Clear-eyed and intelligent, she is capable of weighing shrewdly the characters and personalities of those around her – though she is not without her weaknesses, among which is her girlish infatuation for Master John Edes, the church clerk. Eventually Edes takes advantage of this, but he is too cowardly to acknowledge their intimacy. Rebecca is ahead of her time in understanding whence springs the muddled superstition that governs everyday life:
“I am not superstitious – I am useful. I have taught myself to watch and listen. I have seen enough suffering in my life to know that the diseased mind is prone to invent all manner of phantoms that might hover over a person. Better to blame a sprite or a puck for the souring of the milk or the tangles in the horse’s mane than to concede one’s own slovenly habits may have contributed to the situation.”
Rebecca’s intelligence shines out, making her superior to the other women in the novel, all of whom are seen through her eyes. Generally, the female characters, for all their coarseness and jealousies, are morally superior to the males, but also more vulnerable. The following short passage conveys the condescension and cruelty of Hopkins and John Stearne (“the second richest man in Manningtree”):
“At that moment Misters Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne emerge from the dock office across the way, lovely furs frothing at their collars in the spry wind and begin to pick their way along the road. They pass the women with a reluctant tipping of their hats, like crows’ sharp heads to a wound.”
There is also implied hypocrisy here, though Hopkins gradually emerges as a complex character, perhaps – but only perhaps – as deluded and vulnerable as his victims.
The Manningtree Witches is the best historical novel I have read since The Miniaturist (and that was published more than six years ago!). It won the Desmond Elliott prize in 2021. I am certain that Amy Blakemore, who is only at the start of her career as a novelist, will go on to win many more prizes and accolades. She is already one of the best novelists of her generation.
Natalie is one of my fellow Bloodhound authors. We ‘met’ on a podcast in April, when The Consequence of Choice, her debut novel, and The Sandringham Mystery were both published.
Q: What is the title of your novel? Briefly, what is it about?
A: The title of my novel is The Consequence of Choice. The book tells the story of the introduction of a ‘one-child’ law as a means to minimising the world’s ever-growing population. Fast forward ten years. Elspeth, the main character finds herself pregnant, which is illegal, and soon the police are on the case. The story follows four characters. Each has his or her own agenda: they either strive to help Elspeth or to catch and convict her.
Q: Why did you decide to write a novel in the crime genre?
A: I don’t feel that it was a conscious decision to write a crime-based novel. It suited the plot, allowing for suspense, twists and turns and drama to be woven into the story.
Q: How long have you wanted to write? And what inspired you to start writing this book?
A: I have always had a passion for books, but until I wrote The Consequence of Choice I was content to be the reader rather than the writer. It was only after I had my son that I first put pen to paper. I wanted to write a story for him. My ambition snowballed as my love for writing took hold. It is my first attempt at writing something other than children’s fiction.
Q: I know you are a nurse by profession and that you live in Sussex. Have you drawn on your knowledge of nursing, medicine etc. in the novel? Or on the local topography?
A: Like me, Elspeth is a nurse. A piece of advice I read early on in my writing journey was to ‘write what you know’. I felt that following this advice ensured that my novel had authenticity and allowed me to write with confidence. I drew on my nursing knowledge at times, although I was mindful that I didn’t want the text to feel too clinical. The locations depicted in the book are familiar to me. I wanted to be able to picture the places I was writing about.
Q: What do you find most challenging about writing fiction? And what do you find most rewarding?
A: Being able to weave a story which has the reader enthralled is the most rewarding part of writing fiction: knowing that the reader is as invested in the story as I have been. The main challenge always lies in creating a story which captures someone’s attention. I often worry that the plot isn’t moving quickly enough or is moving too quickly. Sometimes I feel I overthink how my writing will be received by my readers.
Q: How did it feel to see your book in print, when the first copies arrived?
A: It was amazing to hold that first copy in my hands. It felt like such an achievement to have created a piece of work which other people also believed in.
Q: Are you working on another novel now? If so (without giving too much away) can you say what it is about?
A: Yes, I am, although it may be put on the backburner soon as I am due to have my second child this summer. The plot of this book is quite different from The Consequence of Choice. It focuses on two characters who are each struggling with demons: one is challenged by a mental health issue; the other by a medical condition. For one of them, all is not as it seems. In facing up to what she has most been afraid of, her medical condition, she discovers that her path is inextricably linked with that of the other character’s.
Q: What do you like to read yourself? Are there other crime fiction writers you admire? Aside from crime writers, who are your favourite authors?
A: I will read novels in most genres. I am all about the characters, I want to be invested in their story. Regarding crime writers, I do enjoy Peter James’ books; perhaps this is because his books are set in and around Brighton, the city I grew up in.
Q: What would be your advice to struggling new authors just starting out?
A: I can only pass on that same advice: ‘Write what you know’. This will make your story real and enable you truly to picture what you’re writing about. Oh, and don’t give up. You should write because you enjoy it, because there is a story you’re burning to tell, then you will be rewarded, no matter what the outcome.
In a previous post, I described Agatha Christie as the ‘Queen of Crime’. This post features an interview with Dea Parkin, Secretary of the CWA, and the (often unsung) heroine of crime writers.
Q: Please describe your job. What does it entail? What do you like best about it? What do you find most challenging?
A: I’m the central point of contact for the CWA and co-ordinate all the different elements. I implement strategy decided by the Board and make day-to-day decisions on anything from website copy to competition process for the Debut Dagger and the Margery Allingham Short Mystery competitions. I liaise with members, external organisations and individuals, and the other officers and board members, as well as our hard-working admin and accounts departments. I’m the lead editor of the CRA Newsletter.
I enjoy the communication with our members, helping them with questions, benefit awareness and encouraging them to make the most of their membership. That’s very rewarding and it’s especially good to meet face to face, at the Daggers, Chapter meetings, festivals and above all the annual CWA conference.
I also enjoy encouraging would-be authors through the Debut Dagger competition and overseeing our Criminal Critiques service and carrying the torch for the CWA at events such as CrimeFest and Harrogate. There is a lot about the job I absolutely love!
The most challenging aspect is keeping up with all the emails, especially when there are big projects that need to be seen through, such as organising material for the AGM, proofing Dagger shortlists or writing reports. There is always more to do and my assistant, Fiona Veitch Smith, is invaluable, as is Joint Vice Chair Antony Johnston in particular.
Q: Why did you want the job? What was your inspiration? What was your previous job?
A: Well, I was asked in early 2016 by Martin Edwards, who was Vice-Chair at the time, if I could help out when the former director resigned. I’ve always worked freelance and had capacity at the time, and I’d been an associate member of the CWA through my editorial consultancy since 2012. In a past life, Martin had been a client of the PR firm I freelanced for and he knew a little about my organisational skills as well as my love of writing and editing – skills he thought the CWA might be able to use.
My editing work continues on days when I’m not working for the CWA and until the pandemic I also continued as a copywriter and marketing consultant for private companies. Working in the publishing industry was a dream come true; I feel I have finally found myself in the sphere I wish I’d discovered much earlier in my career.
Q: When you were appointed six years ago, you quickly transformed the CWA, which had perhaps been quite a fractured organisation previously. How did you manage to achieve this, and in so short a period of time?
A: I can take no credit for improvements the CWA has made in the last six or seven years or so. It’s been down to a board, comprising almost all volunteers, appreciating what needed to be done to make the CWA a cohesive and accessible organisation offering many benefits to all members. Membership has shot up since 2010 and it was a matter of putting a structure and people in place who could manage that growth and keep the CWA relevant and useful to authors, enhancing existing benefits such as the social networking through the Chapters and introducing new ones, especially online. This process continues as our dynamic Board find different ways of addressing this central issue, while always bearing in mind our responsibilities to crime writing in general, especially through the Daggers, and our members in particular.
Q: It seems to me that running an organisation for authors who, although they co-operate, are also essentially rivals, must bring its own peculiar difficulties. How do you manage to be equitable?
A: Interestingly, no crime writer I’ve met through the CWA has mentioned viewing their fellow writers as competitors. They generally appreciate that what helps one, helps all and that contributing to the popularity of crime writing, fiction and non-fiction alike, is a good thing for all crime writers. I have personally found the CWA to be a warm, friendly and welcoming organisation and the members delightful. I enjoy reading as many of their books as I possibly can! I encourage everyone to write articles for the CRA Newsletter and blog, and the CWA Debuts web pages, and love to help anyone who submits these or events for the websites. Yet my job is to help all members, whether they’re interested in those opportunities or not, and together with our excellent CWA team I’m very keen on doing exactly that, with everyone offered the same courtesies and friendly service.
Q: What are your future aspirations for the CWA? Where would you like it to be in the next two years? And next five years?
A: I’m not sure this is really for me to say, as it’s more for the board and the members themselves. I’d hope it continues to grow, attracting more members while offering a high quality of service to all. We appointed a PR company a few years ago now, Cause PR, and they have helped us to raise our profile within the industry, together with our hard-working Library Champions and Bookseller Champions. The stronger we are, the more good we can do for more writers.
Q: Are you a crime fan yourself? Do you have favourite crime authors? Outside the crime genre, who are your favourite authors?
A: I am a huge crime fan! However, this is where I prefer to be equitable, as you describe it, and not name any live crime writers. My tastes are very wide; I enjoy everything from historical mysteries to psychological noir, 1930s spy stories to cutting edge cyber thrillers. I enjoy a gentle touch of the supernatural. I grew up reading Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey and Ian Fleming and later Reginald Hill, Ruth Rendell and PD James. Nowadays my favourite-author list would spill over many pages and many CWA members feature there.
Outside crime, I love Hilary Mantel, Maggie O’Farrell, Paul Torday and Joanne Harris. Tolkien has always been a big favourite together with many of the classics, and Philip Pullman and Terry Pratchett books also have a space on my furniture and floors. (Bookshelves are inadequate to the book-holding task!) I buy history books and sometimes get round to reading them. Alison Weir and Helen Castor are amazing!
Q: A few personal details. What do you do to relax, apart from reading?
A: I live in Chorley, Lancashire, though I’m from Yorkshire and still get teased, Wars-of-the-Roses style, from friends at both sides of the Pennines. My other work as a developmental and copy editor takes up a lot of time, but I love helping writers to achieve their full potential. For leisure, I both play tennis and watch it on TV, which accounts for almost all my viewing, and I’m secretary of my local drama group. I write poetry, one-act plays and short stories, and struggle with several novels I dare show no one. Beyond tennis and stories, as a history graduate I don’t get more satisfaction than looking round a castle or historic monument, though rambling in the hills is something I could wish I had more time for. Next week I’m walking the Tolkien Trail with a book-loving friend, so that’s a perfect leisure combination!
Q: Do you have a message for struggling new crime writers who are just starting out?
A: Keep going. Take the time to learn your craft and develop a professional business approach too. Above all, enjoy your writing. Keep perspective.
Reading groups are some of an author’s greatest friends. They may be organised by libraries or bookshops, or just set up by like-minded people who want to explore books together. Modern technology means the members no longer have to meet in person, though of course it is much more fun when they do. Deirdre Watchorn tells the story of how her international reading group works.
Q: What inspired you to set up / join your reading group? How many members does it have? Did you all know each other already? Had you belonged to other reading groups previously?
A: The book group idea came from my Czech friend, Katka. Her husband is American and had been running his own book group for about three years… but with men only! Katka decided she would like to be in a book group and the only way to do this was to set one up herself. She then extended the invitation to me and various other women she knew, including a wife of one of the ‘men’s book club’ members (!) who was also jealous of her husband’s book club. None of us had been in groups before and didn’t know what to expect. We had heard stories of the men’s book club – that they stayed up until 4 am in the morning, sometimes discussing very heavy literature and drinking lots. But I don’t think any of us had any expectations in the beginning about what ours would be like.
The reason I joined is that I used to be an avid reader on my daily commute into town when I lived in London. But once I moved to Berlin and gave up work for a few years, I hardly picked up a book. My concentration was in pieces. I was intrigued to see if the book club could reignite my love for reading.
Q: I understand the members live in more than one country. How does the group operate? Do you mostly meet virtually? Do you meet in person?
A: Apart from during the pandemic, we always meet in person in Berlin at least every 4-6 weeks. The group is made up of one Czech, one Belarussian, two Germans and two Brits. We also had an American member, but she moved away from Berlin a few years ago. During lockdown, we continued to run our book groups over Zoom and it usually worked really well! Even our American friend, now living in Brussels, continued to join us for some meetings as a special guest! We have taken short breaks away together, with themed books to match. We have become such good friends over the past seven years. I love my book club!
Q: How do you choose the books you read? Is there consensus on this or do you take turns to choose? Do you ever really dislike the book that has been chosen? If so, do you continue to read it to the end? Do you always choose fiction, or do some of the books you read belong to non-fiction categories? Do you all buy the book selected? If so, is it usually in hard copy format or do you buy ebooks as well?
A: It’s a very democratic process. We each take it in turn to lead the club, in strict rotation! The person leading needs to come up with a list of at least five titles, email them to all members and then the members vote on which one to read. If there is a draw, we take a straw poll on WhatsApp. At the very first meeting we decided we’d read only fiction and we have stuck with that. The only thing we sometimes discuss in advance is what theme the books for the next book club meeting should be. That for me is one of the most exciting parts, deciding on a theme and then seeing which books are put forward.
Yes, we tend buy the books to read, in print, although sometimes we share books between us, especially if they are expensive – i.e., only just published or hard to get hold of in Berlin. One of our members works in a school library so there have been occasions where she has provided the books for us to read, which is helpful! We rarely read ebooks. One of the members will sometimes read one on her phone but I could never do that.
I am known for being the most critical of the books we read! It’s quite rare that I ‘love’ a book we have chosen. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy reading all the books and indeed that for me is the beauty of the group, getting to read things I would never dream of picking up otherwise – classics, for example. I almost always read a book to the end. It’s disrespectful to the author if you don’t. But I am also a very quick reader.
Q: How long do you allow to read a book? Is there a fixed time – e.g., one month – or do you vary it?
A: We aim to hold the group every 4-6 weeks, but it does vary. I’m a very fast reader, some others (no names mentioned!) less so. As many of the group are non-native English speakers, we have a rule that if a book is over 500 pages long, we mention this when making the selection, so people don’t get a nasty surprise when they buy it.
Q: Do you always read books in English, or are some of the books you choose in other languages as well?
A: We have always them in English, even if the books were originally written by German authors or authors from other countries. This means a lot of the titles which are suggested are from US and UK authors, but we are conscious of this and try to internationalise as much as we can.
Q: Is the group’s discussion about the book pretty much spontaneous, or do you suggest themes or topics about the book prior to your discussion? Do you ever use the sets of questions about the book that some authors include – either at the end of the book itself or on their own or their publishers’ websites?
A: We agree never to discuss the book before the meet up, even if we see each other beforehand. The person leading starts the discussion and we go around the table. To be honest, we have never used the questions at the back of the book. I don’t know why! Probably because we have never been short of ideas or things to talk about. Some of us will have done some further research on a topic online, to find out about the author or the story and we bring those discussions into the group. But there is no set format. Some of the group studied literature at university, so it’s always interesting to hear their observations. But my favourite discussions are those that lead into other topics about life, the world and everything. Our first book, The Circle, was very memorable, not because we liked the book all that much, but because it prompted huge debate about social media and the damaging impact it has had on our lives.
Q: Is there one book that stands out above others as the one the whole group really enjoyed?
A: It’s really hard to remember. I know many of us disliked Mood Indigo, a French classic which was just too random to follow. We all enjoyed Station Eleven, a story about the collapse of civilisation and the aftermath. And also the novel Blindness, which we read just before the start of the pandemic. Maybe that’s our book club’s main theme: death and the end of civilisation.
Q: What are your own favourite types of book? Do you like crime or other kinds of genre fiction, or are your tastes more literary?
A: I’m a big fan of contemporary American literature: authors like John Updike, Elizabeth Strout, Anne Tyler, stories with quirky characters in everyday settings. But I like to read a real mix. At the moment, I am reading Elena Ferrante, Damon Galgut and Marion Keyes. I read a lot of crime novels in my twenties and have not felt the urge to return to that genre since. But never say ‘never’.
Q: What advice would you give someone thinking of setting up a reading group? Do you have any advice for authors?
A: Just do it! Don’t mull over the format too much or what titles to read. The group will develop organically, reflecting the membership. But do ensure you do spend time talking about the book at each meeting! I know of book clubs that were more about the wine than the books and unsurprisingly they fizzled out. Talking about the book helps strengthen the relationships between the members, too. In terms of advice for authors, I don’t have any I’m afraid… and I don’t think they need any. Creating these amazing characters and worlds is more than enough for us (thankful) readers.
Readers are, of course, the most important component of an author’s life: without readers there would be no point in writing. There are, however, two kinds of reader. As well as the wonderful readers who pay authors the compliment of spending time on reading their books after publication, most authors also have personal – or test/beta – readers, who read the book on behalf of the author to make sure that it ‘works’.
I’m particularly fortunate in that Annika, my chief test reader, is German. Although she speaks English fluently, it is not her mother tongue. As she says, “I read every word because it’s a foreign language and otherwise I would not understand the full meaning of the sentence.” She proof-reads the books at the same time, and sometimes goes back and reads a passage twice because she has been struck by something odd about it. She checks for inconsistencies in the narrative, often double-checking with other passages in the book she’s reading and in the DI Yates novels that have preceded it. For example, in one of the early books she thought the timescale didn’t work, so she went back and took notes of all the events that were supposed to have taken place within a certain time period, to make sure they were feasible. “The characters did four or five things on a single day, before lunch! I remember thinking they had squeezed an awful lot in.” I altered the timescale of the events she mentions. She adds, however, that there have been occasions when the narrative didn’t seem quite right to her and then when she went back it was actually ok. She also checks practical details – travel arrangements, which flights go from which airports, whether the time it takes to get from A to B is doable.
Her favourite DI Yates novel is Fair of Face – “because it’s so unusual”, but she says she likes all of them, for different reasons. She reads more books in German than in English, because it’s more relaxing for her, but when she reads crime it’s mainly in English, because most crime fiction available in German is translated from English and she would rather read it in the language it’s written in. It takes Annika about two weeks to read one of my books, reading approximately two hours a day. She estimates that she spends about twice as long on them as an English reader would and probably a third more time than if she were just reading them for pleasure.
Annika usually reads the Yates novels in typescript and she checks details in previous novels from the typescripts she worked on originally, because it’s quicker for her. “I often think I should read them in print, to see what you made of my comments! They’re suggestions only, you’re bound not to agree with some.”
I asked her if she learns anything from them – do they, for example, give her a feel for what it’s like to live in Lincolnshire, a county that she doesn’t know well? She says the books do give her an idea of what the area I write about is like, but “I can’t tell if it’s realistic – in that if I went to live there, I don’t know if it would be like that”. (I don’t think it would – on the whole, I don’t write about people with a similar lifestyle to hers.)
She says that all authors should have a test reader to look out for inconsistencies. She adds that I’ve improved – she’s finding fewer mistakes in the more recent novels than in the early ones.
Annika’s own tastes in reading are eclectic. She likes Jan-Philip Sendker, a German author who has described evocatively what it’s like to be a westerner in Asia. “The quality of language when I’m reading in German plays a higher role for me than when I’m reading in English. But I don’t like high-flown or pretentious writing and, generally, not ‘classical’ authors – I don’t like Goethe or Schiller. For this reason, poetry often doesn’t ‘speak’ to me. I liked Der Schwarm, by Frank Schätzing, but I didn’t like his other books nearly as much when I tried them.”
There are exceptions to her preference not to read books in translation. “I really loved The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, which I read in German.” That is a point on which Annika and I can agree wholeheartedly!
So, without Annika, I’d miss out on a very shrewd aspect of the editorial process; my editor similarly values the fact that Annika’s unique skills and linguistic viewpoint work in tandem with his scrutiny and together they are a formidable team in support of DI Yates!
This morning I got up at 4 am, just as the day was dawning, rejoiced in the singing blackbirds, took a quick look at the BBC news – complete with midsummer celebrants at Stonehenge – and spent almost four hours facilitating a webinar featuring librarians from Australia and New Zealand. As you do, when you live at the wrong side of the world. 😉
By 9 am, all the librarians had signed off and I was looking forward to breakfast, but I could see emails in my Outlook and thought I’d read them first. (I can never resist that little yellow envelope symbol – it has encroached on my writing time on more occasions than I can remember.)
And there it was. A message from Hannah, the lovely marketing manager at Bloodhound: I just wanted to pop you over an email to say congratulations on your publication day for The Canal Murders! I hope you are able to find time to celebrate today.
Reader, I had forgotten the publication date of my own novel! Duh!
That doesn’t mean to say that I am not over the moon. I’m humbled, too: everyone at Bloodhound has been beavering away while I have been focusing on the Antipodes. Not that I regret that, but clearly I need to do some serious work on my multi-tasking skills.
As readers of this blog are aware, I have given several library talks recently. It has been striking how often members of the audiences have asked me how I got the idea for a particular book. What was the initial spark that started off the creative process? What triggered the gleam (or grit!) in my eye?
The Canal Murders was inspired by several separate events and discoveries. A few years ago – pre-COVID – I was asked to give a talk at the main library in Lincoln and had time beforehand to explore the beautifully restored waterways in the city. I’m interested in canals – I’ve taken several narrowboat holidays – and have read about the Fossdyke, the ancient canal originally dug by the Romans that connects the River Trent to Lincoln at Torksey; and because I’m interested in canals, I have also read about two murderers, one based in Yorkshire and the other in Greater Manchester, who have made use of the canal network to dispose of the bodies of their victims (I won’t identify them, as I have used aspects of their real-life crimes in the novel and I don’t want to give too much of the plot away). When I was thinking about this novel, I had also been reading about copycat murders and how their seeming lack of motive creates extra obstacles for the police when trying to track down the killer(s). Yet another theme came from some items of farming news in East Anglia at the time, about soil erosion and the need to take proper care of the land. This is also woven in.
The novel has a multi-layered plot, because there are several murders, each featuring a different type of victim. And the sub-plot – in response to requests from readers – focuses on DS Juliet Armstrong’s private life.
I hope that you will think this sounds intriguing. I rarely write about my own books on this blog, but perhaps you will forgive me on this occasion, as The Canal Murders has been published during Crime Reading Month, the focus of all my June 2022 posts, and it’s also been published on Midsummer’s Day. I can think of no more propitious date on which to launch a murder mystery. The gods will surely raise a cheer, awoken from their slumber as they have already been by the votaries at Stonehenge!
More to the point, Hannah has been cheering The Canal Murders, too, in her own quiet but indomitable and infinitely more practical way. Thank you, Hannah, for all your inspired work and for being a much better multi-tasker than I am.
As I mentioned on Friday, the talk that I gave at Sleaford Library was the last in my series of six talks about Murder in the Fens, four of which were prepared to celebrate National Crime Reading Month (NCRM). As I don’t like giving the same talk twice – I don’t believe it is ever possible to replicate the momentum if you deliver the same words again – for each of these talks I researched a different Lincolnshire murder that, in the eyes of the police, remains unsolved. This post offers a brief account of each of these ‘murders’ – though I think that only three of them deserve to be so called.
John Bailey was a country doctor who lived in Long Sutton and was murdered in April 1795. On Tuesday 21st April he went to Tydd St Mary, a village about four miles from Long Sutton, to visit a patient. Early the following morning, his horse returned home without him. Following a report by a servant girl that she had seen a man lying in the grass on the side of the road, a group of local residents went to look for Bailey and found him where the girl had indicated. Alive, but with horrific head injuries, he tried to write something in the silty soil, but could not do so and shortly afterwards died. The motive appeared to be theft, though only the doctor’s watch was missing. There was a nationwide search for his killers and several people were arrested, but no charges were brought. Arrests, incidents of mistaken identity and false confessions continued to plague his wife and son for many years afterwards.
In 1979, Gordon Snowden, a sixty-year-old petrol pump attendant at Sutton Bridge Motors, was attacked at 2 am on 17th April. The motive appeared to be robbery – the cash till with all the takings was stolen. The police made no headway with solving the crime and never announced any suspects. No longer even regarded as ‘cold case’, it has now been archived. In other words, however tragic Gordon Snowden’s murder and however outrageous, it has become a statistic. It will never be reopened.
On May 22nd 1934, Mrs Ethel Major, of Kirby-on-Bain, near Horncastle, made her husband Arthur his customary ‘tea’ of corned beef, bread and butter. Shortly afterwards, he became ill and was soon unable to stand or speak. Two days later he had a seizure and died. The police discovered that Ethel had received anonymous letters telling her that her husband was having an affair with Rose Kettleborough, their neighbour. Police eventually concluded that Ethel had poisoned her husband, using as their main source of evidence an anonymous letter from the same person who had written to Ethel about the affair – which might have been Rose Kettleborough herself. Ethel pleaded not guilty to murder, but was hanged on December 19th 1934 by Albert Pierrepoint, the crown executioner famous for the compassion with which he treated convicted prisoners. Ethel Major was the last Lincolnshire woman to be hanged. Today the evidence against her would be deemed insufficient – and there are many people living in the Horncastle area whose ancestors always doubted her guilt. Horncastle people apparently divided into ‘Rose’ and ‘Ethel’ camps – though there was only circumstantial evidence that either was to blame for Arthur’s death.
Beatie Simpson, who was twenty, and a nineteen-year-old girl who was not named by police were both employed at a tobacco factory in Nottingham. In 1922, they travelled to Mablethorpe for a fortnight’s holiday, which they rashly extended by one week, even though they knew this would result in dismissal from their jobs. According to the girl who survived, they made a suicide pact because they could see no way out of their dilemma and both took Lysol while they were still staying in their seaside boarding house, which was owned by a blacksmith and his wife. Beatie Simpson was badly burned in the mouth and stomach by the corrosive liquid, but the doctor who carried out the post-mortem said that it would have been the effects of the poison on her heart and nervous system that killed her. She left a suicide note. It is not clear why the nineteen-year-old girl survived, although when the girls were discovered attempts were made to force them to drink salt water to cause them to vomit, and apparently Beatie’s mouth was clamped so tightly shut that she could not be made to swallow it. The coroner ruled that the girl who did not die was guilty of murder, as suicide was illegal at the time. The logic of this is hard to understand today: the coroner’s rationale was presumably that if a crime had been committed and someone could be made to pay for it, they should. However, the nineteen-year-old girl was eventually acquitted.
Barbara Grice died from a ruptured liver following a trip to Billinghay Feast (a kind of fair held annually near Sleaford) on 17th October 1956. Tantalisingly, I can find nothing more about this crime – I don’t even know why the police classified it as a murder. Was Barbara Grice pushed from one of the fairground rides or attacked by someone? In any event, no one has ever been charged with her murder.
Lastly, a twenty-six-year-old man named Charles Trier died in Gainsborough in 1995 during a game of Russian roulette. The police charged one man with his murder, then released him owing to lack of evidence. From my perspective, this barely counts as an unsolved murder, although it raises some interesting questions: for example, if you play Russian roulette of your own free will and die as a result, is the cause of your death murder, suicide or an over-developed gambling instinct? If you were coerced into playing, that of course is a different matter. Lovers of ‘The Deer Hunter’ will no doubt have a view!
Of these six deaths, I think that only John Bailey’s, Gordon Snowden’s and, probably, Arthur Major’s – although forensic science was not as conclusive in his day as it is now – would today be classified as murders. Beatie Simpson’s suicide certainly would not, unless it could be proved that her faculties were weak and the nineteen-year-old girl had unduly influenced her; the circumstances surrounding Charles Trier’s death are too uncertain to determine whether he pulled the trigger of his own free will; and Barbara Grice’s demise, as I have indicated, remains shrouded in mystery.
Annie Lloyd-Hyde is a poet who has written several humorous and thoughtful books of contemporary verse. However, Girl Good Enough, her most recent book of poems, and Misogyny for Beginners, a collection which is still in draft form, are much more hard-hitting. In them, she explores the related themes of female inequality and male abuse.
Asked why she has chosen these subjects, she says there has been so much in the media recently about the abuse of women and how the police often react to reports of domestic attacks that she felt compelled to write about it. However, she has long been aware of the differences in the way men and women are viewed and how biased male treatment of women can be. “I have always had a great sense of fairness and justice. The way women are routinely treated has always niggled me.”
Annie trained as a primary school teacher and remembers listening to arguments about the inherent differences between girls and boys. Girl Good Enough is about heightening awareness of sexist behaviour, some of it unconscious, and the nature/nurture conundrum. When she was teaching, she says she consciously tried to approach both sexes in the same way, although she believes teachers can never be sure they have achieved this. She has read about a teacher (based on the Isle of Wight) who was convinced that he taught all his pupils in a scrupulously equal way; however, when he came to analyse his behaviour, he acknowledged that there were some differences in his approach.
Annie grew up in a household of daughters and says that her father supported them completely in their wish to build careers. “He went to university himself and expected us to do the same.” However, her mother didn’t work outside the home until her daughters had left for college. She probably would have liked to, but at the time it was a mark of respectability that middle-class women ‘chose’ to be housewives.
Annie can’t recall extreme instances of discrimination in her own career, though she is sure that unspoken preference was given to male teachers, which discouraged the aspirations of their female counterparts. On one occasion, she applied for a deputy headship and then pulled out because she thought she wouldn’t stand a chance against the male candidates. “Male teachers in primary schools are revered, because they’re in a minority and the view is that boys need male role models.” She perceives a correlation between male over-confidence and female lack of self-esteem and says there are many jobs in which sexual discrimination is much more overt than in teaching.
Misogyny for Beginners is not about the nuances of discrimination which Girl Good Enough captures: it is about the direct and terrifying physical attacks that take place in many homes. One of the poems is dedicated to Sarah Everard. Annie has shown the poems to people who’ve expressed an interest in them and says they strike chords with her readers. Some of the responses have been surprising, even shocking: one woman said that the type of violence described in one poem had happened to her, though she had never discussed it with anyone before. There are women who dread their husbands’ return from football matches; if the husband’s team has lost, he goes home and batters his wife in a fury. Annie is even-handed, however, in her depiction of domestic abuse. One of the poems is about a man suffering from being brutally attacked by his wife. “Men who go to the police to report a violent female are often laughed at, just as women who report their partners are not believed.”
As for what her advice would be to young women trying to make sense of the worlds of the workplace and home they are about to negotiate, Annie says that the sentiments expressed in Girl Good Enough could be their yardstick. “Don’t feel you have to be perfect in everything or have never to say no. Always look for equality – by which I mean, someone to share the tasks fairly.” This is Annie Lloyd-Hyde’s philosophy in a nutshell. She doesn’t believe that women are superior to men, just as she doesn’t believe men are superior to women; nor is she searching for some female-run Nirvana. True equality between the sexes: that is all she asks for.
She has kindly agreed to share drafts of two poems from Misogyny for Beginners with readers of this post:
There’s no place like home
There’s no place like home
No place you’d
Least like to be
A claustrophobic web
Malice in Wonderland
“It’s only because he cares.”
Bringing you down
I’ll savour bringing you down
Feeling your happiness
Darken and fade
That sparky confidence
Once flying so free
Now a captured bird
Caught in a sea
Of my casual derision.
My caustic comments
Designed to erode,
Your self reliance
Your easy mode
Your dress too tight
Your love of food
Seeing your judgement
And friends kept away.
And if I sense you plan to escape
Feel you can take no more
I’ll turn on the charm
Seek your forgiveness
Beg on my knees
As god be my witness
For I’ll change, start afresh
I’ll pursue and persuade
And be assured
Those bruises will fade.
Poems © Annie Lloyd-Hyde
On Monday, after a cloudy start, the weather suddenly started to improve, aided in my case by my travelling south to Long Sutton, which already had a head start in the heat stakes. It was a glorious sunny afternoon when I arrived in this old Fenland village with its ancient silver and grey church and mellow ‘city centre’ (that term beloved of satnavspeak that makes me smile when the ‘city’ in question has a population of 5,000 people😉).
As I was an hour early for my talk, I headed to the churchyard, intent on finding the grave of John Bailey, a surgeon from the village who was murdered in 1795. I spent an interesting half hour examining the gravestones, having quickly discovered the late eighteenth-century graves, but I could not find John Bailey. I knew he was there somewhere because I had seen a photo of his stone. A quick online search told me that it was inside the church. The church – which began to be built in 1170 – is magnificent; I recommend anyone who is passing through the area to visit. Luckily for me, on Monday it was unlocked and, having it to myself, I walked slowly up the aisle from the back of the church to the altar and then down the aisle on the other side, reading all the plaques on the wall and the gravestones set into the floor. I discovered tributes to several ‘vickers’ and members of the Fitzalan Howard family – the local toffs – but still John Bailey eluded me.
The time of my talk was approaching and reluctantly I decided I’d have to leave, Bailey still unfound. Outside the main door, I met a man dressed in black and wearing a dog collar – and, super-sleuth that I am, having honed my investigative skills through the medium of writing nine detective stories, I deduced that it was the vicar. He asked if he could help and when I said I was looking for John Bailey he led me straight to Bailey’s memorial stone, which was set in the floor very close to the altar and cunningly concealed by a chair.
The vicar told me a bit more about the church and said he would have liked to have come to my talk, but the parish meeting was taking place at the same time. He therefore had tea and biscuits to hand! Very hospitably, he made me a cup of tea which I had to drink quickly as time was running short. It was not exactly what you might expect of tea with the vicar – we drank standing up from recyclable paper beakers – not a bone china cup in sight – but it was hugely welcome after a long journey and the dusty ramblings among the tombstones.
On to the library, where I met Tarina and Alison, the librarians,
and a very lively audience made up of some of their readers.
As with my other Lincolnshire talks to celebrate CRM, the discussion following the formal part of the event ranged far and wide. I discovered, for example, that in the nineteenth century, the citizens of low-lying Wisbech were plagued with agues which they assuaged by taking laudanum made with opium from the boats that still sailed up the river from the sea. (I’ve never been to Wisbech, though my Great Aunt Lily lived there. I doubt if she was one of the laudanum set. She signed the ‘pledge’ when she was fourteen and thought my father, who could make the same bottle of whisky last across three Christmases, was a drinker because he indulged in the odd glass of shandy on his way to the coast.)
One of my audience is a curator at Bewsey Old Hall in Wisbech. I have been invited to give a talk there later this year. The vicar would also like me to return to talk to various groups in the village, so I am already looking forward to visiting Long Sutton again.
Huge thanks to Tarina, Alison, Jonathan Sibsey the vicar and my wonderful audience at the Long Sutton library for an enchanted afternoon. And thank you, John Bailey, for eventually emerging from your hiding place. I’ll write about you in a later post.
On an entirely unrelated topic, today is Bloomsday, the day that Leopold Bloom pounded the streets of Dublin in 1916 in James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is a date that I remember every year. Joyce chose the date because it was the same day of the year in which he met his (eventual – they didn’t marry until they were middle-aged, after many years and two children) future wife Nora Barnacle in 1902. Barnacle really was her name – I’ve always been surprised that Joyce didn’t use if for one of his characters. She was a chambermaid at a Dublin hotel when they met. I envisage her as a homely, no-nonsense lady who did her best to keep Joyce grounded. He was one of the (slightly) more stable members of the brilliant but half insane generation of writers that included Virginia Woolf (his exact contemporary), Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott FitzGerald. Happy Bloomsday, everyone!