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 No longer even regarded as ‘cold case’, it has now been archived.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
Kevin Taylor is the Chief Pilot of the Lincolnshire Police Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) Unit. He has worked as a Subject Matter Expert (SME) flight instructor/assessor, training staff at all levels, from beginners to advanced remote pilots. He specialises in the training of military and emergency services personnel. He has himself flown both manned and unmanned aircraft and is qualified to fly both aeroplanes and helicopters. He has put in more than 1500 flying hours in more than twenty aircraft types. He acts as test pilot for the British Microlight Aircraft Association (BMAA) and the Light Aircraft Association (LAA). This involves testing new lightly manned aircraft. Kevin himself owns a light sport aircraft and flies regularly.
Kev began his career as a radar engineer in the Royal Air Force, then joined the Special Constabulary in 2003. He serves as a Special Sergeant in the Lincolnshire Police RPAS Unit. He has overall responsibility for the safe delivery of RPAS operations, including all aspects of training and safety standards. He is experienced in all the operational areas of police RPASs and has carried out hundreds of live deployments in Search & Rescue, Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear incidents and Offender and Event Crowd Dynamics. He is also experienced in Beyond Visual Line Of Sight flights. He has received multiple commendations for his operational RPAS flying. He has also worked with the UK defence industry to develop autonomous RPASs. He has pioneered police use of RPASs in relation to criminal activities.
I asked Kev to contribute to my series of blog posts to celebrate CRM because Lincolnshire Police have very kindly been following this blog for several years. They also helped to influence the plot for Chasing Hares.
Q: Do police drone pilots train from scratch or have they already been flying drones as a pastime?
A: In Lincolnshire Police, drone pilots are police constables who work mainly as responders and attend a vast array of incidents. If an incident can benefit from the use of a drone, a drone officer will be deployed to assist. A drone is just one of numerous tools available in a police officer’s kit bag and drone flying should be described as a skill, rather than a role. In some ways, it’s like carrying a taser: the training has some similarities. The initial training course consists of five days’ training followed by a practical test which the trainee must pass. Once an officer is trained, s/he must pass an annual requalification test. If prospective drone pilots are already interested in drones before they train, it is useful, but not essential.
Q: What, very briefly, is the history of police drone use in the county? How many officers are involved and how has this field of policing been expanded in Lincolnshire?
A: Lincolnshire Police started its drone journey in March 2017. The first operational flight took place in September of that year. On average there are now 350-400 deployments per year. The target is to have five officers at each of the four main bases: Lincoln, Boston, Grantham and Skegness. Currently there are twelve officers and six more in training.
Q: Would you explain the particular value of drones for police work in a place like Lincolnshire or, indeed, anywhere.
A: Lincolnshire has the perfect landscape for drones. In terms of geographic area the force is one of the largest in England and Wales, covering 2,284 square miles. The population of this area is 736,700. Policing such a large area presents challenges: Lincolnshire has vast areas of open countryside and, as such areas are difficult to search on foot, effective air support is vital. Drones can now play a pivotal role in addressing this challenge. The running cost of a drone is negligible when compared to the other options available, such as crewed helicopters. Drones are also used to manage large events such as Christmas markets and can assist with crowd dynamics, acting as an extension to the CCTV camera network.
Q: What incidents stick out in your mind as memorable examples of success? (Not just nabbing the villain, though that is very interesting, of course; perhaps the successful rescue of someone vulnerable or the way in which a traffic incident has been helped by drones.)
A: There have been many incidents that have resulted in a positive outcome for the whole team. We are not allowed to discuss one of the most unusual ones, owing to reporting restrictions, which is a real shame. All drone pilots will have a personal set of memories of occasions that got their adrenaline pumping; one of my own was using the drone to discover an unconscious male in a ditch following a road traffic collision. It was in early 2018; his was among the first lives to have been reported as saved by a police drone in the UK and this incident alone demonstrates that the investment in drones by Lincolnshire Police was worthwhile.
Q: What do you find particularly frustrating in your line of work?
A: When we first launched the drones initiative there was some scepticism. There was criticism that drones were just glorified toys. However, the clear and powerful images produced by the drones once they became operational soon converted the sceptics to supporters. There aren’t too many frustrations, but it may not be a surprise to hear that if I had better funding I could achieve so much more. That said, the Chief Officer Team has been very supportive of drones and can see they provide value for money. The results speak for themselves, although we can’t always put a financial value on all that we do.
Q: Do you read crime fiction? Would be your advice to a writer like me to up her game in presenting police work?
A: I’m always on the go, so sitting down and reading a book is something I don’t have much time for. I would say that policing is moving with the times and that technology plays a large part in the way criminals operate today, so the police need to use it, too, to keep up. I guess a crime writer would benefit from understanding the technology and tools at the disposal of a current, modern-day police force. Drones constitute just one small part of contemporary technology that benefits the police and public, not only in Lincolnshire, but worldwide. Besides operating drones, we play a considerable role in education and enforcement. Drones technology is constantly evolving and the regulations have also evolved quickly. Lincolnshire is a very RAF-centric county, with a busy airspace, and we contribute to the effort to ensure that all airspace users can share the airspace safely. In July, we’ll be inviting the public to the Lincolnshire Police HQ to learn more about how to fly drones safely and to understand a little more about how we use them.
All pictures © Kevin Taylor
The first thing that strikes you about Sleaford is that it is a lovely old town with lots of characterful buildings and monuments. I was particularly taken with the Carre’s Hospital Almshouses, also known as the ‘Bedehouses’, off the Market Square in Eastgate and the lovely old redbrick buildings adjacent to the town centre car park. The next thing that strikes you is that it is a town packed with traffic. In every road and small lane, there is a queue of cars – at least, there is at midday on a summer’s afternoon on a Friday! The volume of traffic may explain why Sleaford can also boast an extremely friendly traffic warden who, when we eventually found a baking hot car park quite a long way out of town, directed us to one that was closer to the library.
The library itself is spacious and extremely well kept by Kay and her assistant librarians – I met Angela and June and I know there are others, too. She was also assisted by James, a work experience boy, who told us he had just enjoyed a stellar week in the library. I’m not surprised – Kay and her team thought of everything. They set out tables with lace cloths, served tea and biscuits twice – at the beginning of the talk and before it ended – and gave me a beautiful bunch of flowers before I left. They also secured one of the largest audiences I have had on this series of talks. They told me this had been achieved by putting flyers in the boxes of books they send out to reading groups – a useful tip for other librarians, if any are reading this post.
As always, the members of the audience came from diverse backgrounds and each had an interesting backstory to tell. There was an Australian couple searching for information about the husband’s ancestors; the widow of the former County Archaeologist of Northamptonshire, with whom I had a fascinating exchange about Anglo-Saxon graves that contained valuable grave goods – and the ones that didn’t; a teacher of English literature; and a lady whose parents had known Ethel Major, the last woman to be hanged in Lincolnshire (more about her in a later post) and were adamant that she wasn’t guilty. Various lawyers have recently come to the same conclusion, if more tentatively expressed.
All my audiences have asked different kinds of questions. This audience – made up of avid readers – wanted to know what sparks the idea of a plot in the first place: what triggers the gleam in the author’s eye? I much enjoyed talking with them and was grateful to them all for turning out on such a hot day – it was thirty-one degrees outside, though the library – uniquely among the libraries I have visited – boasted some very effective air conditioning. I was impressed that every person who booked a ticket turned up.
The talk at Sleaford was the last of the series of talks in Lincolnshire libraries arranged to celebrate Crime Readiing Month. I felt that, owing to the amazing efforts of Kay, Angela, June and the rest of the team, the series ended on a real high. Very many thanks to them and to all the wonderful Lincolnshire librarians I have met this June. I am not planning any events for July and August, but I shall be back in the autumn, setting up some writing workshops and giving more talks. I will keep the readers of this blog posted.
And the posts will, of course, continue until the end of the month – possibly beyond, if I can summon up the time! Tomorrow’s post will be by Kev, a Lincolnshire police officer responsible for the drones the police service uses – to catch criminals, of course, but for other purposes, too. Kev has sent me some great photos to accompany it. I think you’ll find it well worth reading.
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!
More than most industries, publishing and bookselling depend on the oxygen of publicity for survival. They rely on the support of friendly journalists who present them faithfully and without exaggeration or malice. The industry is lucky to be represented by Nick Clee, a distinguished news publisher who understands it inside out. Here, he kindly responds to my questions.
Q: Before you founded BookBrunch, you were the editor of The Bookseller, so you moved from a very established old-school type of publishing to something much more dynamic – and perhaps, nowadays, more resilient. Did you set out to do this? What was your rationale when you first set up BookBrunch? Has it evolved in the way you thought it would?
A: I left The Bookseller in 2004, and went freelance – in those days, still just about a feasible pursuit. In addition to journalism, I wrote a couple of books. I had delivered the second of them when Liz Thomson, editor of the recently defunct Publishing News, phoned me to ask whether I’d join her in a new, online venture, which had private backing. It wasn’t exactly what I had planned, but I had a space in my schedule and hated to turn down jobs. We had no coherent mission statement for BookBrunch: we simply intended to provide a news service, selling it on our long experience of the trade.
Q: Did you get a lot of support from the industry in the early days?
A: In the internet era, you can get known fast, particularly in a trade such as the book industry. People signed up enthusiastically.
Q: Are you a journalist by profession? Has your whole career been spent in journalism? Is there a reason why you have focused your efforts on publishing industry news for so many years?
A: I fell into it. I got a job as maternity cover at The Bookseller; twenty years later, I was still there. I’ve been very lucky.
Q: How do you gather information for BookBrunch? Do prospects mainly come to you with items they want you to publish or is it the other way round? Do you have ‘roving reporters’ to cover events etc?
A: I have to admit that most of our stories arrive on a plate, by email. (By the way, I’m now joint editor with Neill Denny, another ex-Bookseller editor. I work two days a week and he covers the other three; Lucy Nathan is reporter; and Julie Vuong contributes twice-monthly interviews or features.) We try, on our limited resources, to get out to conferences, launches and so on. Occasionally, we commission features – but the budget is limited.
Q: What is the business model? How do you get paid?
A: We carry some paid advertising, but get almost all our income from subscriptions. Our salaries are very modest.
Q: What kinds of support are you able to provide for authors?
A: We have discounts for freelancers and for Society of Authors members. Not all authors are interested in trade news, but some are.
Q: How did you survive during the pandemic? Were you forced to change the way you operate? If so, are you more or less back to normal now?
A: The pandemic was/is an awful thing, but looked at only in commercial terms it turned out to be not unfavourable for our business. Subscriptions went up. It hit networking on the head and is still doing so, in my case – I remain cautious.
Q: Gazing into your crystal ball, what do you think the publishing industry will look like in five years’ time?
A: I’m not qualified to talk about the academic publishing world. In general books, we appear to have reached a relatively stable balance of digital and print formats. If further disruption is imminent, neither I nor anyone else can foresee what will cause it. The pandemic confirmed to us – because it hastened them – things that were already apparent; among them were the decline of the High Street, an alarming trend for publishers as well as retailers.
Q: Do you enjoy reading? If so, what kinds of books do you like? Do you have a favourite author? Do you have other hobbies?
A: I read a lot of crime fiction, ranging from American noir to police procedurals to psychological thrillers. A favourite recent example is Simon Mason’s A Killing in November. In literary fiction, I go for writers who are interested in the domestic: Katherine Heiny has been a delightful discovery this year. My favourite author is John Updike.
I play tennis, and follow sport. I’ve been lucky enough to make horseracing my work as well as a hobby: my second book was a racing history and I’m writing another racing book at the moment.
I knew that I couldn’t write a blog post every day for a month to celebrate CRM without including something about Agatha Christie, the Queen of crime fiction herself. It’s some time since I read any of her books and I’m not familiar with all of them: of the ones I know, like other people I’ve interviewed, I like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd best.
However, although I have long been aware of them – and, indeed, as a library supplier used to sell them – I was unfamiliar with all the Mary Westmacott novels. I remember reading once that Christie’s publisher encouraged her to write under several pseudonyms – there is at least one other besides Westmacott – because she was so prolific, to avoid flooding the market with Christies. This may have been part of the reason: it is also true that the Westmacotts are not billed as crime, but as mysteries. Despite this, I hope that my readers will indulge me by allowing me to review one of them here, instead of a more traditional Christie murder story. The one I have chosen is Giant’s Bread – mainly because I saw a dramatisation for radio advertised recently.
It is one of the most puzzling novels I have ever read. Christie is famous for her lack of interest in character development, but she gives her protagonists – particularly the women – some very individual attributes in this book. It could not, however, be described as conventional character development: rather the twists and turns of the characterisation seem to be adapted – and in fact are subservient to – the demands of the plot.
This is not all that is unusual. The book was first published in 1930 and is set before, during and in the years that follow the First World War. Yet the character of Nell Vereker – and the choice of a first name that is reminiscent of Dickens’s saintly Little Nell may not be accidental – in the first chapters seems to hark back to the weak and dependent but ensnaringly pretty female characters beloved of nineteenth century novelists. Nell is Dickens’ Dora Spenlow or Wilkie Collins’ Laura Fairlie, spiced up just a little with a sprinkling of George Eliot’s selfish Rosamond Vincy.
Having been tempted by the offer of marriage from a rich American, Nell decides to marry her true love, Vernon Deyre, an impoverished aristocrat who knows he will not be able to afford the upkeep of Abbots Puissants, his ancestral home, when he inherits it. In young manhood, Vernon has ‘discovered’ music and yearns to be an avant garde composer. He knows that marriage to Nell is likely to jeopardise this ambition. Then the war intervenes and Nell is suddenly transformed into Marion Halcombe: she becomes a dependable, serious, hard-working nurse. Vernon, sent to the front, deplores her wish to play a useful part in the conflict and thinks she should be socialising in London instead. It is an interesting feature of the book that men repeatedly cast Nell as a priceless ornament who should not be expected to sully her pretty hands: yet she is at her best, and only truly comes alive as a character, when she defies such stereotyping.
Jane Harding, the other main female character in the novel and a rival for Vernon’s attentions, is a different type entirely. She epitomises the ‘new woman’ that other early twentieth century novelists have described. She is a Cassandra-like figure who sees everything clearly and always speaks her mind, often quite brutally. Yet, like Nell, she also has roots in nineteenth century literature. Like Trollope’s Mrs Winifred Hurtle in The Way We Live Now, she is a ‘fallen woman’. She has lived, firstly, with a theatrical impresario who treats her cruelly, and then with Vernon himself. Vernon ditches her without a second thought when the ‘pure’ Nell re-enters his life.
I won’t give away any more of the plot – which bears the authentic Christie hallmark of being tortuous but credible. What I have described so far indicates that this novel tackles some very serious themes: infidelity, domestic violence, the artistic imperative that demands selfishness to succeed, the confused and often demeaning roles occupied by women in early twentieth century society and the unequal – with either gender sometimes prevailing – relationship between the sexes. It also touches on themes that seem very contemporary: PTSD (although of course the name is not used) as it afflicts returning soldiers, antisemitism and the impossibility of ‘having it all’.
What’s not to like? Well, the jejune upper crust slang grates on the modern reader. Dialogue is peppered with “I say”, ‘beastly’, ‘frightful’, ‘horrid’ and so on, which sometimes makes it hard for readers to take seriously some of the more profound comments made by the characters. The plot, despite the ingenious tergiversations, is a bit disappointing – though perhaps that’s because I was waiting for a murder that never materialised, unless you count the murder of the soul. And those sudden character changes I have noted, especially in Nell and Vernon (though his are triggered by illness), can be hard to swallow. However, I think that Westmacott is breaking new ground here: if it doesn’t seem too fanciful, I think she is taking the reader on a tour of nineteenth and early twentieth century society as represented by the novels of those eras and sending it up. In other words, I think that Giant’s Bread works on several levels; and at one level it is a social satire.
The writing often shines. Here is Vernon’s mother, making the most of his funeral:
“She stared ahead of her through blood-suffused eyes in a kind of ecstasy of bereavement.”
Whereas this is how Nell, the (truly grieving) young widow, reacts to the occasion:
“Again Nell felt that wild desire to giggle. She didn’t want to cry. She wanted to laugh and laugh and laugh… Awful to feel like that.”
Which reader would not sympathise with Nell?
Giant’s Bread is an experimental novel, unlike The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which, although ingenious, sits firmly within the traditional crime fiction genre. Does it work? I would give it 8 out of 10, whereas Roger would always score 10.
Were I to say that readers are not unimportant to writers, I’d be providing you with an extreme example of litotes. Readers are an author’s lifeblood. If a novel has no readers, it barely deserves to be called a book, just as a portrait kept forever in the dark is scarcely a picture. I feel blessed that as a crime writer I have been ‘discovered’ by some loyal readers who have subsequently read and reviewed all my books. No one has been more staunchly supportive of my work or sympathised more with what I have set out to achieve than Valerie Poore. Recent posts of mine have featured Fraser Massey, a fledgeling crime writer and Mickey J Corrigan and Sarah Stephens, two established writers whom I’ve never met in person. Similarly, I have never met Valerie (a couple of times, on my way through Holland, I tried to visit her on her vintage Dutch barge in the Oude Haven in Rotterdam – there are two links here – but, sadly, on those occasions she was not there). I know she supports other authors as well as myself. I have asked her to write a short post on why she is so generous with her support for others – and how she finds the time to do it!
For several consecutive years, I’ve looked forward eagerly to each of Christina James’ nine crime novels. If I remember correctly, In the Family, her first DI Yates book, was also the first crime fiction I’d ever read from a novelist who wasn’t already widely known in the genre. I was a detective novel fan of old and had read most of the big name authors: PD James, Elizabeth George, Ian Rankin, to name just a few. But at some point, I found the plots becoming ever more harrowing and disturbing – so much so that I stopped reading crime fiction for quite some time.
As a result, I was somewhat hesitant to start down the detective novel path again, but after meeting Christina James on Twitter and enjoying our interaction, I decided to give In the Family a try. To my delight, the book ticked all my mystery-solving boxes and I can say with some conviction that Christina gave me back my taste for crime (so to speak). It was an extra benefit that having ‘met’ her on Twitter, I could also continue to interact with her and support her writing on social media.
Since then, I’ve added several other, mostly independent, authors to my list of favourite crime fiction writers, nearly all of whom I’ve discovered through Twitter and book bloggers. And even though I’m not a crime writer, it’s still the fiction genre I read the most, so I love being able to support their books as a reader, reviewer and tweeter.
So when Christina asked what motivated me to help other authors through social media support, the answer came easily: it’s because I was an avid reader long before I became an author myself. Without exaggeration, I can say I’ve loved immersing myself in books my entire life and nothing gives me more pleasure than reading. I also appreciate others’ excellence in writing, so if I read an author whose prose, dialogue, plot development or even turn of phrase I admire, I instinctively want to tell the world about them and share my enthusiasm.
As a student and young adult, I could talk books for hours with my friends – I studied English and French literature, which helped, of course. These days, that appreciation is more easily conveyed through social media, as I no longer have the time to linger with fellow readers to the same extent; nor do I live in an environment which would tempt me to do so. My home for twenty years has been on an old barge in the Netherlands among folk whose passion is restoring historic vessels. Welding, not reading, is what lights their fires. And although I’ve written about these colourful neighbours in my memoirs, I cannot talk books with them.
My solution, then, is to share my reading discoveries on social media where I can promote and interact with the authors whose books I enjoy. But there’s a spin-off benefit too: I now belong to a community of readers and authors, many of whom reciprocate by reading and sharing my books too. Promotion, I discovered, is reciprocal. What you give is what you get, a further reason (as if I needed one) to share and share alike.
So, there you have it: someone who loves crime fiction and promotes it, brilliantly! I should add that Val is a writer of memoirs other than those of her experiences on the canals of the Netherlands, Belgium and France, for she has lived in South Africa, too. I’m adding the link to her fascinating blog so that you may wander with her if you wish! I’ve also provided two links to my posts about my visits to the Oude Haven, if you’re interested. I’ll finish with a photographic flavour of her watery life and her books about it:
It may seem strange to publish a piece on peace (if you’ll forgive the wordplay!) to celebrate Crime Reading Month. However, taking the big picture approach, the worst murders are committed during wars – as the conflict in Ukraine has demonstrated yet again. Wartime atrocities emphasise that peace is vital and, as Dr Pinter says, generations who have grown up knowing only peace lose – dangerously – awareness of the calamity of war. On the smaller canvas, classic crime fiction always ends with a denouement in which normality is restored – as peace follows war.
Dr Frances Pinter, who is currently Executive Chair of the Central European University Press [CEUP], is probably best known by readers of this blog for her outstanding – and continuing – work to promote Open Access models that work for academics, readers, librarians and publishers equally. Frances is passionate about achieving the fair dissemination of knowledge and equally committed to working towards world peace, and particularly the maintenance of peace in Europe. These two ambitions are, of course, not unrelated.
When Frances was writing her PhD in the early 1970s, she came into contact not just with academics but also with practitioners in the study of conflict and research into peace. These were very new academic disciplines. Frances, who was totally committed to the concepts, found herself meeting all kinds of unusual academics. She understood that there was not sufficient understanding of the processes that needed to be worked through to achieve the satisfactory resolution of conflict – something she learnt while studying the conflict in Northern Ireland for her PhD which included pub crawls with the IRA. As a result of many studies that she and others later published, we now have a corpus of vital information on the subject – although politicians are not good at deploying it.
Frances founded her own publishing company at the young age of twenty-three. This happened by accident: she was still working on her PhD when she “ran into someone whom I thought would write a wonderful book and decided to try my hand at publishing”.
Although for a short time she subsequently took a job as an academic, she carried on with the publishing and loved the whole process. She also decided that she would make a much better publisher than an academic, but if she wanted to expand her publishing activities and therefore leave academia, she “needed to find a way to have enough money to eat”. Her solution was to take out a mortgage, buy a large house in Oxford and fill it with tenants. It was a period of high inflation, so she was able to keep on borrowing against the increasing value of the property and use the money to invest in the new publishing company, which was originally called Frances Pinter Publications and then simply Pinter Publishers. She gave the company her name because she wouldn’t then have to carry out a search to see if another company was using the name she chose – which would have incurred an unnecessary expense. She became a successful medium-sized Social Sciences and Humanities publisher.
The company was twenty-one years old when George Soros invited Frances to work for his foundation. He had contacted her to suggest that it would be a good idea for the Social Science and Humanities classics of the West to be translated into all the languages of the post-Communist countries; and could she do it? Although Frances saw instantly that this would change her whole life, she accepted the offer and sold Pinter Publications.
Working from Budapest for the Open Society Foundation, she began the translation programme. This turned out to be just part of the work required. Soon she had set up the Centre for Publishing Development, whose mission was to help the new private publishing sector that was emerging in thirty post-Communist countries. She visited all the countries that were being supported and worked in all of them. Budapest acted as the hub for the programme; each country had a publishing officer and Frances worked through them. She ceased working full-time for the Foundation at the turn of the millennium, but continued in her capacity as adviser for a few years afterwards.
All these activities were either directly or indirectly focused on peace. Frances says her family history – some were victims of the Nazis in the second world war – has played its part in her recognition of the most profound importance of peace. Sometimes this made her prescient. She knew when she was working in Eastern Europe in the ‘90s that some of the West’s approaches to bringing ‘democracy and capitalism’ to the East would backfire. Former Communist states were presented with an ideal, but the reality they observed – generated by hubris and hypocrisy – was far different and generated an enormous amount of resentment. “We were rich and they were poor and much that has happened since stems from this. It pained me terribly – I could see the parallels with the resentment felt in Germany after World War I that led to the rise of Hitler. It got worse after the financial crash of 2008. Transitional and developing countries suffered far more than we did.”
Like Frances, I was the child of the generation that was shaken by the Second World War and vowed it would never happen again. She observes that, inevitably perhaps, we were followed by a generation of Europeans who didn’t think about it so much. “Suddenly, people ARE thinking. Now is one of the saddest periods of my life – to see what we were building in the West unravel.” In this, she includes Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. During the referendum, she reminded British politicians that, fundamentally, the EU was a peace project, created to maintain peace in Europe. Every politician under the age of sixty-five scoffed at the idea that Europe might engage in another war. “They knew the facts but didn’t feel the weight of them. Now they bloody well should. Europe has been deeply destabilised because so many people didn’t understand.” She feels that pro-Brexit comments are frivolous. Britain has weakened its power to promote peace in Europe by standing outside the EU.
Frances visited Kiev a few times in the 1990s, during the period in which Judith Heneghan’s novel Snegurochka is set. One of her abiding memories is the very keen desire of the Ukrainian people to have the books she was offering them translated into Ukrainian, even though everybody could read Russian.
On a positive note, Frances believes that the current generation of young adults is again engaged in searching for profound truths. Recently, in Vienna, she met a colleague of Linda Kinstler, a young American journalist who has written a book entitled Come to this Court and Cry. The book describes Kinstler’s quest to establish whether her Latvian grandfather was really working for the Nazis or the Russians. “The truth is shrouded in secrecy, but all the time she is digging into it.” Truth leads to peace.
Today’s and tomorrow’s posts both touch on the war in Ukraine and feature interviews with an author and a publisher who have a marked affinity with the country. In today’s post, Judith Heneghan talks about Snegurochka, her debut novel for adults (she was already a prolific children’s author when she wrote it), which is set in the Ukraine of the 1990s, shortly after the breaking-up of the Soviet Union. The novel was published by Salt in 2019.
Q: Snegurochka is set in Kiev in the 1990s. Briefly, could you describe what it’s about.
A: Snegurochka is the story of a young English woman, Rachel, who lives in newly independent Ukraine in 1992 with her journalist husband and their new baby. Isolated, unable to speak Russian or Ukrainian, she develops a crippling fear of the balcony at their apartment. The city below is distrustful of foreigners and reeling from economic freefall, but her own needs create dependency and soon she is caught in a frightening endgame between the elderly caretaker, a money launderer and the boy who lives upstairs. Each is defined by their past, but Rachel doesn’t know how, until it is too late. All she wants is to keep her baby safe.
Q: It is a very powerful novel. Does it draw on personal experience?
A: Yes, I am drawing on personal experience, in that I lived in Kiev (as we called it back then) with my journalist husband and our new baby. This allowed me to use my own memories of places and public events. However, the characters are all invented; we were far too boring. I have placed made-up characters and their problems in some real environments with many fictitious scenarios and outcomes. I think this is how much fiction is written – it’s a potent mix of experience and imagination. I am drawing on my memories of how hard it was to make friends, to find nappies, to navigate a city where people still carried the legacy of famine, invasion, suspicion and, of course, Chernobyl.
Q: Have you visited Kiev again since you wrote the book? Had it changed?
A: I did visit at the end of 2018, although I chose not to go back before then, while I was writing the novel, for fear of recent changes diluting my memories of thirty years ago. And it was such a joy to find that what I loved about Kiev remained – the exquisite churches and monasteries, the broad, tree-lined boulevards, the cobbles and cafes and the over-priced (still) Bessarabsky Market. However, what had made it a difficult place to live had changed. Now people seemed open, welcoming, happy to smile, to talk to strangers. Young families were everywhere. There were, also, new memorials and shrines to those who had lost their lives in Crimea and Donbas since 2014 – another layer of history now ran through the city’s streets – but the atmosphere was vibrant, forward-looking, hopeful.
However, one theme of the novel is the way we as foreigners might think we know a country and a people. My impressions in 2018 were superficial, and of course any place is much more complicated than that.
Q: You must feel particularly horrified by the war in Ukraine. Are there people (especially writers, but anyone) there you are in touch with? Are they safe?
A: The war is utterly horrifying. I think most Europeans feel this, and of course when one has lived in a place that is being bombed, there is more to imagine, and perhaps it is less easy to forget. But the journalists we mixed with back in 1992 have all moved on, and I had very few Ukrainian friends because of the language barrier. So no, I’m not in touch with people there now. I watch the news, feeling helpless, as do we all.
Q: If the novel were to be made into a film, who would you choose to play Ruth? And Lucas?
A: Absolutely no idea! Lucas is described as looking like the Marlboro Man, if anyone remembers those ads…
Q: Are you working on a new book now? If so, can you describe it very briefly?
A: I am working on a new novel, yes. It is set in the Catskills, in Upstate New York, in a small, hippyish commune-style community on the verge of folding. It has young strangers in it, and a river, and mountains and pickups and dogs…
Q: Who are your own favourite authors – both classical and contemporary?
A: Oh, I feel a list coming on… in no particular order, Elizabeth Strout, A M Homes, Zadie Smith, Hilary Mantel, Sebastian Barry, Colm Toibin, Joseph O’Connor… less contemporary (and the loves of my late teenage years) John Steinbeck and Thomas Hardy.
Q: I understand that you teach creative writing. What would be your top three tips to would-be authors?
- Learn the conventions so that you can break them.
- The scene is the queen (unless… see above).
- Don’t worry if you don’t have a plan.