As I said in my previous post, De Vries has three major themes: whether murder can ever be justified, why some people are prepared to risk everything to discover who their parents are/were and the secrets held by old houses.
Today, I’d like to take a closer look at the second theme. Why is it that a significant proportion of people who cannot identify their birth parents – such as those who have been adopted, or whose parents have been lost in war or some other catastrophe, or who have experienced the denial of parenthood by one parent (usually the father), or who are the offspring of a sperm donor or even who have been abandoned in early infancy – grow up with an insatiable desire to discover who their biological parents were, while others in a similar situation either display no interest in finding out or are actively hostile to the idea?
My first boss and his wife had three adopted children, each with different biological parents from the others. They were adopted in the 1960s, when adoptive parents had minimal contact with the biological parents and the latter had very limited rights. Adoption societies of the time made it clear that they were facilitating a ‘clean break’ from the natural parent (usually the mother) who had offered the child for adoption. Often the mothers were very young and coerced into giving away their babies by the demands of their parents and the disapproval of society as a whole. It was considered shameful to be an unmarried mother and the welfare state did little to help girls and women who found themselves in this predicament. The prospective mothers were often sent to unmarried mothers’ homes when they began to ‘show’. Spalding had such a home, Carisbrooke House in Haverfield Road. The girls who came to it were probably from other towns; similarly, Spalding girls would be sent to towns some distance away. Soon after the birth, the baby was adopted and the girls would return home as if nothing had happened – though the experience cruelly curtailed their education and there was little psychological support for the trauma of having had to relinquish the child. The headmistress of Spalding High School was considered to be very progressive for allowing one of my classmates to return to school after she had a baby. The year was 1969.
My boss’s two adopted sons showed no interest whatsoever in their biological parents. Like Kevan de Vries, they entered the family business at a young age and enjoyed the privileged lifestyle and well-heeled standard of living it offered. His adoptive daughter felt differently. She went to huge lengths to track down her biological mother and eventually settled in the USA, where her mother had emigrated, and changed her name to the name her mother had entered on her birth certificate. Despite having been brought up in a loving and affluent household, just like the two boys, she was never able to identify with the adoptive family.
During the same period, issues of parentage frequently became more convoluted, not to say dishonest, when the woman was older and married to a man who was not the father of the child. Divorce carried a stigma almost as powerful as unmarried motherhood, so few women would choose it; on a more practical level, most divorcees and abandoned wives were forced to live in penury. This was decades before British law changed and became almost always in favour of the woman if she had children and Britain became the ‘divorce capital of the world’. The alimony awarded by courts was usually meagre and little attempt was made to force defaulting husbands to pay.
A woman who bore a child whom she knew or suspected not to be her husband’s therefore commonly passed the baby off as his. Some husbands were complicit, knowing the child not to be theirs but still preferring to raise it as their own rather than end the marriage; others were genuinely taken in by the wife’s claims. As an adult, a friend suspected that the child of one of her neighbours was in fact her half-brother. The boy was small and fine-boned, with tight black curls like her own and those of her two siblings. The mother was a tall, heavily-built woman with fair skin and hair whose other children all looked like her. My friend later discovered that it had been an open secret in the neighbourhood that this boy was her father’s, but the woman’s husband had accepted responsibility for his upbringing and treated him exactly like the others.
In the 1950s and 1960s, some early efforts were made to identify fathers reluctant to acknowledge their children and make them contribute to their maintenance. Proving paternity was, however, largely based on the results of blood tests: it was possible to prove that a man was definitively not the child’s father, but, unless he had a very rare blood group, not to prove conclusively that he was.
The advent of the much more reliable DNA tests – though the earliest ones were not as reliable as claimed at the time – helped women to assert who the child’s father was, be believed and consequently obtain financial support, which became much more robustly enforced by the law than previously. Even more crucial, however, was the shift, from the 1970s onwards, in social attitudes towards parenthood. Gradually the stigma of being born outside wedlock was removed. More and more couples elected to have children without marrying and if they subsequently split up they were much more likely to agree on joint care – or at least joint financial support – for the children.
Kevan de Vries is fifty when De Vries begins. During his lifetime, the whole spectrum of social attitudes towards children not born to a conventionally married couple takes place. Viewed in this light, it is perhaps not surprising that as a young man he is happy to have his mother and grandfather sweep the question of his paternity under the carpet, whereas in middle age he develops a burning desire to understand the identity of his missing parent, even at the risk of losing his liberty and physical contact with his own son.
A brief footnote: John and Limming were the first and middle names of one of my close relatives. His mother named him after her own eldest brother, who was gassed in the First World War, and the father who refused to acknowledge him. She was determined that he would carry his father’s last name in some form, even though it was denied to him as a surname. He spent his whole life hating it and would omit it from official documents whenever possible.
De Vries, the ninth DI Yates novel, will be published soon. As I mentioned in a previous post, it is the sequel to Sausage Hall, although each can be read independently of the other.
De Vries sets out to explore several themes: Why do some people become obsessed with discovering the truth about who their parents are, even at the risk of putting themselves in danger or losing their liberty? Can murder sometimes be justified? And, perhaps a little more whimsically, can buildings hide secrets and even, in certain contexts, develop personalities of their own?
In a future post, I’ll take a closer look at the mystery of parentage. For now, I’d like to consider the second of these themes. Wishing to find out more about whether murder can ever be excused, I looked up the term ‘justifiable homicide’. Unsurprisingly, I discovered that in different countries there is quite a range of legislation ‘allowing’ murder (i.e., not prosecuting the perpetrator). Internationally, the most frequently invoked law is one that absolves the murderer of blame if s/he killed while fearing for her or his own life, or the life of someone else in the immediate vicinity. In other words, the murder has been committed in self-defence. However, the precise definition of what legally constitutes self-defence is often unclear. For example, English law allows someone to exert only ‘reasonable force’ when defending property from an intruder, even if the intruder is trespassing in the middle of the night and the householder claims that s/he was terrified. The well-publicised case of Tony Martin, who shot dead a teenage boy and injured his twenty-nine-year-old burglar companion when they broke into his remote farmhouse in the early hours of one morning in the year 2000, remains controversial. Martin was convicted of murder, later downgraded to manslaughter. He served three years in prison before being released. Twenty years on, public opinion is still divided on whether he should have been convicted at all, but his conviction was the result of careful application of the law. The plea of self-defence therefore seems to depend on a number of factors, including the circumstances of death, how the law may or should be interpreted, the verdict of the jury if the perpetrator is taken to court and, finally, the views of the presiding judge.
Some countries allow or condone types of killing that others would not hesitate to regard as murder. Abortion and euthanasia are allowed by some western jurisdictions, condemned as murder by others. So-called ‘honour-killings’, while they may still be against the law, may attract lower sentences than other kinds of homicide in the countries where they are most commonly practised. (I take a closer look at honour killings in Rooted in Dishonour.) Perpetrators of ‘crimes of passion’ – i.e., murders committed in the heat of the moment, usually against a partner or spouse who has been caught ‘cheating’ or his or her lover – may sometimes be judged leniently, even sympathetically, especially in Latin countries, and a much-reduced sentence consequently handed down.
Whatever one’s stance on this, the logic that dictates that not all murders are equal when it comes to assigning culpability is not hard to understand, even though it is often controversial. But what if the murderer were under no particular pressure when s/he committed the murder? Would it make any difference to the degree of culpability in terms of, say, such a (possibly extenuating?) circumstance as being unexpectedly accosted – perhaps at home – by someone who might not have been at that moment an obvious direct threat, but who had previously inflicted personal – or close-to-personal – harm on him or her? And what if the victim were a totally reprehensible character with no counterbalancing virtues whatsoever? Could the case ever be made for letting the murderer of such a person go scot free, with his or her crime condoned or even tacitly approved by the authorities?
That was the conundrum I had to address when I started to write De Vries.
De Vries is the sequel to Sausage Hall, the third in the DI Yates series and among the most popular. It will be published in March. It is indelibly etched on my memory as having been written during the first year of COVID. I’m sure many other writers will have particular memories of what they wrote in 2020.
Readers of Sausage Hall have been asking for a sequel ever since it appeared in 2014. I have found their enthusiasm uplifting and should like to take the opportunity to thank them for it. As soon as Sausage Hall was published, I knew I would write its sequel one day, because the story of Kevan de Vries is far from finished when it ends. Seven years after the curtain went down on de Vries, now exiled to his luxury home in Marigot Bay, it seemed the time was ripe, not least because the seven-year gap features strongly in the plot and is instrumental in deciding de Vries’ fate.
All the DI Yates novels prior to De Vries are standalone. Although the same central characters appear in all of them and some of the minor characters feature in more than one, De Vries was my first attempt at writing a novel whose plot depended on the plot of an earlier book. After giving this a great deal of thought, I decided that I wanted De Vries to work as a standalone novel as well as a sequel – I always feel those authors who expect their readers to read novels 1 – 8 in order to understand novel 9 are cheating. This presented some interesting challenges which I hope I have managed to address successfully, mainly through the use of ‘need-to-know’ tasters. There are snippets of information about what happened in Sausage Hall dotted throughout De Vries – enough, I hope, not to fox or bore the reader – without spoiling Sausage Hall for those who come to it afterwards.
I’ve previously told readers of this blog how my eagle-eyed daughter-in-law picks me up on discrepancies of fact and characterisation between the novels. Spotting and eliminating such errors seemed even more vital this time. She and my editor both re-read Sausage Hall before embarking upon De Vries and I re-read it several times myself – the first time I have read one of my novels all the way through again after it was published.
As it happens, I remembered the plot and characters of Sausage Hall quite accurately, more so, perhaps than some of the more recent DI Yates novels. Nevertheless, re-reading it was an unusual experience because it also reminded me vividly of the specific occasions on which I worked on certain chapters. For example, it was during one of many court adjournments when I was doing jury service at Sheffield Crown Court that I read of the links to Lincolnshire of a famous historical character that gave me the idea for the sub-plot; I was on holiday in Germany when I started writing about Florence Hoyle’s journal. The German holiday house was on a farm in the Munsterland and I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my laptop, the brilliant sunshine streaming through the open door. (Less edifyingly, I was also eating banana cake.)
De Vries himself is one of the most complex characters I have tried to create. He’s not exactly likeable, but he is charismatic; the reader feels sympathy for him because he’s suffered more than his fair share of misfortune – but he brought much of it on himself. Is he a murderer, or has he been framed? I won’t say any more, because I don’t want to spoil it if you’re interested!
I don’t have the finished jacket for De Vries yet, but I will post it on this blog as soon as I can. I’m thrilled with it – it’s an original sketch by Sophie Ground, a very talented artist friend and daughter of my friend Madelaine, herself also an accomplished artist.
I’m also delighted that all the Yates novels except Almost Love – which I’m rewriting; it will be back again in the autumn – are now published by QuoScript, a vibrant new publisher specialising in crime and YA fiction.
I may not have the jacket yet, but I can share the blurb from the back cover. I hope you find it intriguing!
Wealthy businessman Kevan de Vries returns to the UK after an enforced absence, travelling incognito and taking up residence at ‘Sausage Hall’, his ancestral home in Sutterton – secretly, because he must evade being questioned by DI Yates about the disappearance of Tony Sentance seven years previously. Sentance’s sister Carole persistently lobbies the police to have her brother declared dead so she can inherit his estate. She believes de Vries murdered Tony.
De Vries knows he risks imprisonment by coming home, but he’s obsessed with learning his father’s identity, never disclosed by his mother.
Agnes Price, a young primary teacher, becomes increasingly concerned about the welfare of one of the children in her class. Leonard Curry, a schools attendance officer, is sent to investigate, but is attacked. Someone frightens Agnes when she is walking home one night. Shortly afterwards, Audrey Furby, Curry’s niece, disappears…
De Vries is the sequel to Sausage Hall; each novel can be read independently of the other.
This spy thriller is the impressive first novel of a series planned about Thomas Dylan, who is plunged into ‘security’ work when, shortly after his graduation, he agrees to attend an interview for an organisation that needs a linguist. It is the 1970s. The job, which Dylan accepts, means working for the Defence Intelligence Service (DIS) as a civil servant. He is warned that there is no glamour attached to being part of the DIS, which is poorly regarded by both MI5 and MI6.
A boring future seems to beckon: he is convinced he has chosen – or, rather, fallen into – the wrong career, but he is very quickly sent to Zandvoort in the Netherlands on an undercover operation in which he is set up to fail. However, despite failing as resoundingly as expected, he quickly finds himself on his way to South America on a more important mission. It is to retrieve a device called ‘The Griffin’: ‘Garble-Recognition-Interrogation-Friend-or-Foe-Inboard Nautics – Master Control Unit’. The Griffin is never explained more clearly than this, but a reader well-versed in tales of espionage might assume it to be something like a portable 1970s version of the Enigma machine. All the usual suspects are after The Griffin, from the CIA to British Intelligence to various assorted Russians, Israelis and Arabs, not to mention the South Americans on whose turf the action takes place, some of whom are not South Americans at all, but escaped Nazi war criminals.
The plot is a relatively simple one – the novel tells the story of Dylan’s adventures as he tries to track down The Griffin. Both pursuer and pursued, he is continually trying to figure out which of the people he encounters are really who they say they are and which ones can (or can’t) be trusted. Among them is the intriguing upper-class (anti-?) heroine Julia, whose uncle is (allegedly?) a bigwig in the security services. The narrative is written in the first person, which works well: during the course of the novel we see Dylan progress from a greenhorn apprentice spy to a much more mature operator whose rite of passage has included killing as a duty of his new profession.
What makes this novel stand out, apart from the fact that it is beautifully written, is that it is a spy thriller for grown-ups. The plot may be straightforward but the relationships between the various characters are intricate, their underlying rationale complex; yet despite the welter of detail and counter-detail, the author never makes the reader feel lost or, as so many spy writers do, leaves her or him feeling that the book is teetering perilously close to the edge of credibility. Landers has also accomplished the difficult trick of showing a profound understanding of the milieu which he describes without over-parading his knowledge.
There is some violence in Awakening of Spies, but it is not gratuitous or unduly sensational (I’m mentioning this because I know some of my readers don’t like too much bloodshed). Both death and sex are described in a restrained way – there are no James Bond-type shenanigans. If you’d like to try a good spy thriller without the Boys’ Own escapades, I recommend this novel. And I’m already looking forward to the next one in the series.
Awakening of Spies is published by Red Door Press. ISBN 978-1913062330
Saturday was a clear, crisp, cold day after many days of rain and muggy warmth. It felt like a proper winter’s day, of the best possible kind!
Before it was quite light, I was heading for Stamford – one of my favourite places – for a signing session in Walkers Bookshop, at the heart of the town. First stop, however, was the George, Stamford’s splendid old coaching inn – for coffee and pastries in front of its roaring open fire!
I am very happy to be able to say that Walkers is an extremely successful bookshop. The period after Christmas is a notoriously slack time for bookselling – as for all types of retail activity – but on Saturday, Walkers was clearly thriving, with a constant flow of people, many of whom engaged me in conversation and not a few of whom bought Chasing Hares or one of the other Yates novels (In the Family and Sausage Hall seem to be the perennial favourites).
I was particularly smitten by the little girl who told me she wanted to be an author and an illustrator! And also delighted – and very honoured – that Rex Sly, whose books about the fen country I have long been consulting when carrying out my research, came in to meet me. We had a long conversation about writing. Himself a Lincolnshire farmer – he lives in the farmhouse in which he was born – Rex told me that at one stage his family’s problems with hare coursers had become so grave that they considered moving out and finding somewhere else to live.
Many thanks indeed to Jenny Pugh and all the staff at Walkers for arranging the session and making me as welcome as always – and for providing tea and other comforts!
After a quick lunch and a brief exploration of Stamford – it has an amazing ironmonger’s which always draws my husband like a magnet – it was on to the library, where Jane Barber, one of the librarians and an old school friend, had again used her fertile imagination to plan an event, this time a murder mystery event that she called ‘Tea and Murder’. She and her colleagues expended a great deal of energy and time on this and they – and I – were rewarded by its being a hugely successful event. They attracted a very large audience, some of whom I had already met last spring at the first DI Yates event in Stamford Library.
I talked about how I had come to write Chasing Hares – not forgetting to mention the large part played by my friends Madelaine, Marc, Anthony and Marcus and by South Lincs police, all of whom had a significant hand in creating the plot – and read aloud the first chapter. We then had a lively discussion about how to plan a murder. I said that although the characters in my novels are all (except one) fictional, or at most composites of several people I have known, the plots are often inspired by real-life crime. For example, the plot of Fair of Face draws heavily on the White House Farm murders (a version of which is now being televised) and Chasing Hares is in part the product of a great deal of research about hare coursing. We talked about the perfect crime being one which was never discovered – which doesn’t work in fiction, for obvious reasons – but how some novelists have got round this by allowing the murderer not to be caught (Patricia Highsmith, in the Ripley novels) or by using the device of the unreliable narrator (probably started by Agatha Christie, when she wrote The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). In my own Sausage Hall, Kevan de Vries appears to get away with murder – but watch this space! Kevan will return in my next book – to be called, simply, de Vries – and he may not be so lucky next time.
Then there were (delicious!) cakes and tea.
All this was a prelude to a murder mystery for which Jane had set the scene. She had even produced an actual body – the ‘body in the library’! The audience worked in groups, each group to decide who the victim was, who the murderer and what the motive. Each suggestion was more ingenious than the last: it was impossible to award a prize for the best one!
The whole evening was very light-hearted, relaxing and entertaining and the audience at Stamford has become one of my great favourites. I’d like to thank everyone who came to the event for turning out on a Saturday (and also a cold evening), some travelling from quite a long way away. And very sincere thanks to Jane Barber and her colleagues for all their hard work and for pulling off another triumphant event – Jane’s inspirational activity and her sensitive management of it were indeed wonderful to see. 😊
Yesterday it rained. And rained. And rained.
And it didn’t spoil a thing.
I was at three events in Spalding to celebrate the launch of Chasing Hares: a signing session at wonderful Bookmark, where all my novels have been launched, and where the hospitality from Sam and Sarah and their team was as warm as always;
a very special event hosted by Anthony and Marcus on the island where most of the novel is set;
and an evening talk and readings at Bookmark, attended by just as large an audience as usual despite their having had to turn out in grim weather.
Thank you, everyone! I both appreciated and enjoyed it all very much indeed.
And Chasing Hares? Well, it is unique among the DI Yates novels in that its two (related) plots were both suggested to me by other people. In the summer of 2018, my husband and I called in on our friends Madelaine and Marc. It was a hot, sunny day and their friends Anthony and Marcus, who own several boats, offered us a trip along the river Welland from the island house where they live. Anthony showed us round the house and made us coffee before we went. As we sat in the garden outside, I said I had almost finished writing Gentleman Jack and the conversation turned to what I should tackle in my next novel.
I can’t remember who suggested I should write about this island: it was Madelaine, Marc or Anthony, or a combination of all three. Marc, who’s a fount of knowledge when it comes to local history, said he’d heard there had been a row of small cottages on the island – hovels, really – and that a retired soldier had lived in one of them. Local people called him Soldier Bob. Anthony had heard this story, too. The soldier was half-crazed – we speculated that he might have been a WWI veteran suffering from shell-shock – and trigger-happy. He was also a recluse. He didn’t take kindly to having people disturb him. A man approached his cottage one day and Soldier Bob shot him dead. (Anthony’s version of this was embellished by the detail that the victim was the postman and Soldier Bob shot him through the letterbox.) Bob was arrested and tried for murder but acquitted – and presumably taken into care – on the grounds of insanity.
Listening to the tale of Soldier Bob, I could see that setting the next novel on the island offered great possibilities. I didn’t want to tell the tale of Bob, however – though it is mentioned in Chasing Hares – because for some time I’d been toying with the idea of writing a novel that drew inspiration from the Golden Age of crime fiction, but with a modern twist.
A popular device used by Golden Age crime writers is the country house crime story. It has a lot to recommend it: a group of people gather in a country house, usually secluded and some distance from civilisation; a murder is committed; one of the people present must have been the murderer; all turn out to have motives for killing the victim; and the reader is titillated along the way by accounts of gracious living, exquisite dresses, sumptuous picnics, fine dinners, afternoon tea, torrid love affairs – the lot.
I thought it would be interesting to create a modern-day version of such a gathering, spiced with a little bit of irony. I decided to update it further and, as a double irony, instead of depicting an upper-class social event, I made the reason for my gathering a crime mystery weekend. Instead of being presided over by a suave and cultured society hostess, the party in Chasing Hares is hosted by a perennially mean and crooked wheeler-dealer, Gordon Bemrose. Instead of representing high society, his guests hail from humbler – and in some cases, dodgier – walks of life, but, like their country house counterparts, they are all potential murderers. Finally, instead of being entertained by a chamber orchestra or string quartet, their entertainment is a play, a bowdlerised version of Arsenic and Old Lace, put on by the local amateur dramatic company but starring Gordon’s actor nephew, Anton Greenweal.
The second part of the plot was suggested to me by a policeman who has been following me on my blog for some time. He wrote to me to say that the biggest single problem rural police forces have to deal with, particularly in East Anglia and parts of Northern England, is hare coursing. I’ve since carried out quite a lot of research on this and it’s a truly horrific crime. It’s not just the hares that are hurt – they’re horribly mutilated by the dogs before they die – but also the dogs themselves: they’re often badly injured by running into each other or spraining or breaking their legs by trying to follow as the hare changes course rapidly in its attempt to escape. There’s nothing ironical or tongue-in-cheek about the hare-coursing passages – they’re deadly serious.
That’s all I’m going to say about Chasing Hares for now…
Gentleman Jack is launched! Thank you to all those who helped.
Gentleman Jack, the seventh novel in the DI Yates series – and the first about a serial killer – was published on October 15th 2018. This is a round-up of the events and some of the reviews I’ve been lucky to have received since.
On October 15th, Bookmark in Spalding – always a staunch and much-appreciated supporter of my novels – gave me a signing session.
On the 17th, I had a very lively interview with David Harding-Price at Radio Lincoln City.
Then it was back to Spalding for an event in the library on the afternoon of the 18th and to give a talk at Bookmark that evening. Both talks featured serial killing and how I have tackled the subject. At these events, I was delighted to meet so many friendly faces, both those well known to me and some new ones. A very happy direct outcome of the Bookmark occasion was that I was able to meet an old schoolfriend whom I last saw before I was married; I was also reconnected with two other friends from Spalding High School. I was also privileged to be supported in the evening by the current owners of the real Sausage Hall and their daughter.
My sincere thanks to Sam and Sarah at Bookmark and Sharman in the library, not forgetting all their colleagues for making these events a success.
On October 19th, I was interviewed by BBC Radio Lincolnshire’s Carla Green, who was as generous as always with her time and praise. (Then I went to India for five days – the day job intervened.)
On my return, Walkers Books of Stamford provided their usual impeccable hospitality with a signing session – this has become an annual event – and, as always, I enjoyed talking to their customers, who included some of the people I met at the Stamford Academy Literary Festival last June. A big thank you, therefore, to Jenny and Linda at Walkers.
Meanwhile, Emma Dowson, Salt’s PR Manager, had organised the best blog roll I’ve ever had the good fortune to experience. I’d like to thank all the bloggers for their very generous reviews, and for publishing several articles they requested from me as guest posts on their blogs. Zoe Myall, of the Spalding Gazette, wrote a brilliant review of Gentleman Jack and I’d very much like to thank her, too.
My final event before Christmas was, if not the most ambitious, certainly the quirkiest. I am a frequent visitor to Papworth Everard, in Cambridgeshire, as I have family living there, one of whom told me that a micro-brewery had recently opened in the village and that it sold a beer called ‘Mad Jack’ – not quite ‘Gentleman Jack’, but near enough! The micro-brewery is situated outside Papworth, but its products are sold in a coffee shop there that doubles as a bar and gin palace in the evenings – it’s called ‘The Courtyard’.
(As one of my readers said – ‘Crime and gin – what more could anyone want?’) I happened to pop in for a casual gin and met Chris Jones, the proprietor of both bar/gin palace and brewery, who told me that he had been thinking of holding some events there. One gin led to another and we agreed to collaborate to provide a crime evening with a focus on the DI Yates books… and with liquid refreshment! It proved a winning combination! 😉
I made many new friends there and was also supported by several long-standing ones. Much gratitude to the captive audience of locals who’d only dropped by for a drink but nevertheless joined in, one of whom even called up his wife, a book enthusiast, to bring her down! I was also staggered that one member of the group had bought and read In the Family in advance of the session – much appreciated, Nathalie! I also particularly enjoyed having the opportunity to meet and chat to the members of the Papworth Reading Group. Huge thanks to Chris Jones and his long-suffering staff, who cheerfully waited for us to leave some time after closing time. You, Chris, will be pleased to know that Mad Jack is now being celebrated far beyond Papworth!
I do have one more piece of news, but I’ll save that for another post. For now, I’d like to thank everyone who has helped Gentleman Jack to meet the world, including the many people whose names I have not been able to mention in this short post.
And if your library, bookshop or reading group is looking for someone to talk crime, killers and bodies, you know where to come!
My copy of Gentleman Jack has arrived at last! I am, as always, delighted with Chris Hamilton-Emery’s brilliant jacket design and distinguished typesetting. ‘Jack’ is officially published today, 15th October 2018. It’s my first novel about a serial killer. I’ve thought for a long time about the best way to tackle this type of criminal in my fiction. Indirectly, it draws on my own experiences of living in Leeds as a young woman when the Yorkshire Ripper conducted his reign of terror, but, like all my novels, it is much more concerned with portraying the psychology of the killer than the ‘blood and guts’ of the crimes themselves. It’s also about the organised theft of agricultural vehicles, a scourge which periodically afflicts farmers in Lincolnshire and other rural areas.
I know that many of my regular readers – across the world – have been looking forward to reading it. I’d like to take the opportunity to thank you all for your support and your continuing enthusiasm for my books. Ipso facto, one can’t really be an author without readers; words cannot express how much I value the time you spend on reading my books. I offer you my profoundest thanks. And I do hope you will enjoy Gentleman Jack!
Also published today is The Book of Alexander, the debut novel of Mark Carew, a fellow Salt author. I was privileged to read this book in draft form and I heartily recommend it. It’s not exactly a crime novel, although there are some relevant features: Alexander, the protagonist – stalker or not? No spoilers!
The Book of Alexander follows the time-honoured and exciting literary tradition which explores different versions of the self. Who is Alexander? Who is his mysterious grandfather, ‘Mr Travis’? Who is Melanie, Alexander’s down-to-earth girlfriend, and is she really competing with rivals for Alexander’s affection? Above all, who is the dullish private detective who tells the story – and is he really so dull?
The second half of the novel is episodic. Alexander embarks upon a journey, not to distant lands – although I suspect he may do that in a future novel – but through the city of Cambridge and around the River Cam and its environs. This journey is by turns sinister, comical and exasperating.
The Book of Alexander contains a rich cast of characters, including: Mick and Yin, who run the garage where the private detective roosts when spying; a bevy of girlfriends (real or imagined?); and Alexander’s eccentric but lovable parents, who perhaps hold the key to Alexander’s whimsical character. Or then again, perhaps they don’t!
Have I hooked you yet?
On a very wet day during the long August bank holiday weekend, I got up early to arrive at Bettys (sic.) cookery school in Harrogate by 8.30 a.m. I had booked myself in for a day’s tuition on patisserie. The course didn’t begin until 9 a.m., but the students were advised to arrive half an hour early for breakfast, which consisted of Bettys croissants and pains au chocolat. Delicious!
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Bettys, it’s an upmarket baker and confectioner operating six tea-shops in Yorkshire. It’s not named after a woman – Mr Betty was an immigrant, an Austrian patissier who came to the UK in 1919 and opened his first shop in Harrogate, then still a famous spa town.
The cookery school is a relatively recent innovation. It’s been running for a few years – my son attended one of the early sessions, on boning meat – and since then the courses have proliferated. Passionate about Patisserie, the course that I attended, was a present from my son and daughter-in-law. (No ulterior motive, they assured me… though I’m a touch dubious about that! I am a keen baker, which they appreciate, but I’d never before done any of the fancy stuff.)
All fifteen places on the course were filled; only one of the students was male – a man attending with his daughter, because, she explained, she’d been away all summer and hadn’t seen much of him. I was very impressed by this – and later came to realise that she, too, may have been influenced by a filial ulterior motive, as he proceeded to do all her washing up as well as his own. Together we made one of the groups of three – each of the five work benches had three sinks and three ovens. I enjoyed working with these two throughout the day; I also spent some time talking to a woman in her fifties who had inherited money from her parents, retired early and become a sort of Bettys junkie. She does all the courses and avidly waits for new ones to appear.
There were two Bettys staff taking the course, led by Lisa, who said she’d been working for Bettys for more than thirty years – she must have joined the company as soon as she left school – while one other – Philippa – was catering for the participants; it was she who made the breakfast pastries, the lunch of quiche, salad, rosti and lemon tart and the afternoon tea of scones, cream and jam, while we concentrated on our own cakes and pastries. It was the one time in my life I’ve experienced the opportunity to have my cake and eat it!
I found the day relaxing for many reasons. Foremost among these was that there was an unquestioning assumption that patisserie is all about taste and look. There were no apologies for the number of calories involved or concerns about whether the fats were saturated or the sugars ‘organic’; no consideration, even, of the expense of the ingredients!
Despite this, it was by no means the cake version of a Bacchanalia. Each step of each recipe (we completed three) was completed with military precision and each was accompanied by some precious nuggets from Lisa’s store of cake wisdom. Thus I learnt that: metal mixing bowls give the best results; you should never remove the ‘twiddly’ bits when preparing eggs for cake-making, because they are your friends – they help to stabilise the mixture; and that getting the temperature right is key – since all ovens, even new ones, vary from one day to the next, an oven thermometer is an essential investment. There was something I didn’t need telling, because I found it out for myself years ago: baking well is an art as well as a science. Like good writing, it is 95% hard graft, 5% inspiration.
We all completed our three recipes and everyone’s efforts were successful. However, as well as getting the temperature right, I’m also aware that weighing ingredients correctly is imperative to getting good results. This was something we didn’t have to do – probably because there wasn’t time – so we were supplied with little packages of all the ingredients we needed, no doubt weighed accurately down to the last milligram. Repeating the recipes, therefore, may still be a bit of a challenge!
The need to get the temperature right reminds me that, two years ago, I finally abandoned my ailing and capricious electric Aga, which had never worked properly since it was bought new seventeen years before (a Friday afternoon job, obviously). It would actually be more correct to say that it abandoned me – it finally gave up the ghost just before Christmas (!), having cost as much again in repairs as was spent on it originally. We replaced it with a Falcon range, which, mercifully, fitted (to a millimetre) the gap vacated by the Aga… exactly, perhaps because Falcon was acquired by Aga! Then I discovered that the Falcon, unlike the Aga, has no dedicated cookery books and I vowed to write one myself – perhaps with a criminal theme! This ambition was rekindled by the Bettys experience – so if anyone reading this has some Falcon recipe tips, I’d be glad to receive them.
While I was at Bettys, my husband spent the very damp morning at RHS Harlow Carr gardens, where there is a Bettys café, reading the digital proofs of Gentleman Jack, drinking Bettys coffee and, like me (though he didn’t know it), indulging rather more heavily in their breakfast pastries. So much for his plaintive declaration, when we met up again, of indifferent supermarket sandwiches for lunch… and he timed his arrival for the cookery course tea and cream scones!
After returning home, I unpacked my bunch of goodies to show him and went off to get changed. On coming back downstairs, I couldn’t find one of the small fruit tartlets, which I was sure had been there. Hmmm.
The turn of the month from April to May was delightfully busy. On 23rd April, I returned from a business trip to the USA (World Book Day as well as St George’s Day, the day the booksellers bring their stalls out into the streets in Barcelona – stuck in a tube in the sky, I missed them), anticipating the privilege of the three Christina James events ahead of me. Three in eight days, no less!
As the first of these was at Adlington Library, near Chorley in Lancashire, I was very close to the smallholding kept by my friends Priscilla and Rupert and so was able to relish the double pleasure of visiting the library and staying with them as well.
I’d been invited by the Friends of Adlington Library, an energetic and committed group who have put a huge amount of effort into keeping the library open after government cuts. I’ve already written about local determination to keep underfunded, understaffed library services open in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. Lancashire is encountering similar problems and fighting back with just as much dedication.
The event was scheduled to last an hour and a half. The time flew by: the Friends, led by Margaret and Philip, offered me a large and very responsive audience, many of whom had read my books; several had also bought them or bought copies during the event. As I’ve said before, an audience can pay a writer no great compliment than to give feedback on her or his books. Readers are always perceptive and it is fascinating to hear their accounts of other books they like and why; additionally, in this instance, Adlington’s readers opened up on the evil characters, both real and fictional, whom they had encountered.
Just four days later I was heading for Gainsborough, a North Lincolnshire town that was totally uncharted territory for me. As soon as I stepped out of the car, I realised that this was my loss: Gainsborough is a wonderful old town with a mediaeval manor house at its heart, reputedly haunted by Lady Jane Grey. One of my audience – a local woman who now lives in Australia and was visiting family in the town – told me she had seen Jane’s ghost wandering the house when she was a child (intact, with head on – I did ask!).
Gainsborough’s library earned the unique distinction of providing me with an audience that expanded during the afternoon, drawing in more and more people as the session unfolded! The library itself is a building of palatial proportions – huge for a small town – and the librarians make excellent use of the space they are able to command. The event ran on way past the allocated time, until eventually we were invaded by a party of primary school children who had come for a reading session.
I am indebted to Lynne and her colleagues for organising this event and would like to thank them again for the really beautiful bunch of flowers that they gave me. I felt truly spoilt!
Just three days later, came the last of the trio: a different kind of event this time, held for a writers’ group in Woodhall Spa, another North Lincs town that I’d never visited before. The home of the Dambusters, it’s a picture postcard place, and was gearing itself up for the 75th Anniversary of the Lancaster bomber raids in WWII. (There’s a café just a few doors up from the library, full of Dambusters memorabilia – well worth a visit.)
The library itself is tiny – the smallest in Lincolnshire, apparently – but librarians Jude and Deborah have organised it extremely well. Like Adlington and Gainsborough, it has a well-stocked children’s section and a children’s activity area – they’re trying to make the Guinness Book of Records by creating the world’s largest pom-pom! Jude and Deborah gave me a very warm welcome indeed. I loved their shoes – yellow and orange respectively – worn as a gentle, tongue-in-the-cheek protest against having to wear a librarian’s ‘uniform’ of sober navy that wouldn’t be out of place in an old-fashioned girls’ school.
The writers in the workshop and I talked about what makes a good evil character (is that a tautology?!) in fiction; how fictionalised serial killers differ from real-life ones; and how various authors have depicted them in very different ways. As I had expected, the members of the group were both perceptive and a fund of anecdotes about their own observations and experiences. I was particularly intrigued – not to say horrified – by the account that one man gave me of evacuee children sent to the county from London who were literally starved to death. He said that the local community closed ranks and ensured that no-one was ever prosecuted for the crime.
I am honoured that the people of Adlington, Gainsborough and Woodhall Spa not only took time out of their busy lives to meet me, but also prepared for the events with such care. Thank you all! And special thanks to Margaret and Philip, Lynne and her colleagues and Jude and Deborah.