This morning I got up at 4 am, just as the day was dawning, rejoiced in the singing blackbirds, took a quick look at the BBC news – complete with midsummer celebrants at Stonehenge – and spent almost four hours facilitating a webinar featuring librarians from Australia and New Zealand. As you do, when you live at the wrong side of the world. 😉
By 9 am, all the librarians had signed off and I was looking forward to breakfast, but I could see emails in my Outlook and thought I’d read them first. (I can never resist that little yellow envelope symbol – it has encroached on my writing time on more occasions than I can remember.)
And there it was. A message from Hannah, the lovely marketing manager at Bloodhound: I just wanted to pop you over an email to say congratulations on your publication day for The Canal Murders! I hope you are able to find time to celebrate today.
Reader, I had forgotten the publication date of my own novel! Duh!
That doesn’t mean to say that I am not over the moon. I’m humbled, too: everyone at Bloodhound has been beavering away while I have been focusing on the Antipodes. Not that I regret that, but clearly I need to do some serious work on my multi-tasking skills.
As readers of this blog are aware, I have given several library talks recently. It has been striking how often members of the audiences have asked me how I got the idea for a particular book. What was the initial spark that started off the creative process? What triggered the gleam (or grit!) in my eye?
The Canal Murders was inspired by several separate events and discoveries. A few years ago – pre-COVID – I was asked to give a talk at the main library in Lincoln and had time beforehand to explore the beautifully restored waterways in the city. I’m interested in canals – I’ve taken several narrowboat holidays – and have read about the Fossdyke, the ancient canal originally dug by the Romans that connects the River Trent to Lincoln at Torksey; and because I’m interested in canals, I have also read about two murderers, one based in Yorkshire and the other in Greater Manchester, who have made use of the canal network to dispose of the bodies of their victims (I won’t identify them, as I have used aspects of their real-life crimes in the novel and I don’t want to give too much of the plot away). When I was thinking about this novel, I had also been reading about copycat murders and how their seeming lack of motive creates extra obstacles for the police when trying to track down the killer(s). Yet another theme came from some items of farming news in East Anglia at the time, about soil erosion and the need to take proper care of the land. This is also woven in.
The novel has a multi-layered plot, because there are several murders, each featuring a different type of victim. And the sub-plot – in response to requests from readers – focuses on DS Juliet Armstrong’s private life.
I hope that you will think this sounds intriguing. I rarely write about my own books on this blog, but perhaps you will forgive me on this occasion, as The Canal Murders has been published during Crime Reading Month, the focus of all my June 2022 posts, and it’s also been published on Midsummer’s Day. I can think of no more propitious date on which to launch a murder mystery. The gods will surely raise a cheer, awoken from their slumber as they have already been by the votaries at Stonehenge!
More to the point, Hannah has been cheering The Canal Murders, too, in her own quiet but indomitable and infinitely more practical way. Thank you, Hannah, for all your inspired work and for being a much better multi-tasker than I am.
Following on from yesterday’s post, Sarah Stephens is a fellow Bloodhound author whom I have also not met in person. I am hoping to review her book on the blog later this month.
What is the title of your novel? Briefly, what is it about?
My latest thriller is The Good Life. It focuses on Kate and Calvin, a married couple traveling to a luxury resort in Costa Rica to rekindle their marriage. After an evening of partying with another couple at the resort ends in tragedy, Kate must unravel a mystery that threatens to reveal secrets she’s been hiding for years—from her husband, her family, and herself.
I also have four other thrillers: Isolation, The Anniversary, It Was Always You, and A Flash of Red.
Why did you decide to write in the crime genre?
I’m a developmental psychologist and my teaching at Penn State University focuses a great deal on healthy development for children and families. In my writing, I like to explore the darker side of the human experience, since my other work examines the more joyful pieces of life.
And what inspired you to start writing this book?
We were deep into lockdown here in the States, and I wanted to transport myself to somewhere bright, full of luxury, and warmer climes. My husband and I honeymooned in Costa Rica many years ago (and I should mention that our trip was much less eventful than Kate and Calvin’s!), and the story for The Good Life evolved from imaginings I had of specific places we visited during our travels.
What do you find most challenging about writing fiction? And what do you find most rewarding?
The biggest challenge is the blank page and getting over your inner critic. Once I get started, I find the process deeply enjoyable. Living with characters you create and transporting yourself to a different place and set of experiences is a fun reprieve from life’s normal challenges.
Are you working on another novel now? If so (without giving too much away) can you say what it is about?
I am! It’s another thriller. It focuses on a young professor who crashes weddings to pick up one-night stands. One of her lovers ends up dead, and intrigue and danger ensue as she works to prove her innocence.
What do you like to read yourself? Are there other crime fiction writers you admire? Aside from crime writers, who are your favourite authors?
My beloved P D James is forever a touchstone for me. I love everything she’s written, and go back to her novels often. I enjoy almost any psychological thriller, especially those by Gilly Macmillan, Fiona Barton, and Ruth Ware. Recently, I finished The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris and highly recommend it.
The Sandringham Mystery was published by Bloodhound Books on April 19th, just after the Easter break. The Bloodhound jacket is brilliant – I’m delighted with both it and the support I’m getting from the Bloodhound team. They even sent me an inscribed mug to celebrate the publication date – a first in my experience!
I feel extremely privileged to have been invited to speak at two events very shortly after the book came out. First was the Deepings Literature Festival, where I gave a talk in the Oddfellows Hall at Market Deeping on April 29th to a very lively and engaging audience. I was so happy to be able to speak at the festival at last – I had been scheduled to make my debut there in 2020, but COVID intervened. Astonishingly, since I grew up in Spalding, which is only twelve miles away, I’d never been to Market Deeping before. (I know Deeping St Nicholas well – my great aunt lived there – and I visited Deeping St James as a child – with my father, whose job included dropping in on sugar beet farmers.)
I know of several Oddfellows Halls in Lincolnshire and, as the name has always intrigued me, I looked it up. The name ‘Oddfellows’ was first used in the early eighteenth century, but their practices were much older – the movement derived from the mediaeval guilds and there are even some suggestions that its roots lay in ancient Rome. The Oddfellows were – are? – akin to the Masons, but the two groups have always preserved distinct identities. They were/are certainly not peculiar to or especially relevant to Lincolnshire (though someone no doubt will correct me on this!) and, since they seem in the past to have had strong links to Roman Catholicism – they were keen supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie – their strong Lincolnshire associations are surprising. The county is more renowned for its championship of Wesleyanism than Catholicism.
The Oddfellows Hall in Market Deeping turned out to be a very hospitable place. I was grateful that so many people chose to attend the event – the hall was packed – and to stay behind to talk to me afterwards. Huge thanks to Linda Hill and Jenny Spratt for organising and promoting it.
Five days later I was welcomed to the library at Papworth Everard, where I was honoured to take part in the first author event there since the COVID lockdowns of March 2020. This was attended by another large and lively audience, including at least two fellow authors. We managed to discuss many topics, including the relevance of government crime statistics, the importance of place in crime fiction, how to plan a novel and how authors use real crime stories for inspiration while at the same time being careful not to cause distress by depicting the real-life victims. Huge thanks again to Nicola and Terri, who put in an enormous amount of work to make this a success.
It is great to be back on the author circuit again. I’m certain that many other authors feel the same. This will be the best year we’ve had since 2019 – the magic created, as always, by wonderful readers and audiences. I’m hoping to take part in many more events as the spring turns into summer. If you are running a library, a festival or a bookshop and think I can make an interesting contribution, please do let me know.
The Sandringham Mystery and some personal memories of places and people with a part to play in its creation
When I was a child, the motor car was the ultimate status symbol. Families aspired to own one and felt they had ‘arrived’ when the car did, however shabby or humble it might be.
Our next-door neighbours, Harry and Eileen Daff, were the first in our street to bring home a car. Theirs was a forties Morris with running boards which looked as if it belonged on a film set, but that made it yet more glamorous in the eyes of the local children. The Daffs went out for Sunday afternoon rides in their car. Mrs Daff – ‘Auntie Eileen’ – was always promising to take me, too, but the invitation never materialised.
My father acquired our first car about three years afterwards, when I was nine. It was a two-door Ford Popular which we nicknamed ‘Hetty’. I can remember the registration number: it was HDO 734. Hetty, like the Daffs’ Morris, was not only second-hand but practically vintage. My father had saved hard to afford her and had still needed a loan from my miserly – but loaded – Great Uncle David to complete the purchase.
Great Uncle David lived – indeed, spent his every waking moment – working in the convenience shop in Westlode Street which he had inherited from his parents despite being their youngest son, presumably because he had scoliosis and was considered ‘delicate’. My paternal grandmother kept house for him. They were only a short bike ride away.
My mother’s mother, however, was the paid companion of a very old lady and lived in Sutterton, nine miles distant, which meant that in pre-Hetty days visits had to be accomplished by bus. It was usually she who visited us, invariably spending the morning of her day off shopping in Spalding and then walking to ours for lunch. Post-Hetty, we were able to make more frequent visits to Sutterton. However, I was still sometimes allowed to travel there alone on the bus. It was nearly always on a damp, foggy day when the sun never broke through the Fenland mists.
The house she lived in was the house I have called Sausage Hall in The Sandringham Mystery. It was a big, gloomy red-brick house in considerable need of repair. Sometimes she occupied the breakfast room when she had visitors, but her natural habitat was the kitchen with its adjoining scullery, in both of which roaring fires were kept burning night and day throughout the winter months. The kitchen fire had a built-in oven in which she would bake perfect cakes. Lunch would be tinned tomato soup and bread, followed by a big hunk of cake. Cherry cake was my favourite.
Her employer’s name was Mrs James. My grandmother always referred to her as ‘the old girl’. Mrs James’s first name was Florence and she was one of a large family of sisters, the Hoyles, who had been brought up in Spalding in extreme poverty. One of the sisters still lived in what could only be described as a hovel in Water Lane and occasionally, after one of my visits to Sutterton, I would be sent round with cake or chicken. Miss Hoyle never invited me in. She would open the door a few inches, her sallow face and thin grey hair barely distinguishable from the shadows of the lightless cavern behind her, and reach out a scrawny hand to take what I had brought, barely muttering her thanks before she shut the door again.
My grandmother, also the eldest of a large family of sisters, despised the Hoyles. Mrs James was not exempt. My grandmother’s father had been a farm manager, employed by a local magnate. He was a respectable, hard-working man of some substance in the community, unlike the allegedly feckless Mr Hoyle. According to my grandmother, Florence had ensnared Mr James with her pretty face, but that did not excuse her humble beginnings.
Florence, long widowed, had taken to her bed, for no other apparent reason than that she was tired of the effort of getting up every day. My grandmother delivered all her meals to her bedroom and sometimes sat there with her. When I visited I was expected to call in to see her before my departure. I never knew what to say. She would extend a plump, soft white hand from beneath the bedclothes and offer it to me. I’d shake it solemnly. Once, when I’d been reading a Regency novel, I held it to my lips and kissed it. She was momentarily surprised – I saw the gleam of interest in her eyes before her spirit died again.
Mrs James’s sons, both middle-aged gentlemen farmers, also performed duty visits. My grandmother and I were expected to call them ‘Mr Gordon’ and ‘Mr Jack’. In The Sandringham Mystery, Kevan de Vries, head of the de Vries empire, has his staff call him ‘Mr Kevan’. I lifted the idea from my experience of the two James brothers. I was about nine when I met them and could identify condescension when I encountered it.
Hetty broadened our horizons immeasurably. Instead of going out for bike rides at weekends, we drove to local beauty spots – Bourne Woods, the river at Wansford, Barnack – and sometimes on nice days even further afield, to Hunstanton, Skegness and Sandringham.
Sandringham, the Queen’s Norfolk estate, consists of many acres of forest, most of which were already open to the public, though the house itself wasn’t. It was possible to visit the church. Both local people and visitors would wait outside the wall beyond the churchyard for glimpses of the royal family when they were in residence. I saw Princess Margaret once. She had the most astonishing violet-blue eyes.
I associate Sandringham particularly with the clear bright cold of Easter holidays and the drowsy late-summer warmth of blackberrying. The blackberries there were enormous and my brother and I would scratch the skin on our arms to ribbons trying to reach the best ones. Parts of the woods were deciduous, but the blackberries seemed to flourish in the areas where the pine trees grew, planted in squares and divided up by trails (‘rides’). When I was writing The Sandringham Mystery, I remembered vividly a clearing in the woods that had been made by the crossroads of two trails. In the novel, it is here that the body of a young girl is discovered, the start of a police investigation that not only reveals why she was murdered, but also uncovers some other terrible murders that took place in the past, in Sausage Hall itself. The Sandringham Mystery is published by Bloodhound Books today. I hope you will enjoy it.