I find it ironical that, in one of the coldest springs on record, I have already visited five seaside resorts: Robin Hood’s Bay, Whitby, Brighton, Cromer and now Bournemouth. Temperatures were low during all of these visits, but cold comes in many guises, each one having a different effect upon enjoyment. Robin Hood’s Bay and Whitby were bracing and sunny; Brighton snowy, with a vicious wind whipping in from the East; the similarly cutting wind in Cromer was accompanied by some sunny intervals; and, at Bournemouth, where I have just spent four days, there was initial bright sunshine, followed by cloud, followed by two days of driving rain and then, just as I was departing, bright sunshine once again, this time accompanied by some real warmth.
By circumstance now something of a 2013 seaside connoisseuse, I’ve had the opportunity to discover that I much prefer the rugged east coast to the smoother, more luxuriant yellow sands and vast bays of the south. To my amusement, I have also been able to verify a colleague’s observation that Bournemouth has two faces: one for the weekend; another for the working week. I’ve stayed there several times before when attending conferences, but this was the first time that I’d needed to arrive at the weekend. I’d previously considered Bournemouth to be a refined sort of place, but I now know that weekend Bournemouth is much edgier.
Arriving last Saturday just before 6 p.m., I decided to make the best of the bright sunshine and still light evening by going straight out for a walk along the promenade. For a while, this was fine: families on the beach were just packing up, a few beach-hut owners were still relaxing in their doorways in deck chairs. Then, suddenly, all of these people had gone and I realised that there was no-one in sight except for perhaps twenty skateboarders, all young men, who had suddenly appeared and were performing expert manoeuvres all along the prom. I probably read too many crime reports in the newspapers, but the thought struck me forcibly that if one of them were to swoop down on me and snatch my handbag and then either sail away or pass it on to one of his friends, I’d have no chance of getting it back. I beat a hasty retreat to the hotel. (Apologies to all honest skateboarders everywhere for this shocking stereotyping!)
This hotel had been booked at the last minute, when I realised that Sunday travel would be impossible. It was all I could get and not of the standard of the conference hotel, to which I moved at the end of the weekend. It turned out to be the sister hotel of the hotel in Torquay on which Fawlty Towers was based. I have also stayed in the latter, and I can say only that both hotels live up to their reputation. The bucket in the corridor, to catch drips from the ceiling (someone had probably let their bath overflow) was dispiriting; the room itself was tiny – I could lie in bed and touch both walls with my elbows. (I smiled at the child’s Z-bed in the corridor: any parents who could get their offspring as well as themselves into such a room must have been contortionists!)
My colleagues were arriving very late, so I ate dinner alone, an uncanny backward time travel to the first restaurant meals that I experienced as an adolescent. The set menu was filled with culinary clichés: prawn cocktail, toasted grapefruit, melon boat, gammon and pineapple, coronation chicken, apple pie and baked Alaska. The couples dining seemed to have passed through some invisible looking-glass from the 1970s. The dining-room was vast: half a football pitch away, a very large group (the waiter called them ‘the tour’ – I think he meant ‘coach party’) erupted into song at intervals. They sang ‘Happy birthday to you’, ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’, and, for good measure, ‘You’ll never walk alone’. The dining couples stolidly ignored them, the men sipping beer with their food, the women drinking coke.
Outside in the foyer, a group of very young women, obviously members of a hen-party, were about to embark upon a night on the town. They were brightly and uniformly dressed in what appeared to be clinging T-shirt dresses (shorter even than ‘pelmet’ skirts). The bride was instantly recognisable, because she was wearing a veil anchored by a crown of artificial flowers. Two of the other girls were carrying the lower half (i.e., the waist, hips and legs) of a shop-window mannequin, its modesty preserved by the addition of a pair of scarlet lace knickers. They all thought that this was hilariously funny and burst into incontrollable giggles as they carried it out through the door. By chance I saw them returning to the hotel some hours later, by which time the legs seemed to have been mislaid, if you’ll forgive the pun.
I retired to my room to read until my colleagues arrived. When they came, they suggested that we met for a drink, but by this time ‘the tour’ had filled the hotel bar. They were still singing traditional crowd songs, while heavy metal music pounded in the background. We decided to escape to the bar of the hotel next door. The music there was, if not understated, more schmaltzy, and our fellow drinkers consisted mainly of the members of a fairly decorous wedding party. The mother of the bride, dressed head to toe in leopardskin-printed chiffon, was a little the worse for wear. She was semi-recumbent upon a banquette, her eyes closed, her killer stilettoes kicked off. We paid through the nose for cocktails and managed to have a civilised conversation (in the sense that we could hear each other speak) before deciding to return to our own hotel, hoping that it would not be too noisy to get a decent night’s sleep.
Outside it was bitterly cold and very dark. A pergola had been erected between the two hotels, and something was glowing red inside it. Coming nearer, I saw that the bride and groom were sitting there, she still wearing her sleeveless, strapless dress with not even a wrap to keep her warm. Each was smoking a cigarette.
On Sunday, I moved to the conference hotel and the Bournemouth that I have always known sprang back into place again. What does all of this have to do with crime fiction? I’m not sure, but I think there may be the seed of a plot forming in the back of my mind. A silent killer moving between hotels, perhaps, inhabiting two worlds.
Edgy place, Bournemouth…
Blood on the Altar (faber & faber), by Tobias Jones, is undoubtedly the most unusual true crime account I have ever read, and one of the most disturbing. Jones was an investigative journalist living in Italy when he heard of the case of Elisa Claps, a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl who disappeared after attending church one Sunday morning in her home town of Potenza, deep in the south of the country. Jones befriended the Claps family; from the outset, they suspected that Danilo Restivo, a strange young man prone to exhibiting an unhealthy interest in certain local women and also, apparently, a stalker of Elisa, had murdered her. Among Restivo’s unsettling habits was a fetishistic obsession with female hair. However, his family was more eminent than the Claps family and his father undoubtedly able to influence such local officials as the public prosecutor and others in authority, like the priest in charge of the church where Elisa disappeared. As a result, although all the evidence pointed towards his guilt, he was not brought to justice. The evidence itself became obscured by a tissue of lies, evasions and half-truths in which many people, including some of Elisa’s own friends, appeared to be complicit.
Elisa’s brother, Gildo, spent almost twenty years trying to get at the truth of what happened, helped at intervals by Jones. Eventually, Jones became depressed by the corruption that seemed to be endemic in the region and returned to England to start a new life. He had been pursuing his new interests for some years when the case of Heather Barnett made the headlines. She was a seamstress living in Bournemouth and she had been brutally murdered and disfigured. In her hands were clumps of hair, not all of it belonging to her. It transpired that Danilo Restivo, who pretended to comfort her children after they discovered her body, was the neighbour who lived opposite her house. From his window, he could see into her bedroom window.
Eventually the police charged Restivo with Barnett’s murder. While the case was progressing, the remains of Elisa Claps were discovered high in the rafters of the church in Potenza where she had disappeared and Restivo was at last charged with this murder, too. Jones speculates that, since there was a gap of nine years between the two murders, it is likely that Restivo killed other women in the interim. In particular, the murder of a young Korean girl in Bournemouth about eighteen months before Heather Barnett’s death shows many similarities to the later crime. (Another man was found guilty of this murder, but the police have reopened this case recently, following the publication of Jones’ book.)
Like a well-plotted crime novel, Blood on the Altar tells two stories. The ‘main plot’ recounts the murders and offers a psychological profile of Restivo; the ‘sub-plot’ explores the remote region of Italy where the first crime takes place and tries to explain the collective psyche of its inhabitants. In the process, Jones gives the reader some evocative descriptions of the Italian countryside and of local customs. All of this is of relevance both to an understanding of Restivo’s character and to how he managed to evade the law, which in turn allowed him to commit the second murder (and probably others). However, the approach that Jones has taken has one drawback: it relegates Heather Barnett to a kind of bit-part in the book. Jones does not engage with her tragedy and that of her family as he engages with the tragedy of Elisa and the Claps family. This has the effect of making the story a bit lop-sided; however, that is a minor quibble about what is a fascinating, unsettling and beautifully-written book.