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…
Stamford in Lincolnshire bestrides the River Welland (which also flows through the Spalding of the DI Yates books) and marks the ancient ford across the river where the Romans chose to route Ermine Street on its way north. Going there to sign copies of The Crossing, the fourth DI Yates book, seemed very appropriate!
It seems to be a continuing theme of The Crossing events that they are fated to happen in extreme weather. Harlow Carr was squally, Spalding was tempestuous and yesterday Stamford was bitterly cold! The cold hit me as soon as I got up yesterday morning. Venturing out with the dog before dawn, I noticed that a clutch of flowerpots outside the back door seemed to have sprouted a mysterious white substance. Closer inspection revealed it to be snow. Once clear of the parking area in front of my house (treacherous with black ice), I saw that all the rooftops and hedgerows in the village were twinkling with crisp snow.
It’s a two-hour drive to Stamford and, although my husband and I were heading due south, it seemed to get colder as the sun rose higher in the sky. Stamford itself was in the grip of a vicious north wind which, the weather forecast informed us, was blowing straight down from the Arctic. It didn’t seem to deter the citizens of the town: wrapped up in thick coats, hats and scarves, all seemed to be going about their business cheerfully. The Christmas decorations had been put up, most of the shop windows now carried Christmas displays and the cold served only to make the atmosphere more festive.
My destination, Walker’s Bookshop in the town centre, was as warm and welcoming as always. Its Christmas stock had been laid out beautifully and customers came, sometimes in droves, sometimes in flurries, to admire it and to browse and buy. I’d been allocated a table near to the cash desk to sign copies of The Crossing and we did a brisk trade throughout my allotted time there.
I’d like to thank both the people of Stamford and the several visitors to the town whom I met not only for buying the book, but also for the fascinating conversations in which we engaged throughout the day. There was the lady whose father had owned some of the gravel pits that I write about in Almost Love. She told me that when she was a child they’d found many things in the pits, including a mammoth’s tooth (I mention the mammoth’s remains in the book), a pewter salver and several skeletons, some of which had been buried face down, perhaps because they belonged to murderers or suicides. The artefacts had all been given to a local museum, but the bones were removed by police who ‘just put them into bags and carted them away. It was the sixties and seventies. They didn’t bother to reinter them or find out how old they were.’ Shades of Sausage Hall! It is tantalising to think that some may have been the result of more recent murders: if so, the murderer(s) got off scot free! There was another lady from Cornwall who said her neighbour was Dawn French. She asked me about my writing routine. I said that although most of my writing is done in my office, I can also write on trains and in cafes. Dawn, apparently, must have absolute solitude and silence when she writes. Several men made purchases: they tended to be more interested in the series and how the novels relate to each other than more general information about the South Lincolnshire setting or how they came to be written. People of all ages stopped to talk to me. My youngest buyer was still at school. I was delighted that so many young people were interested, including a young woman who would have bought the whole set if we hadn’t run out of Sausage Hall and said, while buying the other three, that she’d order it. Some old friends also made the considerable journey from Nottingham to give their support.
The time flew by, as it always does for me when I’m in a bookshop. I had a truly wonderful day. I’d like to thank Tim Walker and Jenny Pugh for arranging the signing session and Mandy and Karen for looking after me so brilliantly while I was in the shop. It’s a very distinguished bookshop indeed and well worth the short detour off the A1 if you happen to be passing that way.
On the way home, it didn’t seem so cold, but perhaps that was just because I was enveloped in the rosy glow of having been able to meet so many new enthusiasts.
On my travels in other countries, some of the most evocative moments have been spent contemplating rivers. I’ve stood on O’Connell Bridge in Dublin and watched the (on that occasion very murky) waters of the Liffey and remember thinking, as I looked into its Guinness-coloured depths, that it must have been entirely James Joyce’s poetic imagination that produced such a beautiful name as Anna Livia Plurabelle. I’ve seen dhows swooping along the Nile, their single white sails bending gracefully to the breeze. I’ve marvelled at the massive businesslike barges speeding along the Danube, powerful and swift as crocodiles on the move. The bridges and embankments of the Seine are still vividly precious for their romance on our honeymoon. Closer to home, as I’ve written in a previous post, I’ve admired the spectacular night-time views from Waterloo Bridge in London as the Thames makes its sudden sweep to the East. And I still feel great affection for the dear, dirty River Welland that threads its way through the town of Spalding, much humbler than these great waterways, though still, in its day, a significant bringer of prosperity to the people who dwelt nearby, just like all the great rivers of the world.
Unsurprising then, that I should have been captivated by the magic of the great Yangtze, the fourth longest river in the world, as it pours itself at Shanghai into the East China Sea. Wide and fast-flowing, the Yangtze has brought traders to Shanghai for thousands of years, making it one of the world’s great cosmopolitan cities long before the rest of China emerged from its self-imposed insularity.
Even the Yangtze’s much smaller tributary, the Huangpu River that cuts right through the city centre, is a majestic waterway, which I visited first on a cold but sunny Sunday afternoon when people were promenading along the Bund, the waterfront area opposite Pudong, on a built-up walkway that enables walkers to get close to the river’s banks and where festive street food stalls abound.
Two days later, on a bitterly frosty but fine, clear evening, I was taken to the Huangpu’s junction with the Yangtze. On both occasions I was able to watch barge after nimble barge (they are longer and slenderer than the ones on the Danube) power by, almost as if in convoy, while the waters displaced by their passage lapped energetically against the shore. The barges and other ships are lit up in the evening, as is the spectacular Shanghai skyline that forms a backdrop to the Yangtze. The result is a profusion of golden lights that disport themselves against the inky blackness of the waters. The scene is dynamic, full of energy and passion, the legacy of very many years of trade, hard-won prosperity, daring, risk and chance and, I’m certain, not a little skulduggery and murder. The effect is by no means cosy, but it is exhilarating! At the back of my mind lurked the half-remembered knowledge that, in years gone by, to be ‘Shanghaied’ meant to be kidnapped and forced to serve as a sailor on board one of the many ships that plied their trade to the East and, ultimately, to Shanghai. I could imagine someone creeping up on a strong young man as he stood, unsuspecting, and rendering him unconscious; imagine his anguish as he awoke, his head sore, far out at sea, unable to tell his family and friends what had befallen him… that he was on his way to China.
Every river has a personality, which I think was James Joyce’s point about the Liffey. The Yangtze’s is particularly complex: on the one hand, it courses past Shanghai, bearing its gift to this great city of enterprise and generations of toleration for many creeds and cultures; on the other, it penetrates deep into a country that until recent times was secret, withdrawn, enclosed and shut away from all outside influence.
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James