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CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND . . . 2: Norfolk and Boston

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“A little onward lend thy guiding hand” as Samson said in Milton’s interminable poem, and we are headed towards the Norfolk coast, where we will meet up with an engaging archaeologist who has a disturbing habit of discovering present day corpses, along with the bones of long-dead Bronze Age folk. Ruth Galloway is the creation of Domenica de Rosa, better known to readers as Elly Griffiths, and she is one of the most convincingly human of present day crime fiction heroines. Galloway is, of course, in a long line of amateur investigators and, like many of her predecessors, she needs a connection to the professional police force so that the stories remain plausible. In Galloway’s case, the connection is deeply personal, as her police contact is a King’s Lynn based detective who was once her lover. Harry Nelson (and there’s a proud Norfolk name) is the father of Galloway’s daughter Kate, yet he still lives more-or-less peaceably with his wife Michelle, and they too have children. The relationship between Galloway and Nelson is unusual, to say the least, but it provides an interesting counterpoint to the  discovery of bodies and the search for murderers.

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The crime fiction tropes which lead to bodies being discovered, thus setting in chain a murder investigation, are many and varied. A long standing favourite is the dog-walker, and then there is the cleaner who makes an unwelcome discovery when she enters a house. People on boats or perhaps fishing on river banks are pretty good for ‘floaters’, but archaeologists – whose very job involves digging – are better than most. Elly Griffiths makes excellent use of this device, but it never becomes trite, mainly because she is such a gifted writer.

A resident player in the Galloway-Griffiths Repertory Company is an ageing hippy called Cathbad. His real name is Michael Malone, and he frequently adds a touch of mysticism (real or imagined) to proceedings. To my shame, I always imagine him as Nigel Planer in The Young Ones, but that, perhaps, does him – and Elly Griffiths – a disservice.

Crime novels are not all about location, but having an affinity with landscape – and the ability to make it a character in the narrative – never hurts, and Elly Griffiths brings the North Norfolk Coast to life. I live not too far away, and cynical locals have re-christened the area ‘Chelsea-on-Sea’, due to the gentrification of villages, and the surge in properties being bought up as weekend retreats for wealthy people from the Home Counties. There remains, of course, a rougher local under-current, and this features in the most recent Ruth Galloway novel, The Nighthawks. Click the link to read my review, and keep an eye open for the next novel in the series, The Locked Room, which is due to be published in early 2022.

BostonThe next stage of our journey is to a town that doesn’t exist – at least on an Ordance Survey map. Writers have always created fictional towns based on real places – think Thomas Hardy’s Casterbridge, Trollope’s Barchester, Arnold Bennett’s Bursley, Herriot’s Darrowby, and Dylan Thomas’s Llareggub – but remember that each was based on a real life place well known to the writer. Thus we drive along a road that skirts the windswept and muddy shores of The Wash until we arrive in Boston, Lincolnshire. It was here that the journalist and writer Colin Watson lived and worked for many years, and it was in Boston’s image that he created Flaxborough – the home and jurisdiction of Inspector Walter Purbright.

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Watson wrote an entertaining book about English crime fiction. He called it Snobbery With Violence (1971), and he was not particularly complimentary about several crime writers who contributed to what we call The Golden Age, but it shows that he was a man who read widely, and took his craft seriously. CWAny serious student of crime fiction should read it, but must bear in mind it was written by a man who became seriously disillusioned with writing and the world of publishing. The last book in the series was Whatever’s Been Going on at Mumblesby? which was published in 1982. Watson died in 1983, but had retired to the village of Folkingham, where he had taken up silver-smithing, and had remarked to a visiting journalist that writing was something of a mugs’ game, with too little reward for too much effort. His characters had, however briefly, been adapted for a four-episode TV series in the 1970s, with Anton Rodgers as Purbright and Christopher Timothy as Sergeant Love. For more about Colin Watson on the Fully Booked site, click the author’s image.

THE NIGHT HAWKS . . . Between the covers

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Screen Shot 2020-12-18 at 19.46.09Elly Griffiths, (left) whose real name is Domenica de Rosa, has created an endearing heroine in the person of Ruth Galloway, an English archaeologist who, over the course of a dozen novels, has managed to find herself at the centre of murder mysteries where the corpses are considerably more recent than the ones she normally excavates. She is a senior lecturer at the fictional University of North Norfolk, and the novels are set in and around the north and west of Norfolk. Griffiths uses real locations like King’s Lynn, Blakeney and Sheringham, and has also constructed a reliably entertaining cast of supporting players, principally Ruth’s once-upon-a-time lover, a refreshingly old fashioned married police detective called Harry Nelson. They have a child, Kate, who lives with Ruth, while Harry remains more-or-less happily married to Michelle, with whom he also has children.

In the thirteenth book in the series, The Night Hawks, we have the characters who long time readers of the series will recognise, including the middle aged druid who calls himself Cathbad. His real name is Michael Malone, but he can usually be relied upon to bring to bring a touch of the supernatural – imagined or otherwise – to the proceedings. The Night Hawks in this tale aren’t remotely sinister, despite their name. They are group of men whose hobby is traversing the ancient Norfolk landscape with their metal detectors, searching for buried artifacts. They operate at night, because it is quieter and they are less likely to be disturbed.

They get the story started with a classic Elly Griffiths trope – the finding of a Bronze Age hoard, including an ancient skeleton, alongside a body that is much more recently deceased. While the older gentleman can wait his turn to be studied and catalogued, the young man’s body is whisked off to King’s Lynn for the attention of the police pathologist.

51D4BGVpbxLShortly after the grim discovery, the police are called to a remote farmhouse a few miles inland, where there are reports of gunshots being heard. This time, there is no doubt about the identity or the cause of death of two dead people found inside Black Dog Farmhouse. Dr Douglas Noakes and his wife Linda are dead from gunshot wounds, and it appears to be a clear case of murder-suicide. This clear cut diagnosis becomes rather more tenuous when questions are raised about firearms technicalities, despite an apparent suicide note being found.

The plot becomes pleasantly complicated from this point on. The late Dr and Mrs Noakes had two children, from whom they had become estranged, but was the separation bitter enough to provoke murder? Noakes was not a GP, but a research scientist, and it seems that he had been working with a Cambridge lab developing vaccines. Was this why one of the rooms at Black Dog Farmhouse was kitted out like a doctor’s surgery, complete with bed? The dead young man – the twentieth century one – is eventually identified as Jem Taylor, a 25 year-old from Cromer, who had only recently been released from prison.

There is another murder. This time the victim is a member of The Night Hawks, a retired teacher with connections to several of the people in the story. He has been battered over the head with a lump of rock, and his death further complicates matters.

Elly Griffiths has great fun by introducing some ‘spookery’ by way of a local legend – that of Black Shuck. Tales of a ghostly hellhound are spread far and wide through English folklore, and this Norfolk version is equally menacing. Like all literary amateur sleuths, Ruth Galloway’s involvement with active police investigations is pretty implausible, but delightfully so. The odd relationship between Ruth, Harry Nelson and his wife makes for an intriguing read, and added to the impeccably researched location details, The Night Hawks provides a thoroughly enjoyable and gripping few hours of entertainment. The book is published by Quercus and will be out on 4th February.

JIM KELLY: A Landscape of Secrets

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Jim Kelly’s brooding and atmospheric crime novels are set in the eastern counties of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. I am a huge admirer of his books, and you can click the link below to watch a short video which tries to distill the essence of his work into a brief juxtaposition of images and music.

JIM KELLY: A Landscape of Secrets

THE KILLING OF JOHN AUGER

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This is a tale of brutality – and total incompetence. An elderly man is battered to death, and his killers escape with a safe containing small change. Get the full story by clicking the podcast link.

THE KILLING OF JOHN AUGER

THE SEAWEED THAT STARTED A WAR

Samphire HeaderHere on the coast of The Wash we can, if we wish, still measure the seasons by produce. I say “if we wish”, because supermarkets have no seasons – everything is available all the year round. But in the old fashioned world of buying food when it is fresh and local, the year has its own rhythm. Early summer gives us asparagus, followed by strawberries. In autumn and winter Brancaster mussels and native oysters are delicious, but for me, the true treasure of the summer months is samphire. This plant of the coastal marshes, Crithmum maritimum, allegedly gets its name from a corruption of the French “St Pierre”, but whatever its etymology, it is utterly delicious. Lightly boiled or steamed, it is best eaten with the fingers. Running the stems through your teeth to strip off the flesh is a completely sybaritic sensation. Local folk love it with vinegar, but with butter and coarsely ground pepper it is little short of heavenly.

But hold on, you say, this is mostly a crime fiction site. What’s with the gourmet stuff? Bear with me for a moment longer. Let’s look at the price. As you can see from the photos, it’s £5.99 for a kilo here in the market. Sadly, this will be the last until June or July next year, but no matter. A quick search on the internet reveals that an online Cornish fishmonger will provide some for £16.90 a kilo, Waitrose are selling it for £22 a kilo, and if you want to use a firm called Fine Food Specialists, a kilo will set you back a cool £34.50.

Now with that kind of a mark-up, we are almost into class ‘A’ drug territory – and this is where the crime fiction link comes in. In 2014, the estimable Jim Kelly updated his Peter ADWindowShaw and George Valentine series with At Death’s Window. In addition to solving a series of burglaries at properties along the Norfolk coast owned by wealthy out-of-towners, Shaw and Valentine become involved in a turf war between product dealers. These are not your common-or-garden drug barons, or even owners of ice cream vans, but dealers in samphire! As I have illustrated, with a 300% mark-up available for an item that can be had for nothing, why bother with something as illegal and potentially lethal as narcotics? The problem in At Death’s Window comes when local folk are muscled off their home territory by criminal gangs using illegal immigrants as pickers. Think cockles and the Morecambe Bay tragedy, and you can see how it all might go pear-shaped.

So, as I sit down tonight and indulge myself with the last of the summer samphire, and a glass of something invigorating to wash it down, I shall drink a toast to Jim Kelly, anticipate the first sighting – and tasting – of the new season’s mussels, and dream about next summer. Oh yes, I almost forgot. Samphire pickles extremely well, and I have a few jars in the cupboard to sample in the dark depths of winter!

We have plenty of Jim Kelly on the site, for anyone whose interest has been piqued. There’s an appreciation of his writing, Jim Kelly – a landscape of secrets and a review of his latest book, Death Ship. You can also follow the link to get hold of a copy of At Death’s Window.

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DEATH SHIP … Between the covers

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In Jim Kelly’s novels, the past is like a sunken ship that has lain undisturbed on the sea bed for decades. Then, with a freak tide, or maybe some seismic shift, the ship’s blackened timbers surface once again, breaking through the surface of the present. In this, the latest case for Detective Inspector Peter Shaw and Sergeant George Valentine, the metaphor becomes literal. In the terrible storm of January 31st 1953, a tempest that battered the East Anglian coast and claimed over 300 lives, a dilapidated Dutch coaster, the Coralia, went down, taking its captain and crew with her.

Meanwhile, the unique seaside town of Hunstanton – unique in that it is an east coast resort which faces west – has been literally rocked by an explosion on its crowded beach. Something buried deep beneath the sand is triggered by some boys determined to dig a sink-hole sized pit before the tide sweeps in. There is a brief moment when something metallic and shiny appears in the wall of their excavation, but then hell is unleashed. Miraculously, no-one is seriously hurt, but the beach is closed to holidaymakers while forensic experts and a bomb disposal team from the army do their stuff.

Shaw is faced with several possibilities. Was the explosive device recently planted by extremists from the STP – Stop The Pier – movement, who are protesting against the construction of a huge new pier which will suck trade and footfall from existing businesses? Was the explosion a result – as a teenage boffin from King’s Lynn suggests – of the very late detonation of an unexploded bomb dropped in a Zeppelin raid way back in 1915?

Shaw’s case is complicated by the discovery of a dead diver, tethered to the underwater remains of Hunstanton’s Victorian Pier, destroyed by storms in 1978. Eventually, he learns that the murdered diver is the son of one of the crew members of the ill-fated Lagan, whose remains are rotting on the seabed a couple of miles distant from the pleasure beach. And what of the apparently guileless old lady who has been caught giving arsenic-laced sweets to people in a local ‘bus queue.

Detective partnerships have become one of the enduring clichés of crime fiction. Sometimes – but not always – the pairings work, and when they do, they are a very satisfying literary device. The trope usually requires the senior partner to be yin to the junior’s yang. In this case, Peter Shaw has the imagination. George Valentine the curmudgeonly common sense; Shaw is the live wire to Valentine’s earth. The telling difference between these two and other ‘odd couples’ is that Kelly explores the psychological make up of both men, and the glimpses into their personal lives are equally perceptive and revealing. Valentine is older than Shaw by many a mile; so much so, that Valentine actually served in the force alongside Shaw’s late father, a man still revered within the Constabulary. We also learn that were it not for a faux pas which almost ended his career, Valentine would now be Shaw’s senior officer.

New readers will be pleasantly surprised at how Kelly knits together the misdeeds of the past and the murderous intent of the present. Existing fans will simply smile, and say, “He’s done it again.” You will be pushed to find a novel which so successfully welds together the police procedural, the psychological thriller, the ‘whodunnit’, and the atmospheric novel of place. If you find one, please let me know. In the meantime, I will not be holding my breath – except in waiting for the next masterpiece from one of our finest writers. Death Ship is published by Severn House, and is available here. The official launch will be – very appropriately – at the RNLI Headquarters in Hunstanton on 3rd September. For tickets and enquiries ‘phone 07840 375 984

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JIM KELLY … A landscape of secrets

jim kelly Small_0JIM KELLY (above) grew up in the shadow of some of the worst criminal misdeeds the country had ever experienced and, as his childhood progressed, the evil that men do was seldom far away from the Kelly family. So, he had a brutal and disadvantaged upbringing? No, far from it – just the opposite. His father Brian was a top detective in the Metropolitan Police, and his maternal grandfather, too, had a background in keeping the peace as a special constable – he actually was there on the street, as it were, in 1911, when Home Secretary Winston Churchill and others managed to turn a hunt for anarchist criminals into the expensive and bungled farce that we know as the Siege of Sidney Street.

 Kelly was born in Barnet, originally a small Hertfordshire town, but now a borough long since absorbed into the suburban sprawl of north London. It was near Barnet on 14th April 1471, that one of the most influential battles of the Wars of The Roses secured the throne for the Yorkist King Edward IV. The only battles that Kelly recalls were, however, between his beloved Barnet Town Football Club and their rivals. ‘The Bees’ have been back and forth between league and non-league football over the years, with all the regularity of a fiddler’s elbow, but as long as hope springs eternal in the human breast, Barnet can be sure of at least one man’s loyalty.

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After several years in journalism, which culminated in writing for The Financial Times, Kelly decided to put his skills to the ultimate test. He would become a full time novelist. By this time, he and his family had moved to the beautiful Cambridgeshire cathedral city of Ely, which had all the advantages of wide open spaces as well as the crucial railway connection to London. Before we continue, a word from one who knows. Ely is, geographically, in Fenland – an area of such fertile soil that it is said that a man only has to spit on the black soil for it to start growing into something productive. But Ely, with its tea-rooms, artisan bakeries, arts centre and elegant cafés may be in The Fens, but it is certainly not of The Fens. To explore the real Fenland, the traveler must visit such hard-scrabble towns and villages as Wisbech, Chatteris, March, Welney and Three Holes. It is among these sometimes insalubrious settlements that Kelly sets the series that first brought him to public attention.

Philip Dryden is the editor of Ely’s local newspaper. When he was first introduced, in The Waterclock (2002), local ‘rags’ had yet to feel the full force of digital competition, but they were already on the rocky road of no longer charging a cover price, but giving themselves away for nothing, hoping to cover costs from advertising revenue.

In Kelly’s books there is always a sense of déjà vu, of history coming back to bite people on the bum, and a telling awareness that despite tomorrow being another day, it is yesterday that casts the longer shadow on people’s lives. This is even evident in the fact that Dryden’s exotic wife Laura is lying alive, but insensate, in an Ely hospital. She is there as a result of a catastrophic road accident when she and Dryden ended up in a deep Fen ditch late on a winter’s night. When I first met Kelly, he came and spoke about his books at my local library. He revealed that one of his favourite authors is Dorothy L Sayers. And how does her most celebrated book begin?

“That’s torn it!” said Lord Peter Wimsey.
The car lay helpless and ridiculous, her nose deep in the ditch,
her back wheels cocked absurdly up on the bank,
as though she were doing her best to bolt to earth
and were scraping herself a burrow beneath the drifting snow.

Thus Lord Peter Wimsey and the faithful Bunter have to seek the help of the inhabitants of Fenchurch St Paul and, in doing so, become involved in the celebrated mystery of The Nine Tailors. The Sayers connection is further developed by Kelly in his novel The Funeral Owl (2013), the most recent Philip Dryden mystery, where much of the action is centred in the Fen village of Brimstone Hill. This village is easily identifiable on the ground as Christchurch, which is little more than a huddle of houses in the lonely expanse of flat farmland between March and Ely. And who was the Rector of the little Victorian church in the village (below), between 1917 and 1928? The Reverend Henry Sayers, whose daughter went on to become one of the great literary figures of her day, and also a member of the elite writers of Golden Age crime fiction.

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Like all amateur detectives, Dryden sticks his nose into places where it is likely to get stung or at least severely nipped. The fact that he lives on a houseboat moored on Ely’s River Great Ouse always adds a touch of the exotic, but his day job as newspaper man allows him access to places that mere interested passers by could never penetrate. After refusing ever to drive again after the accident which left his wife paralysed, Dryden relies for transport on an obese and sedentary taxi driver called Humph. Humph serves several functions, including playing the role of a Greek chorus, commenting on and observing at a small distance the complications and dramas with which his regular customer involves himself. On a less cerebral level Humph has an inexhaustible supply of snacks, as well as an impressive collection of spirit miniatures harvested during his frequent trips to Stansted airport.

Kelly’s other crime fiction series hovers closer to the police procedural landing strip than the Philip Dryden novels. Peter Shaw is a high-ranking detective based in King’s Lynn. He too has his Watson, but in this case it is in the form of the taciturn and misanthropic copper, Sergeant Valentine. Kelly’s portrayal of King’s Lynn is as accurate and revealing as his frank picture of the bleak, inhospitable, historically incestuous and endlessly resentful villages of Fenland. Lynn, as it is known to locals, is also a paradox. On the one hand we have the magnificent churches, the prestigious Festival, and the unbreakable connection with a certain family who have a country home just up the road in Sandringham. But we also have the rough estates, the ill-at-ease migrant workers, and the tough-as-teak descendants of the fishermen who once sailed out of Lynn in search of seafood for the tables of rich men in their castles.

Like Dryden, Shaw is a complex character. He conceals from his bosses the fact that he may be losing his sight as a result of an old injury. His father – like Kelly’s – was a hugely respected policeman. Unlike Detective Superintendent Brian Kelly, however, Shaw père may not have been as honest as the day is long. In recent Peter Shaw novels, readers have been taken away from King’s Lynn and led up the Norfolk coast to such places as Brancaster and Holme. This part of Norfolk has been called Chelsea-on-Sea, due to the rising numbers of wealthy second-homers who have invested money, if not time, in the area. Shaw’s beautiful wife, who runs a beach shop and store at Hunstanton, and our man’s part-time job as a member of the local lifeboat crew, certainly add depth to the character.

As a master of landscape and what has been called pyschogeography – the invisible pull that past deeds, embedded in the fabric of buildings and streets, exert on modern day events – Jim Kelly has only one equal, and that is Christopher Fowler, whose elderly detectives Bryant and May are always jerked this way and that by the powerful magnets of history which lie beneath the streets of London.

If you are yet to read one of Kelly’s novels, then you should do so as soon as possible. If, like me, you are a devout disciple, then I hope that I have summed up just a hint of the man’s magical writings.I am presenting the two series of novels as separate graphics, but you can find out more by visiting Jim Kelly’s Amazon page.

PHILIP DRYDEN NOVELS

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PETER SHAW NOVELS

Peter Shaw

 

 

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