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CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND. . . 5: Manchester and Shrewsbury

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I’m heading south to the urban sprawl of Manchester, to meet a very different kind of copper, one who lives at the dark end of the street. Aidan Waits was memorably brought to life (and death, I think) by Joseph Knox.

Aidan Waits inhabits a place where it never seems to be fully daylight, a world where he rubs shoulders with drug dealers and their customers, a city where violence is a common currency, and streets where broken hearts and disappointment walk hand in hand. Noir? Certainly, and probably the best British example of the genre in recent years. It’s not just Waits who is a creature of the darkness. His immediate boss, the ironically named DS Peter Sutcliffe, is a pretty awful specimen of both man and copper. They both glow with a certain righteousness only when they stand next to the repulsive Zane Carver, Waits’s sworn enemy and nemesis. If you click the image below, you will be able to read reviews of the three Aidan Waits novels, Sirens, The Smiling Man and The Sleepwalker.

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Next, I am going to a different place and time altogether. Back through the centuries, and to a place that was considerably less dystopian than Joseph Knox’s Hieronymus Bosch-like Manchester. Shrewsbury in the early 12th century was, like most other towns, no stranger to dark deeds and the general venality of its inhabitants, but in the Brother Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) there is virtue to be found as well as kindness and redemption. There were 21 novels featuring the crime-solving Benedictine monk, beginning with A Morbid Taste for Bones (1977) and concluding with Brother Cadfael’s Penance (1994). It wouldn’t be fair to call the series ‘cosy’, but readers certainly became comfortable with the vividly authentic period settings, the intriguing crimes, and Cadfael’s own blend of worldliness – as befitted a man who was a former soldier – and Christian benevolence. So, what was Cadfael’s story?

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For many people, the Cadfael stories will have been defined by the excellent TV versions, starring Derek Jacobi. That’s absolutely fine, and his portrayal must be added to the surprisingly short list of definitive adaptations that matched and enhanced the printed word. In my view, only John Thaw’s Morse, David Jason’s Jack Frost, Roy Marsden’s Adam Dalgliesh and David Suchet’s Poirot should be included, although there is – due to the number of options – a separate debate about Sherlock Holmes. For the record, it is Jeremy Brett for me, but that’s a discussion for another day. Go back to the printed word, though, for the most subtle and  multi- layered portrait of  Brother Cadfael – one of crime fiction’s immortals.

CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND . . . 4. York and Preston

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NecroEver onwards, and ever northward to the ancient city of York. For all that it houses the magnificent medieval minster and has a history going back to the Eboracum of Roman times, fewer people remember that York was also a great railway city, and there can be no more appropriate place to house the National Railway Museum. Like many men now in the autumn of their years I was an enthusiastic trainspotter back in the days of steam, so it is – I hope – perfectly understandable that I have chosen the Jim Stringer novels by Andrew Martin for this stop on our trip. Martin introduced Stringer in The Necropolis Railway (2002) when Stringer is very much at the bottom of the railway hierarchy, and working in London, but by 2004 in The Blackpool Highflyer, Stringer has married his landlord’s daughter – the beautiful Lydia – and has been promoted to a job in York.

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The next four novels see Jim rising steadily through the ranks of railway nobility, but in 1914 the world changes for ever, and Jim, like tens of thousands of other fathers, husbands, brothers and sons, answers the country’s call and joins up to fight the Kaiser, but with his expertise as a railwayman. The Great War, while not as completely global as the conflict that followed just twenty five years later, was not confined to the blood-soaked farmlands of France and Flanders. After solving a front-line murder in The Somme Stations (2011) Jim goes east in The Bagdhad Railway Club (2012) and Night Train To Jamalpur (2013) and emerges some years after the war, more or less unscathed and back home in York, in Powder Smoke (2021)

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Andrew Martin is many things – steeped in railway lore from his childhood, Oxford graduate, qualified barrister, performing musician, born in York and writer of novels light years distant from crime fiction. If he were ever to have a tombstone inscription, I do hope he would include (in brackets) “also known as Jim Stringer”. Stringer is a brilliant creation; not a ‘bish-bash-bosh’ hero, for sure, but a man with a well-defined moral compass and a gimlet eye for wrong-doing – be it in railway procedure or life in general.

Although I don’t quite belong to Jim Stringer’s era, when I read his books I am back in my relatively blameless youth (remember when Philip Larkin said sex was invented) and I am on a station platform somewhere in the Midlands, probably showered with soot from a venting steam engine, pen in one hand, notebook in the other, and with a school satchel containing sandwiches and a bottle of pop slung over my shoulder.

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We now face a long haul over The Pennines and, just after the ancient town of Skipton, we trade the white rose for the red, and pass into the County Palatine of Lancashire. It is just possible that we might pass within a stone’s throw of a moorland pub called The Tawny Owl. Were we to call in for refreshment we might be serves by a fifty-something chap called Henry Christie. More than likely, though he will be out somewhere between Preston and Blackpool ‘helping police with their inquiries’. In Henry’s case, however, this is not the standard police cliché for being ‘nicked’ but is to be taken absolutely literally, as retired copper Christie has a new role as a consultant to his former colleagues.

ATFJHis creator, Nick Oldham, knows of what he writes, as he is a former police officer, and the 29th book in this long running and successful series is due out at the end of November. So, what can readers expect from a Henry Christie story? It depends where you start, of course, because if you go back to the beginning in 1996, Peter Shilton was still in goal, but for Leyton Orient, England lost to Germany (on penalties, naturally) in the Euros semi-final, the trial of men accused of murdering Stephen Lawrence collapsed and John Major was in his second term as British Prime Minister. In A Time For Justice Christie is a relatively junior Detective Inspector – and someone who is seriously out of favour with his bosses, and has to tackle a cocky mafia hitman who thinks the English police are a joke. As the novels progress over the years, Christie rises through the ranks, but he is still someone who is viewed with some suspicion by the few officers who outrank him – the chief constables and their assistants.

NOHenry Christie is always hands on, and he has the scars – mostly physical, but one or two mental lesions – to prove it. His personal life has been a mixture of love, passion, tragedy and disappointment. His geographical battle grounds are usually confined to the triangle formed of Preston, Lancaster and Blackpool. This is an area that Oldham (right) himself knows very well, of course, thanks to his years as a copper, but it is also very cleverly chosen, because it allows the author to play with very different human and geographical landscapes. The brooding moorland to the east is a wonderful setting for all kinds of wrong-doing, while the seaside town of Blackpool, despite the golden sands, donkey rides, candy floss and cheerful seaside ambience, houses one of the worst areas of deprivation in the whole country, with run-down and lawless former council estates controlled by loan sharks, traffickers and criminal families of the worst sort.

What comes as standard in this superb series is tight plotting, total procedural authenticity, some pretty mind blowing violence and brutality but – above all – an intensely human and likeable main character. Click on the images below to read reviews of some of the more recent Henry Christie novels.

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CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND . . . 3: Scunthorpe and Leeds

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Screen Shot 2021-10-30 at 18.48.53A trip to Scunthorpe might not be too high on many people’s list of literary pilgrimages, but we are calling in for a very good reason, and that is because it was the probable setting for one of the great crime novels, which was turned into a film which regularly appears in the charts of “Best Film Ever”. I am talking about Jack’s Return Home, better known as Get Carter. Hang on, hang on – that was in Newcastle wasn’t it? Yes, the film was, but director Mike Hodges recognised that Newcastle had a more gritty allure in the public’s imagination than the north Lincolnshire steel town, which has long been the butt of gags in the stage routine of stand-up comedians.

Author Ted Lewis (right) was actually born in Manchester in 1940, but after the war his parents moved to Barton-on-Humber, just fourteen miles from Scunthorpe. Lewis crossed Screen Shot 2021-10-30 at 18.54.40the river to attend Art college in Hull before moving to London to work as an animator. His novels brought him great success but little happiness, and after his marriage broke up, he moved back to Lincolnshire to live with his mother. By then he was a complete alcoholic and he died of related causes in 1982. His final novel GBH (1980) – which many critics believe to be his finest – is played out in the bleak out-of-season Lincolnshire coastal seaside resorts which Lewis would have known in the sunnier days of his childhood. In case you were wondering about how Jack’s Return Home is viewed in the book world, you can pick up a first edition if you have a spare £900 or so in your back pocket.

There is a rather arcane conversation to be had about the original name Jack’s Return Home. Yes, Carter’s name is Jack, and he returns to his home town to investigate the death of his brother. But take a look at a scene in the film. Carter visits his late brother’s house, and amid the books and LPs strewn about, there is a very visible copy of a Tony Hancock record, Check out the discography of Tony Hancock LPs, and you will find a recording of The East Cheam Drama Festival and one of the plays – a brilliantly spoof of a Victorian melodrama – is called …….. Jack’s Return Home.

You can find out much more about Ted Lewis and his books by clicking the image below.

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Before we leave the delights of ‘Scunny’, here’s a pub quiz question. Three England captains played for which Lincolshire football team? The answer, of course, is Scunthorpe United. The three captains?
Kevin Keegan – Scunthorpe 1966-71, England captain 1976-82
Ray Clemence – Scunthorpe 1965-67, England captain once, in a friendly against Brazil
Ian Botham – Scunthorpe 1980-85, England (cricket) captain 1980-81

Ouch! Anyway, back to crime fiction and we start up the Bentley and head into darkest Yorkshire to meet a policeman and his family in the city of Leeds.

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Screen Shot 2021-10-25 at 19.01.43Does Chris Nickson preach? Absolutely not. This is the beauty of the Tom Harper books. No matter what the circumstances, we trust Harper’s judgment, and we can only be grateful that the struggles and sacrifices that he and his wife endured paid – eventually – dividends. The books are relatively short, but always vibrant with local historical detail, and I swear that I my eyes itch with the tang of effluent from the tanneries, and the sulphurous smoke from the foundries. We also meet real people like Herbert Asquith, Jennie Baines and Frank Kitson. Chris Nickson takes them from the dry pages of the history books and allows our imagination to bring them to life. For detailed reviews of some of the Tom Harper books, click the author’s image (left)

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.

CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND . . . 1: London and Cambridge

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I am taking a journey around England to revisit places associated with great crime novels. One or two might be a surprise!

London is a great place to start, and one of its finest crime writers was Derek Raymond (real name Robert William Arthur Cook 1931 – 1994). His Factory series featured an un-named Detective Sergeant working out of a fictitious police station in Soho. He is part of the Unexplained Deaths division and a man already haunted by tragedy. His mentally unhinged wife killed their daughter, and he is alone in life except for her ghost. This is a London of almost impenetrable moral darkness, an evil place only infrequently redeemed by intermittent acts of kindness and compassion. The detective devotes himself to seeking justice or revenge (and sometimes both) for the victims.

DRWe are left to imagine what he looks like. He never uses violence as a matter of habit, but his inner rage fuels a temper which can destroy those who are unwise enough to provoke him. Why is he so bitter, so angry, so disgusted? Of himself, he says:

I’m a solitary man. Sometimes, mind, there’s happiness in solitude, still, it helps to talk to other people sometimes and  dig back together to a time when people felt that the past mattered and something good might happen in the future. But when I open the next door I’m sent to and find the dead inside, overturned bottles and tables, bloody, dishonoured, defamed people lying there, I sometimes accept that dreaming and hoping the way I do is absurd.”

Raymond is regarded as the Godfather of English Noir and is an acknowledged influence on most modern writers in the genre. A good novel to start with is He Died with His Eyes Open (1984) but you will need to steel yourself before tackling his brutal masterpiece I Was Dora Suarez. There’s more on Derek Raymond and his books here.

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TGD

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