What do you think of when you think of British crime fiction? For many people it might be Agatha Christie and her clever sleuths Poirot or Marple, investigating murder in cosy country houses full of people with secrets to hide. There’s a lot more to British crime fiction than that though, and one of the really interesting things is that a great many of them are attached to a particular place. In the way that many other novelists might rove around from place to place, crime fiction writers more often than not centre multiple books around a particular character and place. It can be fun to read crime books written about your home patch, but equally it can be an exciting way of reading about other places too. That’s what I’m aiming to do here, by taking a crime fiction tour of Britain.
We begin our journey in London – the nation’s capital is as good a place as any to start, and also the home of possibly the most famous detective of them all: Sherlock Holmes. He wasn’t the first detective in fiction, that honour probably goes to C. Auguste Dupin in Edgar Allan Poe’s Murder in the Rue Morgue. Sherlock Holmes was the first detective to be popularly known however, and even if you have never read any Holmes stories or watched any of the innumerable adaptations, you may know his address – 221B Baker Street, the most famous address in detective fiction. In total, the Holmes canon is made up of 4 novels and 56 short stories. There really is no need to start at the beginning, you can dive in anywhere, but if you do want to see how it all began, read the novel A Study in Scarlet, where we meet Holmes and his assistant, Dr Watson, for the first time.
Staying in London for now, we fast forward several decades until we meet Chief Inspector Adam Dalgleish, who was created by P.D. James. The first Adam Dalgleish book, Cover Her Face, came out in 1962 (there’s a mere 35 years between the last Holmes story and this book). Dalgleish is a professional career detective, and featured in fourteen novels (with guest appearances in two more), rising to the rank of Commander in the Metropolitan Police. Many crime writers give their detectives some quirk, hobby or interest and in this case, Dalgleish also writes poetry.
Staying in the south of England, we enter Sussex and meet Inspector Wexford, the creation of another big name in 20th century crime fiction, Ruth Rendell. Reginald “Reg” Wexford is a police detective in the fictional town of Kingsmarkham in Sussex, which was reportedly inspired by the town of Midhurst. He made his first appearance in 1964, just two years after the first Adam Dalgleish novel, in the book From Doon With Death. In all, Wexford has featured in 24 novels, the last being No Man’s Nightingale in 2013, as well as some short stories. Unlike many fictional detectives, Wexford is a family man, with a wife and two daughters.
Down on the coast we have Brighton, and a different breed of crime story. Peter James has been writing novels since the early 1980s, but was relatively little known until he started writing about Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. His books really are crime-thrillers, no plodding puzzler here, this is edge of your seat, must just read one more page (or maybe just the whole book) before going to sleep. I said earlier that most fictitious detectives have some quirk or hobby, and Grace is no exception – he is a believer in the supernatural, and uses mediums to help solve cases, much to the dismay of his superiors (especially when it gets out in the press). The first book (of fifteen so far) in the Roy Grace series is Dead Simple, though the plot is anything but…
Not all crime fiction series have to feature a detective as the main character, as any crime tv addict of the last couple of decade will be able to attest. Heading up the south east coast to Norfolk, we find Dr Ruth Galloway, a forensic anthropologist who is happy living alone with her two cats and unearthing ancient bones. Until, inevitably given the genre, she digs up some more recent bones of a young child. The police ask for her help and hey presto, you’ve got yourself a crime series. Thus starts The Crossing Places, the first in the Ruth Galloway series from author Elly Griffiths which numbers 12 books so far.
So that’s the south east. What about the rugged coastal counties of the South West of England? Well let’s get going, but it is quite a trek so best stop off on the way, and where better that the ancient university town of Oxford. There, we’ll find the venerable Inspector Morse, lover of classical music, real ale and crossword puzzles. He’s better know to many from the TV adaptation where he’s played by John Thaw, but long before that it was a popular series of novels. The series started with Last Bus to Woodstock, in 1975, and finished in 1999 with The Remorseful Day. There were 13 novels in all, along with a number of short stories.
The gateway to England’s South West is the county of Somerset, and here we find DI Nick Dixon from author Damien Boyd, and in the first book of the series, As The Crow Flies, it’s personal when the DI’s former rock climbing partner is killed in an accident. He doesn’t believe it can be an accident and starts to investigate. This is the first of ten books so far and are described as fast paced crime-thrillers. On his website, the author states that “He is not damaged, by which I mean he is not an alcoholic, doesn’t take drugs nor does he visit prostitutes.” These books are less about the introspection of the detective and more about the case, though Nick Dixon grows and develops throughout the books.
Having spent her entire life in the north west of England, Kate Ellis arrived in Devon in 1984 by chance, taking advantage of a holiday in a friend’s apartment in Torquay. While on that holiday, she found herself in the ancient port of Dartmouth, which became ‘Tradmouth’, the main setting for her series of novels featuring Detective Sergeant Wesley Peterson. Her books tend to feature both a current crime and a historic one, or two for the price of one as she puts it. Her locations are fictitious, but based on real places – as well as Tradmouth there is Neston rather than Totnes, Morbay rather than Torbay and so on. She might take liberties with modern places, but tries to keep the historical aspects of her story as accurate possible – whether practice runs of the D-Day Landings, the Wars of the Roses or Viking invasion. The first book is The Merchant’s House, and in all there are 24 books in the Wesley Peterson series.
While I’d love to linger in England’s sunny south west and explore Cornwall, there’s only so much time, and Cornwall is just so far away. That’s apparently why my childhood summer holidays usually stopped in Devon. Oh, go on then, just a quick trip. You might not get the rugged coastal scenes that the TV series of these books depicted, but W. J. Burley’s Wycliffe novels are worth a read if you like the traditional detective format. The first one, which came out in 1968, is the strangely named Wycliffe and the Three-Toed Pussy. There were twenty two books in all, each one starting with Wycliffe… So choose your title and take your pick – would you prefer Wycliffe and How to Kill a Cat, Wycliffe’s Wild Goose Chase, or perhaps Wycliffe and the Pea Green Boat?
Before we leave the South West, it is perhaps worth mentioning that some of the biggest names in crime fiction writing might not have written whole series in the region, but they did set some classics here. So if you want to soak up the misty wilds of Dartmoor, don’t forget to read the Sherlock Holmes classic, Hound of the Baskervilles. Or try one of Agatha Christie’s Poirot novel Evil Under the Sun or her famous standalone thriller And Then There Were None, about a group of apparent strangers invited to an island off the coast of Devon and… well let’s just say it doesn’t end well for most of them!
Before we head to the north, a short stopover in Wales seems to be in order, so lets head over the Severn Bridge. We’re here to meet Fiona Griffiths, a Detective Constable in the South Wales Police. This is a nice change from many other detective series featuring Chief Inspectors, Superintendents and the like. I sometimes find myself saying, really, are you seriously saying they’d be getting involved in all that grunt work? Whereas a Detective Constable is on the ground, doing all the investigating. Junior she may be, but she doesn’t always toe the line, and has a reputation for being a bit odd, and doing things her own way. Plus there’s that two year gap in her past… Plenty to get your teeth into here, so if you want to know more, try out the first book, Talking to the Dead. Fiona Griffith’s creator, Harry Bingham, has so far written six books in the series.
Before we go back into England, a stop in the historic market town of Aberystwyth and something a little bit different. Malcolm Pryce has written a series of ‘comic crime noir’ novels, featuring town private investigator Louie Knight. Is Lovespoon, the Welsh teacher and Grand Wizard of the Druids more than just a sinister bully? Pryce writes a serious story in a comic style, a la Tom Holt, Jasper Fforde or Terry Pratchett. Oh and all of his books are some sort of play on the name Aberystwyth – the first book is Aberystwyth Mon Amour, and other titles in the series include Last Tango in Aberystwyth and Don’t Cry for me Aberystwyth – you get the idea. If this is your thing, then there’s six books in the series to enjoy.
End of Part One – In part two we’ll explore the crime fiction of the North of England, Northern Ireland & bonny Scotland.