Regional British Mysteries II

Volume 11, No. 4, Winter 1995-1996

Regional British Mysteries II


  • The British Regions, As Portrayed by American Authors by Carol Harper
  • Robert Barnard’s Yorkshire by Barbara Richards Haugen
  • Wycliffe by W. J. Burley by Carol Harper
  • Danum Crime by Philip L. Scowcroft
  • From Oxford to the West Country by Elizabeth Watson
  • The Internal Landscape by David Armstrong
  • From Mexico to Murder Mysteries? by Janie Bolitho
  • Rivers and Towns by Gwendoline Butler
  • Sophie Rivers’ Birmingham by Judith Cutler
  • The Black Country by Marjorie Eccles
  • Essex Man by Geraldine Evans
  • Broadshire by Anthea Fraser
  • On Choosing a Background by Celia Fremlin
  • Why I Chose To Write Cotswold Regional Mysteries by Ann Granger
  • The English West Country—Home of Inspector Nick Trevellyan and Alison Hope by Susan B. Kelly
  • Hot Bath by Peter Lovesey
  • Changing Tradition In a Cotswold Village by Susan Moody
  • Cambridge? Which Cambridge? by Michelle Spring
  • History and Mystery in Old York by Barbara Whitehead


  • Mystery In Retrospect: Reviews by Carol Harper, Don Sandstrom
  • A Mystery Reader Abroad by Carol Harper
  • A Virtual Tour of the UK by Kate Derie
  • MRI Mayhem
  • Letters to the Editor

Robert Barnard’s Yorkshire
by Barbara Richards Haugen (Minneapolis, MN)

No one would confuse Brooklyn with Chattanooga, or San Francisco with Miami. The speech of Atlanta is definitely not the speech of Chicago. The patterns of life in the Louisiana Bayou are not those of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. But for those in the United States, life in England is just so… British. It is afternoon tea, the village vicar, misty rain, elevenses, an evening at the pub, the village fete; the stereotypes could go on and on. Although the country’s size may foster homogeneity, regional differences nevertheless intrude.

A setting can enrich a story and a story can illuminate a setting. The Thames becomes an active modern thoroughfare in P.D. James’ Original Sin (Knopf, 1994). Aaron Elkins uses a real hotel as setting in Murder in the Queen’s Armes (Mysterious, 1985) and endows it with such appealing charm that the reader wants to visit.

Robert Barnard’s body of work is a prolific and varied one, replete with both wit and dark suspense. Since he now resides in Leeds, it is not surprising that the city and the surrounding countryside of Yorkshire should be recurring locales for his stories Yorkshire is an area noted for its coal fields and Leeds is renowned for its manufacture of woolens; Leeds is accessible to both the east and west coasts of England.

Barnard admits that some of the details of his village in Fete Fatale (Charles Scribner’s, 1985) are drawn from an actual Yorkshire town. His fictional Hexton seems almost the archetype of the English village with its subtle code of conduct, centrality of the vicar, community gossip, social demarcations, village fete, and reticence with newcomers (the narrator remains a newcomer despite living there 12 years). The town is usually favored with “drizzle or squally showers” but the sun shines on fete day; the sun shines on murder.

The Yorkshire town in Political Suicide (Scribner’s, 1986) is depicted as natural Tory country. The story occurs during bad economic times and sections of town are “overpoweringly dismal.” A distinguished history stretching back to the Middle Ages has been subsumed in industrial development.

…The Botham of today was essentially the creation of the Industrial Revolution, and that demanding, devouring movement had swept away all trace of earlier, quieter times.

When the local Member of Parliament dies under unusual circumstances, there is some feeling that “it’s often the really local man who goes down best.” The ballot for the special election includes a “mixture of the aspiring, the exhibitionist and the plain dotty.” “But politics is not a sane world,” and even a murder investigation can go awry in that world.

A City of Strangers (Charles Scribner’s, 1990) presents a grim picture of a town in “not one of the most attractive parts of Yorkshire.” A run down council estate which is dominated by the horrible, undisciplined family of obnoxious Jack Phelan abuts an isolated row of late Victorian homes with neat gardens and conservative residents. The geography holds the potential for conflict which erupts when the Phelan family appears to be moving across the street. Superintendent Mike Oddie has dealt with some of the nefarious activities of members of the family before and relishes the opportunity to extract responsibility. However, both sides of the street are challenged to act within the law.

After the death of their mother in childbirth and the emotional breakdown of their father, the Heenan children take control of running their household in The Masters of the House (Scribner’s, 1994). The family lives in Leeds which a visitor imagines to be “all grime and heavy industry,” but the emotional energy of the story is focused on the family home not on the city.

Barnard has created one series which features Perry Trethowan, Superintendent of Scotland Yard. His first adventure takes him to his ancestral home, and his bizarre family, in Northumberland (Death by Sheer Torture, Charles Scribner’s, 1981) and his second places him guarding a princess in London (Death and the Princess, Charles Scribner’s, 1982). The Case of the Missing Bronte (Charles Scribner’s, 1983) interests Trethowan in a mystery in Yorkshire, at first by happenstance. He is returning from a family visit and stops because his wife loves “these small Yorkshire villages.” They meet an elderly woman with an unusual manuscript and when she is beat up and robbed, he is called in on the case.

These stories are told in the first person so Trethowan’s opinion of his surroundings are given rather than an objective, factual one. His initial attitude toward Leeds is not complimentary.When an unconventional minister tells him of his call to Leeds, Trethowan’s response is “The Lord seems to call you to some rotten places.” However, some time in the city and walks through the streets change his mind.

I changed my mind about Leeds. Briggate and the streets around are a bit depressing, apart from the arcades, but once off them Leeds was rather a handsome city, or the ruins of one. These days you need X-ray eyes to see what it’s been like, or a very good historical imagination, but that’s true of most big cities. I liked the way they built confidently, massively, in those days. The Town Hall tells you they knew Leeds was the centre of the universe.

His reaction to people in the town suggests that he believes certain attitudes exist among them, but is open to reinterpretation.

The reputation of Yorkshire village pubs is that you have to drink regularly there for a year before they so much as nod good-evening to you. But like so much people say about Yorkshire, this turned out not to be true, or not true of this pub.

In the reaction of a constable to a young black boy who helps the victim in her garden, he hints at racial prejudice among the inhabitants. And there appear to be many old families in Yorkshire eager to unload family treasures, given the number of supplicants who appear when a visiting millionaire art collector comes to town.

As Trethowan is organizing his plan of investigation, he is told by a local police inspector that “They don’t work by the rule book in Leeds.” This implies a certain lawlessness in the city, or at least a roughness in its law enforcement climate. It is interesting that this opinion is expressed by a Yorkshire local, not an outsider.

Trethowan does not return to Yorkshire to head an investigation, but a protege of his, Charlie Peace, eventually makes it his headquarters and occasionally consults him at Scotland Yard. Charlie comes to Trethowan’s attention when he is investigating a rather seedy case in London in Bodies (Charles Scribner’s, 1986). Peace is using his tall, imposing and muscular black presence in a bodybuilding gym. In going undercover for Trethowan and feeding him information he finds a natural affinity for police work. As a younger man he had come to appreciate the benefits of the police when they arrested his abusive stepfather. Trethowan advises him on the decision and at the conclusion of his Norwegian case, The Cherry Blossom Corpse (Charles Scribner’s, 1987) he calls on the novice policeman to travel incognito to New York to spy on some of his fellow airplane passengers.

After a theatrical investigation near London (Death and the Chaste Apprentice, Charles Scribner’s, 1989), Charlie Peace transfers to the West Yorkshire Police. In A Fatal Attachment (Scribner’s, 1992) he has been with them only two months. Because of his past contact with people “on the windy side of the law” in London, he feels more comfortable moving to the north, “like coming to a foreign country”. There appear to be north-south prejudices in England similar to those in the United States, as well as racial differences.

Peace’s superior is Mike Oddie from A City of Strangers. Both of their personalities seem secondary to this story of obsession of a woman with two young boys. Perry Trethowan tells his stories in the first person and so imposes his personality and perspective on the occurrences, whereas Barnard’s other books place the individual policemen in secondary roles with the fictional narratives dominating them.

In A Hovering of Vultures (Scribner’s, 1993), Peace travels to a remote village amid “the bleak , windswept landscape” of West Yorkshire. “Set on the brow of a hill, horribly exposed to wind and weather, it seemed to bear its history lightly but proudly”. On walks, he takes note of “the rolling Yorkshire hills, dotted with disused mills and clusters of houses: grand, inspiring, but hell to walk in, he thought.”

His pursuit of a forger of literary works has brought him to a pseudo-scholarly gathering of appreciators of the writings of a local brother and sister who had been the victims of a murder-suicide in the early 1900’s. Their lifetime work could not compete with the other Yorkshire literary family, the Brontes, but their deaths certainly made them sensational.

In the interaction between Mike Oddie and Peace, one is reminded of Peace’s street background (and treated to a display of Barnard’s wit):

…said Mike Oddie, …”Maybe we should be asking ‘cui bono’?”

“And what does that mean?” asked Charlie.

“It means ‘Who gets his hands on the loot?'”

“I always heard that Latin was an economical language.”

“It is. Multum in parvo. ‘A lot in a little.'”

“It’s like being a sidekick to Lord Peter Wimsey,” Charlie complained.

Despite their differences, the two work together well and Yorkshire is now his beat.

Charlie was getting used to Yorkshire villages. When he had first come to live and work in Leeds and the West Yorkshire area he had found them unsettling—had felt an intruder there. It was not just his colour but his London accent that had made him stand out and feel foreign. Now he had accustomed himself to them and to his feeling of foreignness…

In Barnard’s latest book, The Bad Samaritan, Charlie Peace investigates with his boss Mike Oddie. The vicar’s wife finds herself in the midst of a murder while also dealing with the personal crisis of her sudden loss of faith. Her husband’s parishioners seem as scandalized by her lapse as by the violent demise of one of their fellow churchgoers. She no longer fits her assigned role.

The gossip and judgment which spread through the congregation characterize human nature, not only Yorkshire. After visiting a parishioner, Peace describes the parish as a “seething mass of ambition, dirty tricks, slander and innuendo,” but he was not surprised.

It would not have been very different in the predominantly black parish in his native Brixton with which he was well acquainted. His mother had fulfilled the double purpose of both spreading and providing the subject matter for a great deal of the gossip.

Although the drama centers on the church, the bustle of Leeds is still in evidence.

…one had only to go into the centre of Leeds to be assaulted by sounds of diggers, demolition trucks, high-speed drills and chain saws, and every pub she knew had music in various degrees of loudness in the background.

A local pizza take-out figures prominently, as does the problem of illegal immigration. The crime takes place in Charlie Peace’s back yard and his natural interest in crime—”people: faces, attitudes, gestures, signs of hidden woes and hidden passions”—is the key to solving the crime; he must see what is under the surface.

Barnard’s Yorkshire books present a combination of countryside and city. In the Fall 1995 issue of this publication, Philip L. Scowcroft says that Barnard presents a “sharply observed, sometimes ironic, Yorkshire.” Fete Fatale and Political Suicide are the best representatives of his irony and as such have a lighter tone to their stories, especially the former. Many of these books have a grim, dark quality, notably A City of Strangers, A Fatal Attachment and Masters of the House. It is the characters and the situations which grant the desolate quality but the physical setting seems to absorb the somber atmosphere.

Hot Bath
by Peter Lovesey (Wiltshire, England)

Alarming things are happening in the west country city of Bath (located in Wessex on Carol Harper’s regional map). After years of being ignored by mystery writers, this elegant Georgian spa is fast becoming Britain’s capital of crime. Fictional murder is now commonplace in Bath. Private eyes jostle each other on the streets and top cops outsmart each other at the central police station in Manvers Street. And it has all happened in the last four years.

Last summer, Bath public library put on a display of mysteries set in the city. As recently as 1990, the library would have been hard pressed to find a single one. They might, perhaps, have looked at Margot Bennet’s 1952 title, The Widow of Bath, but he title is misleading. They would have found nothing in it about the city. Nancy Livingston’s detective, Mr. Pringle, visited the city briefly in Fatality at Bath and Wells (St. Martin’s, 1987), but the mystery developed mainly in a TV studio outside. There is a Dick Francis novel, Rat Race (Harper, 1971), with a scene at Bath’s Lansdown racecourse. And the incomparable James Corbett, the genius lately dusted off and introduced to a new generation of bemused readers by William F. Deeck, had The Monster of Dagenham Hall (Jenkins, 1935) set, characteristically, not in Dagenham, but on the outskirts of Bath. The city features only fleetingly, but this is the book containing such Corbett classics as “Masefield stood like a sphinx”; “The whole thing is so fantastic as to appear incredulous”; and “There was a momentary pause, but the reply came without hesitation.”

And that was the extent of it, until recently.

Suddenly Bath is hot. It is the main setting in the following mysteries:

Broken Star by Lizbie Brown (Constable, 1992)
Turkey Tracks by Lizbie Brown (Constable 1995)
Dressed to Kill by Margaret Duffy (Piatkus, 1994)
Corpse Candle by Margaret Duffy (Piatkus, 1995)
The Bath Detective by Christopher Lee (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995)
Family Business by Michael Z. Lewin (Countryman/Foul Play, 1995)
The Last Detective by Peter Lovesey (Doubleday, 1991)
The Summons by Peter Lovesey (Mysterious Press, 1995)

You may choose to explore the city in the company of Lizbie Brown’s amateur sleuth, the quilt shop owner, Elizabeth Blair. Elizabeth is a lively, sixty-something widow from Turkey Creek, Virginia, who finds that searching for antique quilts puts her regularly on the trail of murderers. She usually gets support from her neighbor, private eye, Max Shepard. Broken Star and Turkey Tracks are, I understand, the names of American quilt patterns , which brings a pleasing unity to the series.

Margaret Duffy, like Lizbie, has embarked on a series set in Bath. Her private eye, Joanna Mackenzie, an ex-police detective, works out of an office over a herbalist’s shop in the city’s grandest thoroughfare, Milsom Street. In Dressed to Kill, she finds herself investigating two bizarrely-linked murders, and the story reaches a climax in the Roman Baths. I haven’t yet caught up with the sequel, Corpse Candle.

Christopher Lee’s Inspector Leonard in The Bath Detective, is an eccentric, tweed-suited loner wearing brown boots who roams Bath on a bicycle on the trail of the killer of a “crusty,” one of the homeless people sometimes seen in the city centre. Lee, a retired BBC foreign affairs correspondent, is currently completing the second book in the series.

In Family Business, Michael Z. Lewin has added seven more sleuths to Bath’s quota by introducing a whole family who investigate crime. Italian in origin, they are the Lunghis, familiar to readers of Mike’s short stories and now recruited to solve an intricate mystery from their Walcot Street address. An apparently trivial puzzle over the positioning of a bottle of washing-up liquid leads to an unraveling of fraud and murder.

My contribution to this spate of Bath-based books has been The Last Detective, introducing Superintendent Peter Diamond, who resigned from the police towards the end of the book, and The Summons, when the police service goes on its collective knees to get him back. Bloodhounds will follow shortly (as they are trained to do). For me, this is the first modern series I have written and I have an enjoying it hugely.

Each if the five authors named has a series in mind, so the supply looks like being as steady as the hot spring for which the city is famous. The Bath Detective Trail cannot be long in coming.

Finally, a curious fact. Not one of the authors so far mentioned actually lives in Bath. I believe the only crime writer with a Bath address is Paula Gosling, and she has never set a book there. Yet.