Norfolk's power to both inspire... and threaten
PUBLISHED: 18:18 11 October 2019 | UPDATED: 18:18 11 October 2019
Keith Skipper says Norfolk is the perfect county for any kind of murder mystery thriller to be set in
I've been contemplating my novel approach to mystery much longer than it takes Miss Marple to knit a cardigan, Sherlock Holmes to play a full violin concerto or Philip Marlowe to rouse Norfolk from The Big Sleep.
Suspicion is I'm spoilt for choice when it comes to finding the perfect setting for my overdue tilt at Norfolk Noir. Whittling a list down to about two dozen leaves me no closer as to whodunnit and whytheydidit.
There's also the need to take care not to identify certain places too closely in order to protect the innocent, deepen suspense and keep ghoulish sightseers at bay. For example, The Case of the Disappearing Policeman could hardly be kept secret in Melton Constable.
There are other obvious pitfalls. Too many plot twists and turns must point to Barton Bendish. Where else could poison pen letters abound than in Frettenham? Or a surfeit of clues other than in Riddlesworth?
Strange cries in the night surely belong to Yelverton. An excess of bullets aims for Shotesham. Lack of support for law and order has to incriminate Hindringham. Too easy to rhyme grisly with Brisley, The doctor must come from Feltwell. And a fraudster hints strongly at Didlington.
A devious mind goes with the mystery saga. We love to be tested, teased and occasionally tormented as armchair sleuths on the trail of dastardly ne'er-do-wells. I picked up useful clues on how to go about it from radio and newspaper interviews with a experts from the ever-burgeoning crime-writing circuit.
When I asked PD James why women excel in this particular genre, she revealed in typically forthright style that a lot of it is down to their eye for detail: "Clue-making demands attention to the minutiae of everyday living". Ruth Rendell also placed that "precious gift" top of her priority list.
Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers and Raymond Chandler have kept me hooked since I first realised the kind of books they wrote could be placed comfortably on the "proper literature" shelf, well crafted and stylish with memorable characters vying for attention either side of the law.
The prolific Gladys Mitchell, another wordsmith anxious to prove how English villages can be murderously peaceful, is a more recent discovery and a far bigger challenge. She died at 82 and turned in at least one novel a year throughout a bountiful career. The first in 1929 introduced Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradly, a scholarly psychoanalyst and author who went on to feature in a further 65 adventures.
"The Great Gladys", as she was dubbed by poet Philip Larkin, specialised in unconventional plots and settings with Freudian psychology, witchcraft and the supernatural as recurring themes.
She used the pseudonyms of Stephen Hockaby for a series of historical novels and Malcolm Torrie for a run of detective stories featuring an architect called Timothy Herring. Just for good measure, she penned 10 children's books under her own name.
St Helen's Church at Ranworth, often called Cathedral of the Broads, has a starring role in Wraiths and Changelings (1978) as a ghost-hunting party chase spine-chilling experiences. Snakes-and-ladders local lanes add willingly to all the twists and turns.
"Remember to sound your horn at all the bends. I don't know why some of these Norfolk roads need to wind the way they do. There are no hills to speak of" says one of rhe waterscape wanderers. "Norfolk road makers always worked with their backs to the wind" declares a colleague solemnly. "That accounts for bends".
If Mitchell's mainly iconic mysteries are an acquired taste, a comparative newcomer to the scene has made a major impact with a series of books set largely in north Norfolk. Elly Griffiths, like PD James and others before her, produces just the right locations out of a blend of carefully researched fact and imaginatively detailed fiction.
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The Crossing Places, first in her series to team forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway with Detective Inspector Harry Nelson, brings this description of an isolated coastline: "Everything is pale and washed out, grey-green merging to grey-white as the marsh meets sky. Far off is the sea, a line of darker grey. Seagulls riding in on the waves. It is utterly desolate …"
I welcome those lines in my ongoing campaign to convince more excitable members of the bolt-hole brigade that quieter corners on the edge of north Norfolk are best left to those who really understand them.
One of the supreme mysteries to emerge along a crowded crime trail in recent years must be the way a top-rate Norfolk chief inspector finished up pounding a north-east England beat.
George Gently, stolid star of nearly 50 cases, some with a distinctive Broadland flavour, was the creation of prolific writer Alan Hunter.
I chatted to him several times during my local broadcasting years as the Gently production line continued to deliver highly readable adventures.
The quietly-spoken author from Brundall often hinted his top policeman might find popularity on the small screen. "You never know, he could have been another Morse" was evidence enough of deep disappointment that no-one courted him with a tantalising "Call George Gently".
Alan died in 2005. Two years later, BBC Television presented a Gently pilot as part of their Easter attractions. With Norfolk-based actor Martin Shaw, pictured above, in the title role, it led to eight series of gripping yarns - set in exotic spots like Newcastle, Northumberland and
Apart from the obvious irony of transferring both main character and actor playing him many miles from home territory, it's now clear how little of Alan Hunter's work featured during a decade of Gently productions.
Most novels are set in this part of the world and the author's years in his native parish of Hoveton St John and later at Brundall lends many pages a watery edge. A keen sailor and naturalist, Alan wrote natural history notes as a teenager for the Eastern Evening News.
He became manager of the antiquarian book department of Charles Cubitt, bookseller, in Norwich in 1946 before setting up his own bookshop near the Maddermarket Theatre four years later.
Gently Does It, hailed by some as Norfolk's answer to Maigret's masterful deductions, started a much-loved series in 1955.
It ended in 1998 with Over Here, one of a handful without the word "Gently" in the title. It was number 48.
Perhaps proper tribute will be paid to Alan Hunter and his books one day - with a televised Gently jaunt around Norfolk. Minus Mummerzet accents.