How Norfolk inspired new detective book series

Actor and novelist Judi Daykin

Norfolk based actor Judi Daykin, who is setting a series of crime novels in the county - Credit: Contributed

Actor Judi Daykin’s second book in her Norfolk-set DS Sara Hirst crime fiction series, Into Deadly Storms, is published this week.

Judi, who lives near Happisburgh, is a graduate of UEA’s prestigious Creative Writing MA.

A reader of crime fiction “and a devotee of all things criminal on the television”, Judi says that it felt natural to specialise in the genre – and to set her series in the county she has called home for 40 years.

“I’m an actor by profession and have written one-woman plays for myself in the past.

"I had also finished a couple of novels many years ago but never did anything with them.

"At the time, I didn’t feel confident that they were good enough.

"I felt that if I could get some training, then perhaps I would write a novel that others might want to read” says Judi.

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“I especially enjoy reading crime fiction, as well as being a devotee of all things criminal on the television!

"Even those two early novels had a crime at their centre, though not a police force. I decided to try and write a story that I would choose to read myself.”

In 2017 Judi joined the UEA’s prestigious Creative Writing MA on the Crime Fiction course.

“Once I started on the MA course, it soon became clear that my reading habits and preferences were for police procedurals, so that’s what I ended up doing.

"I love authors like Ann Cleeves (Vera), Ian Rankin (Rebus), Peter Robinson (DCI Banks) and Henning Mankell (Wallander).

"For books with a more local flavour, I enjoy Elly Griffiths and Joy Ellis with her Fenland setting.

"I also like historical crime fiction, like Nicola Upson’s Josephine Tey novels and C.J.Sansom’s Shardlake series.

"Between you and me, I also like a bit of Georgette Heyer Regency romances for light relief!

“The tutors on the course are all wonderful,” Judi continues. “Crime fiction is their own speciality, so they teach what they write themselves.

"Henry Sutton, aka Harry Brett, heads up the course. He is also part of the Noirwich Crime Fiction Festival.

"My personal guide was the author Tom Benn, who writes gritty dramas set in his home town of Manchester. My work is also quite gritty, so it was I was delighted to have his advice.”

When Judi completed the first book in the DS Sara Hirst series, Under Violent Skies, in 2019, it was shortlisted for the Little, Brown UEA Student Writers Award and was published by independent publisher Joffe Books, which specialises in regional crime fiction.

“[My character] Sara is about 35,” says Judi. “She hails from Tower Hamlets and is a career police officer, rising to detective sergeant in London.

"She is also of mixed heritage. Her mother has Jamaican roots, and her father was an East End copper.

"At the beginning of book one, her father has been absent from her life for years. Her mother won’t talk about their break up, so Sara doesn’t know much about him, until she stumbles on some old love letters between her parents.

"It’s this discovery that sends her to Norfolk in search of her lost family.

“She is thrown into the deep end on her first morning when a body is discovered on a farm near Happisburgh.

"I won’t give you any spoilers about what happens next, but you can read that investigation and about Sara’s search for her father in Under Violent Skies.”

In the second book, Into Deadly Storms, Sara has joined the Serious Crime Unit at Norfolk Police.

In the cold and wet of a rainy December morning, a dog walker finds the body of a young man on heathland near Fakenham.

He is nearly naked and wrapped in an old groundsheet.

It doesn’t take long to track the victim to a residential care home in a small town in the Broads.

He has been dumped like rubbish, and only his teacher has missed him.

Judi says that Norfolk plays an important role in her books.

“I’ve lived in Norfolk for 40 years and in a small village not far from Happisburgh for the last 20.

"They say you should write about what you know and this area is really important to me.

"I love the patchwork of lanes and tiny villages, the beaches and the wide-open skies.

"I can watch the weather changing in the distance before it ever reaches me. It feels both rural and connected at the same time.

“The people here are so friendly, but your privacy is also respected. We can step out of our door and walk on the Weaver’s Way in minutes.

"We are lucky to be surrounded by nature, plants, wild animals and birds. It has been a real bonus during lockdown when my husband and myself have taken up rambling in a big way,” she says.

Lockdown has also given Judi the chance to focus on her writing, and the third book in her series.

“It was most difficult for me around Christmas when the short days and long dark evenings made it harder to feel motivated.

"I ended up writing a dark and ghostly novella about the Babes in the Wood, which I can’t find a publisher for at the moment!

"Sara book three is coming along nicely. It’s still at the first draft stage, but I can reveal that it is set in Cromer – my favourite seaside town.”

Judi Daykin’s DS Sara Hirst novels are available on Kindle, Kindle Unlimited and as a paperback through Amazon.