This post was inspired by intermittent grumblings on my part of wanting more vintage crime events and talks available in the North of England. After all I was nodding my head when one Facebook commenter wrote that the Bodies from the Library conference should go on tour. You can picture Martin, John, Len, Simon, Tony and Dolores in a mini bus right? It was after one such bout of grumbled musings that I began to lament that even the very fiction I love to read, vintage crime fiction, barely makes it out of Sussex and Essex in terms of setting. Yet it was then that I had my light bulb moment or rather question, how much golden age detective fiction was there set in the North of England? There has to be more than the Gil North’s Sergeant Cluff stories right?
To define my search more precisely I was looking for mystery fiction published before 1960, as I know the North features a lot more in modern crime fiction, by writers such as Martin Edwards, Ann Cleeves, L. J. Ross and Mari Hannah. As to what I am defining the North as, (and I am sure many will disagree, as it can be quite a subjective concept), my searches focused on Cumbria, Northumberland/Tyne and Wear, Durham and Yorkshire. Needless to say this post won’t have tracked down every single story, but I thought I would share my progress so far and of course I am eager to hear more suggestions to add to the list.
Of course the internet made this a much more feasible task, being able to filter through pages and pages of websites and blogs using key terms, ranging from the names of counties, to specific cities and then just: northern England. This last term was quite helpful for catching quite a few stories, including one on my own blog, ‘A Problem in White’ by Nicholas Blake, which I duly wrote as, ‘set in Northern England.’ I of course went to my bookshelf to see if I could find the precise location, yet here I was somewhat thwarted. The characters are on a train bound for Glasgow. They’re not over the Scottish border and characters mention having passed Lancaster and Carlisle. We also have a reference to moorland, so my best guess is somewhere in the hinterlands of Cumbria. Though that description seems positively exact when faced with E. R. Punshon’s The Conqueror Inn (1943), which is set in a fictitious county called Midwych, in the industrial north.
There were also a couple of red herrings along the way, well possibly, they’re just ones I am questioning. The Vanishing Diary (1961) by John Rhode for instance is said to be in the north east of England in Alderscar. No place called Alderscar in real life, just Aldercar in Derbyshire. If it’s just a made up place then I suppose you can have it anywhere you like, if it’s meant to be Aldercar then my probably draconian ruling wouldn’t class that as north north, more the middle-ish really, though I appreciate everyone has their own cut off point of what constitutes as the north. Though based on the Wikipedia image to the right it would probably make the cut, as it’s just above Nottingham. My next query is A Hole in the Ground (1952) by Andrew Garve which on Mystery File intimates it is in Cumbria, in a place called Blean, (which on Google only seems to exist as a village in Kent). Yet elsewhere on the web the novel is said to be set in and around a Cornish tin mine. Anyone know for definite? My final query was with Death of a Curate (1932) by Kenneth Ashley, which on The Passing Tramp is said to be set in a village called Church Linton. Again not sure if it this is merely a made up locale, but if it isn’t I am wondering if it near Skipton?
Quibbles apart I thought I would look at my “definites” in terms of areas and Gil North novels aside, Yorkshire still seems to me to be the most popular northern England location for vintage mystery novels. Perhaps it is because of the moors, which make themselves suited to gothic atmospheres in cut off rural environments, this especially might have been the case with Victorian mystery fiction, in which the genre held more of its gothic heritage. I felt this suggestion finds some corroboration with titles such as J. S. Fletcher’s The Yorkshire Moorland Murder (1930) and also with Elizabeth Mary Braddon’s ‘The Mystery at Fernwood’ (1861), in which a decaying estate is visited by a young woman, with the appropriate gothic tones given. I was also quite pleasantly surprised with the fact that Wilkie Collin’s The Moonstone (1868) is largely set in coastal Yorkshire. Working chronologically we then have Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Priory School’ (1904), which I believe is meant to be set in South Yorkshire, followed by Robert Fraser’s Three Men and a Maid (1907). I had been about to include ‘The York Mystery’ (1908) by Baroness Orczy but given it is one of the Old Man in the Corner stories, I don’t think it probably makes it out of the café in terms of locale, though feel free to correct me if I am wrong.
My next examples don’t arrive until a couple of decades later, firstly with Dorothy L. Sayers’ Clouds of Witness (1926). Now this shocked me, as I honestly hadn’t logged that Lord Peter Wimsey went to Yorkshire, but in this book he indeed do so, going to his brother’s hunting box. [Thanks for the correction Heidi!]. For some reason the location didn’t make much of an impression of me, in comparison to say the Scottish setting of Five Red Herrings (1931), the Fens locale of The Nine Tailors (1934), or the Oxford of Gaudy Night (1935).
A year later we have Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (1927), a case that sees Inspector French going to Yorkshire to solve the death of a ‘miser and his servant’ from a fire. No Yorkshire stereotyping there then… After that we jump to 1934 with the publication of Anthony Rolls’ Scarweather, mainly set on part of the Yorkshire coast, followed by John Rowland’s Murder in the Museum (1938), of which the second half of the plot concentrates on the chasing down of a criminal across the Yorkshire moors. An example which took me longer to think of than it should have done was Leo Bruce’s Case for Four Clowns (1939), in which Sergeant Beef has to solve a murder at a circus in Yorkshire. We also have a school mystery set in Yorkshire with Nancy Spain’s Death Before Wicket (1945), as well as a Yuletide mystery with Another Little Christmas Murder (1947) by Lorna Nicholl Morgan, in which a travelling saleswoman is required to spend a few days at a snow bound country home. A last minute search also threw up Cyril Hare’s With a Bare Bodkin (1946), which is set in the north of England, at Marsett Bay, which if Google is on the ball is in North Yorkshire. My final Yorkshire set tale, is an unusual story by Lord Dunsany called ‘The Shield of Athene’ (1952), in which there are a series of disappearances. A tale which certainly blurs the natural and the supernatural.
I think with some of these mysteries the nature of the setting was not hugely influential on the plot, which might be why when I read some of them the northern setting past me by, as details like that can get eclipse for me by what the characters are saying and doing.
After that I think it is a toss-up between Northumberland and the Lake District, as to the next popular area, the former of which I think often seems to me to have aged relatives living there. What gave Northumberland a slight numerical advantage was my discovery of Anthony Wynne. I’ve only reviewed one of his books on the blog, but I hadn’t cottoned on to his preference for more northern settings, until now. The Passing Tramp was particularly helpful in identifying three definite, Northumberland set mysteries: The Dagger (1928), The Case of the Gold Coins (1933) and Death of a Banker (1934), in which we have a beach murder, a banker killed during a hunt and ‘a family of ancient Northumbrian gentry stock’ being plagued with murders. After that we have Gladys Mitchell’s Hangman’s Curfew (1941), where Mrs Bradley advices a heart broken young woman to go on holiday to the wild moors of Northumberland, close to the Scottish borders as it so happens. Murder also decides to take a holiday there as well… The remote Northumberland theme continues with Robert Player’s The Ingenious Mr Stone (1945). I guess when Northumberland is chosen as a setting it is invariably for the remoteness and cut-off-ness it can provide. My final example is, The Ivy Tree (1961) by Mary Stewart, which is slightly out of my prescribed time frame, but we do get scenes by Hadrian’s Wall’s, which makes a change from all the moors.
Moving to the west coast, we have Cumbria, yet I found I was much more successful if I searched for the Lake District specifically, though Carlisle does seem to have been a popular character surname. My first example is from a book I read last year, The Park Lane Mystery (1924) by Louis Tracy, which half way through shifts to a Lake District location, including a water based attempt at murder. My next example is another by Sayers, this time, Strong Poison (1930). Again I had not clocked this book as having any northern setting, but the eagle eyed Moira at Clothes in Books, points out in her review of the story that Miss Climpson goes to a town in the Lake District to find out more about the inheritance the victim may or may not have gone on to receive. Finally though we do get a story where all of the action takes places in the Lake District, with John Bude’s very aptly named The Lake District Murder (1935), in which a corpse is found within a garage. My list then takes quite a leap to 1952 with The Body in the Beck by Joanna Cannan in which an academic and mountaineer comes under grave suspicion when he reports the discovery of a beaten up body in the mountains. Last but not least there is Glyn Carr’s The Youth Hostel Murder (1953). Carr’s mystery novels invariably centred on mountaineering and climbing, so I was quite pleased when my searches showed he located one such case in Cumbria.
Update: Thanks to Jonathan I now have a new author to add to the list, E. C. R. Lorac, who set a few of her novels in the Northwest, often near Morecambe Bay, which is just south of the Lake District. The titles are as follows: Fell Murder (1944), which is set in Lancashire, Crook O’Lune (1953), The Theft of the Iron Dogs (1946) and Still Waters (1949) – the latter of which I have actually read. Guess that Northern locale passed me by…
Finally another slight conundrum, so if there are any keen fans of George Bellairs work, pay attention! Curtis Evans suggests that Bellairs, is another author, (who along with Josephine Bell and Ernest Bramah was Manchester born), who frequently chose a northern setting, with The Dead Shall Be Raise (1940), being one such example. I haven’t grouped it with any of the others as again it is slightly murky as to its locale, being set in a fictional town ‘high on the Pennine back bone which separates Lancashire and Yorkshire.’ I haven’t been able to confirm others novels by Bellair with an exact northern location, so if you have read a few by him and are thinking, ‘oh what about _______,’ let me know so I can add more to the list.
Update: Bellairs’ northern mysteries mostly seem to have taken place at the Isle of Man and Jonathan and Santosh have helpfully given me some titles: Corpse at the Carnival (1958), Half-Mast for the Deemster (1953), Death in Dark Glasses (1952), The Cursing Stones Murder (1954), Toll the Bell for Murder (1959), Death of a Tin God (1961), The Tormentors (1962), Death Spins the Wheel (1965), Fatal Alibi (1968) and The Night They Killed Joss Varran (1970).
The area I failed to find any vintage crime novels set in was Durham and in fairness I wasn’t able to come across any set specifically in Newcastle. I think Newcastle is mentioned in some, but invariably as so minor a location it doesn’t get a mention in reviews or as a location that is not visited, but perhaps recalled in passing, if a suspect’s relative has lived there or an employee has now gone there. So I would certainly be keen to hear about any such examples.
Hopefully you have found this post vaguely interesting. I thought it nice to be able to widen the impression people have of the north when it comes to crime fiction, as I don’t think readers so readily associate a northern setting with vintage crime fiction.