Pleasures And Perils

Crime Writer Peter Lovesey on setting stories close to home

‘We’re talking body parts. Some leg bones, a ribcage and a piece of an arm. The River Wylye, near Warminster.’

‘That’s Wiltshire.’

‘It’s only a half-hour drive.’

‘It’s not our patch.’

‘With respect, sir, killers don’t work to county borders like us.’

This extract from The Vault illustrates a modern crime writer’s dilemma. Readers enjoy stories set in real places. Part of the strength of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels or Ian Rankin’s Rebus series is that Oxford and Edinburgh are so strongly evoked that they make the stories more believable. There is a downside, however, and that is that by blurring fact and fiction the writer risks upsetting the locals. If those body parts had been discovered in some recognizable spot the people who lived there would be (I was about to write ‘up in arms’ but I’ll rephrase it) understandably upset. They might even phone their lawyers.

I lived in Upper Westwood for almost twenty years, and wrote most of my books there. This corner of Wiltshire, above the spectacular Limpley Stoke Valley, yet riddled with subterranean quarries, would stimulate any writer’s imagination. For a number of years I resisted. My first books were set in Victorian London. I was fortunate in getting a TV series for Cribb, the detective sergeant played with wonderful subtlety by Alan Dobie. But I wanted to write a contemporary series and it seemed obvious to create a detective closer to home. He became Superintendent Peter Diamond of the Bath Police.

Bath was only seven miles from Westwood, and I combined sight-seeing with shopping and called it research. The Last Detective established Diamond in the real police station in Manvers Street and venturing as far west as Chew Valley Lake. These settings made a nice change from the fog-enshrouded streets of Victorian London, but I learned early that if I fixed a real location for a murder I had to be discreet. It wouldn’t do to pick someone’s house and say which number of the street it was. I was constantly reining back my desire to give the total picture.

I didn’t stray into Wiltshire until the third book in the series, The Summons, when Diamond’s sleuthing takes him to Conkwell Woods, to an imagined ‘state-of-the-art recording studio in the wilds of Wiltshire’ in search of information about a murdered Swedish girl. The story reaches its climax in a village with a church where ‘knobbly pinnacles in profusion compensate for the lack of a steeple, removed by a storm in 1670’ — Steeple Ashton. It was ‘the most civilised arrest in the combined experience of all the detectives’, but you must read the book to find out why.

Following the principle that if the crimes originated in Diamond’s area, he could still roam widely to clear them up, I set my locked room mystery Bloodhounds partly on a padlocked canal boat at the Dundas boatyard and partly at Lucknam Park, that plush hotel near Colerne. My daughter Kathy’s wedding reception had been held there and as father of the bride I’d been a regular visitor making arrangements. It was a gorgeous wedding, so I refrained from sullying a good memory by discovering corpses on the premises.

Nearer home, in Upon a Dark Night, one of the characters is a former mayor of Bradford on Avon who has a silver figurehead mounted on his white Bentley, a replica of the gudgeon located above the medieval lock-up that enables the unfortunate prisoner to be ‘under the fish and over the water’. Details like this are fun to weave into a story.

In The Vault, I had Diamond in a mystery involving Frankenstein. I’d read that Mary Shelley wrote much of her famous horror story in a house almost touching Bath Abbey, it was so close. The building was demolished in Victorian times, but I speculated that its basement remained and bones are discovered there. Later Diamond is required to visit the hamlet of Stowford and – just as I did in the interest of research – enjoyed a cream tea in a fifteenth century farmhouse. How we writers suffer for our art.

Naming a real setting was out of the question in The Reaper, a black comedy in which the rector of a Wiltshire village is accused by the bishop of embezzling the church funds and picks up a heavy glass paperweight of St Paul’s and … I’d better not say more. You won’t find Foxford on any map any more than Marcus Glastonbury was a real bishop or Otis Joy a real clergyman. But one thing is true: I’ve had letters from vicars and rectors saying they enjoyed it.

One evening the Bradford on Avon Arts Society had a talk by a remarkable speaker and writer, Joan Moules, who introduced me to the Warminster Writers’ Circle. That putdown ‘You need to get out more’ applies to me and I did with these friends, some published, some just beginners. Out of that has come another book. A writers’ circle is a perfect group of suspects, especially when a publisher promises much and lets them down. After The Circle, appeared in the bookshops I wondered if I would dare set foot in Warminster again, but they were totally forgiving.