The Church in the Marsh

Street sign: Chapel Street

Dead in my tracks, I look up from the street sign and along the deserted industrial estate back street: what chapel?

St Philips in Bristol is industrial and has been industrial for a long time. Marshland reclaimed for railways and factories, now turned over to great sheds in corrugated metal and red brick – car dealerships, waste recycling plants, garage door salesrooms and the like.

There’s not much evidence that people ever lived here which is why Chapel Street, which I’ve never noticed before, grabs my attention.

Then, almost opposite, I notice Victoria Terrace, too, where there is no terrace – only brambles, vans and vicious anti-climb fencing.

Chapel Street.

Chapel. Terrace. Here?

In 2021, there’s no need to wonder. I take my phone and call up a map from 1902. It turns out I’m standing at the centre of a crowded neighbourhood. Short Street, the main artery, has terraced houses wedged together on either side.

Victoria Terrace has houses on one side, opposite the gates of the Saw Mill.

York Street and Aberdeen Street, are gone, homes and gardens lost beneath workshop buildings and car parks.

And, sure enough, there’s a church. St Silas’s. It once fronted onto the Feeder Road and was hugged by its own terraced streets – St Silas Street and Arthur Street. You can see it here in an aerial photo from 1926, round-tailed and imposing.

St Silas Street is sort of, just barely, still there, as the main entrance to Auto Choice, a huge dealership in a space-age box. Arthur Street, cut in half, is its side passage, with garages and parked vans.

St Silas’s wasn’t around long – it didn’t even make a century. Built on a bog in 1868, it was already falling down by 1872, and had to be rebuilt on new foundations. In 1941, it was blitzed, and never reconstructed. What remained was knocked down in 1959.

Although it was that street sign, Chapel Street, that led me to St Silas’s, it turns out the reference was… what’s the opposite of a red herring?

Chapel Street was diverted when the trading estate was built and didn’t originally run as far as Short Street. Its chapel is a Methodist one which, astonishingly, perhaps, is still there, in body at least. One of a handful of reminders of when this was a place, not a space.

FICTION: War Wound

Despatch riders.

The memory of the motorbike sustained John Patrick Fletcher through five years of war.

At Dunkirk he set fire to the Triumph 3HW the Army had given him when it ran out of fuel and, from the foxhole he had dug, watched it burn. It was a fine machine but nothing like the BSA he had at home. The Triumph was a workhorse, drab green and thick-set. The BSA was a leopard.

When the German soldier dragged him out of the hole, kicked and shoved him aboard a grey Opel truck with twelve other men in tattered battledress, John floated over it all. He levitated above the bad suspension that bounced them eastward over the course of days. Past the armed guards who sat by the tailgate, through the aperture in the canvas roof, he saw his favourite sight: open road.

This road wasn’t right. Too dusty and too wide. Surrounded by plains, with strange arrow-straight trees that looked more like telegraph poles. But it was enough to remind him of flying alongside dry stone walls, over kinks in the road that caused his gut to lurch, and past fields of sheep.

At the camp in the woods, staring sleepless at the bottom of the bunk above, he plotted routes in a dream-trance, forcing himself to move through each straight and turn in real time, ticking off the names of towns and villages: Stacksteads, Waterfoot, Cloughfold…

Shivering in the snow on a road building work party he would grip the shaft of a shovel and, with gloved hands, twist it, imagining throttling up on the wide road out of Blackpool.

Through four years of boredom he fed on memories of the vibrations and the growl, his physical imprisonment countered by the solidity of a remembered feeling: that he could go anywhere as long as he had a shilling for petrol. The war was a mere intermission in the spooling out of real life. A waiting room.

He broke his ankle playing football and spent two months in hospital reading the same pulp western novel over and again. Much better than working.

The work got harder. The rations got worse. The guards got both younger and older.

After five winters, one February, smoke appeared on the horizon. The guards told the prisoners to start stretching their legs and began to make them walk in the cold for a few hours each day. When the smoke got close enough to smell, they were ordered to start marching.

John dragged a sledge loaded with canned food. Shivering and scared, his feet pounded to tenderness in ragged, frozen boots, he watched as anyone too slow to walk was dragged into the forest and executed.

His consolation was that every step westward took him nearer the motorbike in the shed. It would need a service after all this time and there might even be some rust but he didn’t mind that – he’d enjoy sitting cross-legged in front of it with wire wool and a pot of delicious-smelling paint.

When what was left of the marching party reached its destination, John found himself working on the construction of an oil refinery. It was hard, dirty, shirtless work. Almost every night, the RAF would bomb flat the previous day’s efforts. More men died but John had got used to that. On the whole, he was pleased: Germany was faltering which meant that soon the war would be over and he could put on his helmet, goggles and leathers and roll her out onto the road.

One morning, there was silence. The guards were gone and the gates had been left open. A few hours later, Sherman tanks and Chevrolet trucks rolled through the town. Everyone cheered, even the German civilians. Even John. His eyes were drawn to US Army despatch riders on their low-slung Harley-Davidsons. The Americans handed out cigarettes and paperwork to the thin, weak British soldiers. John struggled to cram his bruised and shredded feet into a brand new pair of GI issue boots. They’d be good on the bike, he thought, flexing his ankle on an imaginary pedal.

After a month of waiting for something to happen, in late summer, he was ordered onto a truck with twenty other men and taken to an airfield. There, he was loaded onto an olive green C-47.

‘It’s a waste to send ‘em back empty,’ said an American military policeman as he herded them aboard.

John had never flown before. The fierce vibrations that shook his innards excited him, as if a hundred motorbikes were roaring at once.

The plane flew over fields and farms, harbours strewn with boats stranded on the mud, and then across the Channel, thick with steaming vessels, both military and civilian. Then the sequence repeated in reverse. Harbours and jetties, the Thames Estuary and London shining on the horizon. The fields looked different – smaller, less tidy, unmistakably English. As the plane dropped down towards another airfield he began to pick out details rushing past: the thatched roof of a cottage, the low flat tower of a country church in yellow stone, and a hedge-lined lane. The plane tracked the lane for almost a minute and, drifting and exhausted, John envisioned himself below, like a black-backed beetle racing at full throttle, tight into every curve.

Aboard a train to the North he couldn’t decide if it felt as if he’d been away a long time, or no time at all. The war had fixed things. The girls he couldn’t help but stare at wore the same kinds of clothes as in 1939, only more ragged, dyed brown and grey so that they resembled army fatigues. Everything was tired and dull, dented and run down. Birmingham, Sheffield and Leeds had gaps like open graves where there had once been buildings. The bricks looked blacker than ever.

Under the grey cloud that always sat on the valley, his home town was the same, barring a sentry box at the station and camouflage paint on the Railway Hotel.

With his cardboard suitcase in hand and an oversized suit hanging off his body, he walked. People stared at him and he stared back.

As the light faded, he walked along Ouseburn Street, passing Mafeking Road, Kimberley Terrace and Gordon Street. His heart began to beat harder as he reached the chip shop on the corner of Milepost Road. He could smell hot vinegar and stopped to stare in wonder at the blazing window which ran with condensation and beyond which dark shapes moved.

Milepost Road seemed as long as the war itself. Halving his pace every ten steps he put off arriving at the front door until it was truly dark. A neighbour in sagging trousers darted by, late for dinner, pumping out clouds of sweet smelling smoke from a short cigarette. ‘Now then,’ he said, by way of greeting.

‘Hello, Mr McCarthy,’ said John.

McCarthy waved over his cap but didn’t stop.

With a sigh John reached up to knock on the door and waited.

A light came on in the hall, visible in the sun-pattern stained glass above the door.

‘Who is it?’

‘It’s me, Mother.’ There was no reaction. ‘John.’

After a moment’s fumbling the door opened and there she was, pinch-faced, her black eyes glinting in the dimness caused by a low-wattage bulb and too much dark Victorian paintwork. She wore a grey dress with a lace collar and heavy black shoes that looked distinctly orthopaedic. Her hair was no longer brown but grey and her back had become hunched.

He leaned down to kiss her cheek. It was like brushing cold stone.

‘Well, there’s no dinner spare,’ she said.

‘I’ve eaten,’ he said. It was a lie.

She bellowed into the house as if announcing the arrival of a tradesman or some other nuisance: ‘It’s our John!’

There came a thundering on the floorboards above and his sisters appeared on the staircase. Evelyn, first, followed by Doris. They stopped halfway down and fell into the same pose, their faces with the same bland expression.

‘Well, he’s not having my room,’ said Doris.

‘Bloody hell – can I come through or not?’

He’d never sworn in front of his mother before. He saw a shock run through Evelyn and Doris. Their eyes switched to Mrs Fletcher.

She pursed her lips but stepped aside.

John walked past her, dumped his case on the floor, and marched straight through the kitchen. The three women followed him and dropped into formation, Mother in front, sisters behind, and watched with arms folded as he fumbled with the back door key.

‘If you need the lavatory,’ said Mrs Fletcher, ‘it’s indoors now.’

‘What’s wrong with this bloody key?’

Doris gasped.

‘I suppose this is army language,’ said his mother.

‘Here, let me,’ said Evelyn. She shoved John aside and carried out a manoeuvre which required her to hoist the door upwards as she turned the key in the lock.

John strode across the yard to the brick shed and opened the door. It was dark and filthy inside, foggy with dust and strung with cobwebs. Even so, he could see one thing clearly enough. He stared at the oil spots on the concrete floor.

‘Where’s me bloody bike?’

He turned wide eyes upon his mother and sisters who were now gathered around the back door as if to guard the entrance.

‘Well?’

His mother folded her arms.

‘I sold it.’

She shifted her chin up.

‘And the leathers and helmet.’

The wound in his ankle began to ache as an invisible weight settled on his back.

Concrete and tall grass: inventing a place

After World War II, a second great wave of housing estate building began, with off-the-peg urban landscapes pushing up against the shrinking countryside. The Sydenham Estate in Bridgwater, Somerset, was one such manifestation.

Until I read this passage in a 1945 edition of the Taunton Courier it had never occurred to me that where I grew up had once been nameless – not a place but a void between them:

Regarding Eastover housing scheme, it was reported that the Minister of Health agreed in principle to the proposal to acquire 75 acres of land between Bath-road and Weston Zoyland-road. The District Valuer was instructed to negotiate for acquisition of the land, and it was decided that the site should in future be referred to as the Sydenham Estate.

On pre-war Ordnance Survey maps it is just a series of numbered cells – digits afloat in paper snow. But maps, and especially administrative maps, tend to reduce anything but the densely urban to an off-white nothing. In fact, those numbers represent individual fields on farmland stretching out behind Bower Farm. Bower Estate would have been a good name for the council development that grew there in the 1940s and 1950s but instead the authorities got its new name from the Manor of Sydenham, on the other side of the main Bath Road.

The present Sydenham House was built c.1500 for the Percival family. It was marched past by the Duke of Monmouth on his way to the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685, and was later the site of a famous incident of nocturnal levitation, but otherwise sat quiet and alone in the flat landscape. Then, in the 1930s, Bridgwater burst its boundaries yet again and the British Cellophane factory was built on land adjoining Sydenham House. Trapped in a no-man’s-land between industry and the railway line, used by Courtauld’s Ltd for hospitality and meetings, it became inaccessible, invisible, and forgotten. The name lingered, though, having been given to Sydenham Terrace, a row of red-brick cottages built in 1865, and to a grand Victorian house called Sydenham Villa.

Oh, yes – red brick. Bridgwater was a brick-making town, and the West Country a brick-making region more generally, and the fact that the houses at this new place, the Sydenham Estate, were to be built from concrete caused some controversy in the late 1940s. BRIDGWATER WANTS BRICK HOUSES read one 1948 headline as the town council were repeatedly criticised for failing to take advantage of a supposed stockpile of 10 million local bricks ready for use. Not Bridgwater bricks, though, replied the council, and anyway, where was the manpower required to turn them into homes?

The town wanted to build 2,000 houses, public and private, as quickly as possible and there was no room for sentiment, so concrete it would be.

Perhaps this was a mistake. A place being created from nothing, in the middle of nowhere, literally on the wrong side of the tracks, could have used something to tie it to the town of which it was supposed to belong.

As it was, those Laing Easiform and Cornish Unit prefabricated concrete houses not only seemed alien but were also the same as thousands of others up and down the country, which meant the Sydenham Estate could have been anywhere. Shown photographs with only the name for a caption, wouldn’t most people guess that it is in south London?

Sydenham was constructed around a kilometre long boulevard called Parkway, down the central green spine of which marched crackling pylons. The streets that branched off Parkway were closed loops, leading nowhere. Sydenham Road, one of the four half-mile-long crescents, had an advantage, however: it formed the eastern edge and backed onto what everyone called The Fields.

The Fields were what remained of Bower Farm, overgrown and beautiful in their own way, with waving blonde grass and the remains of orchards, like something out of Laurie Lee. There was no formal access to The Fields from the estate because, after all, why would we want to wander there when we had public greens and playgrounds? All that meant, though, was that kids clambered over back-fences, crushing the chain-link to the ground over the course of years, while certain enterprising residents installed their own back gates in breach of the tenancy regulations. During the day, and especially during the summer holidays, that meant cousins and friends could run in and out of each other’s gardens using folk paths worn through the vegetation. At night it facilitated more sinister goings-on – muttering, scurrying, cold torchlight, clothes-line raids, and outright burglary.

As a frankly cowardly child The Fields scared me. There were things concealed in the grass that I didn’t care to encounter – hunks of rusting farm machinery, plastic bags full of hardened glue, all sniffed out; the remains of illicit bonfires; and, most terrifying of all, nests of adders. In autumn, low mist would lie on The Fields, and only on The Fields, like gatherings of ghosts.

They started building on The Fields when I was about 11-years-old, and I wasn’t sure if it was good or bad news. On the one hand I knew it would bring the wilderness into line – no more snakes or child traps, and an end to the sinister whispering of the grass beneath my bedroom window. On the other hand, I disliked change. I sulked when they installed double-glazing and pebble-dashed the council houses, but this was more drastic again – a fundamental reordering of the very landscape. Much as The Fields unnerved me, they also provided a contrast to the concrete and municipal repetition of the estate, and it felt simply wrong to turn them into yet more streets. Within a few years The Fields became the Bower Estate. Hundreds of just-too-small red-brick private houses arranged in whorls and loops along dusty new artery roads. 

Sydenham, meanwhile, became a place, but one defined by negatives. It was referred to on the news as ‘the troubled Sydenham Estate’, and my peers called it The ‘Nam. This was a self-deprecating joke, of course, but also reflected a low-key ghetto mentality. We’re stuck out here together, us versus them, and it’s a combat situation. Who ‘they’ were depended on context. Within the estate, Sydenham Road and Longstone Avenue had a wary rivalry, each convinced the other was a no-go area; and the Sydenham Estate as a whole was set against the Hamp Estate on the other side of town, where we kids were warned never to go. Of course when I did go, I found a twin – approximately the same kinds of houses, an exact clone of the shopping arcade, and a secondary school which looked like an off-kilter version of mine.

Because of this reputation, steps, as they say, were taken, and Sydenham seems to be fading away. In around 1991 my secondary school ditched the doubly toxic Sydenham Comprehensive label in favour of ‘East Bridgwater Community School’. Then, in 2011, Sydenham ceased to exist as a council ward, replaced by Fairfax and Dunwear, two new wards that split the estate through the middle and effectively deny its existence. Estate agents marketing houses in the area tend to refer to them as being “on the east side of town” or, even more vaguely, “a popular residential location”.

But those Cornish Units and Easiforms, designed to last a few years at best, are still there 70 years on, albeit with raw concrete disguised by paint and pebble-dash. They invaded, they persisted, and they saw the countryside off. There are no orchards anymore – no adders, no whispering grass, no wild frontier.

The Campaign for Shorter Crime Novels

A pile of slim crime novels.

Crime novels, current wisdom dictates, should be around 80,000 words long. That’s enough to fill 300-400 pages and so feel like good value to a contemporary reader. The problem is, that’s too long.

Most of my favourite crime novelists wrote short and lean. Ed McBain, Georges Simenon, Gladys Mitchell, Ruth Rendell, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Sjöwall & Wahlöö… All of these writers produced classics at around 150-220 pages, or 50-60,000 words.

Here are estimated word counts based on various sources including MetaFilter, readinglength.com and howlongtoread.com:

  • Chandler, The Big Sleep – 57,000
  • McBain, Sadie When She Died – 55,000
  • Rendell, A Judgement in Stone, 59,000
  • Sjöwall & Wahlöö, The Laughing Policeman – 60,000
  • Simenon, The Yellow Dog – 40,000

When I’m deciding what to read, I’m often drawn to slim paperbacks – the kind that fit in your inside pocket. It’s partly about time and patience, of course, but that tight page count also signals efficient writing.

Maybe longer crime novels are better

Perhaps the fact that crime novels have grown longer is good news. Perhaps it means they’re deeper and more complex. Well, not in my experience.

Last year, I made a point of reading a stack of recently published books to help me improve the commercial prospects of my own work-in-progress. While I enjoyed most of what I read, and even recommended some of those books to other people, I did notice quite a bit of what felt like padding.

For example, one character spent a lot of time in Waitrose browsing ready meals. Then unpacking her shopping. Then cooking per the instructions given on the packaging. Then eating while pondering an office romance.

The protagonist of another book undertook renovation work on a flat. This had nothing to do with the plot; it did not reveal anything much about the character other than that they weren’t very good at DIY; and slowed the story down when it should have been accelerating.

You might say diversions like the above add realism and make characters more relatable but I can’t help thinking that if the target word count had been 60,000 words, these would have been the first sections lost to the red pen of a surgical editor. Or, at least, condensed to a single line: ‘She spent too long at the supermarket choosing what to eat for dinner, ate alone, and fell asleep on the sofa.’

I’m a slasher… of words

The first draft of my current project is finished at just over 70,000 words. The voice of the industry is telling me to flog it to 80,000 words, somehow – perhaps by introducing an aimless sub-plot or two, a prologue that will probably annoy people, or some extended moping and brooding by my protagonist.

But my own instinct is in the other direction. I want to hack away at descriptions, get characters from A to B faster and make the dialogue more sparse. If I follow that urge, I reckon I’ll be left with – hey, fancy that! – about 60,000 words.

General writing advice agrees: kill your darlings, remove filler words, combine or remove characters, make sure every scene moves the plot forward or develops your characters, and so on.

I think I’ve decided that I want to write a tight, economical crime novel of the type I like to read. That might well reduce its already slim chances of getting published – “Yeah, thanks for sending us half a book – are you planning to write the rest of it at some point?” – but it will feel right to me.

Although evidence seems to suggest that readers are hungry for long books, I’m hopeful the tide might turn. There’s certainly a growing backlash against films that don’t earn running times of more than two hours and I’m certainly drawn to anything at 90 minutes or less.

FICTION: Ten Empty Rooms

One

Sitting room. Fifth floor. White afternoon light through soot-crusted windows. The hum of traffic on the Finchley Road below. A single strip of woodchip wallpaper curls over to reveal bare plaster. Marks have been left by a thick, soft pencil – the increasing heights of two children: Judith 7.3.38, Julius 28.4.38… Spaces in black dust where pictures once hung. Stains on the carpet next to the small fireplace, marking the boundaries of a long-gone armchair. There are three doors, two closed, one open onto the unlit hallway. The darkness there is unstill. The shadows shift. Something waits, shy of the light. On the floor below, someone plays a tentative note on a violin. In the empty flat there is a sigh only one degree louder than silence.

Two

Stock room. Basement. Dim orange streetlight glow warped through glass bricks set into the pavement above, on Back Turner Street. Bare brick walls. Ceiling of boards and beams. Stone floor, unevenly patched. There are three items in the room. First, a warped, mould-blackened glamour calendar displaying August 1987– ‘Jeanette’. Second, a scrap of pink carbon paper faded to blankness, smeared with oil. And, third, a broken picture frame leaning against the wall. Its glass is cracked. The photograph has been ruined by damp and spores but five faces can just be made out. Somewhere beyond the room, a guard dog barks. In the basement, a fingernail scrapes weakly against concrete.

Three

Faraday Ward. First floor. Polystyrene ceiling tiles scattered and shattered on the linoleum. Bindweed grows through the window frames and across the yellow-painted walls. No beds, no visitors’ chairs, no bedside tables. The built-in clock above the swing doors stopped many years ago. Water has come in through the roof and knocks insistently on the floor. Over the course of years it has formed a ring – yellow-green on the outside, bruise black at the centre. Hours pass until daylight begins to fade. There is a squeal. The doors swing open, swing back, screech, slowed by their own decaying springs. They judder back into their resting position.

Four

Kitchen. Ground floor. Overlooking a garden overtaken by brambles, enveloping the rotten remains of a summer house and a set of rusting swings. The doors of the fitted cabinets and drawers, lined with scraps of wallpaper, hang open. Tiles that were once white, now grey, are stained with cat food in the corner by the back door. Dark lines mark the absent fridge, table, dresser and washing machine. The only sound is of mice chewing and running behind the skirting boards. A dead lightbulb hangs from the ceiling. It moves slowly from side to side as if caught in a breeze, though the air is stale and still.

Five

Studio flat. Third floor. Perfectly clean, newly painted, flat white walls and pristine mushroom-grey carpet. One large space with a minimal kitchen at the deep end. Only the bathroom has its own door. Hard sunlight through a skylight sketches a bright square on the floor. Over the course of the afternoon it slides along and up the wall. Then moonlight repeats the performance, this time in blue. From the corner where the shadow is most dense comes a sound like cotton brushing bare skin. Then something less than a whisper, close but far away, then something less than laughter, then fragile silence.

Six

Warehouse number two. Stripped bare, ready for demolition. Dirty yellow daylight through the corrugated PVC roof, which replaced a Victorian original after the Blitz. Pigeons flutter against the ceiling. Rats run through the tide of scraps and cigarette ends around the edges of the space. As the building rots, every small sound triggers an answering echo: plaster falls from the walls, pipes drip, fittings shrink and swell. Sometimes, there are footsteps, too, or something like them, or maybe nothing like them, although if you knew Gerry Mills when he was foreman, you might think you recognised the sound.

Seven

Public toilet. Far side of the park. Bricked up. Frosted windows with frames painted council green. Fired tiles, their surfaces crazed and chipped, cover the walls and floor. Scraps of a poster offer a ten pound reward for reports of vandalism. Another, high on the wall, says: ‘Did you know V.D. can be cured?’ Outside, there are the sounds of traffic, dance music, children playing, birdsong and barking dogs. Inside, only the creak of ceiling beams as they expand in midday summer heat. There are three cubicles, two without doors. The third door is still there and almost closed. Through the gap, perhaps the wet glint of an eye.

Eight

Office. Sixth floor. Painted on the frosted glass of the door is the name of a company whose owner comes here once a week to collect post and check the answerphone. No desk, no filing cabinets, no stock – just a telephone balanced on the windowsill over an ancient radiator and a single plastic school chair. Every time the wind gusts across the moor, the plastic vent set into the window flaps its louvres and the frame whines or whistles. Once or twice a year, the telephone gets thrown to the floor or, like now, the chair suddenly judders and scrapes a metre across the floorboards, with painful effort.

Nine

Classroom. Second floor. Windows covered with steel to keep out squatters. Thin beams of white light through pencil-hole perforations casting constellations on the far wall. That’s the wall with scraps of drawings and projects – blue ink faded to brown, felt tip pen colours washed away to near nothing. No chairs, no tables and only screw holes where bookcases were once fixed in place. The blackboard is blank, not black, scuffed to grey. From certain angles, chalk marks can be seen in the dust. Digit-thick, clumsy, but unmistakable: words, a name, some feeble attempt to reach across.

Ten

Room twelve. First floor. Notices on yellowing plastic ask guests to reuse their towels and notify them of the fire drill. No bed. No chair. Just a plush headboard in mustard-coloured Velveteen screwed to the wall and a single lace curtain dangling from a rod. The curtain ripples in the razor-sharp breeze that seeps through a crack in the window. Through the window, a blank wall on the other side of the alley, wet with black-green slime. The carpet has more stains than pure colour and grooves where furniture sat for thirty years. In the low, cold light, something flickers into being and, for the length of a blink, the room isn’t empty at all.

Why you should read Simenon’s Maigret novels

Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels aren’t cosy mysteries. They’re not hardboiled pulp. Nor are they flat period dramas, per ITV. They are intense doses of atmosphere and place presided over by a central character as solid as Paris limestone.

Between 1931 and 1972, Simenon, a Belgian, wrote 75 compact novels about Inspector Jules Maigret of the Paris CID. The first ten appeared in a rush in 1931 with seven more in 1932 and a steady flow thereafter.

The plots tend to be mechanically simple but psychologically complex. Typically, it’s something like this:

  • a body is found
  • there are a handful of suspects, perhaps even only one
  • Maigret gets to know the family, village or town
  • he doggedly pursues the case
  • tensions mounts
  • someone cracks
  • Maigret presses things home to a sad end

It’s rare to reach the end of a Maigret novel and feel surprised at the outcome. It is, however, quite common to feel bereft at leaving a place and a community in which you’ve spent a week – even when the book has only taken two hours to read, and even if that place was greasy, seedy and flyblown.

Most of the novels have a specific location. Sometimes, it’s a neighbourhood in Paris – Montmartre, Saint-Cloud, the Marais. Often, Maigret is called to some insular settlement, such as the waterside community around Lock 14 on the Marne Canal, or the seaside town of Concarneau. Maigret is also a tourist, his investigations taking him to Bremen, Liege, Delfzijl and even New York.

At times, it almost feels as if Simenon is writing for the screen, limiting the action to a single set, or a handful of locations. The Shadow in the Courtyard, AKA Maigret Mystified, from 1931, could be performed on stage with a few tweaks, the story taking place almost entirely in an apartment block overlooking a courtyard and a small chemical laboratory. Maigret at Piccrat’s revolves around a seedy strip club where the detective spends hours just drinking, talking and observing.

Simenon’s writing is lean verging on skeletal, more Hemingway than Chandler. Somehow, though, he sketches the spaces – the light, the haze, the smell of onion soup, the silence between buses passing on the road beyond a wall – and the faces: “Old Mathilde’s eyes, grey-green as jellyfish…”

What most interests Simenon, and his avatar, Maigret, are desperate people. Bigamists, gamblers, jealous wives, junkie heirs, alcoholic countesses, petty psychopaths, blackmailers, vagrants… Anyone who has lost control of their life, who is spiralling downward and outward, will find Maigret trudging beside them, infuriatingly patient, pipe rattling between his teeth. He makes them sweat. He gets too close and stays there.

Where to start

The first Maigret novel to be published was Peter the Lett, AKA Pietr the Latvian, so that’s an obvious place to begin. I’d suggest skipping it, though, and starting with a stronger later entry in the series.

The sidekicks change, Maigret ages a little, and France changes a lot, but each is a self-contained piece so you certainly don’t need to fret about reading them in order.

I haven’t read every Maigret novel yet, unlike a former colleague who always had one in his pocket in case of emergencies, but some I’ve particularly enjoyed, and would recommend, are:

  • The Yellow Dog, 1931
  • The Carter of the Providence, AKA The Crime at Lock 14, 1931
  • Maigret at Piccrat’s, AKA The Strangled Stripper, 1950

The recent Penguin editions with more accurate titles and translations are good and helpfully numbered for those who do like to do things in order. There’s something special about reading a tatty paperback from the 1950s or 60s, though, and as these books were bestsellers, you can still find them at reasonable prices.

Haunted by St. James’s Square, the square that isn’t there

St. James’s Square – an entire piece of the Georgian city of Bristol that simply doesn’t exist in 2021 – intrigues me.

My current novel project is set in Bristol in the 1950s when much of the city centre had been destroyed or damaged in the Blitz and post-war rebuilding was just getting underway. I have my protagonist living in what remains of St. James’s Square which means I’ve had to try to get a feel for this stolen place.

It’s not only that the buildings have been demolished – the pattern of the streets has fundamentally changed, like the site of some atrocity everybody wants to forget. What is there now? A chain hotel forecourt and a dual carriageway, pointedly cutting across the old lines.

Making my way to work from Horfield to the city centre for several years, I walked over the grave of St James’s Square most mornings and often stopped to see if I could find any trace at all. 

Cumberland Street, behind St James’s Square.

Cumberland Street, which runs behind the brutalist slabs of the Hilton and Holiday Inn, is the last connection. Enter it from Brunswick Square, pass the surviving red-brick Georgian terrace and you’ll eventually reach a pedestrian footpath that goes under and through the hotel. It always feels to me as if, on the right day, at the right time, that footpath might lead to St James’s Square, as in H.P. Lovecraft’s 1925 story ‘He’. It’s never happened yet, unfortunately.

The passageway that ought to lead to the square but doesn’t.

The surviving Brunswick and Portland squares also offer hints of how their missing sibling might have felt. Laid out in a line, the three were constructed one after the other, St James’s Square being the first, with houses in place by 1716. Enclosed and private, clamshell hoods over every door, it perhaps felt more like a relic of the 17th century than its larger, grander siblings. But squint, catch the right angle, and there’s surely a family resemblance. Look into the corners, away from the garden and eccentrically designed church, and Portland Square in particular catches something of the feel of the photographs of St James’s Square I’ve seen.

Ruined buildings.
Portland Square – is this Blitz damage?

Yes, there are photographs. Old Bristol was particularly well-photographed compared to some cities and between Know Your Place, the Bristol Post archive and the comprehensive works of Reece Winstone, I’ve harvested quite a few images. Two of my favourites, though, are in Walter Ison’s book Georgian Buildings of Bristol, first published in 1952.

A Georgian square.
SOURCE: The Georgian Buildings of Bristol, Walter Ison, 1952.

Other pictures online capture St James’s Square in its later years, approaching its doom. As happened in many British cities, Georgian houses built for gentlefolk became workshops, warehouses and institutional buildings. There was a large YMCA hall, for example. From the 1920s onward, Ison says, “its disintegration was rapid”:

During the late war more than half the total of houses, including the forest and least spoiled, was destroyed, and only the mutilated and disfigured ranges on the north and east sides remain… The surviving north row consists of two double-houses, Nos 6 and 7, and two single houses, Nos 8 and 9… These fronts have been suffered greatly in appearance by the partial removal of the crowning cornice, and by the brickwork having been rendered and generally defaced by painted signs.

This is the St James’s Square in which parts of my novel are set – a square that is no longer square, facing demolition. Portland Square, again, helps catch a little of how that might have felt, with half of the west side of the square still occupied by miraculously extant tottering ruins.

A little further away, across Stokes Croft and up the hill towards Kingsdown, there is also King Square – formerly genteel houses, sign-covered commercial properties and discarded strong cider cans piled around the wastebins.

St James’s Square, the square that isn’t there, disappeared for good in the 1960s, making way for new roads and a roundabout suitable for mid-20th century traffic. As local historian Eugene Byrne has written, “As you wait at the traffic lights where Bond Street joins the St James Barton roundabout, you are on the spot where the YMCA Hall used to be.”

I hope that reading my book will bring the Square back from the dead, even if I’ve taken some artistic licence to create a single surviving townhouse in that post-war period where my lead character lives, surrounded by dusty Georgian furniture and faded paintings, soon to be displaced.

Bristol gets police dogs, 1957

Bristol City Constabulary got its first police dogs in 1957 – a pair of Alsatian puppies named Kylow and Kudos. Why did it take so long?

These days, we’re all used to seeing those white DOG SECTION vans parked up, and to seeing footage of specialist dogs being handled by police officers. Some are trained to find drugs, others to detect the most minute traces of long-buried bodies.

In the 1950s, however, they were still quite new to policing in Britain and not all forces had their own dogs. There’s a pretty comprehensive history of their slow arrival here, starting in the 1850s, accelerating in the 1920s, and gaining serious commitment from the late 1940s onward.

That article argues that it was the expense of training and keeping dogs that led to the slow uptake; but I also think there must have been something about them that was seen as fundamentally un-British. Snarling Alsatians pulling at their leashes… This was the stuff of Colditz and the Gestapo, at odds with the myth of the bobby on the beat.

Headlines from the 1950s increasingly often refer to ‘police dogs’ being mobilised in manhunts in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Devon and elsewhere. Somerset Constabulary’s police dog, Brenda, was acquired in 1956 and she and her handler, PC Ray Fear, became minor celebrities. POLICE, PLUS BRENDA, MAKE QUICK ARRESTS read one headline in 1958.

Bristol, despite being a big, bustling city with a bit of a crime problem, was late to the party. It only acquired Kylos and Kudos after they were obliged to borrow dogs from Dorset Constabulary in the hunt for two missing children.

What became of Kylow and Kudos, I’m not sure. Were they effective? Did they have long careers? You might think that there would be something in the newspaper archives but, no, unlike Brenda, they didn’t attract ongoing coverage.

One last thing I would really like to know is where those names came from and why no journalist at the time thought to ask that question.

This is the first in a series of posts highlighting aspects of the research I undertook for my work-in-progress, a dark crime novel set in 1950s Bristol.

FICTION: Why can’t Elleman sleep?

Leipzig to Berlin to Klaipeda to Karlshamn to Stockholm to London.

Elleman spends six weeks in a safehouse in Ladbroke Grove, learning English from the Daily Mirror and Sexton Blake magazines.

At first, he thinks his insomnia is a stress response. London sounds different to Leipzig, smells different; he misses church bells and Bach on Sunday mornings.

The interrogators keep strange hours, too – a man and a woman, he with a moustache and pipe, she limping and fine-boned. They ask him questions at dawn, at midnight, on rainy afternoons. He draws organisation charts, picks faces from catalogues of mugshots and surveillance photographs – Henschke, Tiepelt, Brosig, all of them. He reproduces schematics from memory.

Windows on a London apartment block.

The first time a full twenty-four hours passes without a minute of sleep, he doesn’t notice. He moves from bare bedroom to bare bathroom to bare sitting room as the grey day comes and goes. When night falls, he shaves, startled at his own red-flooded eyes in the mirror. He puts on a clean, new English shirt and a new English tie in moss green. Then he goes to the window and watches the street.

Red buses, black cabs, Ford cars with impotent fins. In the orange circle of the street lamp he sees pretty girls in short skirts, men in pinstripes, then, after midnight, only vagrants and slow policemen in black overcoats. Dawn comes, with drizzle.

‘You didn’t sleep last night,’ says the woman. She offers him a French cigarette. Elleman notices her smell: garlic and mothballs. ‘Not at all.’

‘Didn’t I?’

She pushes a photograph across the kitchen table.

He blinks, eyelids scraping over eyeballs like fine sandpaper.

‘You’re watching me.’

‘Why can’t you sleep?’

Elleman looks at the photograph and feels his soul slide sideways. He doesn’t remember standing there in the bay window like that with his mouth open in a scream.

She shows him another picture, then another.

‘Ten o’clock, two o’clock, four o’clock…’ says the woman.

‘Pills, perhaps?’ says Elleman.

A silent scream.

The pills don’t work. They make him drowsy and upset his stomach, forcing him to sit for hours in the claustrophobic toilet with its stained copies of the Picture Post. But still no rest.

This time, he catches himself screaming and realises there is no sound, or at least not one his ears can detect. He wonders if the dogs can hear him, or the foxes under the brambles in the railway cutting.

The street light flickers, triggering a feather-edged memory of what he knows, somehow, to be the Soviet military hospital at Wünsdorf.

‘But that’s strange,’ he says to himself. ‘I’ve never been there.’

Birds fly above a rooftop.

‘Let me make you some coffee,’ says the woman. She grinds a fig with the beans and presents it in a dainty cup she has brought in her handbag.

‘It’s how they do it in Vienna,’ she says.

‘When can I leave the apartment?’ asks Elleman. ‘Some air might help.’

‘I’ll need to discuss this with my colleague.’

After three nights and days without sleep, the memory of Wünsdorf gains substance – or perhaps the hallucination becomes more vivid: he is on his back under swinging lights, squeaking wheels beneath, amid the stink of pickled cabbage and vodka sweat. Someone says, in Ukrainian-accented Russian, ‘We’ll crack him open like a boiled egg.’

An institutional telephone.

‘Dr Elleman,’ says the woman as she presents him with another Viennese coffee, ‘I should be delighted to take you for a turn on Wormwood Scrubs.’

‘Not Hyde Park?’

‘The Scrubs will be safer.’

The streets on the way are dirty and the terraces have aggressively blank, haunted gaps where strange weeds grow. As the breeze touches his face, bringing with it a little of her sweet bedsit perfume, Elleman imagines he hears a voice speaking imperfect German: ‘We must aim for maximum effect.’

‘When do you think I might start work?’ he asks as they cross a wide, quiet road. ‘I miss the laboratory. And work will help me sleep.’

‘There’s no chance, I’m afraid,’ she says. A sympathetic smile, a pat on the arm. ‘You’ve failed clearance.’

Elleman feels the scream rising. He opens his mouth to let it out and vomits, then collapses. A car pulls up and before he knows what has happened, two men in overcoats and small brown hats have thrown him onto the back seat.

‘Queen Alex, I think,’ the woman says to the driver.

At the hospital, they make him sleep. Not pills but injections – the nuclear option. His brain and body shut down.

A twin-bladed helicopter in flight.

When he wakes up it feels as if a century has passed. He knows at once he is outside, lying on the ground. He sees soft grey sky and hears gulls crying. He sighs with pleasure at the cool air flowing over his skin and stretches, shudders, smiles. There is grass beneath him, and sand.

‘I’m afraid we couldn’t get it out,’ says the woman. He rolls his head from one side to the other trying to locate her. She is sitting on steps leading up to the passenger door of a twin-rotor helicopter. She is smoking.

‘Hmm?’ says Elleman.

‘The thing the Russians put in your head. We couldn’t get it out. It sent the Geiger counter crazy. You’re a dangerous man to be around.’

She flicks away her cigarette end and waves a hand. The rotors begin to turn.

‘You didn’t know?’ she shouts, holding her hair back to stop it blowing into her eyes.

He blinks.

‘I’m sorry,’ she says.

She retreats into the helicopter and closes the door. It judders and lifts, kicking up grit, then howls away. For a moment, there is silence – no gulls, no people, just distant waves.

Elleman sits up and looks down at his hospital gown. His head does ache. It does feel heavy. He notices a sign in red –  LIVE FIRE KEEP CLEAR – and realises they have placed him at the centre of a great painted target.

Then he detects, far away, the sound of an Avro Vulcan beginning its bombing run.