The Sussex Downs Murder – Not Really A Review

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For anyone who loves the English South Downs – and whodunnits – this book makes an interesting read.

On the one hand, it is a fairly average 1930’s detective murder mystery, although I have certainly read much worse, but on the other it provides some marvellous insights into the South Downs in the area specifically around Chanctonbury Ring in that time, which is really what took my interest.

Personally, I prefer murder mysteries involving ‘normal’ people, rather than the typical country house full of assorted Colonels and ladies and royalty and such-like, so popular at the time – other than the thought of bumping off the Upper Classes, of course! But this book delivers in that it is set on a downland farm, where the farmer goes missing, believed murdered. It even has, as a cover, an adaptation of one of the fabulous Leslie Carr railway posters of the 1930’s – what’s not to like?

The introduction mentions its ‘sense of place’, and the writing seems to me especially good at conveying an accurate feel of the landscape. One thing that comes over very strongly is the emptiness of the countryside at that time. The Downs have been sparsely inhabited since Roman times; before then, much of the population chose to live on the higher, drier, lands of the chalklands of South and South East England, away from the forested and frequently marshy lower areas where travel was difficult and clearance very hard work. After the arrival of the Romans, however, all this changed, and since then the chalklands have been left largely to a small population living mainly by farming sheep.

We now have many people visiting for leisure purposes and on fine days popular routes such as the walk to Birling Gap from Eastbourne (or from convenient car parks much closer!) may easily see hundreds of visitors striding along the footpaths and hanging off the edge of the cliffs taking selfies (other stupid ways to kill oneself are available). On the same day, though, nearby footpaths may see no visitors at all. It is still a sparsely populated area.

John Bude evokes this sense of emptiness well. His descriptions of the roads and paths on and around the area really allow the reader to feel this. His characters walk the lanes and roads of the downs frequently without meeting anyone else on their journeys. Farms and houses are ‘isolated’, and even at a time when most people would travel by public transport to cover any distance, the population is so small that when questioned by the detective on the case, a bus conductor can remember who was on his bus several weeks before.

There are four lime kilns near Washington, on the edge of the area described in the story, which I suspect were the inspiration for the lime kiln featured on the farm in the book. No spoilers, but you might well guess their relevance to a murder mystery.

But it is the descriptions of the roads and paths that particularly take my interest, roads and paths virtually empty of footfall or traffic even during the day, emphasising how lightly populated the area was, and still is today, to a degree. Other than popular footpaths such as the long distance South Downs Way, and those footpaths running between popular tourist spots, it is still easy to find solitude in this quiet area of the otherwise heavily populated South East England.

Review of Revolution #1 by Zin Murphy

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It is 1973, and the hero of this story, Ed Scripps, has left England to make his fortune in Portugal.

Portugal, though, is on the cusp of revolution and when it breaks out it seems at first as though it will benefit Ed. He has a keen eye for the business opportunity, and a winning way with the opposite sex, and as the revolution unfolds Ed manages to both win hearts and begin to make money. It looks as though his future is assured.

But as the revolution begins to lose impetus and high ideals give way to the familiar corruption of the old regime, Ed’s life begins to implode as well, reflecting the collapse of the new ideals in the face of a harsh economic climate. In an attempt to recoup his business losses, he soon becomes involved in drug dealing and begins to move among the shady figures of Portugal’s underworld, among whom he is hopelessly out of his depth.

As his monetary struggles increase, he then finds he has lost his wife to another woman, and then his best friend Mark is sucked into a mysterious and vicious cult and Mark’s wife appeals to Ed for help.

With danger seemingly lurking around every corner, Ed decides he must do the right thing.

A realistically complex character, certainly neither wholly black nor white, Ed has few scruples about making money from drug dealing or being serially unfaithful to whichever woman he is with at the time, yet the reader never fails to cheer for him, so sympathetically is he drawn.

This is a thoroughly convincing portrayal of time and place, and a great read that draws you in from the start.

The Collector

Inspiration, writers’ block, ideas…I could write about all or any of these topics. Instead, I thought I’d simply post another poem – plus, of course, a picture (with far better weather than we’re having here) – and let it do the job instead.

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I’m a collector of images long stored in my memory,

A desert inferno of razor-sharp rocks.

A mountain breeze rippling an icy cold puddle,

Thick mists and thin soups, flowers, trains, and old shoes.

 

I’m a collector of memories, both mine and ones borrowed,

The harrowing journey, the lovers’ first kiss.

There’s betrayal and loyalty, flatulence, hope,

There’s a child being born, and a wolf at the door.

 

I’m a collector of stories, the stranger the better,

Believable, odd, and ridiculous too.

Close to home or historical, alien, fanciful,

Some to keep secret and some I can tell.

 

I’m a collector of moonbeams and of chance reflections,

A collector of sadness and bittersweet pain.

A collector of strangely shaped stones in a circle,

And dreams that tell stories I don’t understand.

 

Monthly Writing Update

AAARGH! Boink…boink…boink…thud!

Sorry…that’s me going a bit stir crazy and bouncing off of the walls at the moment. Two weeks ago I had an operation on my foot, which I am supposed to ‘rest and elevate’ for most of the time. I can get out and about a bit, but it is very slow going, with the aid of crutches, at an average speed of something in between ‘Get on with it!’ and ‘Oh for goodness sake, is that the best you can do?’ and which means, in effect, that I’m pretty well confined to barracks.

At least that gives me plenty of writing time. Perfectly true, but normally I would take a day off from writing every now and again, and go out somewhere – perhaps for a walk. Because that’s not really practical at the moment, I think I’m spending too much time writing and feeling a bit stale, so yesterday I ended up reading and watching a DVD.

I’ll be glad to be back on my feet properly again, but that won’t be for well over another month.

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Elephant tea caddy – what’s not to like?

Anyway, enough of your whinging, I hear you cry. What on earth are you writing at the moment?

Well, as usual I’m flitting between books, and I’m almost 40,000 words into the Indian story, which has the plot and sub-plots now fully worked out, and some 25,000 words into book one of The Assassins’ Garden – the one set in Medieval Persia and Mughal India. The plot of this one needs a bit more thought, but I’m making it up as I go along, so we’ll see what happens.

I wrote a few poems in the last month, one of which I put up on a blog post.

Oh, and here’s a haiku for today. The last week or so has been unusually hot and sunny, but the forecast is that it will break sometime this morning.

Heavy summer air,

Feeling so hot and humid,

Threatening a storm.

And here it comes now!

Today? Perhaps I’ll write one or two book reviews, once I’ve finished watching the rain hammering down outside the window.

Or just read…

Let’s Rid the Internet of Kittens

What is it about the internet and kittens, for goodness’ sake? There are far too many pictures of them.

Okay, that’s too provocative. Let’s move on.

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She Who Dislikes Being Referred To This Way has been away for a few days. I had presumed that I would sleep better without the snoring, and the duvet being constantly pulled off me, but I was wrong.

For some reason, I’ve not slept particularly well at all.

Perhaps it was the wild parties I’ve no idea why not.

I had intended to begin a painting, maybe even get it finished, but although I carefully planned said painting, even finding a few resource pictures to use, once I sat down in front of the paper, it just refused to happen. My mind went completely blank and my enthusiasm kicked the wall sulkily for a few moments and then ran out of the house sobbing.

Oh well, back to the writing.

I did have a few ideas for short stories and, because I know how to use my time both productively and wisely, immediately started writing two of them, as well as continuing with both the novels I’m writing. That’s what you’re meant to do, right? Isn’t it?

Oh, and a poem.

And, of course, I need to do research for all the various Tales In Process. Isn’t it amazing what a little bit of research throws up?

Here are just a couple of little snippets, a few gobbets of curiosity, that I have come across recently while researching topics in medieval Persia and India, for use in my #1 Novel In Progress, The Assassin’s Garden.

All of the prostitutes in Fatephur Sikri, India, during the short time that it was Akhbar’s capital, were kept in an area just outside the city called ‘The Devil’s Quarter’.

You do get sidetracked, of course, but perhaps that will be an integral part of the plot? Possible spoiler alert?

I wouldn’t like to say.

And at one point, there is a long journey undertaken in my book, by caravan.

‘Caravan’ is a Persian word, I discover. That seems appropriate. In some parts of Persia they would travel by day and rest by night.

In others, the reverse was true. Something to do with the temperature, I expect.

In the nineteenth century, there were caravans that existed just to transfer corpses to holy cities for burial. These disappeared in the early twentieth century, largely due to better understanding of how diseases spread!

And, obviously, I mean the caravans that are chock full of camels and traders and an ill-assorted collection of ne’er-do-wells, not the wretched giant metal boxes blocking ninety percent of our roads as soon as the weather shows even the faintest promise of a few hours of sunshine.

But enough of caravans, for now, I’ve got some words to beat into shape.

Oh, and there are still people who would prefer pictures of kittens?

Writer’s something or other

I began work on a new story, but it hit the buffers very quickly. I suspect that there were several reasons for this, but probably the primary reason is that it was the wrong story at the wrong time. Having published ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile’ and feeling a little flat afterwards, I took the conventional advice to get stuck into writing again immediately and, thinking that I knew exactly which story I wanted to write (out of my lists of ideas, notes and vague drafts), and exactly how the opening chapters of said story should go, just jumped straight in and started writing.

Thud.

After the first, long, chapter I read it back and just thought ‘Oh good grief, this is so turgid!’

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I didn’t feel like re-writing it, though. And I certainly didn’t feel like ploughing on and editing an even longer clump of turgidity later. It just wasn’t working for me.

It simply wasn’t the story that I wanted to tell at the moment. It wasn’t the setting that I wanted to use, and I didn’t feel any empathy with the protagonist. Not a good start, really.

So I kicked the cat* and drank a few beers and went for a long walk.

As a result of doing all of that and clearing my head somewhat,  I am now trying out something that is almost alien for me, and that is planning a novel.

I have a setting that I have been meaning to use in a novel, and which I have used occasionally in short stories, which I enjoy writing about. I have characters with whom I can empathise. I even have a plot that I’m rather pleased with. All in all, it feels a lot more hopeful.

And something else that is rather fun: in ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile’ I had to create a fictitious town and village, but because of the story line I did not need to concern myself too much with the geography of either. For the new Work In Progress, I need much more. I need careful and elaborate maps of a fictitious town in the foothills of northern India (yup, India again!), which is all part of the plan. I need to map its roads and houses, shops and hotels. I need to decide where to put the forests and rivers and lakes and fields.

I’ve even started a brand new notebook for this!

It will probably be difficult for me to resist the temptation to just start writing, but at the moment I intend to wait until I have a finished plan that I think covers everything.

Naturally, I’ll let you know how it goes.

*Not actually true. No cats were harmed in the writing of this blog post.

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