|Setting The Scene In Wessex: The Crime Novel & Drama, Part Two: 1945-2015|
|The crime-mystery/thriller genre remains today the most popular of all, even after two centuries. In this 2-part guide to local-interest works, we look at developments since 1945. (Part One, covering 1745-1945, is here.)|
|The Post-WWII Era|
The social upheavals of wartime had created
a whole new class of criminal, and one of these was Neville Heath, the ex Borstal-boy turned
what forensic pioneer Prof Keith Simpson calls in his Fifty Years Of Murder “disgraced
officer material,” with a history of cheque frauds. He was also a ruthless “charmer”
ladies’-man con artist, whip-wielding sadist and murderer. In 1946, he booked into the
Tollard Royal Hotel overlooking Durley Chine on Bournemouth’s West Cliff as “Group-Captain
Rupert Brooke”. Heath’s final murderous sexual assault was on a local WREN who had
been convalescing at the Norfolk Hotel on Richmond Hill. Her sexually-mutilated naked body was
found in Branksome Dene Chine, and he was arrested here soon after, charged with a similar previous
murderous sexual assault. After a trial that focused on whether he was a psychopath, he was hanged,
remorseless to the end.
Corpse Path Cottage by Weymouth-born Margaret Scutt [1905-1988] was her one crime story as she otherwise wrote historical novels [published 1947-9], while working in Poole as a teacher. It was published poshumously, in 2018, but was probably written in the decade after WW2, as it deals with a former POW who settles in the Dorset village of 'God's Blessing' and buys the rundown cottage of the title. The protagonist Mark is a would-be writer, and sets out to use the ideal setting for a fictional murder - only for a real murder to occur. ("Mark's life begins to unravel before he is able to help the police solve the mystery, uncovering in the process a tale of intrigue, bigamy and blackmail, and bringing into the open many secrets of the residents of God's Blessing, including Mark himself.")
|Brat Farrar, an admired 1949 psychological crime novel about disputed identity by Josephine Tey (see Part I re her The Franchise Affair) is set on the south coast of England just after WWII. The story, perhaps inspired by the famous Victorian case of the Tichborne Claimant, has a long-lost heir returning to inherit, when he may in fact simply be a lookalike imposter. (This does not give too much away - for it is just the start of a series of murky dealings within the family.) There have been two screen versions, both with contemporary time-settings. The first, the 1963 Paranoiac, a loose adaptation starring Janette Scott and Oliver Reed, and directed by Freddie Francis, was exterior-filmed in widescreen b&w around Lulworth, with the cliffs which figure in the plot actually just east of Lulworth Cove; the second, a 1986 BBC serial shot on video, had exteriors shot nearby, around Kimmeridge, at Smedmore House, a large coastal estate (repeated shots of horse-riding along the clifftop); there is also an unidentified small overgrown quarry which figures in the climax, and Weymouth is seen as 'Westover,' the local town (shots of the quay). (Westover is in fact a historic district of Bournemouth.) A 3rd screen version, possibly starring Ben Affleck, is rumoured to be in development.||
1963 film Paranoiac, starring Oliver Reed, based loosely on Josephine Tey's cult 1949 novel Brat
Farrar, was exterior-filmed around Lulworth. The cliffs which figure in the plot are the Mupe
Rocks east of Lulworth Cove, seen under the main titles [screengrab above]. They also figure
in a climactic scene, below, with Janette Scott in a sports car dangling over the edge.
prolific of all Britain's post-war crime writers was John Creasey (1908-73), with
560 books under 20+ pen-names, representing series such as Sexton Blake, The Toff, Gideon of the
Yard etc. JC settled in Bournemouth after WWII. (He stood in 1950 as Liberal candidate for Bournemouth
West, unsuccessfully, then created his own All-Party Alliance.) He acquired a local publisher for
whom he wrote a couple of mystery novels under the name “Richard Martin” - Keys
To Crime (1947) and Vote For Murder (1948).
A more mainstream longer-lasting series was his 43 ‘Inspector West’ of Scotland Yard novels, such as Inspector West Leaves Town (1949), which is part-set in 'Hinton Magna', a mid-Dorset village “more sleepy even than most Dorset villages,” off the Dorchester-Blandford road. Inspector West visits after he is attacked in London by henchmen of the ‘Moriarty’ of kidnappers, who kidnaps and drugs VIPs and their wives. The regular police are as usual, helpless, in this case as the drugged victims are under the villain’s control. In Murder On The Line (1960), Cdr West investigates some “funny business down in the New Forest” at ‘Forest Junction’, where a signalman has been found dead on the railway.
|"Melchester" is a name that has
been used more than once to signal a Wessex setting since its original appearance in Hardy’s
Jude the Obscure and later the comic strip Roy Of The Rovers. In Hardy, it was
based on Salisbury. It was a setting in several of the crime novels of London lawyer Michael
Francis Gilbert CBE (1912–2006), who was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers
of America. In his first novel, Close Quarters (1947), Melchester is
again a Cathedral city like Salisbury - the title is a pun on Cathedral Close, meaning an alleyway,
which here is the scene of a suspicious death. (“…a young Scotland Yard detective
is asked to interrupt his holiday to find out if the accidental death of Canon Whyte was indeed
an accident.”) One commentator adds the novel relies greatly on the FW Croft-inspired
railway-timetable-alibi trope. It was largely written during the war, when the author was a POW.
It was to be the first of his ‘Inspector Hazelrigg’ series.
Melchester and its cathedral close would also be the setting of a much later MG novel, The Black Seraphim (1983), which has a young pathologist in town on a break encountering church politics with its internal rivalries. While his work is now largely out of print, Gilbert was once a prolific and much-awarded writer in various genres and there may be other works of local interest, though his not using a regular series hero makes detecting the literary setting more difficult.
The postwar rationing period of 1945-54, when shortages could be worse than during the actual war, prompted a black market, which inspired various stories. Smuggling had a long history in the region (cf Moonfleet), and saw a revival in the period of postwar austerity.
Nicholas Monsarrat's novella The Ship That Died Of Shame, set partly in wartime and partly during postwar rationing, was not set locally, but the 1955 Ealing film version was, using Poole and Weymouth harbours. The story had a motor torpedo boat crew falling on hard times postwar, and using their old MTB for smuggling.
Geoffrey Household contributed another timely contemporary crime story for the era of postwar
rationing, this time not a thriller like Rogue Male, but a comic crime adventure akin to Whisky
Galore, where smuggled liquor has to be got past the Customs men. Household's 1948 short story
Brandy For The Parson takes its title from the Kipling poem about smugglers
and has a young couple becoming entangled in a postwar rationing-era brandy-smuggling operation.
It was filmed in Devon and Dorset in 1951. Long unseen, it was released on DVD a few years ago,
at which time we did a separate webpage on it, here.
|The Juvenile Crime Adventure
The juvenile branch of the genre came into being largely after WWII, with children’s-adventure novels and Saturday-morning matinee dramas. The main influence here was the Famous Five series [21 books, 1942-63] by Enid Blyton (1898-1968), who had a summer residence at Swanage, and used her own children’s unsupervised outings as inspiration for works such as Five On A Treasure Island [pictured], its setting of 'Kirrin Island' and its ruined castle with its hidden gold-ingots treasure a mashup geography-wise of Brownsea Island, Lulworth Cove and Corfe Castle; Brownsea would also be the basis of ‘Whispering Island’ in Five Have A Mystery To Solve. ABC-Cinemas Saturday-morning-matinee film versions of these produced by the Children's Film Foundation were also exterior-filmed locally (in 35mm b&w), as would be a 1970s Southern TV series of adaptations (in 16mm colour).
The Famous Five series established the template for the gang-of-children-outwitting-the-local-crooks adventure story. The 8-part serial was meant for showing at Saturday-morning childrens'-matinees, but was also edited into a feature. The CFF's 1963 followup, their 6-part adaptation of her 20th in the series, the 1962 Five Have A Mystery To Solve (1963), also filmed scenes locally, being set largely on 'Whispering Island', a private nature reserve which Blyton based on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour, again with a treasure-dungeon featuring in the plot. (The island was then owned by a Mrs Christie, whose caretakers strongly discouraged all visitors, inspiring the plot here.)
Long unseen, the feature versions of both were issued on DVD in 2010 by BFI Video. A 1970s-set Southern-TV Famous Five 1975-8 colour series would also be shot locally, mainly in the New Forest area, covering the series except for the two above works, as the screen rights still belonged to the CFF. The series established the popular 1950s subgenre where a group of kids stumble across, and foil, a criminal gang.
Five On A Treasure Island (1942):
A still from the 1957 Children's Film Foundation 8 x 15 mins serial, the first screen version
of Enid Blyton’s first Famous Five adventure, shot at Corfe Castle, around Lulworth Cove
and a few other spots in the Poole-Purbeck area. The still shows the Five and their adult helpers
watching from 'Kirrin Island' (actually Corfe Castle) as the crooks are captured by the local
Coastguard cutter (which for some reason is called the Gay Viking).
|The Golden Age Revisited
Other post-WW2 works were more timeless, often harking back nostalgically to the Interwar Era as a different sort of Golden Age, i.e. not just one of the original literary flowering of the detective story, but more generally a mythic twenty-year “lost peace” period between the World Wars of 1919-39, a time when life was simpler, etc. However nowadays, modern works often look back with a similar nostalgia at the immediate post-WW2 period. Certainly after WW2 some crime writers carried on their pre-war series much as before. The Miss Marple and Nigel Strangeways series [1927-71 and 1935-66, respectively] fall into this category.
And just as such popular series-novels tend to downplay the implicit ageing of the characters over the decades, TV series adaptations for practical considerations - reusing in-period wardrobe and prop items - ‘freeze” the time-setting in a notional single year.
|All 12 of Agatha Christie’s
Miss Marple novels were authentically filmed by BBC-TV 1984-92, which is why details are
given here in the postwar section (see Part I under the Interwar section for the novels) because
the TV versions froze the setting of all 12 in the postwar rationing era. For this long-running
series of telefeatures (some over 2 hrs), Nether Wallop in Hampshire was the home village 'St Mary
Mead'; Bournemouth appears as a postwar-rationing-era "Danemouth" in The
Body In The Library [novel written 1942], with parts of the Carlton, Highcliff and
Royal Bath Hotels portraying 'The Majestic,' the story's large seafront 5-star hotel. A
Murder Is Announced [novel 1950] (which touches on the matter of some people after
the war drifting around trying to reinvent themselves) was filmed in the west Dorset villages of
West Milton-Powerstock (as “Chipping Cleghorn”). “Lymstock” in The
Moving Finger [novel 1942] was portrayed by locations above and around Lyme Regis.
Various west Dorset and east Devon locations appear in Sleeping Murder.
Somerley House near Ringwood was used for The Mirror Crack'd From Side To Side
[novel 1962] as St Mary Mead’s local manor house.
Christie claimed in her autobiography (written sometime before 1964) “This village is as real as it could be ….. there are several villages remarkably like it, even in these days.”
|Among the postwar entries in Nicholas Blake’s Nigel Strangeways series [see Part One], The Cumulated Fiction Index notes the 1953 The Dreadful Hollow is set overtly in Dorset (though in a fictional village, ‘Prior's Umborne’). As well as teaching at several schools in Dorset, the author lived at Lyme Regis, and would be buried next to Hardy. Blake’s 1963 The Deadly Joker (currently due for a reprint) is not one of his Strangeways series. It is set in the fictional Dorset hamlet of ‘Netherplash Cantorum’ based on the central-Dorset hamlet of Plush, where the author and his wife stayed in 1960, the novel being dedicated to the real-life owners of its local inn, The Brace Of Pheasants. Many of the scenes take place in the local pub in this story of writers trying to outwit an increasingly nasty practical joker.||
The Brace Of Pheasants restaurant-inn, in the central-Dorset hamlet of Plush, the fictionalised setting of Nicholas Blake’s The Deadly Joker.
|Death To Slow Music (1956) by (John) Beverley Nichols (1898-1983), better known for nonfiction books, was the 3rd (of 5) in his 'Horatio Green' private-detective series, where his great detective solves cases by recognizing tiny details as clues. This one is set in 'Seabourne', a typical-sounding seaside resort (the local Council wants to demolish the elegant seafront Regency Theatre to build a matchbox-shaped block of modern flats). There has been a murder at the Ghost Train exhibit on the Pier, which the local paper calls “the most macabre murder of the century.” The novel’s dedication credits Somerset Maugham’s ‘kindly interest’ for the continuing series, while 20th C. Crime & Mystery Writers says the series was discontinued because the books were not well received, despite being “remarkably elegant novels, meticulously contrived and controlled.”|
'Inspector McLean of Scotland Yard' series of 62 novels by the prolific pulp writer George
Goodchild (1888–1969) includes a couple set in Dorset: McLean To The
Dark Tower Came (1951), and McLean Disposes (1958).
The End Of The Track (1956) by prolific crime writer "Andrew Garve" (= Paul Winterton, 1908-2011) has a New Forest game warden suspected of murder after a blackmail attempt.
In the whimsical ‘Gervase Fen’ series by ‘Edmund Crispin’ [= Robert Bruce Montgomery, 1921-78] about an Oxford professor and gentleman-amateur detective, two of the novels possibly have settings of interest here. Holy Disorders (1945) is set in “a small west-country cathedral town” (Salisbury?) during WWII, while The Long Divorce (1951) is set in the unspoilt but well-heeled film-set type village of ‘Cotten Abbas’ which sounds Dorset-ish (cf Cerne Abbas) but from the description is in SW Hampshire. (The author himself was a Devon resident.)
|Some novels in the detective series by Vivian Collin Brooks (1922–2003), featuring Inspector Baker, Chief Inspector Rupert “Rip” Irving and Sgt Shirley are of local interest. Although the author, a journalist, lived elsewhere, VCB's pen-name indicates her interest in the area: ‘Osmington Mills’ is the name of a Dorset coastal village just E of Weymouth. Some early series entries are set on Wight, such as Unlucky Break and The Case Of The Flying Fifteen (1956), set around Cowes Regatta. Apparently set in Dorset (with some fictional village names etc) are: No Match For The Law (1957), Misguided Missile (1958), Trial By Ordeal (1961), Headlines Make Murder (1962), Traitor Betrayed (1964), and Death Enters The Lists (1967). [There are others whose setting could not be verified: At One Fell Swoop (1963), Dusty Death (1965), Enemies Of The Bride (1966), Sundry Fell Designs (1968), Many A Slip (1969), Ghost Of A Clue (1970).]|
Me A Lawyer (1960) by ‘Peter Bryan’ (=??), a satiric
novel of the legal profession, focussing on a provincial barrister and his ‘trials’
(in more senses than one) is set in ‘Starmouth.’ This is described as “a
town peopled by retired army officers and aged maiden ladies …. [with] ancients of both sexes
wrapped in rugs and seated in bath chairs gazing blearily out to sea” [p14]. As Peter
Bryan was the pen name of a practising provincial solicitor who had to keep his real identity under
wraps, any assumption that ‘Starmouth’ is really England’s then ‘star’
resort, 1950s Bournemouth, ‘the Queen of The South’, remains speculative, though the
book is listed as being of local interest in local library collections.
of the ‘Martin Cotterel’ series [1953-7] by John Trench (1920-2003)
appears locally set. (The author, 'an advertising copywriter, author and amateur archaeologist,'
was not local, but holidayed at Swanage.) Dishonoured Bones (1954) is
set on the ‘Isle of Albany’, where the body of a lord is found in a quarry. The Isle
of Portland of course makes a suitable setting for an amateur sleuth who is an archaeologist by
profession. ‘Martin Cotterel’ is described in Detective Fiction: The Collector's Guide
as “a youthful archaeologist with only one hand. He is erudite and mischievous”
(He lost the hand in WW2, and has a metal one.) The Guide adds, “What makes him permanently
interesting is the exceptional quality of his three novels which still make exhilarating reading.
They have zest and wit and offer puzzles of substance and complexity.”
A tv version starring Alan Dobie and Judi Dench was made in 1964 for the BBC’s 1964-69 anthology series Detective.
prolific Gladys Mitchell [see Part I] continued to use the area as a setting through
the postwar decade with the same mix of actual and made-up place names. Her Death And
The Maiden (1947) is set around Winchester and the River Itchen, and Echoing
Strangers (1952) is also said to be set in Hampshire. The stone circle central to
The Dancing Druids (1948) was acknowledged by her to be inspired by West
Dorset’s Nine Stones at Winterbourne Abbas, and Merlin's Furlong
(1953) is also set in Dorset. ‘Seahampton’ is another fictionalised seaside-town setting
in the mainly New Forest-set Twelve Horses And The Hangman's Noose (1956).
Some crime writers from this postwar era have vanished into obscurity, their work out of print and their biographical details unknown. An example is Leonard R. Gribble (1908-85), who wrote dozens of nonfiction crime works as well as crime novels, mainly under various pseudonyms like “Dexter Muir”. His 1948 The Pilgrims Meet Murder, written as part of his “Superintendent Slade” series, was part-set in Dorset.
Another was Arthur Hobart Mills (1887-1955), a prolific once-popular, now forgotten author. (Wiki: “Despite favorable reviews, frequent impressions, and global translations of many of his earlier books (The Broadway Madonna, The Gold Cat), Mills eventually became known as a genre author of cheap crime and adventure novels. His work has been largely forgotten.”) He had his final home in Hampshire, his final few novels being crime mysteries set in the New Forest: Last Seen Alive (1951), Your Murder Is Up (1952) [and possibly his last, The Maliday Mystery, 1954]. Also from this era, Murder Is A Furtive Thing (1950) by Raymond Boyd (19??-), is listed as set in Dorset by the Cumulated Fiction Index.
Another is Vincent Hill (19??-), whose The Cunning Enemy (1957), one in a series narrated by its PI-hero, is part-set in Poole and Purbeck.
Prolific Devon-born author Victor Canning (1911-86), who would become a cult genre author in the 70s [qv] when Hitchcock adapted one of his novels, did not live locally but set parts of several of his earlier crime works in the area. His 1956 The Hidden Face (US: Burden Of Proof) is part-set on the IOW, where the narrator, serving a sentence for murder, is ‘sprung’ from Parkhurst Gaol on the Isle of Wight and travels across Britain to find the real murderer. Jailbreaks from Parkhurst also feature in two Canning short stories, "It Never Pays Off" and "Breakaway".
The League Of Gentlemen (1958) by John Boland (1913-76) has a chapter set in Dorset, at the ‘Army Command Training Centre’ in ‘Mulverton’, which provided a nervy, satiric key scene in the 1960 hit film version with Jack Hawkins. This was perhaps the first film to have down-on-their-luck former war veterans deciding to use their military skills in a major criminal enterprise. Its cynical tone of postwar disappointment (this being the motive for the planned heist) and amoral ex-officer characters anticipated a major change in social attitudes that would develop in the 60s.
| The BBC's Miss Marple
On its 150th anniversary in 1988, the Royal Bath Hotel claimed it had “shed its Miss Marple image”. The reference was to its being used as a location for the Miss Marple BBC series 1984 episode The Body In The Library, originally written in 1942 but set in the postwar era (rationing is mentioned in the script, but there is no sign of WWII defence works when Miss Marple walks on the beach). It is set partly in the resort of "Danemouth", Christie's name for Bournemouth, where the BBC was partly filmed, at the Marriott Highcliff Hotel. All 12 Miss Marple novels were authentically filmed by the BBC, 1984-92. (Joan Hickson declined to continue the series using the Marple short stories.) Though written over a period of over four decades, the tv versions for production continuity reasons were meant to be ‘frozen’ in terms of dress, cars etc circa 1948, but some episodes like The Mirror Crack’d (filmed at Somerley House near Ringwood) used 1950s cars.
The BBC's longrunning series of telefeatures starring Joan Hickson as Miss Marple, were set circa 1948. These used locations in the region for a number of episodes, in Hampshire and Dorset.
The late 50s and
early 60s saw public concern over large numbers of Teddy Boy gangs, dressed in long Edwardian-style
jackets and tight trousers and often armed with sharpened bicycle chains. Around the same time,
there were clashes in seaside towns between groups of duffle-coat wearing Mods and Rockers, the
latter identifiable by their motorbikes and all-leather outfits. A gang of leather-clad Rockers
led by a Teddy Boy played by Oliver Reed pursuing the lead couple forms the plot of the first
half of an odd hybrid film made in 1961 by the Hammer Studio in Weymouth and Portland. In its
2nd half, The Damned turns into a Cold War sci-fi horror about experimental
radiation effects, based on The Children Of Light, a 1950s Cold War SF novel by an otherwise
unknown author, Henry Lionel Lawrence (1908-90). But before that, it offers a chilling portrait
for its time of a biker gang who rob and terrorise for ‘kicks’ (a common trope of
the era) and are not afraid of either the police or the military.
The Damned: Oliver Reed as the teddy-boy
gang leader, and Shirley Ann Field as his accomplice.
The Damned (1961/63): the first half of the film is a contemporary drama about a gang of youth running amok in a seaside town area. Shot in b&w widescreen, the film opens on Weymouth Esplanade and ends up in the Portland quarries and caves, via a chase across Portland's St George's Church at Reforne, with a finale partly on the Causeway across the Fleet lagoon.
The Damned: A genre-crossover drama of a couple, on the run from a Weymouth teddy-boy biker gang, who stumble into a secret government experiment in the Portland quarries and caves.
the 1960s and 70s, the most prolific and notable of detective-story authors living in the area
continued to be Gladys Mitchell, she having retired
from teaching in 1961 to Corfe Mullen near Wimborne. (She had a brother who was a magistrate
at Wimborne, while her other brother lived at Beaminster in west Dorset.) There, she wrote around
a book a year till her death here in 1983. (See Part I for details of her earlier work.) After
1961 she was able to explore, at leisure, the Wessex landscape including its associated mystical
aspects. "In Praise Of Gladys Mitchell" by B. A. Pike, published in Armchair Detective,
1976, notes: “… on her retirement she moved to the country, to Corfe Mullen in
Dorset, where she was able to pursue two of her principal interests, the investigation of pre-historic
sites and the study of mediaeval architecture. She had long been an enthusiastic student of Freud;
and she attributed her interest in witchcraft to the influence of her friend Helen Simpson.”
(Her fellow author Simpson, who with Frances Iles had co-sponsored her joining the Detection
Club, was Australian but had spent time in the area, standing as Liberal candidate for the IOW
just before her death in 1940.) TJ Binyon in his 1989 genre study Murder Will Out [p27] adds
that, if anything, the occult plays an over-large part in the novels: “Mrs Bradley
is as much a witch as a psychiatrist.”
Death Is So Final
(1962) by Alex Fraser (19??-) is set on Wight, where a ‘reporter and
lady friend are in grave jeopardy when odd character tries to take over; murder trial follows.’
60s Crimes In The Headlines
The 1965 death of former world light heavyweight champion boxer Freddie Mills, who was born in Poole and grew up in Bournemouth, was a real-life crime mystery of the time. It was supposedly a suicide (he was shot in the head with a rifle found in his car) The theory put in a book by a friend of his, fellow boxer Peter McInnnes, is that the retired boxer turned London club owner was killed by protection racketeers who decided to make an example of him when he couldn’t pay up. There don’t seem to be any direct novels or dramas about the case (though Mills himself appeared in a few films), but seems to have inspired the character stereotype of the boxer who is being blackmailed or pressured by gangland types. Another theory was that he was the serial killer nicknamed Jack The Stripper, a case which has inspired various novels and films.
With the social upheavals
and lifestyle experimentation of the late Sixties, 70s works tended to be more socially aware,
often reflecting a darker view of human nature.
More traditional works continued to appear.
Mysteries and thrillers continued
to flourish through the 1980s, with two strands developing around the middle-of-the-road approach.
The first was a continuation of the traditional cosy detective story, which had become more self-consciously
playful, almost a self-parody as a means of sustaining its now long-familiar tropes, to compensate
for its lack of realism, made increasingly obvious by the new grittier, more realistic strand
with its forensic detail. The second, newer strand often reflected current socio-political anxieties
about the secret state, nuclear politics and the environment, etc. Wessex as an ancient ‘unspoilt’
landscape under threat from nuclear power, pollution etc made a suitable setting for the new
subgenre of the eco-thriller.
Right - Cover of the novelisation of BBC serial The Collectors, showing Peter McEnery as the Customs boss. The 1985 drama serial was shot in Poole, using the Customs HQ on the Quay, Upton House as a casino; the Mansion House (restaurant); the 16th-C. King Charles Inn; a Lilliput church hall; Poole yacht club [doubling as a yacht club in Cherbourg]; Lake Pier in Hamworthy and Sandbanks esplanade. In the surrounding area, Hurn Airport appeared, as did Studland Beach, Creech Grange in the Purbecks [as a French chateau], Sturminster Marshall’s livestock market, and Weymouth.
This period also saw the start
of several local-interest detective-procedural series which began in the late 80s and continued
into the 90s.
The series began with A Shroud For Delilah (1984), A Necessary End (1985), Pretty Maids All In A Row (1986), Death Speaks Softly (1987), The Nine Bright Shiners (1987), Six Proud Walkers (1988), and The April Rainers (1989), continuing through the 1990s with Symbols At Your Door (1990), I’ll Sing You Two-O (aka The Lily-White Boys) (1991), Three, Three The Rivals (1992), The Gospel Makers (1994), The Seven Stars (1995), One Is One And All Alone (1996), The Ten Commandments (1997), Eleven That Went To Heaven (1999), The Twelve Apostles (1999). The somewhat literary-sounding titles are because most of them are from the lyrics to the folk song ‘Green Grow the Rushes-O.’
The 1987-93 ‘Detective Superintendent Douglas Roper’ of the Dorset Police police-procedural series by Essex-born author Roy Hart (1930-) began with Seascape With Dead Figures (1987), set in a fictitious seaside town, ‘Redbury’, with Roper called in to investigate a suspicious cliff-fall ‘suicide’. A Pretty Place For A Murder (1987) is set inland in the village of ‘Cort Abbas’, A Fox In The Night (1988) deals with a suspicious death in a local river, and the village of ‘Newby Magna’ is the setting in Remains To Be Seen (1989). The setup is that the local villages only have a constable or two, and to investigate suspicious deaths Roper has to be brought in as CID – what the Americans would call a homicide detective. While the village names are fictional, Roper himself seems based in Bournemouth, and a blurb for a later novel refers to him as ‘Bournemouth's head copper’. The Superintendent Douglas Roper & Inspector David Price series would ultimately run to 9 novels, with 5 more in the 1990s: Robbed Blind (1990), Breach Of Promise (1991), Blood Kin (1992), Final Appointment (1993), and A Deadly Schedule (1994).
The longest-running local interest crime drama series was ITV’s
Inspector Wexford, which more than spanned the 1990s by several years on each side.
After a slightly shaky start, Inspector Wexford (properly, The Ruth Rendell Mysteries
with Inspector Wexford) became a regular Sunday-evening drama series with 55 episodes 1987-2000.
The stories (23 novels plus short stories, 1964-2011) by Ruth Rendell (1930-2015)
had a setting that had originally been farther east, in Sussex, but with the town of ‘Kingsmarkham’
being portrayed on-screen by the Hampshire market town of Romsey and star George Baker playing
the protagonist with a distinctive ‘Wessex’ country accent, the setting in effect
migrated westward after 1987 to tie the novels more in with the popular tv versions. Rendell
has said Baker was so right for the part she couldn't get him out of her head when writing the
later novels. The tv series itself refers to Wexford being in 'the Hampshire Constabulary.'
Seascape With Dead Figures: This
police-procedural was the first of Roy Hart's 1987-93 ‘Detective Superintendent Douglas
Roper’ of the Dorset Police series, continued in 8 other novels.
| More series with women protagonists
began to appear. Don’t Leave Me This Way (1990) by Joan
Smith (1953-), the 3rd in a series featuring lecturer sleuth Loretta Lawson, is part set
in and around Lymington and the New Forest, as she searches for a missing member of her disbanded
women's group whom she had let sleep on her couch. You Belong To Me (1994)
by Dorset-resident author ‘Elizabeth McGregor’ (= Mrs Elizabeth Cooke
19??-), a psychological thriller set on an island off Dorset, in which ‘One woman takes over
the identity of another with deadly consequences.’ American writer Teri Holbrook’s
debut novel, A Far And Deadly Cry (1995), is set in ‘Fetherbridge’,
a ‘remote Hampshire village’... ‘a village that is not quite as sleepy as
it seems,’ where an expatriate American historian is living, despite the locals blaming
her for a previous killing.
The 1996 black-comedy film Intimate Relations, starring Julie Walters and Rupert Graves, plus Bournemouth actress Amanda Holden and her husband comedian Les Dennis, was promoted as ‘a true story … of obsession, sexual abuse and murder’ based on a real-life double murder that happened near Minstead in the New Forest in 1956, when a Poole landlady and her daughter were murdered by their lodger with a commando knife after he raped the underage daughter during a picnic outing. The names were changed and the setting was relocated, presumably as the story claimed the murderer was having affairs with both mother and underage daughter. The victims’ surviving relative objected to this and the murders being turned into a comedy, especially as the killer was later repeatedly allowed out to assault others, and an Echo editorial at the time suggested a box-office boycott.
The 1997 BBC 2-part adaptation of the 1996 novel The Beggar Bride, by Devon-based journalist turned author Gillian White (1945-), about a woman who becomes a bigamist to help pay for child care, was partly filmed at Somerley House near Ringwood, with a finale shot on the Dorset coast.
The 1990s also saw the genre’s perennial taste for extravagant plots full of twists and turns continuing.
Into The Blue (1990), by Hampshire-born Cornwall-resident author Robert Goddard (1954-), the first of several mystery novels featuring grumpy expat Harry Barnett, is part-set in the Weymouth-Portland-Chesil area. In order to return some personal effects to the family of a young woman acquaintance who mysteriously vanished on Rhodes, Harry [played in the 1997 tv version by John Thaw] comes back home and must get past initial culture shock at a somewhat changed England to follow up the mystery, as he himself is a suspect in the disappearance. Goddard would set a later novel locally, at Avebury, his 2005 child-abduction mystery Sight Unseen.
The Inspector Morse series by Colin Dexter (1930-2017) included one part-set locally: Morse gets onto his latest case while on holiday in Dorset in The Way Through The Woods (1992). He has gone there due to the area’s literary associations and visits Dorchester’s Kings Arms Hotel (a Hardy site), Moreton Cemetery (grave of TE Lawrence) and stays at Lyme Regis, in the seafront Bay Hotel. While on his own in Lyme, Morse meets (over his morning Times) a provocative woman who calls herself Louisa Hardinge after Hardy’s own lost love. However like Hardy, he fails to follow up his interest, only to have the matter return to haunt him after his return home to Oxford. The novel was considered so well-written it led to a reviving of Morse tv adaptations with this single drama. Ironically, the entire Dorset sequence was dropped from the tv adaptation, but it covers most of the first 60pp of the novel. (Dorset Magazine's Jan 2013 issue had a feature on 'Morse's Vacation In Lyme Regis'.)
The Touch Of Innocents (1993) by Michael Dobbs (1948-) has some key early scenes set in Dorset, in ‘Westchester’ and ‘Bowminster’, the local newspaper being the Wessex Chronicle. The plot has an American tv reporter crashing her car in Dorset and coming out of a coma in Bournemouth hospital to be told her baby died. This being a thriller (aimed firmly at the US market, said Private Eye), it has of course been snatched - by the daughter of the Defence Secretary to sell it overseas (to a US politician?), with the heroine being threatened by officialdom (including local CID) when she tries to get her child back, part of a vast cover-up stretching all the way to the Cabinet. The heroine has thus to battle endlessly against heroin addicts, rich Arabs, bent doctors, corrupt editors, nobbled Whitehall officials, etc etc. (The author claimed his book documented the plight of working mothers.) Dobbs was a West Dorset MP turned political novelist (of House Of Cards fame), now relocated from his farmhouse near Bridport to Wiltshire, he is now Baron Dobbs of Wylye [SE Wilts].
Called To Account (1994) by John Harman (19??-) is a thriller-cum-romance set in Poole and the surrounding area, with a female accountant getting involved with a drug-squad officer in Bournemouth investigating drugs being smuggled in via Poole Harbour and upriver to Wareham. It ends with a hostage-taking on Wareham Quay and a shootout in Wareham Channel marshes. Wimborne also features, as ‘Winbourne’ [the old spelling].
Stiff Competition (1998), the debut novel of Bournemouth-resident car collector Michael Shenton (19??-) is a satiric novel about 'comping' (competitions to win prize cars, a long-time interest of his). In this case, rivalry between car-competition entrants leads to murder, in a comic novel 'set in Southampton and the New Forest', where the hero meets a 'coven of comping witches'.
|The 1990s - The 2000s|
| The most prolific local crime
writer of the 1990s and 2000s (also ‘England's bestselling female crime writer’), Minette
Walters (1949-), attended Godolphin School in Salisbury, was a prison visitor for 12 years
at Winchester Gaol, and later bought a house in Romsey and then a manor house outside Dorchester,
and often uses the surrounding area in the crime novels as a setting or part-setting. The author
says she loves ‘writing the nasty bits’, calling these books her ‘dark fantasies’
(Radio Times used the phrase ‘morbid fantasy’) and they do seem to be the darkest of
all depictions of the area, with a variety of gruesome brutalizations of women a central feature.
Her first crime novel, The Ice House (1992), is set largely at ‘Streetch Grange’, a thinly disguised Creech Grange – the Purbeck stately home. Other local settings include Salisbury in The Dark Room (1995); coastal Purbeck in The Breaker (1998) – with a front-map of Hounstout and Chapman’s Pool bay, where the naked body of a pregnant woman is washed up, while her toddler is found wandering in Lilliput in Poole; Weymouth and Portland are used for parts of her miscarriage-of-justice tale The Shape Of Snakes (2000), set in 1978-9; an ‘isolated’ fictitious Dorset village near Durdle Door beset by New Age caravanners in Fox Evil (2002); a large part of Disordered Minds (2003) is set in Bournemouth, in the suburb of ‘Highdown’ on the Poole boundary; The Devil’s Feather (2005) is part-set at a country house outside Dorchester. The Scold's Bridle (1994) was also set in Dorset, using fictional place names (‘Learmouth’, Fontwell’, Long Upton’) mixed with real ones like Southbourne and Hengistbury; the 1998 BBC TV adaptation was shot largely in and around Poole, using the Civic Centre, Quay etc..
The ‘DI Nick Holroyd’ series by former librarian Ann Quinton (19??-) is set in Dorset. In the pilot for the series, This Mortal Coil (1998), “In an English city, a contract killer leaves a business card from the "Coil Shuffler" on his victims…. Rachel Morland, a physiotherapist and vicar in training, brings detectives Michael Croft and Nick Holroyd a clue … and becomes a target herself…. a fiendishly tough mystery, vivid characters, and evocative English atmosphere…. medieval architecture, euthanasia, modern religion, and the importance of reputation to both good guys and bad.” In Put Out The Light (2001), “Trouble is afoot in Dorset, and Detective Inspector Nick Holroyd is right in the middle of it… the women of the area are being terrorized by the Wessex rapist. .. his stepsister has joined a nearby commune…. Meanwhile, Nick faces a personal problem on the romance front….” . In Bought With Blood (2002), “A paedophile is on the loose in Casterford and a group of vigilantes is on the rampage causing trouble for DI Nick Holroyd and his team… Meanwhile, some letters by Thomas Hardy are discovered, which refer to an unknown novel by him... the events may all be connected." [synopses from Booklist]. There may be others in the series, but the author writes an overlapping series set in her home country of Suffolk, making it difficult to tell.
The Missing Postman, filmed by BBC Scotland in 1996 from a Mark Wallington novel, could be classed as a human-interest crime story. The novel is initially set in this area, though in a fictional town, 'Holmouth.' A postman forced into early retirement as he doesn't drive decides to deliver his final postbag full of letters himself on his bike and becomes a wanted fugitive for theft from the Royal Mail. Author/scriptwriter Mark Wallington (of 500 Mile Walkies fame) grew up in the area, and Poole and the nearby parts of Dorset doubled for other locales during the postie's epic cycle ride north, a silent protest against automation which makes him a national hero, causing the government not to press charges in the end.
Local police got their own
major CSI/manhunt case in 2000-1 with the Bournemouth bomber/blackmailer case, the subject of
a 2009 hour-long documentary-drama reenactment made, with official police cooperation, by Tern
TV as part of their Real Crime series, as The Tesco Bomber. We have
a separate page on this, put together when the idea of a 'CSI Bournemouth' was mooted by one
of the US franchise's producers, here.
Stonehenge Legacy (2011) by Sam Christer, a thriller about a Druidic cult plotting
a celebrity human sacrifice in a huge ancient labyrinth under Salisbury Plain, is set in Wiltshire
(Stonehenge as well as police HQ at Devizes) and northeast Dorset (manor house at Tollard Royal).
The blurb for Un-natural Selection (2011; 2014) by James Donnelly (1957-) notes "Set in Dorset, the towns and places mentioned in the book are real." Set around Poor Common on the outskirts of Parley just outside Bournemouth, this work of 'modern speculative fiction' revolves around an ABC [Alien Big Cat] scare, where human agency may be involved. A CID man and a Forest [sic] Ranger investigate, separately then together, a series of attacks [opening chapter downloadable here].
Despite his age, ex Inspector Wexford seems not to have completely given up detective work after all, coming out of retirement in his 80s. The 24th and last novel, No Man's Nightingale (2014), has Wexford called out of retirement by his old colleague Mike Burden when there is that classic genre setup, murder at the local vicarage, in this case of Kingsmarkham's new female vicar.
ITV's hit drama serial Broadchurch [2013-17] scripted and co-produced by tv writer Chris Chibnall (1970-) (who has lived in the area for over ten years), about the hunt for the murderer of a local child, was filmed partly at West Bay and neighbouring Bridport, portraying the seafront portion of the fictional Dorset resort of Broadchurch. (It is mentioned as being near "Lyme", so the setting is close to the filming location; the police here are the fictional "Wessex Police.") The drama is an English counterpart to the cyle of Scandi-noir tv dramas that began with the Danish hit The Killing, which broke with tv convention by limiting itself to a single murder. (We have a blog post with more detail on this aspect: see "ITV Makes A Killing In Dorset".)
The 2013 8-wk x 1 hr drama serial was meant as a one-off, ending with both lead characters at odds with themselves, each other and their future employment in the police looking unlikely. But it proved so popular (final audience of over 9 million) that the final end credits announced 'Broadchurch will return'.
After winning various awards, the 2nd series, again part-shot in Dorset [June 2014], reunited the major characters, with the plot setup kept secret, and in the meantime a novelisation, co-authored by Chibnall and London thriller writer Erin Kelly, was published in 2014. Series two was accompanied by a series of Kindle e-book "singles," with readers reportedly searching the print versions for clues as to how the series would continue. Series two had a mixed reaction (with the courtroom scenes particularly criticised as unrealistic), Series three, set three years later, concluded the trilogy in 2017.
Broadchurch: The community establish a shrine on the beach. Much of the drama's focus was on the impact of the killing on the local community.
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