|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.
In 1967, Hitchcock began a film called Kaleidoscope based on the Heath case, but the studio forced him to abandon it, as too upsetting for “fans.” Hitchcock left the US for London to make a similar story, Frenzy, written by Anthony Shaffer. Patrick Hamilton’s unfinished 1952-5 “Gorse trilogy,” the novels based on Heath (cf the surnames Gorse and Heath) were the basis of the 1987 ITV drama serial The Charmer, starring Nigel Havers and set 1938-40, though not locally.
However there is a 1980 novel based on the Heath case. “You just don’t think of murders happening in a place as ordinary as this,” says a character in Todd Mallanson’s Lady Killer, set circa 1946 “in the opulence of post-war Bournemouth.” Mallanson (probably a pen name of erotic fiction author Richard Manton ,19??-) was also a journalist and scriptwriter and the novel may be related to the 1980-1 Granada TV docudrama series Ladykillers, where in the episode "Make It A Double", Heath was portrayed by Ian Charleson. As a novel, Mallanson’s version seems an attempt at a crossover of the pre-war detective story with its upper-class dastardly cad, the post-war variant with its hysterical, cowardly borstal-boy villain, and the modern American disturbed-serial-killer novel, the result being perhaps best described by its jacket blurb. (“A young married woman is the willing victim of a whipping in a hotel suite. Within days her dead body, naked and savagely beaten, is found tied to the bed of another hotel room.... a second girl is discovered among the leafy chines of the Bournemouth coast. Murder squad officers, taunted and misled by their quarry, work against time to save his next victim... .“).
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.
Household, who in WWII had been sent on real covert missions into Europe as an Intelligence
officer, followed up his wartime bestseller Rogue Male aka Man Hunt [see Part
I of this guide] with A Rough Shoot (1951), starring a new hero, Roger
Taine (his original “Rogue” hero having been a casualty of war). It falls thematically
into the category of unfinished business left over from wartime. It is set on a remote west Dorset
farm, the plot concerning the tracking down of fascist collaborators, with the small airstrip
in the story perhaps inspired by wartime covert airstrips like Tarrant Rushton, used by the SOE
to drop agents and supplies to the French Resistance, a fact which would have been known to the
author as a wartime Field Security officer. TJ Binyon in his preface to Dent’s Classic
Thrillers reissue, says “There can be no doubt that among Household’s novels
there are two classic thrillers - - Rogue Male and A Rough Shoot.” A story of post-war
revenge killings as well as spies, it is set on “a remote Dorset farm,” and was filmed
in 1952 around Bovington.
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.
Normally these dealt with stock criminal activity like burglary or rationing-era smuggling. However, contemporary i.e. Cold War intrigues on the Dorset heathland appear in another Saturday morning matinee B-feature. (It shows up periodically on Channel 4, and is part of a double-bill Renown DVD.) This is the 1954 children’s film The Black Rider, directed by veteran Wolf Rilla, one of those adventure-drama featurettes of the time where a group of plucky local youth (here, not early-/pre-teens like Blyton’s group, but young adults) foil the crooks’ dastardly plans.
The film centres around the world of local motorcycle dirt-track racing clubs and speedway teams which began in the 1930s, but flourished post-WW2 after young men got wartime experience of motorbikes from acting as Army Despatch Riders. (The local motorcycle team, the Poole Pirates, was formed in 1948). The gang is led by the local ‘squire’ (played by Lionel Jeffries, later a Bournemouth resident in real life), a traitor planning to smuggle an atomic device into the country to sabotage Britain's tank-testing programme.
The story also adds in the old ‘ghost-train’ plot device where the smugglers are using ghost legends to frighten off any witnesses. Here, a young reporter (boyish-looking WW2 veteran turned actor Jimmy Hanley), his girl, and his pals in the local cross-country motorcycle youth club help foil the gang’s plan to put a small atomic bomb under the ‘haunted’ castle ‘right next to the experimental tank depot’.
The story setting is plainly the Purbecks, despite the fictitious place names. A map insert puts "Brockham" Castle and village north of the coast at Worth Matravers, here said to be near a tank-testing range and depot (as at Bovington Ranges). Much of the filming was either a studio soundstage or Home Counties housing and heathland. There is some night-time scene-setting 2nd-unit filming at a Purbeck cove as well as a scene-setting shot of Swanage seafront. This portrays the Wessex resort of "Swanhaven", near a ruined castle which is a soundstage set obviously modelled on Corfe.
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, 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.
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.”
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 1959 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.
Cold War Heroes & Villains
Among works that are not just a holdover of pre-war Golden-Age genre conventions, a number focus on the postwar period as one of austerity and psychological readjustment amidst new atomic-age Cold War anxieties. One was “John LeCarre”, the jokey pen-name of intelligence officer turned author David John Moore Cornwell (1931-). Before he established himself with his long-running Cold War-themed ‘'George Smiley’ series, he had his mild-mannered spycatcher investigating a murder at the public school where an ex-wartime colleague was based. The author himself was born in Poole (grandson of a Lord Mayor of Poole) and attended Sherborne School in north Dorset. This inspired an early novel, A Murder Of Quality, where Smiley is invited back to deal with a potential scandal. (The novel was published in 1962 but is set in the decade after the war.) Here, the school and town are thinly disguised as “Carne.” The name was perhaps initially suggested by nearby Cerne Abbas (home of that symbol of carnality, the Cerne Giant). With its sinister associations based on the word “carnal”, the name fits the context, LeCarre depicting the public school as the late home of a corrupt fading class system, ‘a sanitorium of dying souls.’ The background to the murder is a certain postwar frustration among ex public school types, which LeCarre has commented on elsewhere in his spy novels, which was born of the post-Suez loss of the sense of Empire, as well as generational nostalgia for wartime excitements.
A Murder Of Quality: The 1990 ITV telefeature version of LeCarre's first Smiley novel, starring Denholm Elliott as George Smiley and Glenda Jackson as an associate helping solve the case, preserved the 1950s period setting.
The tv version was set near Yeovil and shot
at Sherborne School and town, though largely filmed at night. Denholm Elliott stepped in as Smiley
after Anthony Hopkins left when the script was rewritten to give the local policeman a larger
role (presumably on grounds of realism). The TV adaptation is not as close an adaptation as one
might expect, given that LeCarre adapted his own novel - he said he had become dissatisfied with
a work he had written some 30 years before.
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.
Joan Hickson as Miss Marple in the BBC's longrunning series of telefeatures. These used locations in the region for a number of episodes, in Hampshire and Dorset.
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 1961 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.
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. Smuggling had a long history
in the region (cf Moonfleet), and saw a revival in the period of postwar austerity.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 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 the film, here.
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 Brace Of Pheasants restaurant-inn, in the central-Dorset hamlet of Plush, the fictionalised setting of Nicholas Blake’s The Deadly Joker.
The Black Rider (1954):
the screengrab shows a 2nd-unit scene of a moonlit Purbeck cove (Worbarrow Bay?), complete with
leftover wartime pillbox and barbed wire, where the smuggler-spies’ courier rides a motorbike
up the cliffside track. The climax is set in the castle dungeon - mouse over picture to see 2nd
|The Cold War thriller continued
to flourish through the 60s. Although the 1965 John Sturges film version was set in California,
the 1962 Alistair MacLean novel The Satan Bug is largely set in Wiltshire.
This Cold War thriller concerns the theft of deadly vials from the 'Mordon Microbiological Research
Establishment', akin to Wiltshire's real-life Porton Down, which makes and tests germ-warfare toxins
so terrible they terrify the scientists developing them, who know there is no antidote or containment
possible. (The text says tens of thousands of animals bred there for testing have died in agony.)
The hero/narrator, a no-nonsense ex-Army ex-CID man who was the centre's security chief, must work
out who is responsible and recover the phials, which could extinguish the human race. The mastermind
proves to have a criminal rather than environmentalist or 'mad scientist' motive.
One final entry in Nicholas Blake’s Nigel Strangeways series deals with Cold War related crime and intrigue: The Sad Variety (1964). Here, Strangeways is acting as minder to an atomic scientist and his daughter, who is kidnapped by Communist agents to get him to defect. Written after the blizzards of 1963, it is set in a bleak winter landscape, by the West Country villages of ‘Downcombe’ near ‘Longport’ and ‘Eggarswell’, “in a wild part of the country” on an old smugglers route (from details, it sounds like the Eggarsdown area of SW Dorset).
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.’
Real-Life 60s Crimes In The Headlines
A number of well-publicised 60s criminal
cases had local links.
Much the same can be said of the decade’s
first big espionage scandal, the 1960-1 Portland Spy Ring (aka the case of The Microdots Five),
involving personnel at the local submarine base. The 1964 film made about it, Ring Of Spies
aka Ring of Treason, has Portland-dockyard set scenes, but no local filming, due to
official cooperation being refused. (Most of it was shot at Shepperton Studios.) A well-known
play about the case by Hugh Whitemore is set only in the London area.
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.
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-) 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.' The production also often used other sites in the area: Bournemouth for its variety of architecture, Southampton for larger-scale urban scenes, Highcliffe Castle (then still dilapidated), Burley in the New Forest, the Dorset Coast Path etc. One of the episodes set in the New Forest seems to have been inspired by a real-life 1986 crime reminiscent of the ‘In Cold Blood’ case in America, where robbery quickly turned into murder. At Burgate House near Fordingbridge, 5 members of a New Forest family were surprised at the dinner table by 3 masked robbers (caught after a nationwide manhunt), with the wife raped and strangled and the others bound and burnt alive with petrol.
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 (19??-), 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-) 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].
Precipice (1995) is a thriller set in Switzerland and Dorset by Anglo-Australian writer Colin Forbes (=Raymond H Sawkins, 1923–2006), in which Wareham again features as a hotbed of intrigue, full of agents, thugs, motorcycle gangs etc. who trail the hero everywhere. (The author was known to claim he visited every location he used, to add authentic detail.) He has been ordered by his SIS boss, Tweed, to take a holiday in Wareham as cover for observing a plot to finance the ‘new Hitler,’ Leopold Brazil. It opens on a dark and stormy night in the Purbecks as SIS agents watch a rogue banker’s £300 million in bearer bonds go up in smoke at ‘Sterndale Manor’ by Hounstout. The latter is a real headland, and we also get scenes at the Scott Arms inn overlooking Corfe Castle, at Wareham’s Priory Hotel, (where the hero is staying) and the town’s famous Black Bear Hotel (where pistols as well as pints are soon pulled). “A world is at stake,” says the femme-fatale owner of the neighbouring manor. Dorset is soon full of agents hunting a Jackal-style assassin. (“Dorset is about to explode.”). Then the Cold War returns as a rogue satellite with an EMP weapon disrupting global comms. Luckily all ends happily as the villains end up going over the Purbeck cliffs.
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. 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 largely shot in the Poole area. 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.
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, 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 23rd novel, The Vault (2011), has Wexford finally retired and moving to London, but in the latest [last?], No Man's Nightingale (2013), Wexford is 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 8-part 2013 hit drama serial Broadchurch scripted and co-produced by Chris Chibnall (who has lived in the area for 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 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 promised 2nd series, again part-shot in Dorset [June 2014], reunites the major characters, with the plot setup being kept secret, and in the meantime a novelisation, co-authored by Chibnall and London thriller writer Erin Kelly, was published in Aug 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. And although series two had a mixed reaction (with the courtroom scenes particularly criticised as unrealistic), a series three was announced in Feb 2015 with "Broadchurch Will Return" again appearing over the S2 end title sequence.
Broadchurch: The community establish a shrine on the beach. Much of the drama's focus was on the impact of the killing on the community.
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