Dark and deadly deeds in Derbyshire’s beautiful countryside

What is it about Derbyshire that nurtures such strong, current productivity in crime fiction, the literary world’s most popular genre?
Crime fiction exists only where there is a belief in the power of good over evil, where the hero will always defeat the villain, where justice of some kind prevails. Why is Derbyshire such a special county for authors who love a good murder?
I asked the opinions of several authors who base their novels in and around the county or live here. Sarah Ward, who has had three crime fiction novels published; Steven Dunne, whose Reaper series continues to reap plaudits; Roz Watkins, whose A Devil’s Dice, has been optioned for a TV film and who has a three-book deal with a major publisher; and Jo Jakeman, whose debut, Sticks and Stones, is about to be published. I have just had my third thriller, Vinyl Junkie, published by Fahrenheit Press.
Most of the above have appeared, or are about to appear at Derby Book Festival (June 1 to 9), which has established itself as one of the top literary festivals in the country.
The answer is a combination of two factors: the disparity of the landscape and the people who live and work here. In reality, murders are infrequent; in the world of crime fiction, violence, murders and death are core factors. Crime fiction shares the same elements of the human psyche: killing can be brutally physical, accidental, or cold-blooded – the reader still ends up with a dead body and a question mark about how it happened. Rarely does crime fiction involve the reality of a peaceful departure as the victim gently shuffles off his or her mortal coil surrounded by tearful loved ones. No. Crime fiction deaths become page turners.
Derbyshire is unique. Nowhere else has a Dark Peak and a White Peak, Dales, heavy engineering and industry, ex-mining areas, flowing meadows and hills, a network of major rivers and canals, grand country houses and, of course, the home of the Industrial Revolution. There is the commonplace range of wealth and poverty (and I suggest those complaining about homelessness and beggars should visit other cities), of cultural likes and dislikes, and of good and bad architecture, but it is the people who have shaped the qualities that makes this county standout. Much of Derbyshire is composed not of amorphous masses and commuters, but of close knit communities, even within Derby and larger towns.
Perhaps Sarah summed it up: “Derbyshire is a safe community and when something horrible happens that community clings together.” And Roz echoes this with her belief that personal life will inevitably weave its way into fiction, with one of her experiences being an unpleasant incident in which she thought her dog had unearthed human remains. Stephen Booth, the ‘godfather’ of Derbyshire Noir with his Cooper & Fry series, has mined the geography, culture and heritage of the county, and probably deserves an award for promoting tourism!
Steven Dunne has a deep affection for the county: “Derbyshire is the perfect home for a dark thriller because it provides a compelling contrast between a busy modern city like Derby and the peace of the Peak District, and my detective, DI Brook, moves between the two. The contrast provides light and shade, reflecting good and evil and the two sides of the human psyche but, interestingly, their roles are interchangeable, the Peaks being equally capable of brooding menace.”
Jo Jakeman supports this: “There’s a wonderful richness to Derbyshire Noir. As a writer it’s easy to be inspired by the landscape and the people of Derbyshire. As readers, it’s nice to read about places you know, but, equally, for those who don’t know Derbyshire, these books paint such a good picture (albeit, with so many dead bodies).”
My Simon Jardine thriller series feeds off my experiences as a cub reporter on the Derby Telegraph in the 70s. I hope to capture the places and activities, and my characters embody the constant evolution. By using crime fiction as my vehicle I can transport the reader into an era that isn’t just violent murder, but a time of love and happiness as well as drugs and greed. Derby was a microcosm of life: it was a bustling large town, but it comprised, and still does, separate and diverse communities.
Why Derbyshire Noir? Why not crime fiction based anywhere else, and the greatest authors choose their locations carefully? Probably because a beautiful, exciting county attracts the very best authors, coupled with my own deep desire to make the place as special in fiction as it is in reality. It’s as simple as that.
• A shorter version of this article first appeared in the June 2018 issue of Artsbeat, Derbyshire’s arts and culture monthly magazine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *