Derbyshire has a reputation for producing some of the most exciting crime fiction by authors who live there or use the county as their central location. The big question is – why?
Perhaps there will be answers on August 17 at Chesterfield Library at the very first Derbyshire Noir Festival. It’s a long overdue event, but ferociously welcome. These authors know where the bodies are buried and how they got there.
Derbyshire is a cauldron. There’s mining and mills; high peaks, bleak moorland, deep, dark valleys and subterranean caverns; derelict hovels and some of the country’s most elegant and wealthy country homes and palaces; and a literary heritage that includes Arthur Conan Doyle, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, DH Lawrence, Alan Sillitoe – and that’s before the present crop kicks in. Politically, we have landed gentry, left wing firebrands and right wing Tories, and middle-of-the-roaders. Industrially and commercially, there’s Rolls-Royce making aero engines, and a warehouse full of zero hours contract workers. Yes. Derbyshire does extremes.
Choosing the right location for a crime novel will capture and hold readers; if it then uses these environments to add drama and emotion then even better, and Derbyshire has them everywhere.
Real life is a good starting point for fiction. If death is your menu choice, Derbyshire will cook up an exotic array. Children were forced to work, and die, in Litton Mill in the north; coal miners in the north, east and south have been crushed in pursuit of a living wage; and in recent memory ‘Mad Axeman’ Billy Hughes created terror and committed appalling murders.
While location is important, murders are not committed by places, but by people, and Derbyshire harbours a rich gamut of characters who find their way into some of the most intriguing and enthralling crime fiction. I spent seven years at school in Buxton and later, seven years as a reporter in Derby and Ilkeston covering the county. I have met murderers, drug dealers, robbers, burglars, rapists, but mostly their victims (not the murdered, though). What stands out is the diversity and isolation. For the good people of Glossop looking down on Manchester, the natives of Shardlow and its canal and river are in a foreign land.
Derbyshire’s Peak District gets acres in print, but there is so much more. Repton was a large Viking settlement and they knew a thing or two about violent death; and at the other end of the county is Hayfield, often home to Agatha Christie. It is a beautiful, disparate county. When torrential rain washes the blood of the latest victim from the Peak District into the River Wye, children in Darley Park, Derby, can be swimming in the sunshine-dappled river Derwent unaware of the bodies that have floated downstream – mostly in fiction.
From the southern edges of Saddleworth Moor, infamous for its link to the Moors Murders by Brady and Hindley, to the northernmost reaches of the National Forest, overlooking the National Arboretum Memorial where so many tragic deaths are remembered, Derbyshire is a fount of plots and stories, of evil deeds and courageous heroes. It’s really no wonder that great crime writers allow their imaginations full rein in this remarkable county.
References. if required:
Arthur Conan Doyle: The Adventure of the Priory School an d The Man With The Twisted Lip. Plus, his publisher, George Newnes, came from Matlock Bath.
Jane Austen: “No finer county in England than Derbyshire,” she said. And Pride and Prejudice was filmed in the county.
Agatha Christie: Brother-in-law James Watts lived in Cheshire and owned land in the Peak District. She stayed, and write, at Upper House on the Kinder Estate.
D H Lawrence: Lived near Wirksworth for a while (after he and his wife Frieda had to leave Cornwall because she was accused of spying – she was German and a cousin of Baron von Richtofen), and Women in Love was filmed partly at Elvaston Hall.
Alan Sillitoe: Always associated with Nottingham, but many of his books – including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, see his characters escaping the city to go fishing and seducing near where the M1 motorway divides the counties.