British writer Karen Charlton is the author of a pair of novels featuring Detective Lavender and set in early nineteenth-century Northumberland. The first, Catching the Eagle, is a fictionalized account of an actual crime and trial that involved her husband’s ancestors. A robbery at a country house brings Stephen Lavender of the Bow Street magistrate’s court in London to the scene to investigate. London’s Daily Mail had high praise for this series opener, noting, “Told with gritty realism, Catching The Eagle is a suspense-filled page-turner, which spares nothing in its descriptions of the hardships and injustices suffered by the poor at the turn of the 19th century.“ Charlton has just released the second in the series, The Missing Heiress.
Karen, it is a pleasure to have you with us at Scene of the Crime. Could we start off things with a description of your connection to Northumberland, setting of the Lavender novels?
I first went to Northumberland, England’s most northerly county, on a family holiday during the fortnight of the Queens’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. Even as a child, I absolutely adored the miles of empty beaches, the rugged Farne islands and the windswept fells and moorland. My parents took us on a tour of Northumberland’s castles and I was overawed at the wealth of history in the area. The castles are totally individual, absolutely magnificent and in my opinion, the best in the England.
When I married and had children of my own, we took frequent family holidays to Northumberland. We love the county’s open space, its uncongested roads and that vast expanse of ice-blue northern sky which arches overhead.
What other things about this place make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Apart from its remoteness and physical beauty, Northumberland has a turbulent and dramatic history. All those fabulous castles are not there by chance. They were mediaeval strongholds in times of war. For centuries Northumberland was a lawless, godless no-man’s land; the border between the two warring nations of Scotland and England. The two opposing armies frequently burnt this area to the ground.
A tough area breeds tough independent people, whom in turn inspire memorable characters in the mind of an author. The families who lived there – on both sides of the border – grouped together in clans for protection and survival. They sought security through their own strength and cunning and set out in large mobs to raid other families. ‘Reiving’ – raiding for cattle and sheep (and whatever else which could be transported) was the only way to survive and it became an established way of life. The Reivers moved only at night, and took advantage of their intimate knowledge of the remote and rugged terrain, to spirit away their ill-gotten plunder.
Of course, the notion of Scottish Clans is now legendary around the world – mostly thanks to Sir Walter Scott and his ballads. What is not so well known, perhaps, is that on the English side of the border there were also large, unruly English clans like the Charltons, the Armstrongs, the Milburns, the Robsons, the Fenwicks and the Dodds. The Charltons of the North Tyne Valley were one of the largest of these families of thieves and cattle rustlers; they are my husband’s direct ancestors.
Eventually, Scotland and England united under King James I. Things gradually settled down in Northumberland and peace returned, but an element of lawlessness remained – even in the early nineteenth century, which is the historical era for both my novels. The legacy of the Border Reivers is still vivid in the mind of the local inhabitants and the notion of clan and family loyalty is a theme I’ve exploited in my first novel, Catching the Eagle.
Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
Northumberland chose me. In 2005 my husband and I made a fantastic discovery. While researching his family history, we found a jail-bird roosting in the branches of his ancestral tree. We discovered that Jamie Charlton, my husband’s four times great-grandfather, had been tried and convicted of an audacious burglary in Northumberland back in 1810. Originally sentenced to death, Jamie’s punishment had later been commuted to transportation to New South Wales in Australia. His conviction was controversial – even by the dodgy standards of Regency justice.
The perfect plot for an historical novel had just landed in my lap, with the location pre-determined. Catching the Eagle was the result of many long years of research into this true story.
I was delighted to return to Northumberland for the setting of my second novel, The Missing Heiress. This is the first book in a new series: The Detective Lavender Mysteries. I quickly realised that the remoteness of the region would the perfect backdrop for the dysfunctional Carnaby family who need to keep grim secrets hidden. I gave them a fictional pele tower with three foot thick stone walls to hide behind.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
Crime fiction is essentially plot driven, but I made a deliberate decision to incorporate plenty of landscape description into The Missing Heiress. I wanted the brooding wintery background of that remote rural location to become a memorable feature of the novel.
We went on a wonderful research trip back to the area in the summer of 2011. Armed with my notebook, I jotted down everything I saw and heard from the inverted reflection of an ancient Roman bridge in the still, peat-black mirrored surface of the river, to the towering willow weed which lined its banks and the ancient, creaking timber of Hareshaw Woods. We also visited every public house in Bellingham in order decide which one would be the most realistic location for a Regency coaching inn. Research can be tough.
How does Lavender interact with his surroundings?
Born and bred in London, my educated detective, Stephen Lavender, is widely travelled and is confident anywhere. His broad knowledge of British wild plants proved invaluable in the solving the mystery of The Missing Heiress.
However, his assistant, Constable Woods, is more at home in the crime-ridden and festering maze of the London slums where a cut-throat lurked around every corner. He is uncomfortable and lost in this alien and slightly menacing rural landscape:
‘Woods started at every noise, his eyes flicked sharply from one side to another every time a branch creaked and strained in the wind, his hand hovered instinctively over the pistol in his pocket….The man was spooked by trees.’
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
Yes, Catching the Eagle was favourably reviewed by the magazine section of Newcastle’s main newspaper:
‘It is a rollicking tale full of adultery, drinking, fighting, and gambling.
Rich imagery, suspense and some genuinely likeable characters –as well as plenty of murky ones – make this an enjoyable read. Karen is particularly strong at capturing the Geordie dialect and recreating the rural Northumbrian world of the 1800s, where the wealthy lived in comfort and the poor struggled to make ends meet.’
Laura Fraine, Culture Magazine, The Journal (Newcastle)
It means a lot to me that the Northumbrian’s feel that I’ve successfully recreated their world in Regency times.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
Oh, yes. There’s a classic mistake in The Missing Heiress which will keep the inhabitants of Bellingham smiling for some time to come. I set several scenes in the graveyard of their Anglo-Saxon church. I used
a map to confirm that St. Cuthbert’s stood next to the North Tyne River, but completely forgot to check out the contours around the church. In reality, the church is situated on the top of a steeply wooded hill beside the meandering river but in the novel I have accidently lowered it a couple of hundred feet onto marshy, flat land by the river bank. Ooops.
Of the two novels you have written set in Northumberland, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
The stunning beauty of Bellingham’s Hareshaw Woods and the magnificent waterfall, Hareshaw Linn, is a relatively new discovery for us. It left a strong impression and is now a significant part of the setting and action in The Missing Heiress. However, I’ve only ever seen Hareshaw Linn on a gloriously warm summer’s day and I had delve deep into my imagination to create a more sinister picture of the waterfall on a cold, grey November afternoon.
‘They reached the black rocks at the base of the waterfall. Thick icicles hung like knives from the trees and the sides of the gorge. The waterfall had frozen over at its sides and so had the edge of the pool. A crescent of glittering ice spread out beneath their feet, enticing them to their doom. In sharp contrast to the whiteness of the crystallized water at the edge, ribbons of black swirled around the jagged rocks which rose like tombstones from the centre of the pool.
‘Anna shivered again. This was a place of death. Only last summer, some poor lass had thrown herself and her unborn bairn from the top of the waterfall onto the rocks below. Her broken and disfigured body had floated limply in the pool for days before it was found tangled in the reeds.
‘The path up to the top of the waterfall rose steeply; the slimy stone steps were treacherous beneath their boots. Gnarled roots reached out to trip them and patches of scree sent them slithering back down the hill. The spray from the waterfall caught on the drooping boughs of menacing trees and dripped down upon their heads. They sucked in the pungent smell of rotting vegetation with every breath.’
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
For me, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens are the writers who created the greatest sense of place in their novels. Many scenes from the grimy, smog-filled and crowded streets of Dickens’ London and the gentle rolling hills and vales of Hardy’s fictional Wessex still linger in my memory. Both have influenced my writing.
What’s next for Lavender?
Detective Lavender is now back at Bow Street in London after the successful conclusion of the case of The Missing Heiress, and poor Jamie Charlton from the Catching the Eagle has been sent for transportation to New South Wales. However, I do envisage that both of these protagonists will return to Northumberland in future novels.
Thanks much for talking with us at Scene of the Crime, Karen.
For more information about Karen’s work visit her Home Page.