Author of the D.I. Charlie Priest mysteries, British mystery writer Stuart Pawson began writing after a career as a mining electrical engineer and as a part-timer for the probation service. The latter work provides deep insights into the British criminal justice system, evident in his Charlies Priest mysteries, now thirteen strong and counting. The books have been referred to as “Yorkshire’s answer to Inspector Morse.” The series kicked off in 1995 with The Picasso Scam; latest is the 2010 A Very Private Murder.
Of his Grief Encounters, Publishing News wrote, “Delight in Pawson’s trademark dark humour and evocative Yorkshire setting.” His Limestone Cowboy earned to following praise from the Yorkshire Evening Post: “Enough to satisfy the most ardent lover of crime fiction…. Pawson writes with a vigor and a warmth that few can match.” The Independent on Sunday called his Laughing Boy “perfect for a long winter afternoon with the rain beating down on the window.” And the York Evening Press declared, “If you’ve not read Pawson before, shame on you… brilliant stuff.”
Stuart, it’s wonderful to have you on Scene of the Crime. And it is good to see you’re your books are very available now in the states online from the usual suspects. They are fantastically atmospheric and getting inside Charlie Priest’s mind is quite an experience. How about starting things off with a description of your connection to Yorkshire, setting for most of the books in the series.
I live in what was once the heart of the Yorkshire coalfield and it seemed natural to base the first story (and what would probably be the only story) in this location. Somewhere around the halfway mark I read a Reg Hill book – I’d heard he was good – which was based in a coalmining district similar to the one I was writing about, and yes, he is good. I wrongly assumed that all Reg’s plots were based there and that drastic action was called for. I decided on a complete change of scenery and moved the whole shebang fifty miles up the River Calder into what was once known as the Heavy Woollen District, center of the English wool industry. It was a smart move.
The new intention was to base the story in Halifax or Huddersfield but I quickly realized that this would mean frequent trips to the area and I’d have to buy a street map, which sounded like an un-necessary expense so early in my literary career. I adopted Plan B, which was to use a fictitious location and created the town of Heckley, which is rather vaguely situated somewhere in that neck of the woods. It does, however, mean that I can make disparaging remarks about the town’s restaurants, local dignitaries, etc, without fear of a lynch mob coming after me.
It has an interesting geology and history, both of which I have written about. The wool industry in the nineteenth century was every bit as evil as the slave trade, and I like to think that this sets the mood for my stories. It is always there, in the background, peeking over my shoulder like a malevolent headmaster.
There‘s more to it than that, though. In real life this area is the serial killer capital of the UK. I won’t name them because they thrive on publicity, but their self-styled titles are household names. To balance the equation, for about one hundred years the small town of Heckmondwike supplied the nation with its state executioners, and there was always a waiting list for the job. I’ll save the Halifax gibbet, or guillotine, for another day. Suffice to say, no matter how hard I try, I can never make my fiction more noir than the reality.
I write instinctively, and probably realized quite quickly, back in 1995 when I started writing seriously, that the location of the stories was an unused resource that would make a good mood setter. Having said that, the perverse side of me would then probably have the sun shining when a thunderstorm might be more appropriate. The weather in this corner of Yorkshire is something else. Two coats colder, as we say. The Pennines are modest hills, but they create a unique weather zone.
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?
I write in the first person, which is a mistake as it uses up masses of material. My chief protagonist, the “I” of the stories, is D.I. Charlie Priest, longest serving inspector in the East Pennine Division. Much of the information about the location is revealed in Charlie’s inner conversations. For instance, in the new book, A Very Private Murder, he drives east and crosses the River Derwent at Stamford Bridge, scene of a skirmish back in 1066 that changed the course of history. We are reminded of this in Charlie’s musings, which hopefully will interest the reader while indicating the passage of time and distance.
Charlie loves the area. He was born and raised there and is most at home when tramping the surrounding moors. He even enjoys the cold. He says there are ghosts up there, and they talk to him, but they don’t name names.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
For Limestone Cowboy I contacted the local geological society to clarify a few points. They were very helpful but I moved the local fault lines a few miles south to make the story more plausible and never heard from them again.
According to the emails I receive most of my readership (I never call them fans) reside in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They tell me how much they enjoy the books, then disclose that they are ex-pats with fond memories of the places therein, which reduces the pleasure just a little. One lady emailed me from the top left-hand corner of the Yukon, which must be one of the most remote corners of civilization, to complain that a page was missing from her copy of one of the books. We sent her another copy but never heard from her again. I hope she enjoyed it.
Much of the action in the new book (paperback scheduled for March 14 2011) takes place amongst the rich pastures of east Yorkshire. The horse racing fraternity there may not be too pleased with what I’ve written but they’ll get over it.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
I’m sure there are some but I’ve trained my brain to be very select with what it retains and what it forgets. Research used to be a rich source of comedy but the Internet has reduced it to simply consulting Google.
In The Judas Sheep I wanted to know what happened to bodies that fell into the river at a well-known beauty spot called The Stryd, so I contacted the police Underwater Search Unit. I wanted to get the jargon right in the search and asked the officer who was helping me how he would relay finding a body to his support team on the river side. He patiently told me they wore dry suits, not wet suits, and were linked to the dive supervisor on the bank by a telephone line; i.e., they could talk to each other, which was news to me.
“So what would you say if you found a body?” I asked, thinking it would be something really professional- sounding, like: “We have a ten-seventeen,” or simply: “Search terminated”.
What he said he’d say was: “I’ve found a body,” which was not a big help. I think I invented something.
Of the novels you have written set in this location, 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?
I just found this, in Over the Edge:
“I stopped at Keld, which is an ancient Viking name meaning place-where-the ground-is-soggy-and-the-clouds-perpetually-sit-on-the-earth-where-the-people-are as-morose-as-the-sheep, to check the map, then took it slowly until I reached a turnoff signposted to Ravenseat. The last stretch was on an unfenced strip of tarmac laid across the moor like a discarded bootlace for two miles until it ended in a farmyard. There was a stream with a old bridge that had been widened in years gone by but still wasn’t wide enough to cater for modern agricultural vehicles. A ford next to the bridge catered for them. I parked outside the farm, next to a rusting cattle trailer, and took stock. We were in a slight depression and it was raining hard, so all I could see in every direction was moor that faded away into the mist. Nothing stirred at the farm although a newish Land Rover was parked outside. I looked at it and wondered about the people who lived there. This was the stuff of gothic novels: remote and isolated; washed by perpetual rain and racked by the mother of all thunderstorms every Halloween. I pulled on my boots and full waterproofs and checked the compass. A path was visible, snaking off into the gloom, and in the distance I could see a waymark. I locked the doors and set off. The waymark told me I was on the Coast-to-Coast path, and a notice nailed to it advised on various routes to take to spread the erosive effect of the thousands of boots whose wearers had chosen to spend two weeks of their lives tramping across the breadth of the land. I pulled up my hood and followed their trail. It was three miles to Nine Standards Rigg and I made it in under an hour, which put me just a few minutes early, as intended. I don’t know how it gets its name but I was impressed. Just as you begin to worry that you’ve missed it several tall columns of stones appear inn front of you, in a line but in various sizes. It’s a good path, and you wonder if your eyes are playing tricks as the wind swirls the rain and the Riggs loom in and out of focus. They stand there, day and night, through all the seasons, sentinels over nothing, their origins lost in antiquity.”
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?
I’m an Ed McBain fan and I think the idea of writing about a fictitious town probably came from him. I love the American South West and would be thrilled to bits if we could find a pretext to get Charlie over there. The desert would make a welcome change, too.
What’s next for your protagonist?
I’m not sure, but see page 349 of A Very Private Murder.
Stuart, many thanks for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information on Stuart Pawson, see his homepage.