Alison Bruce is the author of the DC Gary Goodhew crime novels set in Cambridge, England. In the series opener, the 2009 Cambridge Blue, Goodhew, an idealistic 25-year-old, has been recently promoted to detective constable at Cambridge’s Parkside Station and is eager to prove himself. He gets a chance when a young woman’s body is found atop a heap of trash bags. Publishers Weekly called this an “assured debut.”
The second book in the series, The Siren, finds Goodhew once again on the trail of a killer in a “decidedly edgy British procedural that will appeal most to the hard-boiled crowd,” according to a Booklist contributor who also noted, “this is no tea-sipping academic mystery.” Further praise for this series installment came from Publishers Weekly: “Bruce’s superior prose elevates this above many other contemporary British police procedurals.”
Bruce’s third in the Goodhew series, The Calling, is due out this August.
Alison, thanks so much for stopping by Scene of the Crime to discuss your Goodhew novels and your particular crime scene. Let’s start out with a discussion of your connection Cambridge.
When I first started writing it seemed logical to set my books where lived, which was in the West Country, so my local town featured in the novel I was writing but not in any significant way. When I met my husband, he lived near Cambridge, and I moved to the area when we got married. It made complete sense to relocate my embryonic detective story rather than continue to try to set it in a town where I no longer lived.
At that point I stopped to make decisions about what my detective’s relationship would be with Cambridge, and I decided that not only had detective Gary Goodhew grown-up in the city, but it was also his favorite place anywhere in the world. (although Hawaii comes in at a very close second).
As a newcomer this gave me some challenges, but opportunities too. Studying Cambridge from purely the historic, or the tourist viewpoints simply wouldn’t work. It meant I had to walk round Cambridge and try to see it from the point of view of somebody who was 25 and had spent most of his 25 years there.
When I looked back at Goodhew’s pre-police years I realized that the most significant time, in terms of his passion for Cambridge, was probably the months leading up to his 12th birthday. It was during this summer that his life dramatically changed; his grandfather died, his parents separated and he and his sister were taken from their local state school and sent to boarding school.
I visited the area around Goodhew’s childhood home, and tried to see it through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy, who might be on foot or on his bike, and not necessarily viewing the city in any conventional way.
In 2004 I also had the opportunity to write a non-fiction book, featuring historic murder cases from around the county. Cambridgeshire Murders, published in 2005, gave me the opportunity to research local cases but also to look at the history of the city and the surrounding area.
I live about 15 miles from the centre of Cambridge itself, and about half my trips into the city are to look at a specific location, or to soak up the atmosphere of a particular place at a particular time of year. For example, punting in the summer is a totally different experience to visiting the same area on the dark winter’s evening.
What things about Cambridge make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
As a newcomer to Cambridge, one of the first things I noticed was its size; as cities go it is quite small, and still retains some rural influences. A short drive will take you into the countryside and even in the centre there are many open spaces and even cattle grazing close to town.
The architecture is diverse, there aren’t many overt signs of Cambridge’s Roman heritage, but it is certainly easy to spot buildings dating from Tudor times right up to cutting edge designs. And the population is equally diverse, there are times in the year when students and tourists account for 50% of the people inhabiting Cambridge. Of the permanent residents, it is possible to bump into people who represent the widest possible range of nationalities, outlooks and careers.
The difference between setting the booking Cambridge and setting the book in a less unique British town meant that it became inevitable that its role in the story grew beyond that of simply being a backdrop. Goodhew has a passion for Cambridge, and as such sees a serious crime as a threat to the character of the city itself. Seeing Cambridge through Goodhew’s eyes brings it to life in a new way for me, and I hope for the reader too.
Did you consciously set out to use Cambridge as a “character” in your novels?
I have tried to put the spotlight on some areas of Cambridge that are away from the normal tourist trail. For example, in The Siren, a significant location is Mill Road Cemetery, a large Victorian graveyard situated amongst the backstreets of the city. The graveyard is very beautiful, tranquil, and boasts a mixture of crumbling monuments and others that are listed for their historic significance. I’ve discovered that many locals know the graveyard, but either have never visited, or are unaware of its history.
Most certainly don’t know, that when viewed from above, its shape resembles that of an acoustic guitar. To bring this to life, why not go onto Google Earth and search for Mill Road Cemetery, Cambridge, and see for yourself?
How does Goodhew interact with his surroundings?
Sometimes I use Goodhew’s view of Cambridge at a particular moment as a way to focus on his mindset. For example, Goodhew is young and quite a loner. He recognizes this and has a desire to mix more and wishes he had a greater sense of belonging people in his peer group. In one particular scene, he was looking from his flat window onto the students lounging around on Parkers Piece. There are usually plenty of people making use of this park area in a recreational way, however, in this case I used it to demonstrate the contrast between the social life of the average person in their mid-twenties, and Goodhew’s.
What’s the local reaction like to your books?
My books sell well locally, and the feedback I’ve received from people who have purchased them in local bookshops is that they like the less stereotypical way of depicting Cambridge and that it ‘rings true’. They also enjoy spotting some of the smaller details. One email I received last week said, ‘don’t usually email complete strangers, but just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed Cambridge Blue. It was lent added spice by the fact that (so far as I can make out), Lorna Spence is murdered on my doorstep. I like crime novels to have a sense of place; it doesn’t come much better than this!’
Because I’m writing contemporary fiction I don’t often have the problem of having to worry about historical accuracy. I do have certain decisions to make,, however, when it comes to how I show fictional events in context with actual places. Wherever possible I keep it accurate. This unfortunately means that I am watching the debate about whether to demolish the current police station with more interest than most. But I never forget the Cambridge is a real place, populated by real people and I’m always very careful particularly when associating an address with the scene of a crime.
So far, the most annoying mistake I’ve made came in Cambridgeshire Murders when I use the street name Cockles Row. Just as the book was actually going to print, the local authority finally decided to put a street sign up at the end of this footpath and I cringed as I realized it was in fact Cuckolds Row. Over the years Cockles Row had become the locals’ name for it thanks to the local accent. Incidentally, it has now been corrected in the new edition.
Of your Goodhew novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place?
I like the way The Siren highlights the beauty of Mill Road Cemetery, but on the other hand I’m equally pleased with the way Cambridge Blue picks up on clearly visible, but often missed, sights from the city centre. For example :
“The Round Church stood at the top of Trinity Street, like a sentry marking the start of the next part of the city. She hurried towards it, a little nervous butterfly darted around her stomach. For the first time she noticed gateposts topped with statues of eagles. They had books at their feet. She glanced at them, they glared back. Looking ready to fly off and scatter pages into the streets of Cambridge.”
Are there any writers who have influenced you?
For me, I’m always drawn to art that tells a story, it might be a book, but it could equally be a film, song or picture. If I had to name an occasion when sense of place has dramatically influenced me I would say the opening credits of Twin Peaks. I have watched those scenes many times, and they paint such a vivid picture that it is easy for the viewer to understand the haunting and almost surreal isolation of the community. To see what I mean, I’m sure it’s there on YouTube somewhere!
What’s next for Goodhew?
2011 is pretty exciting, after starting the year at number 16 in the Kindle download charts, the Cambridge Blue paperback will be followed by the paperback of The Siren in July.
Book three in the series, The Calling, comes out in hardback in August. In The Calling Goodhew is in Cambridge but also travelling around the surrounding area when the body of a missing girl is discovered in a flooded quarry in the neighbouring county of Suffolk.
Thanks much, Alison, for joining us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information on Alison Bruce, visit her homepage.