Winner of the 2006 Dagger in the Library award from the Crime Writers Association, Jim Kelly is the author of five crime novels in the series that features fictional journalist Philip Dryden. These novels are set in England’s Cambridgeshire Fens. Most recently, Kelly has written three novels in his new series featuring Detective Inspector Peter Shaw, which are set on England’s North Norfolk coast and in the port of Lynn. The New York Times Book Review declared of Kelly’s work, “Ever since the days of Agatha Christie, the great divide in the British detective story has been between plot and character…The novels of Jim Kelly are. . . a find.” Similarly, the Washington Post said of his work, “Kelly enlivens his tale with a richly atmospheric setting, sharp contemporary characters, and an often biting knack for capturing the essence of people.”
Other reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic have raved about his work, as well. The Water Clock, his 2002 debut novel and the first in the Dryden series, earned praise from Publishers Weekly: “A masterful stylist, Kelly crafts sharp, crisp sentences so pure, so true, they qualify as modern poetry. The cold, bleak landscape of the fens seems to seep through the paper and chill the fingers turning the pages.” Second in the series, The Fire Baby, also was commended in a starred Publishers Weekly review: “Kelly proves that his outstanding mystery debut … was no fluke in this gripping sequel.” Death Wore White, from 2009, inaugurates the Shaw series; Booklist termed this a “fine thriller, in terms of both atmosphere and suspense.” That series has continued with Death Watch and this years’ Death Toll.
Jim, it’s good to have you here at Scene of the Crime. Maybe we could start things off with a discussion of your first crime scene, the Fens that form the backdrop for the Philip Dryden novels.
We moved to Ely, in the heart of the Black Fens, about fifteen years ago. I’d just got married and we both had flats in London. I had a job at the Financial Times – as education correspondent – so if we were going to move out of London it had to be a commute. I just thought – if I’m going to spend half my life on a train why don’t we go somewhere really special ? I knew Ely – we had friends nearby – and we’d often drive out for the weekend and then have to make that long dispiriting drive back on a Sunday through the grey suburbs of North London. One Sunday I got Midge – my wife – to stop the car by Ely station and I went and got a timetable. I thought – I can do this. I remember, after we’d moved, getting off the train for the first time and being able to smell salt water, and just feel the immense emptiness of the Fens. And I used the trip to write. I wrote The Water Clock and The Fire Baby – the first two Dryden mysteries – on the train, and always in the same seat. It was good of the train company to make sure I had so much time in which to work. This was post-Hatfield, so I often had four or five hours to play with !
Where to start ? The Fens feels like a wilderness. They’re empty, open, and yet secretive. The Black Fen has this brooding quality, and the skies provide a constant backdrop of movement and light. But the thing that really makes them special is that their character owes nothing to London or the South East at all. That’s another world. If anyone in Ely relates to modern urban life it is through Cambridge, which is 17 miles south, but might as well be in France. Things have changed in Ely over the years – and it does now feel more ordinary – but there is still a lot of magic. It still feels like there is this huge space out there – as if Ely were on the coast, and the Fens were an inland sea.
Did you consciously set out to use the Fens as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
I think writing crime novels is just a cover for writing about place. My ideal crime plot is The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers. I won’t spoil it for any of your readers but just to say that this is the only book I have ever read in which the landscape actually becomes a pivotal part of the plot. In a real sense, in the context of a who-dunnit, ‘the place did it’ Take the Fens out of The Nine Tailors and you have no book. I wanted to write about the emotional link between people and place – such an important human quality, but one we are perhaps losing. It is odd that we don’t have a word for this emotion in English – except the rather limp ‘sense of place’. Sarah Wheeler, the travel writer, tackles this problem and finds that in European languages the only word that comes close to being sufficient is Italian – Campanilisimo. The bond between a person and their home – symbolised by the village church, with its campanile or bell tower. It is sort of the opposite of wanderlust – and we had to plunder German for that ! I wonder what it says about the English that we don’t have a word for one of the fundamental human emotions. Perhaps we’re in the process of becoming a placeless society.
I try to ‘see’ each scene – and place it within the landscape. For this reason there are very few indoor chapters in my books. What I usually do is find a real-life place and then exaggerate its qualities for the fiction, so that it ends up as being a legendary place – bigger, flatter, wider, more desolate, than reality. This can annoy local readers who note that my descriptions are never accurate. I try to warn them about this, and always tackle the issue in talks, but it still causes problems. But in many ways I’m writing for people who aren’t here – I’m trying to create a landscape, just like I’m trying to create characters and plot. Also, if you fictionalise the landscape you can take all those fabulous Fen place names and use them up within the plot. Death Wore White – the first of the North Norfolk series – was set on Siberia Belt, a lonely lane protected by a single line of pine trees. Siberia Belt exists, but nowhere near the one in the book.
How does Dryden interact with his surroundings?
In the Dryden books the fundamental link is between the landscape and Dryden’s character and mood. He is an outsider – although he was born in the Fens he moved to London and became a Fleet Street journalist. He is back in Ely only because his wife is ill and he wants to be near her, and she is in the local hospital. She is in a coma so he is trapped, caught in time, fixed. The landscape offers him an immovable backdrop – its bigger than him, and puts his problems in perspective, and while he can move around it nothing really changes. I also enjoy using the ‘pathetic fallacy’ – the idea that nature, and landscape, can be in tune with mood, or a counterpoint to it. So I can conjure up big angry skies and floods, and drought, and fires, and other dramatic events to underpin the story.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
I’ve just had the annual book launch. We had about 200 crowded into one of the town churches. A terrific night. The launches are run by Topping – the local bookshop, which is probably one of the best in the country, if not the best. A truly wonderful bookshop. Whenever we have visitors we play a party game where they have to list their six Desert Island books. Then we go to Topping and see how many he has on the shelves – it’s almost always the lot. My books are – I think – well liked locally. Most people see that they reflect the Fens, without being slavish about the detail. The new series – which is set up on the north Norfolk coast, is also getting a local following. I did an event last year in Kings Lynn at Waterstones which was excellent – I’ve rarely seen a queue like it for a signing, and everyone seemed to be energised by a book set in their own community. Lynn’s a dark town, with many problems, but it has a brooding Gothic presence, and some stunning urban buildings.
I have covered my tracks here by pointing out in the acknowledgements that the landscape is imaginary. But I’ve made goofs. Dryden always travels around in a cab driven by his friend Humph. In the first book I made the cab a Ford Capri. Then someone at work said what a good joke that was – because – of course – the Capri is a two-door only. So I stuck with it !
Do you have a favorite Dryden or Shaw 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?
This is from The Water Clock. Dryden and Humph are out by the river where the police have found a car under the ice. It takes Dryden back to his childhood…
‘He looked out over the black water and shivered with a memory from his childhood. Another frozen river and a skating child. The sound of cracking ice and the sudden plummet into the shocking water. The colour had been extraordinary. The painfully clear blue of a winter’s sky seen through the crushed white lens of the ice. He’d sunk, drifting down river, away from the jagged circle where he had crashed through the ice. Looking up into the receding world he had been too young to know he was drowning. He’d felt like sleeping after the first panic of the fall. Sleeping where the light was dimmer and wouldn’t hurt his eyes. Below. He had been ten, and drowning, looking up into a world he didn’t want to leave.”
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’ve mentioned Dororthy L Sayers and I wouldn’t be here without The Nine Tailors. She opened my eyes to the Fens – and to crime writing. (And, incidentally – to bell ringing.) In comparison to all the other writers I’ve enjoyed she towers over the field. So perhaps I should let her stand alone. Of all the pages I’ve read and re-read more often in any book the opening of The Nine Tailors – the snow swept Fen at dusk, as Wimsey and Bunter struggle towards Fenchurch St Paul – is unbeatable.
Next year’s book is another one from the Shaw and Valentine series set up on the north Norfolk coast. It begins with the re-opening of a cold case from 1994. A murder on an island off the coast where tourists are taken by boat. The ferryman takes 75 out, brings 74 back, plus the victim. Using the latest in DNA techniques Shaw thinks he’ll get the killer. But the story shows that we can’t always rely on science.
Jim, thanks so much for taking the time to stop by Scene of the Crime.
For more information on Jim Kelly, visit his homepage. http://www.jim-kelly.co.uk/