British writer Kate Ellis is the prolific author of two separate mystery series, one set in South Devon and featuring DI Wesley Peterson, and the other set in North Yorkshire with DI Joe Plantagenet as the protagonist. Ellis’s Peterson series, now sixteen books strong, began in 1998 with The Merchant’s House. This is a series, according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer that “just gets stronger with each new book.” The Cadaver Game, the latest installment in this long-running series, is just out.
Playing with Bones, the second in the Plantagenet series, is, according to Booklist, a “compelling thriller perhaps best enjoyed during daylight.” Booklist similarly found the third entry in that series, Kissing the Demons, out in 2011 from Severn House’s Crème de la Crime imprint, a “solid, modern-day police procedural with disturbingly dark undercurrents.”
I’m in the happy situation of writing two series, both in locations I love. My Wesley Peterson books are set in South Devon, in a picturesque port called Tradmouth (a thinly disguised Dartmouth) and its surrounding countryside. I have been visiting Dartmouth regularly for almost thirty years and I go back each year – research is a great excuse!
My Joe Plantagenet books are set in Eborby, a fictional medieval city in North Yorkshire based on the wonderful city of York. I first got to know York well when my son went to university there and I love exploring the city with its winding medieval streets and snickleways [smaller lanes and footpaths]. I’ve also been on several archaeological digs there.
What things about Dartmouth and York make them unique and good physical settings in your books?
Dartmouth is a medieval port now famed more for its tourist industry than the commerce that once made the town prosperous. The River Dart is spectacularly beautiful and inspired many of Agatha Christie’s novels. However, the thing I like most about it as a setting for crime novels is the diversity of the place – the different communities living side by side from rich incomers and resident celebrities to holiday makers, from struggling fisherman and farmers to the thriving artistic and New Age community in nearby Totnes. Local places such as Torbay have their share of social problems along with nearby big towns such as Plymouth and Exeter. All that and history too. I’m never short of ideas.
As for York – or Eborby – my Joe Plantagenet series has a spooky, supernatural twist. York is, reputedly the most haunted city in England so it seemed natural to set this series there. I can’t think of a better location.
Did you consciously set out to use your locations as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
I think I tailored the type of books I wrote to their locations subconsciously. Somehow, in some mysterious way, everything came together, action, characters and place. I can’t really imagine the stories working in any other settings.
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?
The location comes into the story naturally and I try to avoid using great chunks of description as I feel they’d hold up the action.
Like many writers before me, I made a decision to use real places and change their names so that I had more freedom to use my imagination with the settings and I didn’t have to stick doggedly to geography. For instance my police station in ‘Tradmouth’ has a CID office whereas, in reality, Dartmouth police station is small and detectives would be based in a larger conurbation. Likewise in ‘Eborby’ (York) I can twist things round to suit the plot (and there’s no risk of getting irate letters from the real residents of buildings I use).
However, having said all this, I think people who are familiar with Dartmouth or York will certainly be able to recognize the places in my books.
How does your protagonists interact with their surroundings?
Wesley Peterson is a black archaeology graduate who was born and raised in London. He attended Exeter University where he studied archaeology and there he met and married fellow student Pam, a native of Devon. For a while he served in the Met but when Pam wanted to return to Devon, Wesley welcomed the change and the prospect of a more peaceful working life (little did he know the alarming murder rate in my fictional Tradmouth!!!) Both Wesley and his boss, DCI Gerry Heffernan, are outsiders in the community (Gerry, like me, is from Liverpool) but over the years both have become attached to their new home and touched by the stunning beauty of their adopted surroundings. I think that, being outsiders, they have a degree of detachment which helps them in their investigations.
Joe Plantagenet too is originally from Liverpool but tragic circumstances forced a move to his late father’s native city of Eborby. He is a former trainee priest and the supernatural side of the stories, linked with the ancient and ghostly location, reflect this spiritual aspect to his nature.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
I know the residents of Dartmouth love my Wesley Peterson books. They are extremely popular in the local bookshop and library which delights me as it means I’ve ‘got it right’. I’ve also had lovely letters from Devon exiles saying how much my books remind them of home which is really lovely. Likewise I’ve heard that my Joe Plantagenet books are very popular in North Yorkshire. It seems that people love books set in places they know as long as the author treats the setting with respect and works hard to get the atmosphere right.
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 pleased to say that I don’t think I’ve made many major goofs. Although I did get a surprise when I turned up in Dartmouth only to find the police station festooned with hanging baskets in the shape of policemen’s helmets. Not including that in one of my books really is a serious omission that must be remedied.
Of the novels set in Dartmouth or York, 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?
Books are like children – you can’t really have a favourite. However, one passage from my fifteenth Wesley Peterson novel, The Jackal Man, springs to mind; an account of a young au pair taking a walk down the lonely road from the town to the castle…with fatal consequences.
“She retraced her steps along the road leading to the castle, thrusting her hands into her pockets as she passed the houses on the fringe of the town; houses with nautical names build for retired naval officers, unwilling to move beyond the sight and smell of the sea. The road became steep here and she could just make out the lights of Queenswear shining like stars through the veil of sea mist that reached down to the black, shifting waters of the River Trad. The trees ahead formed a tunnel over the narrow road and the descending mist swirled like spectres around their bare branches. She could hear her footsteps echoing in the darkness. Or perhaps it wasn’t an echo; perhaps it was someone following behind. But when she turned her head there was nobody there and she told herself it was just her imagination.
“Last time she had been down this road it had been a crisp sunny day but now it resembled the set of a horror movie, scented with the clinging smell of rotting vegetation, the scent of decay. But he was meeting her at the end of the road so everything would be OK. It was always OK when he was around.”
Reading through this I can see this particular road in my mind’s eye. It’s steep, tree lined and lonely…and at night it can be eerie, especially when the mist blows in from the river.
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?
There are a lot of authors I enjoy reading but I particularly like the books of Peter Robinson, Reginald Hill, Ruth Rendell, Christopher Fowler, Ann Cleeves and Stuart Pawson (to name but a few). All of these writers have a strong sense of place in their novels and I suppose, like everybody else, I’ve inevitably been influenced by what I read.
That’s a difficult one. I’d love to live in either Dartmouth or York as they’re both lovely places. I also sometimes feel homesick for my native Liverpool. However, home is where your family and friends are so I’ll probably end up staying put.
What’s next for your protagonists?
My next Wesley Peterson novel, The Cadaver Game is just out in hardback and in paperback in August 2012. My next novel featuring Joe Plantagenet, Watching the Ghosts, is out in May 2012. I’m currently working on Wesley’s next case, The Shadow Collector, which will be published in 2013.
Kate, many thanks so much for taking part in Scene of the Crime.
For more information on Kate Ellis, see her homepage.