Jim Kelly lives in Ely, Cambridgeshire, with his partner, the writer Midge Gillies, and their daughter. He is the author of The Water Clock, The Fire Baby, The Moon Tunnel, The Coldest Blood and The Skeleton Man, all featuring journalist Philip Dryden, and also Death Wore White and Death Watch, the first two novels in this new series featuring DI Peter Shaw and DS George Valentine. The Dryden series won the 2006 CWA Dagger in the Library award for a body of work giving ‘the greatest enjoyment to readers’.
Visit Jim Kelly's website.
Praise for Jim Kelly:
‘A sparkling star in the crime firmament’ Colin Dexter
‘A rare combination of poetic writing and a gripping plot’ Sunday Telegraph
‘Kelly pulls off both fiendish plot and contemporary relevance in an unsettling, allegoric tale’ Guardian
‘Kelly goes from strength to strength’ Daily Mirror
‘Full of suspense, gore and excitement – you won’t be able to put this down!’ Closer
‘Kelly breathes new life into vintage elements of the genre’ Spectator
Jim Kelly's latest novel, The Skeleton Man, is set in the lost village of Jude's Ferry. Here he considers the genesis of that idea.
I saw my first lost village from the top of a Sheffield Corporation bus one dawn morning in the drought summer of 1976. The top floor of the double-decker was crowded with fishermen that Saturday, who'd filed aboard in the terraced streets down by the steel works. As we climbed up the valley past the Ladybower Dam, and then the lake trapped beyond it came into view, a blue creased tablecloth laid between the brown moorland hills of The High Peak. And out in the middle something else - the mud-cloaked remains of the village of Derwent, flooded when the great dam was completed in 1943. In a normal summer the only thing left of the village was the old stone packhorse bridge - moved to a new site at the wonderfully named Slippery Stones. But that summer, as the sun burned down, each dry day brought a little bit of the past to light.
It wasn't the first time that Derwent had risen. Back in 1959 the waters had dropped to reveal the spire of the church, an attraction to children from the hot streets of the city who began to swim out to take a closer look. Eventually the Army blew the spire up to discourage them, and then the winter rains covered the village again. Most people must have thought that was the last time the sun would shine on Derwent. But the Great Drought re-wrote the record books. I'd gone up on the fisherman's bus to catch a glimpse of the village, lugging my revision notes for that year's exams, but taking care to pack a telescope. I sat on the burnt grass looking at the buildings and streets revealed in the mud, and wondering what secrets still lay hidden in the ruins.
Lost villages was a subject I'd come across before. My elder brother John, going North before me from London to university in Leeds, had found himself being taught by a remarkable man - Prof Maurice Beresford. Beresford, and his great collaborator W G Hoskins - invented what has become known as Landscape History - using your eyes to find out about the past. He wrote a great book - The Lost Villages of England - which would be my desert island choice. A book packed with lost stories. Hoskins went on to write another classic - The Making of The English Landscape. Both books are in fact works in detection, the uncovering of the past using clues in the landscape - field patterns, old place names, lost streets, crops and gardens gone to seed, rivers and streams diverted for mills and drinking water. Beresford actually went out and found lost villages - most famously stumbling up on the site of Wharram Percy, near York, and spending the best part of 40 years uncovering it with a whole army of volunteers. I managed to steal my brother's copy of Beresford's great work, and thought even then that landscape could play a major role in crime fiction, providing a mystery in itself rather than just a lifeless backdrop.
Which brings me to The Skeleton Man - the latest Philip Dryden mystery. I'd wanted to write a book involving a lost village since I'd begun the Dryden series back in 2000. The problem was that the reason most villages are lost is deeply historical - the ravages of plague, for example, or a wealthy landowner moving villagers out of his line of sight, or the slow death by coastal erosion. None of these seemed to offer the basis for an exciting, contemporary crime novel. (The example of Derwent was different, of course, but that had already been beautifully utilised by Peter Robinson in his excellent novel - In A Dry Season - which begins with the discovery of a body in an inundated village during a drought.) Had I missed the boat ? I thought I had, until I stumbled upon the story of Imber - a large medieval village with a 1000 year history, on the middle of Salisbury Plain.
The villagers of Imber were given a few weeks to quit their homes in 1943 because the Army wanted to use the surrounding firing ranges for exercises ahead of the D-Day Landings. There is little doubt they were all given the impression that once the hostilities were over they would be allowed to go home. They never were. Imber is still used for military training, and the fine church remains, although most of the other buildings are now reconstructed block-houses, vital props in training troops for the kind of house-to-house fighting now common in theatres of war such as Iran and Afghanistan. I read a wonderful account of the death of the village - by Rex Sawyer - and was overwhelmed by the potential it offered for a crime novel setting.
Imber boasted that in its long history there had never been a recorded crime. This seemed to me a deeply suspicious claim. I wondered what it had been like that last night in the village, the men crowded in to The Bell Inn, many of the women and children at a dance in the Methodist Hall. What hatreds and jealousies were played out in those last hours? It was difficult to think of a more likely situation to end in violence and revenge. So I had my plot, at least the platform for one. The problem was finding a lost village within the East Anglian Fens for a Dryden mystery. There were examples out on the Breckland - the sandy woodlands which stretch from the Fens towards Norwich. A whole cluster of villages had been evacuated in the closing years of the war - including Tottington, again home to a fine church. Local men, fighting overseas, told stories of arriving back in England and catching train and bus to their homes only to find the villages wired off, the houses just shells.
But to give Philip Dryden such a mystery in the Black Fens I had to make up my lost village. West of Ely is the vast drained fen which was once Whittlesea Mere - until the 19th century the largest freshwater lake in the country. In the 18th century a band of wealthy aristocrats had actually set out in boats on a voyage around the mere, their servants and a large supply of good food and wine, following on in separate ships. But now the mere is a vast swathe of reclaimed farming land, although parts are being returned to their original state of fen marsh. On its edge stands the Holme Post - a Victorian iron pole sunk down to its crown and left to show the extent to which the peat soil has shrunk back around it. It now stands 17 feet tall - and marks the lowest point in mainland Britain.
I decided to put my village in the middle of the mere - creating a medieval island in a sea of fen wasteland, with a fine church on the hill. The name Jude's Ferry I stole from a real place - on the River Lark, a one-time Roman port now marked only by a pub of the same name. The associations of Jude and Judas with betrayal were satisfyingly mysterious. The Army, and particularly the RAF and its US counterpart, are active in the Fens and it needed very little by way of imagination to clear Jude's Ferry for a military firing range in the summer of 1990, as the UK government began to deal with the possibility of war in the Gulf. Like the villagers of Imber the villagers of Jude's Ferry were never allowed back. But the Army continued its exercises, and then in 2007 the High Court finally ruled that the long-running campaign by villagers to win a right of return was over: Jude's Ferry was lost forever. To mark the day local reporter Philip Dryden joins the TA on an exercise - a house to house search preceded by a bombardment with live artillery shells. One wayward shell hits the old pub, revealing the cellar below, where a skeleton hangs, a noose still round the neck, gossamer-thin clothes floating like an ancient shroud.
Which is where we'll have to leave the story of The Skeleton Man.
Most lost villages, at least those taken over by the military, have inspired campaigns to reclaim them. But writing The Skeleton Man has made me realise that in an odd way the lost village is a treasure in itself - a piece of the past caught in time, like some long extinct insect trapped in amber. It seems to me that while the villagers in many cases were duped out of their homes, this was a time when millions were being bombed out of their's. Thousands - even in England - were on the move, their lives disrupted and changed forever. Perhaps lost villages are best left. The story of Tottington, the evacuated village near Norwich, appears on an excellent website (norfolkchurches.co.uk). Locals and visitors can look around the area - but only in very strictly controlled conditions due to the obvious dangers. The churches are well kept - more by the military than - it appears - the diocese. I found this brief mesasage on the site, from an enthusiast for the place as it is now. I can think of no better epitaph to the imaginary Jude's Ferry...
"The wind ripples the ....grasses; the deer, the sheep and the rabbits lead their uncomplicated lives. The incursions of armour are slight and temporary in this great vastness. The pattern of the past survives in a way that is lost elsewhere, in an England which has been redeveloped and rebuilt by generation after generation. Here, emptied of people now, untouched by the complications of civilisation, the past lingers on; and there is also the memory of the past, the ghosts and dreams of the old times, the lives once led now but names on the stones in the graveyards. Let this stand."
Jim Kelly, a man of contradictions, describes mixing fact with fiction in England’s backwaters.
If people read The Fire Baby, your last book, or The Moon Tunnel, are they going to recognise landscape in which these crime mysteries are set?
Well, The Fens - the flat lands of East Anglia and Lincolnshire - are impossible to forget if you've ever visited them - but then not many people do. It's one of England's literal backwaters. But I think if a reader set out to travel across them after reading these books they'd find everything very familiar, especially the atmosphere which is an odd combination of brooding and exhilarating.
So these books are based in a real place then?
Not quite. I've tried to take the real landscape as a starting point and then turn it into something which emphasizes all the ways in which The Fens are different to everywhere else - it is a unique place in the proper sense of the word. So I've played on their insularity, their openness, their secrecy, and their eccentricity. But in all my books I've tried to build on real events, real places, and then to turn them into legends as it were, taking them beyond the everyday reality.
What reality underpins the story of The Moon Tunnel?
The building of this plot actually began with the title. Having written The Water Clock, and The Fire Baby, I wanted to use another elemental concept. Earth was the first idea - but then that is very stationery and passive. But it did lead me to tunnel. It occurred to me that it would be really counter-intuitive to write about a British PoW camp - and to show how different it was to the TV cliché of the German PoW camp - the Colditz or great escape model. I was delighted to find that there had been a PoW camp on the outskirts of Ely - the cathedral city at the centre of the books. But there are no pictures of the camp, and few written sources, so I decided to travel up to County Durham where there is the last remaining, in situ, example of a UK PoW camp at Harperley, near Crook. I knew it was there because it had been in the finals of Restoration - the successful BBC programme in which celebrities champion various buildings for rescue. The camp itself was just perfect - rows of huts on the edge of a pine wood with the snow-topped moors in the distance. I remember walking round with the owner and we opened up a cupboard by one of the old bedsteads and there was a piece of wallpaper folded inside which someone had used as a drawing pad - on the back was a very well executed nude, presumably drawn from memory! I don't think anyone had opened that draw for more than half a century. There was a camp theatre as well - brilliantly conceived in one of the huts with an orchestra pit and painted scenery - something I happily slipped into the plot of The Moon Tunnel.
Back in Ely I discovered something very odd about the camp - although in fact it was a common feature of the system of camps in the UK. Originally it had been built to house Italian PoWs. Then, after the fall of Rome and D-Day, they were moved out onto the land and replaced with German PoWs. It seemed to me a terrific way to give the plot a rich background by dealing with these two sets of prisoners, and how their lives might have intertwined before, and after, their capture. Also the story which emerged in Ely was so unlike the classic PoW scenario. For example, the Italians were allowed out to the local cinema, and the story went that the only reason the camp had a wire fence around it was to keep the girls out.
So that was the tunnel part of the title - what about the moon?
Well, I thought that if the prisoners had a tunnel they would make sure to use it on nights when there was a full moon. But I wanted a stronger link than that - so I thought I would weave in a storyline involving artistic representations of the moon. So, within the plot, I had the idea of a robbery from a country house. In North Norfolk there is a country house which holds a collection of paintings by a family called Pether. The father, who founded this 'school', specialised in moonlight scenes of antiquity. The so-called 'Moonlight Pethers' carried on the tradition for years, turning out hundreds of paintings. This led me to the idea of introducing a house where the owner deliberately collected works of art incorporating the moon. Then I transferred the collection to a fortified house in the Fens which boasts a splendid moat, a moat in which the reflection of the moon can swim while our robbers ransack the house. My only real problem was that Pethers are not worth a great deal any more - there were just too many painted. So I decided to slip into this collection of various moonlight pictures a previously unknown work by the artist William Dadd - who is highly collectible and attracts bids in millions of pounds, not thousands. Dadd had one more wonderful thing to recommend him - he was mad, and indeed killed his own father. There was here an irresistible link to the other great theme suggested by moonlight - lunacy.
How did The Fire Baby evolve? It has a very strong US theme despite being set in The Fens.
Yes. Just to the west of The Fens is Thetford Forrest - a wide expanse of sandy woodland and heath. Shortly after airplanes were invented people thought that it would be a good idea to use them to drop bombs - and they used Thetford Forrest for the trials of these planes. From that evolved a tradition of aviation, and several local airstrips were operated in the early 20th century. There are three huge US air bases here - at Mildenhall, Lakenheath, and Feltwell. There are about 7,000 US servicemen and women at Mildenhall alone - these are effectively US towns dropped as if by magic in the English countryside. It seemed to me that here too was another rich potential source of plot lines - and a remarkably odd landscape as well. The whole area is dotted with bits of aviation architecture, from conning towers to hangers and whole armies of runway lights which reach out well beyond the perimeter of the security fences. On a flat landscape there is no hiding the scale of the operations at these bases - the vast tail sections of the bigger aircraft stand up like the fins of diving whales. There are also bits of Americana scattered about the place - poodle parlours, bowling rings and so on.
And the title - Fire Baby - where did that come from?
Again, a return to the elemental theme. I wanted to set the book in the drought summer of 1974 - and I needed a dramatic opening scene for the plot. So I decided on a plane crash - linking together the US theme with the whole feel of heat, claustrophobia, and fire. Actually the USAF in this area has a very good record but I decided I could get away with manufacturing a crash. The big question was who would survive the crash, and the idea of making that survivor a baby introduced the possibility of allowing the plot to span an entire generation - which always opens up more chance of creating a satisfyingly complex web of narrative. The other good thing about 'baby' is that it is a shook to see it juxtaposed with 'fire' - and I like titles which hold these seeming contradictions, like water and clock, and moon and tunnel.
So what is the next contradiction?
The Blood Box. It's out next year but I'm afraid the plot is still a secret.
Jim Kelly is a journalist and education correspondent for the Financial Times. The Water Clock is his first novel and was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey Award for best first crime novel of 2002. This captivating and evocative murder mystery - skillfully punctuated with significant events frozen in time - marks Jim Kelly as the new master of suspense. In our interview, we discover more about the main protagonist Philip Dryden, plus Kelly reveals why he loves the Fens and discusses his interest in the sixties.You also work as a journalist - so is Philip Dryden you?
As he is tall, dark, handsome and clever, the answer is yes. But in reality, just a little bit. I was a local journalist on papers for ten years and you do come across some amazing stories. So he is not me, but he is my life - or at least part of it. The most startling element of the plot of The Water Clock was stolen from real life. I was working in York and called one night at the cathedral where they were preparing to film the enthronement of the new archbishop. They found a corpse on the roof when they were putting up the TV lights. He'd been up there for several weeks. He'd committed suicide by jumping from the central tower. The man's name, by the way, was Kelly.
Will all your novels feature Dryden?
I'd certainly like to go on writing about Dryden. He has begun to get a life of his own. In many ways he is the classic sleuth. He is inquisitive, awkward, sceptical, and a born observer. The life of a journalist is about as close as you can get in modern times to that of the classic amateur detective. They have time, and motivation, to find out the truth. Dryden, like many classic mystery heroes, is also slightly trapped. His wife is in a coma so he has to stay in the Fens to be near her. In many ways he is biding his time until something else happens, but something else may never happen. This gives him a slightly surreal existence. And being a journalist means that the stories tend to come to him - a long line of trivial, comic, or sinister plots which are the bread and butter of local newspapers.
What is it about the Fen landscape that so inspires you, and works so well in this genre?
The Fen landscape is not what it seems. It is a very odd combination of openness and secrecy. You can see almost forever, or at least to the horizon, and yet it is so easy to hide within it. It also has some of the magnetic quality of the sea - when you look out at the flatlands from Ely you have everything behind you, and nothing in front of you. Because the sky is so important in the flat country of the East of England the mood can change dramatically. It is very easy to feel very small, and overwhelmed, by the East Anglian skyscape. It is also a moving landscape because it is full of water, which can make it very dramatic in storms, ice, or flood. But most of all the fens bring you as close as you can get in this country to wilderness. A few miles from Ely you can park up the car, walk half a mile, and be in a spot beyond sight of any buildings, people, or roads. Being featureless everything seems lost.
Are there any other landscapes which attract you as a setting?
I was a student in Sheffield in the 1970s and the ravages of unemployment, and the collapse of the steel industry, had left their mark on the city. It is a stunning urban backdrop, high hills topped with tower blocks, and streets lined with furnaces. I think it had the quality of a man-made maze, with large areas of the city deserted and waiting for the bulldozer. Dotted throughout this were small communities of great spirit. At the time I probably felt Sheffield had always been like that - but in fact it was a short interlude between its heyday as an industrial city and the rather trendy place it has become. It would be a great backdrop for a murder.
One striking feature of The Water Clock is the flashbacks to the sixties, in particular the day of the World Cup. What made you choose this event?
I think some events are emblems for whole generations. The 1966 World Cup Final is impossible to forget if you lived through it. I can recall pacing up and down in the back garden while the rest of the family seethed in front of the TV after Germany's equalising goal. I was nine. But it is so long ago that in many ways the world looks completely different. The mood was different I think, which is dramatic if you want to use flashbacks. I think most people were less cynical - perhaps less than they had been for decades. But there was also this tough underbelly to life - the leftovers of the crime which had been spawned in the war and thrived in the fifties. Life then was not as cosy as it is now, and people took more risks.
Which other crime writers do you enjoy reading?
I can never answer this question without mentioning The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers. It's a dreadful cliché but it did change my life. I've ended up living parts of it by moving out to the Fens. It is the best mystery novel I've read about place - and perhaps the best novel about the importance of place. I was a big fan of Morse, for the company of the characters mainly and the perfect control of the plot. The most astonishing crime book I've read is A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot, which is built around the First World War trenches and the punishment of a group of deserters. I am just discovering George P. Pelecanos. I normally dislike US crime writers as I don't feel much empathy for the landscapes, or cityscapes, but he writes brilliantly and the violence has impact because the characters are real people. I read Shame The Devil first and my pulse rate went up in the opening chapter.
Can you give us a taster of what your next novel will be about?
The Fire Baby is about the damage that can be done by lies. It begins with an aircrash in the Fens during the drought summer of 1976. The only survivors are a woman and a baby. From a lie told that night several lives are eventually destroyed and a man's life is brutally ended - starved to death in a lonely Fen pillbox. The hunt for the killer opens up the complex latticework of lies which have been spawned by that first, original, falsehood. It's also about a despicable modern crime - that of people-smuggling. A crime which has come to be linked recently with the Fens and the flows of migrant workers into the fields. It all sound a bit grim – but I think Dryden's resolute good humour survives, as does the indifference of his side-kick, Humph, the ever-present taxi driver.