Crime and Historical Novelist
Inspector Richard Thornhill and the Lydmouth Series, by Martin Edwards
Martin Edwards' latest crime novels include The Cipher Garden and The Coffin Trail (shortlisted for the Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award). His other books include the Harry Devlin series. He has edited many anthologies of crime stories and writes widely about crime fiction, past and present. Further information is available on his websites, www.murdersquad.co.uk and http://www.martinedwardsbooks.com/. This article originally appeared in Sherlock Magazine.
Most crime fiction series are known by the name of their detective heroes: Morse, Rebus, Dalziel and Pascoe, and so on. Andrew Taylor’s Lydmouth series is an exception to the rule. The setting in an imaginary town on the border between England and Wales is of crucial importance to the books. So is the period in which the events of the series take place: the unfashionable post-war era. But it would be a mistake to assume that Inspector Richard Thornhill, Taylor’s police officer protagonist in the Lydmouth novels, is a cipher. On the contrary, he is a thoughtfully conceived character and his complex relationship with the journalist Jill Francis gives the books their heart.
At the start of the first instalment of the series, An Air that Kills (1994), both Thornhill and Jill are newcomers to the old market town. Lydmouth is an insular place; Thornhill, who has come from East Anglia, quickly becomes aware that ‘anyone from outside the county ranked as a foreigner’ and lacks rapport with his boss, Superintendent Williamson. Married (Edith Thornhill is described early on as ‘an orderly woman’) with two children, he is intelligent, and also prey to strong passions. Jill has come to Lydmouth to escape from an unhappy love affair. When they first meet, Jill envisages an ‘adoring wife…Thornhill might have seemed quite handsome if his expression had not been so supercilious; he looked…like a grammar-school master whose absolute control over the boys in his charge had gone to his head.’
Jill and Thornhill are attracted to each other and Taylor has himself described the series as, in effect, ‘a love story’. Over the course of the series, their relationship deepens and eventually becomes adulterous. The surface respectability of the 1950s coupled with their desperate need to keep their affair secret adds to the tension. Taylor’s choice of period was deliberate: ‘I felt it would be refreshing to write not just about a different time but also about a different moral climate from our own. The 1950s are so relatively recent that we tend to assume that they are part of the present, that people were not so very different from ourselves in 2001. But they were different. That generation sits uncomfortably on the fence between past and present. Britain had won the war, more or less, and was in the slow and inexorable process of losing the peace. We were discarding an empire and acquiring a welfare state. The political, social and economic certainties of the past were dissolving. The differences between then and now weren't just a matter of the externals - the dandruff, for example, the omnipresent cigarettes, the ill-cut demob suits smelling of sweat and the council estates jerry-built for returning heroes. There was an even bigger difference in the psychological and moral baggage that people carry around them. I wanted the plots of the novels to turn as far as possible on how people thought and lived in that extraordinary decade just after World War II.’
All the books feature multiple viewpoints, a device which enables Taylor to add depth to his study of Lydmouth society. Pace derives not only from rapid switches between viewpoints but also from the timeframe: typically, the events of each novel take place over the span of just a few days, even though in some cases they represent the consequences of long ago sins. The developing relationship between Jill and Thornhill is entwined with the involvement that, in their different ways, they have with murder mysteries. Jill’s newspaper contacts provide her, on occasion, with clues not available to Thornhill through orthodox channels. As is often the case with Taylor, the puzzle element of the books is of secondary importance to the depiction of character, and here to the portrait of a particular society at a particular time. Nevertheless, the plots are more than adequate, and the way in which suspicion over the killing of Mattie Harris shifts from one person to another in Where Roses Fade (2000) is especially well done.
Although far from unknown, it is still relatively uncommon for a crime writer to conceive a lengthy series of this kind right from the outset. More typically, a one-off book, and its detective hero or heroine, strikes a chord with readers and reviewers, thus leading to a demand for follow-ups. But Taylor was successful in securing a commission from publishers for the first three books in the series on the basis of a proposal and An Air That Kills painstakingly lays the ground for much that is to follow. Perhaps an analogy can be drawn between this book and the first episode in many a television series. Because of the over-riding need to establish character and setting, the story tends to play second fiddle. Certainly, An Air That Kills is in some respects a muted book. The atmosphere is far from being laden with sentimental fondness for the time. The bleak tone is reflected in the central crime: workmen demolishing an old inn discover the remains of a newborn child in a disused privy. Taylor has commented that the set-up enabled him ‘to use an idea I had had in my head for years - that of a body lying in a sea of poppies on Remembrance Sunday. The storyline includes an illegitimate baby and the black market; and above everything is the theme of remembrance, of the poisoning effect of nostalgia.
Although the series is best read in chronological order, there is no doubt that it gains in strength as it progresses. One has the impression that Taylor – a writer unafraid to take risks and try something different, rather than sticking to formula – has become emboldened, the more comfortable he has become with the people and the place he has created. All of Thornhill’s investigations are worth reading, but those from The Lover of the Grave (1997) onwards are especially compelling
At an early point, Taylor had the excellent idea of taking his titles for the Lydmouth novels from the works of A.E. Housman. Much of Housman’s work is set in border country, if not quite in the Lydmouth area, and its darkness is again well suited to the mood that Taylor seeks to establish.
The second book in the series was The Mortal Sickness (1995). As Taylor says, this introduced not only the local vicar but also ‘his wife (whose guilty secret is that she writes detective thrillers) and a clutch of decaying gentlefolk. Among the latter is Victor Youlgreave the churchwarden. Exceptionally devoted readers will recognise the surname from the Roth Trilogy and also from a novel for older children, Double Exposure, which I wrote in 1990. Victor comes from the Herefordshire branch of the Youlgreave family, rather than the junior branch which settled near London and in South Africa. I enjoy knitting together all my fiction into a single patchwork whole. Lydmouth is part of a greater world.’
The Lover of the Grave begins with the discovery of a corpse after the coldest night of the year. He is dangling from the Hanging Tree with his trousers around his ankles. It is not the kind of case which whodunnit writers of the 1950s, or indeed their usual readers, tended to favour, but Taylor handles the material with his customary sensitivity. The case (which proves to be one of a murder sought to be disguised as suicide) brings both Jill Francis and Richard Thornhill into contact with Ashbridge School and those who teach in it. Families play an important part in the story: as a key character puts it, ‘I was brought up to believe that one must put the family first.’ Taylor depicts the corrosive nature of many family relationships with much skill.
Equally accomplished is The Suffocating Night, the storyline of which was influenced by a conversation that Taylor had with a woman who ‘remembered the insults she had suffered in the early 1950s because her father happened to be a communist. This was the time of the Korean War, when Reds lurked under beds, the Russians had the atomic bomb and the Cheltenham city fathers decided not to renovate the Pittville Pump Room, one of the town's architectural glories, on the grounds that World War III would soon break out.’
Where Roses Fade (2000) features another period touch, neatly integrated into the plot. Malcolm Sedbury suffers from polio. As Taylor says, this is ‘now largely a memory but fifty years ago a disease that terrified parents and blighted children's lives. It affected the middle classes particularly badly because working class children lived in less hygienic conditions and had already developed the necessary antibodies when they routinely coped with low-level doses of infection.’ The murder victim is portrayed warts and all, but it is impossible not to be moved by her dreadful fate. This book handles very effectively the different attitudes of men and women towards sexual experience – and, in some respects, to life itself. The reaction of Thornhill when Jill tells him that she may be pregnant seems true not just to the time, but to life itself.
The starting point of Death’s Own Door (2001) was the encouragement given to Taylor to tell Edith Thornhill’s story. The presumed suicide of a widower with a distinguished war record is the starting point this time. Edith knew the dead man; she decides to attend the funeral without telling her husband and shadows from the past begin to emerge. Sex and sexuality, as in all the Lydmouth stories, are key to the unfolding of the plot as well as to the portrayal of the society. This was a time when giving birth outside marriage was frowned upon and homosexuality illegal and Taylor explores the consequences for individuals trapped by their own desires as well as, in some cases, by their own folly.
A seventh Lydmouth book is currently in the works: Call the Dying is due to appear in 2004. In 1998 Taylor wrote ‘The Woman Who Loved Elizabeth David’ an excellent short story with a Lydmouth setting but told from a different, first-person perspective. Edith features briefly, but not her husband or Jill Francis. Completists may find it in Past Crimes, a Crime Writers Association anthology. Presumably because it got off to a rather quiet start, the Lydmouth series is still, perhaps, less celebrated than Taylor’s first series, featuring the amoral William Dougal, his award-winning trilogy of Roth novels now collected as Requiem for an Angel or excellent stand-alones such as The American Boy. But its quality is enduring and, although Richard Thornhill is a flawed man, he is undoubtedly likeable, as well as being a highly successful detective.
© Martin Edwards
www.murdersquad.co.uk and www.twbooks.co.uk/authors/medwards.html.