|Celia Johnson and Cyril Raymond as Laura and Fred in Brief Encounter (1945)|
"Don't you ever cry, don't ever shed a tear.
Don't you ever cry after I'm gone.
Promise me you'll smile, darling, all the while
We'll be back together later on.
Don't you ever cry, don't ever worry, dear,
Soon each care will be a memory.
Tears are all in vain, we will love and laugh again
So don't you ever cry for me."
In 2016 I published a literary true-crime book, The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane (Quercus), with the paperback edition coming out the following year. I'm very proud of this book and I feel I did the most thorough research possible, bringing all sorts of interesting connections and theories to bear and shedding light on the early years of forensic pathology and the treatment of sex crimes in the 19th century. However, sales of the book were modest and I think two reasons for this (apart from my not being a very well-known author) are, firstly, that true-crime, however literary, is still seen by many people as a 'grubby genre' (meaning also that it perhaps doesn't get reviewed as much), and, secondly, that the book's setting in Gateshead and the North East meant that, in other parts of the country, it was easy to dismiss it as a 'regional' book which would not be of interest to readers in London, Bristol, Birmingham or wherever. Frustrating on both counts.
However, I still love true crime, which I have read ever since reading In Cold Blood as a teenager, closely followed by the terrifying Helter Skelter. More recently, though, I've been reading around a very interesting sub-set of true crime, namely novels based on real crimes. I've read some brilliant books.
The photo above shows some of these books and also some of the non-fiction crime books related to them (for instance, not many people are aware that Graeme Macrae Burnet's great book, His Bloody Project, is quite closely based on a book of essays edited by Michel Foucault, called, in translation, I, Pierre Riviere, having slaughtered my mother, my sister and my brother... which is a study of a true crime in eighteenth-century France). Denise Mina's The Long Drop is an incredible re-telling of murder and corruption in 1950s Glasgow. Perhaps the book I found the most moving, in this period of intensive reading, was Jayne Anne Phillips' 2014 novel, Quiet Dell, about the murder of a mother and her children in Chicago in 1931. The combination of my experience as a non-fiction true-crime author and of reading so many fantastic books inspired me to write up the new crime story that I had become obsessed with as fiction.
I had come across an absolutely fascinating crime committed in 1946, so not long after the end of the War. The crime itself was a sensation at the time and I was able to glean a huge amount of detail about it from contemporary newspaper reports. But another aspect of the appeal of writing fiction is the freedom it allows you to speculate about the reasons why a crime was committed, which lie as much in the personalities of the people involved as in the cold facts. With this story, it seemed to me that the drivers towards murder lay in attitudes towards particular 'deviations' from conformity in English society during and immediately after the War and this was something I found absolutely compelling. I began to feel that I was breaking new ground with some of my material.
So, to return to my title, Don't You Ever Cry. It comes from this newspaper cutting, from 1940:
In the novel, the young girl who was the only competitor in a talent context in 1940 is named Connie. The book opens with her funeral, six years later, as Connie very sadly died on August Bank Holiday 1946 while on a date with her kind-of-boyfriend, who I've named Harry Gates.
This is part of the report (again, I've blanked out Harry's original name):
At the funeral Harry meets Connie's aunt, who I've named Jean Barker. He is 24 and she is 34, and married with a young child. Connie's death is tangential to the main direction of the novel which imagines the relationship that evolved between Harry and Jean with shocking consequences.
In imagining the events that led inexorably to a murder, I kept to a 'real' timetable, even though this doesn't always need to be explicit in the book. But it means that, if Harry and Jean go to the cinema on a particular day, then they see a film that was actually showing nearby on that day in 1946.
They go to see Dulcie Gray and Eric Portman in the 1946 movie Wanted for Murder, which I have also watched and which turned out to have unsettling resonances with the story I was creating in the novel. I'm being careful, at this point, not to give away too much about the plot of the book, but I saw in the film something of the same attitudes towards non-conformity and 'difference' that underlie my story.
The still from Brief Encounter at the very beginning of this post reflects the way that that film was also particularly relevant to my theme, with its detailed portrait of married life during the Forties. The film was released in 1945 and was a huge box-office success. My character, Jean, has seen the film twice and when she goes to the pictures with Harry, she very much hopes that they'll have a similarly happy experience there as Laura (Celia Johnson) does with Alec (Trevor Howard) in the film:
|Lady Barbara Skelton (Margaret Lockwood) gets a kick out of highway robbery in The Wicked Lady (1946)...|
|...but pays the ultimate price in the end.|
|Meanwhile Jessica (Barbara Stanwyck) is very turned on by Major Landis (George Brent) but her son comes first (My Reputation).|
|Turnip soup made to the 1946 recipe in Housewife magazine -- quite tasty|
I researched interior design, clothes, hair styles, and popular books of the day too. One book in particular -- a pre-War crime novel re-issued as a green Penguin in 1946 -- became central to my plot. When I read it, I became convinced that 'my' characters had also read this book and that it had influenced the modus operandi of their own crime quite significantly. Jean and Harry's relish for crime novels and also Harry's unhealthy interest in recent real crimes around Bath and Bristol, where the novel is set, play an important part in the book. Again, I'm being rather coy about mentioning which novel is so key -- I don't want to give too much away at this stage.
Finally, as my book is a first-person narrative (the story is told by Jean Barker), I've taken great care with the language I've used. The films I watched were very instructive in giving a flavour of how people spoke in the mid 1940s, but they were scripted and so I turned to Simon Garland's edited collection of entries from Mass-Observation diaries from the end of the war, Our Hidden Lives, to get a flavour of how people thought and wrote more naturally. It's a fantastic book, but the most notable thing about the diaries is that, perhaps surprisingly, the writers sound very much like we do -- not quaint or stiff or prudish, but almost the same as us. And it's that natural-sounding language I've really tried to achieve, although I also feel that someone reading a 'period novel' perhaps wants to see some pointers to the period in the language -- so there's a little of that too.
Early in the novel, Jean and her husband Ray go to Paignton for their holidays (during which we start to find out about the particularities of their marriage). I found a postcard sent from Paignton during the actual week I had them go there, which made me very happy. It also told me what the weather was like, although I have also researched the weather in 1946 and into 1947 in some detail from other sources -- it was an exceptionally hard winter.
The book explores themes of unconventional sexuality, disability (including pain that is deliberately sought out versus the pain caused by disability), the influence of mothers and upbringing on one's sexual development and ideas of privacy and exhibitionism.
My focus, now, is to find a literary agent to represent me and to help me to find the perfect publisher for my novel. To finish, then, here's my imagined cover for the book -- this is something I like to do when I'm writing, to give myself something to focus on. If/when the book is published, the cover will be down to the publisher and no doubt will look nothing like this, but for now, this is what it looks like in my head. I hope I've made you want to read it.