Would you rather live in Handcock’s Bottom or is Marston Bigot more up your street?

I had a whale of a time when conniving the settings for my cosy crime series The Shires Mysteries. Truth be told, I nearly wet my pants.

To find a name for the village that would host all of the crimes I had in mind, I needed something memorable but authentic – something that would sit comfortably alongside all the real-life places in my county. Something that didn’t sound out of place in the Shires.

I reside in a place called Upper Studley. Upper is a common qualifier for an English village and it sounds immensely better than Lower or Little. They are equally common but less classy than my Upper. Then you have the Bottoms. They are, well literally, at the bottom of the ladder. For how would one feel dwelling in Handcock’s Bottom, or Scratchy Bottom, or Bottom Flash? How about Crinkley Bottom or Bottom Burn? If you aren’t into Bottoms, then would you consider buying a cottage in Buttock or a small bungalow in Great Butts? They are real villages proudly inhabited by real villagers.

I decided against setting my stories in the nether regions. I set my sights high – closer to Upper than Lower. Upton struck me as a possibility. There are a lot of Uptons around here. Think Upton Cow Down – yes, it’s a real place that can be found on a map, as can Upton Snodsbury. But they seemed too pretentious to me.

Tiddley Wink tickled my fancy. It’s a not a big village. In fact, it isn’t a village but a tiny hamlet. When I drove through it for the first time, I blinked and I missed it.

Tiddleywink

My mother-in-law is now a resident in a residential home located in Limpley Stoke. Oh yes, she is! When we visit, we can pop over to the village pub called The Hop Pole Inn. Oh yes, we can! Here it is:

Limpley stoke
The Hop Pole Inn in Limpley Stoke

Ultimately, I opted against naming my fictional village using an existing name, so Tiddley Wink and Limpley Stoke had to go, as well as Booby Dingle, Grope Lane, Farleigh Wallop and Clench Common.

Finally, I settled on Bishops Well. Not very imaginative, I hear you say. Life can be so much more out of this world than fiction!

Shires church1
The Church of St John the Baptist in Bishops Well
Advertisements

Sandman – an extract from the sea-crossing

There is shouting on the boat. Commotion. Men and women, encouraged by each other, stronger en masse, pushed against the wall, are demanding water. Haji doesn’t know what started the riot. It could’ve been that more people had pushed up from the stern, escaping the flooding. They were being squashed and have grown desperate. Despair breeds defiance.

Two of the smugglers come down to deal with the situation, both armed. They brandish their weapons in a display of might. Haji sighs. They are deluding themselves if they think they have the monopoly on killing. Despite their guns and their theatrics, Haji reads fear in their faces. People are screaming, waving their fists.

‘No water! No water left!’ The older one of the smugglers presents his empty hands in a gesture of helplessness. He turns and points towards the dark horizon. ‘Italia! Wait! Italia close! Europa!’ The sun rising in front of him hits the metal of his automatic pistol. It shines in Haji’s eyes. People aren’t listening or they don’t believe the smuggler’s assurances. The shouting intensifies and, when that happens, children begin to cry. It’s mayhem. Some passengers have risen to their feet and are approaching their minders, fearless and furious. Demanding water. Pleading for water. The younger of the two smugglers loses his footing and slips. He is angry for his humiliation and to cover up for it he grabs a shabby man closest to him and pushes him down towards the stern. The shabby man falls to his knees, splashing water around him. Another person is thrust on top of him. And another one. The smuggler is throwing people across the deck into the flooded stern. ‘You want water?’ he yells, his voice high with irritation. ‘You got water   down there!’ He kicks another person – it’s a woman. Her companion hurls himself at the assailant, but the older smuggler reaches for his pistol and shoots the man.

Silence.

Dead silence. And then the widowed woman starts wailing and scrambles towards her husband’s body. Others join her and the boat begins to sink.

It was inevitable.

Large bubbles, swollen with air, boil over – the stern submerges within seconds. Everyone presses to the bow, but it’s no good. The bow is going to go, too. Someone, the skipper rushes out of the cabin and sends a flare into the sky. It explodes, red illuminations in the grey morning sky.

People are jumping off the boat before its mass drags them into the depths. The family of five – Haji’s neighbours – are in disarray. The father and Boy have dived in, the father with the four-year-old girl in his arms. The mother and the baby just fell into the sea, and gave in to it without a fight. They went down like a smashed block of concrete. Boy is splashing haplessly, screaming, choking on water. Haji realises Boy cannot swim. He dives in and searches for him in the whirlpool of sinking bodies; his fingers meet Boy’s arm, and they claw at it. He pushes him up towards the light of the rising sun.

It is a matter of seconds for the boat to vanish from sight and a matter of half an hour before the sea swarming with people becomes calm and still. Haji and Boy are treading water, waiting for a miracle. Haji isn’t one to let go and he is right not to – he hears a distant buzz of a helicopter. He recognises it instantly. He knows the slashing of the air with the rotating blades. He points to Boy, ‘Rescue,’ he says. ‘Wave arms!’

They both wave them, and they shout.

The helicopter pauses over their heads. Water ripples around them, unsettling Boy. Haji has to grab hold of him again. A harness on a rope is being lowered from the helicopter and when it hits the surface it is dragged along it, close enough for Haji to get hold of it. He fastens it under Boy’s arms and watches him being lifted to safety. Then he dives between the waves, and swims away. The land – Italy – cannot be too far. He knows helicopters can’t fly far and he can see the outline of the coast. And even if he doesn’t make it to the shore, he’d rather die free than be captured.

Breaking news: a new book deal

I am thrilled to announce that yesterday I signed a three-book deal with Accent Press for my new series, The Shires Mysteries. I am buzzing with excitement, singing from the rooftops (badly) and purring with pleasure.

The Shires Mysteries feature a pair of accidental sleuths from the depths of Wiltshire’s countryside, a place called Bishops Well, a large village with aspirations to be a town or, according to some inhabitants in the know, a medieval market town which over the centuries fell on hard times. There are a few places like that in Wiltshire. Mine is a cross between Devizes, Trowbridge and a small village with its own claim to fame that I know well, but it’ll let remain anonymous.

One of my intrepid sleuths is Maggie Kaye, a woman of many talents, some of them quite out of this world; she is a Jack of all trades and master of none, with her finger in many pies, including education, journalism, a spot of gardening and the supernatural. The other is Samuel Dee, a widower and retired barrister, who comes to Bishops Well seeking peace and quiet. His best laid plans are derailed when he ends up as Maggie’s neighbour and reluctant confidante.

In the first book, a famous Polish director, a cult figure from the eighties, is murdered at his own birthday bash. Maggie pursues the killer, dragging Sam with her whether he likes it or not. Don’t expect anything gruesome, procedural or blood-curdling. The Shires Mysteries are light and humorous – the genre known as cosy crime.

Accent Press are planning to release the first book, Wide Angle – the Director’s Cut in August 2020. I have doodled a commemorative banner to fill the space between now and then.

The Shires

 

Sandman, the conspiracy of outcasts

Sandman review Charlie Laidlaw2

Just off the genteel Quakers Walk weaving its way amongst rolling fields towards Devizes’ White Horse sprawled upon Roundway Hill, a timid narrow footpath dives into a deep wood. The path is frequented by shady individuals: most of them skinny and unkempt, dressed in threadbare garments, looking older than their actual years due to what one would describe as falling on hard luck.

I once followed that path. It took me down a slippery slope and across a lazy stream towards a well-camouflaged network of under-the-scarp caves. Their existence was betrayed by rugs flapping in entrances and sheets of corrugated iron wedged on top of them. There were also signs of a campsite, a stack of firewood and a few empty bottles and drugs paraphernalia scattered around. The place had a distinct vibe of alienation, depravity and wretchedness about it. It was the homeless’ colony.

In the bushes not far from the path, I heard grunting noises. A quick reconnaissance revealed a couple engaging in the act of fornication. Out in the open! In broad daylight! Those were my first indignant reactions to what I was witnessing. Later on however, upon further reflection, I concluded that I couldn’t really expect the homeless to go and get a room, could I?

That god-forsaken place would a few years later make a perfect setting for Sandman. Haji had to find a hiding place, hole up in there and stay under the radar for days. He had to hide in plain view. He had to blend in. He had to look like he belonged. An Afghan outsider in an alien land, he could not book a hotel in the city or waltz into a quaint village pub in search of low-key accommodation. But he could sit around a campfire with a bunch of like-minded outcasts, and look like he was one of them. They were as disenfranchised as he was. The pariah status was his and their common denominator.

But was their shared existence on the outer perimeter of respectable society enough to give them strength in togetherness – well, let’s see…

Sandman is out tomorrow, 11th April 2019, the fourth instalment in the DI Marsh crime series.

DI Gillian Marsh of the #not-me generation

Sandman (2)

DI Gillian Marsh is a handful. She can be abrasive and insubordinate. She is a thorn in her boss’s side because she simply doesn’t know her place. She is every murderer’s worst nightmare because if you’ve got something on your conscience you won’t shake her off your scent. Her team know not to get in her way as she steams through her cases like a runaway train that will wait for no one. No, Gillian isn’t likeable, but that doesn’t worry her. She wasn’t born to be liked – she was born to get to the bottom of the matter. That takes dogged determination, hard-nosed attitude and never letting go. It is no wonder that with all those characteristics, DI Marsh is affectionately known as Pitt Bull.

I am quite particular about not labelling DI Marsh as a lady-detective. Not because she isn’t a lady, but because she wouldn’t appreciate the label – the gender label. When she’s on a case, she isn’t a woman. Neither is she a man. She has no gender.

She is just a damn good detective.

I have been brought up to take gender equality for granted. I have never submitted to gender stereotypes and have led my life as a human being, full stop. If I had to describe myself, I would never start (or finish) with I am a woman. Womanhood would constrict me to one side of humanity. I wouldn’t want to miss on what the other side had to offer. I wouldn’t want to take sides. So no, I am not a feminist. I don’t see a point in gender wars.  I have now passed my beliefs to my protagonist. I won’t have her defined by reference to men or be seen through a man’s eyes. Gillian doesn’t aspire to be man’s equal, or even to be better than any man. Her straightforward and uncomplicated objective is to be the best in absolute terms, without bringing sexuality into it.

I like to think of DI Gillian Marsh as the prototype of the next generation – the post #me-too generation. I like to think of her as the #not-me generation. No one would dream of reducing her to her femininity. No man would dare to take advantage of her womanhood. Make no mistake, Gillian Marsh would not be abused. Being a woman does not make her vulnerable. That’s how she is and that’s how I like her.

That’s what makes her a damn good detective.

Gillian is tenacious and methodical. She analyses cases to death. She calls that inventorising. In her head, she runs an inventory of facts and evidence, mulls them over, tries different angles and matches all the pieces until they all fit together. She doesn’t give up. That constant and entirely absorbing process leaves her little time for domesticity.

Her daughter, Tara, is her Achille’s heel. Gillian is an impromptu mother. She blunders through motherhood, plagued by insecurities and anxieties. God knows how she gets through mothering without major incidents! Probably beginner’s luck. And there is another character flaw on the domestic front. It is to do with men. Gillian doesn’t know quite what to do with them after sex. Men seem to slip through her fingers like sand. She can only give them so much of her time, and that is never quite enough. But that’s the choice she knows she has to make. She has to choose her job. After all, she may not be the greatest lover the world has seen, but –

…she is damn good detective.

Re-blogged from Accent Press:

https://accentpressbooks.com/blogs/author-posts/di-marsh-generation-not-me-by-anna-legat

Inside the mind of a cold-blooded killer

Sandman (1)

When I decided that the hero – or rather anti-hero – of my next book would be a terrorist who crosses the width of the earth to inflict death and destruction on the West, I knew I had a tough nut to crack: getting into his head.

I didn’t want to make it easy for myself. It would be all too simple to blame it on the radicalisation of some hapless 16-year old by the social media frenzy. I wanted my villain to have a past, a life before he died inside, a background in the shape of a nation, a country and its history. I didn’t want a brain-washed, new-born fundamentalist or a convert who would need some external, divine intervention in order to grow his own backbone.

So, I found 60-year old Haji, an Afghan veteran of the Soviet War, a scientist educated in the best schools in Moscow, an agnostic, a man open to western values, a rational man, an artist, a family man. You could say, I found a good and ordinary man who turned to terrorism before my eyes. And now, I had to give him reason and credibility. I hope I succeeded on some level.

A lot of research has gone into Sandman. I knew of course first-hand of the effect Soviet rule had on all its satellite countries, of the oppression and the tight grip they had on their neighbours’ politics, security and people’s everyday lives. But I didn’t know the unique Afghan perspective: its rich religious, ethnic and historical tapestry. So, I read all I could about that country and I learned, and I was amazed. It is astonishing how little we, the so-called fat cats of the West, know of any other place on this planet! We are dangerously Eurocentric, and to survive, we have to reach out and find out how the other half lives. But that’s just a small reflection.

Going back to my research for Sandman, I must acknowledge a brilliant book by Rodric Braithwaite, Afgantsy, the Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89. Without it, Sandman would be a shallow puddle of guesswork.

Sandman is due for publication on 11th April 2019. It is ready to pre-order on Amazon and with the Publisher, Accent Press.

Sandman, book 4 in the DI Marsh series

I am delighted to announce that Sandman, book 4 in the DI Marsh Mysteries is now ready to pre-order for delivery on 11th April! It is a modern-day thriller with a bitter twist.

Buy from:

Amazon

Accent PressAccent Press

Marsh series pre-order

A sneak preview of Thicker than Blood

 

My third DI Marsh mystery, Thicker than Blood, is being released into the wild world tomorrow.

To give you the flavour of the story and the characters, here comes a sneak preview:

 

Liam Cox is twiddling his thumbs, willing the priest to take a shortcut to that part where he says, ‘Go forth, the Mass is ended’, the answer to which is quivering on Liam’s lips, ready to come out: ‘Thanks be to God!’

But the priest is taking his time, sending out fumes of frankincense and pronouncing the glory of the Almighty left, right, and centre. Mother must have paid a fortune for this memorial service and she expects good returns on her investment. It will be a while yet. Liam has to grin and bear it. He remembers those long church hours of Sunday Mass stretching into infinity, a purgatory for a small boy with his mind on climbing trees. Today, nearly forty years later, his mind is still on earthly matters, such as his stumbling business. Mother could help, if she wanted to co-operate, but before they get to that he must sit through this spectacle, biding his time. This will please her. ‘Your father will be proud of you,’ she will say, as if Father would have given a toss even when he was alive. Now that he is dead, and has been so for two years exactly, he cares even less. But it matters to Mother. She still believes in all this mumbo-jumbo of praying for the dear-departed in the hope that it will make their afterlife easier.

Oh well, you can take a nun out of a nunnery, but you can’t take the nunnery out of a nun.

‘God, give me strength!’ It is rather hypocritical of Liam to pray for divine intervention under the circumstances of his uncharitable thoughts, but he hopes the loving God will overlook them.

He fidgets, and Mother shushes him, just like she used to when he was a youngster. She puts her forefinger to her lips and frowns at him, whispering, ‘Sit still!’

Liam turns to sit on the other cheek, because the bench is hard as hell and his backside is aching. He catches a glimpse of people on the back pews. Not many people. Maybe ten in all. They are old faces he remembers vaguely from his childhood, faces of no significance now. Right at the back sits a man. He also has a face that is vaguely familiar, but Liam can’t put a name to it. He isn’t that old either: late forties, thick blond hair and beard, Liam’s build. What is he doing attending a mid-week memorial Mass? Who is he? Liam has a strong feeling he should know who that man is.

The priest bellows, ‘Go forth, the Mass is ended!’

‘Thanks be to God!’

 

When it rains, the freshly turned soil glistens with its own oily sweat. It gives out the scent of musk. It is carnal. Unwashed. Intimate. Mildred loves the smell of ploughed fields in the rain. It makes her feel alive and, at the age of seventy-six, it is a feeling to be cherished. She inhales deeply and holds it in, getting intoxicated on fresh air. Her thoughts ebb and flow inside her skull, the rows of turned earth an extension of her brain waves. She pauses for the hundredth time, and scans the fields. They permeate her. It isn’t so much that she owns them as it is that they own her.

Raindrops crack open against the sou’wester she is wearing over her scarf. It is an old scarf – they don’t make scarves like that anymore. It’s the kind the Queen favours, with a bold floral pattern and a rich, aged-gold border like a picture frame. Her green waterproof anorak keeps her bones warm and dry inside. She could stand here and look at the fields for hours. And inhale them. Mildred sucks in the air greedily. Young people don’t appreciate the simple pleasure of drawing breath, she thinks. They take in air and spit it out without relishing it, like fast food.

‘Mum, we’ve got to be moving. I’ve got millions of things to do back at the office,’ Liam points out with an exasperated scowl. He is a big bull of a man; fleshy, flushed with the effort of walking, already short of breath. And patience. Just like his father, Mildred observes. Reginald too was always annoyed, always had something better to do, something urgent waiting round the corner. He was chasing it relentlessly, like a dog chasing its own tail. He had had no time or patience for Mildred – he simply tolerated her. Nor had he had the time or patience for the land. He had cultivated it without love, without a pause for thought.

‘Mother!’ Liam is talking to a brick wall.

‘Give her a break. She’s catching her breath,’ Colleen tells him.

Mildred smiles at her daughter. In her doe-brown walking boots and a knee-length pleated skirt of demure black under the frills of her exuberantly purple poncho, standing under a green-and-red check umbrella, Colleen is a mismatch of colour and style. Her ripe-plum coloured hair, pinned on top of her head, has fallen out of the bun in thin wisps and is clinging to her neck and cheeks as if the purple hair dye has run. She is puffed and frumpy. She has never cared about her appearance. No wonder she has never married. It used to worry Mildred, but it no longer does.

It is four p.m. Mildred was hoping she could offer them a snack before they left, considering the effort they have made to be here. They didn’t have to come to the service. She half-expected to hear the usual excuses: a dentist appointment, a meeting with a client, the car has gone for service…They surprised her. Seeing them arrive gave her that tiny flutter of motherly pride deep inside her stomach. Liam had even herded in Stella. She stepped out of the car wrapped in a slinky black fur coat, wearing six-inch heels, looking like a penguin on stilts. She used to be a beautiful girl – peachy complexion, slender body. No wonder Liam put up such a fight over her and used every trick in the book to seduce her away from his brother, David. Would he do the same nowadays? He probably would. He is his father’s son. He owns things and he owns people. He won’t let go of what’s his without a fight.

They are standing together. Stella is desperate to squeeze under his umbrella and save both her fur and her hair from ruin. Her narrow heels have sunk deep into the ground and she is leaning forward to maintain balance. An expression of angelic patience graces her face. ‘She’s going to catch her death in this rain,’ she says, unwisely presuming that Mildred can’t hear her. Mildred can, but she is selective about responding. She won’t waste her breath on flippant remarks. She won’t get herself wound up. Sometimes it is easier to pretend she is deaf as a post. That way she can keep track of what is said behind her back.

‘Mother, please, let’s get a move on!’ Liam is such an ankle-biter.

Mildred stirs. ‘Will you stay for a snack and a cup of tea?’ she asks. ‘It won’t take Grace a minute to whip up sandwiches. I have scones and fresh clotted cream. Strawberry jam, homemade…’

‘I’m in, Mum. I’d kill for hot tea. And your strawberry jam…’ Colleen takes her gently by the arm and leads her down the path.

‘Thank God for that!’ Mildred hears Liam mumble under his breath. She is not sure what he is so grateful to the Lord about: the strawberry jam or her being on the move again. His shoes squelch on the muddy ground. Stella’s heels dig into the clay like chisels. When did she become such a madam? She used to live two houses down the lane, on Dove Farm. She used to run about barefoot.

 

It was his mother’s idea to walk to church. There was the civilised option of taking the car, but she would have none of it. ‘There’s a perfectly good shortcut,’ she’d said. ‘I’d be the laughing stock of Sexton’s Canning being driven five hundred yards in a car! It’s only ten minutes on foot.’ So they went treading through mud and cowpats to please her.

At the gate, Esme is talking to that farmhand – an Irishman whose name Liam never remembers. He became a permanent feature on the farm after Father’s death, or perhaps it was only then that Liam started noticing his sulky presence. All sorts of scum crawl out of the woodwork when a man dies. They feed on hapless senile widows, like ticks on blood.

They are standing by the stables where Esme keeps her horse. Rohan, she calls him. It costs a fortune in insurance. Liam wishes his daughter would spend his money in a more constructive way. But she won’t. She has always been contrary, like her grandmother. Chose to study biology. He asked her why she couldn’t go one step further, become a vet. Push herself a bit. It would give her something concrete in hand, but no! – biology is what she wanted. What do you do with biology? Put your diploma in the bottom drawer and volunteer to do odd jobs for the National Trust; let your father pay the bills.

The farmhand sees them approach, hangs his head low, and disappears inside the stables, taking the horse with him. There’s something shifty about that man! Liam is a good judge of character, and he doesn’t trust him as far as he can spit. He will have to get rid of him. He will have to make lots of changes around here.

Esme is waving, a big smile on her face. She is pretty ‑ strawberries and cream, like her mother used to be at that age. What is she doing talking to that man? What can they possibly be talking about?