The Crime Readers' Association

Crime Fiction and England by Sarah Williams

18th June 2014

Among the many prejudices with which I have hedged round my life has been the belief that I didn’t like crime fiction set in the UK, or, more specifically, in England.

it seemed too close, too familiar, either too drab to be interesting or too extreme to be believable. Give me the mean streets of LA or New York, or the dingy canals and calle of Venice – anywhere but home! That is what I used to think. Of course, I was always ready to find exceptions – Mark Billingham because he creates incredible characters and dialogue to die for, Ben Aaronovitch because the London he writes about is both absolutely recognisable and entirely strange.

It is only recently, though, that two first novels by brilliant young writers have starkly revealed the utter stupidity of my previously held position, and have made me look with fresh and eager eyes at the world around me. The first of these, The Book of You by Claire Kendal (HarperCollins), could, in one way, take place anywhere. It is the story of one woman’s attempt to deal with an obsessive stalker by writing about how he is invading her life. He is, to her, “the second person present, literally”. But the tone of the writing, the places, the clothing, the characters are all unmistakably English, and it is their familiarity, the dreadful ordinariness of the setting, which makes the unremitting brutal unkindness of what Clarissa experiences all the more horrifying. She is an ordinary woman in a known place experiencing the terrifying realities of another’s insanity.

The second debut novel, and the one which finally knocked aside the last few stones standing in my idiotic wall of prejudice was Binary Witness, by Rosie Claverton (Carina Press). This is, by any standards, an extraordinary tour de force. Rosie Claverton has created three distinct, difficult and utterly sympathetic characters – a young man just out of prison and determined to go straight, a policeman who is steadfast, intelligent, and not as hard as he might like to appear, and a mysterious young agoraphobic computer genius. Together they become a crime-fighting team which will clearly tackle any number of dirty dealings in volumes to come. But, appealing and original as these characters are, with their conflicts and complementarity, it is Rosie Claverton’s evocation of Cardiff which completely won me over. I can’t say it’s a city I know well, and, from Rosie Claverton’s vivid descriptions, there are parts of it I am happy never to venture into, but what she does manage to do is to create an utterly convincing and solid world in which her characters can function (however outlandishly at times). It is a world which she builds around us as we read, brick by brick, shadow by shadow, alleyway by alleyway, until we inhabit it, or it inhabits us, completely.

To make Cardiff somewhere sympathetic, exotic, dangerous and intriguing – now that’s skill! So never mind Los Angeles or Oslo or Hong Kong – I can’t wait to get back to the mean streets of Tiger Bay and Splott.

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