Rural Derbyshire is a county of contrasts. We have dramatic moorland and heaths, densely wooded slopes and valleys, and lush riverside meadows. The White Peak District where I live competes with its Dark Peak neighbour to be the most dramatic of landscapes in the region. The limestone hills are the setting for an ever-changing climate. Days often begin shrouded in mist. Sometimes this lifts to reveal a glorious day. Often it doesn’t. It’s a perfect setting for a crime story and I’m surprised that more novels haven’t been set in this area. So, given the dramatic beauty of this landscape, why did I create a fictional town for my debut novel In Bitter Chill?
Unlike the rural landscape which, while diverse, can be evoked in a few sentences, Derbyshire’s towns are an odd mix of differing personalities. Nearby Buxton is a working town with a faded grandeur reflecting its spa heritage. Georgian and Victorian visitors would visit to take the waters and its buildings are a graceful reminder of a more affluent past. Bakewell, a neighbouring town, is a tourist destination full of tea shops and visiting coach parties. Shops are useful for buying presents but not for day-to-day living. Another local town, New Mills, has the industrial heritage that I always associate with the region but is located outside the national park towards the Greater Manchester conurbation.
Fictional towns have a resonance with my own crime fiction reading background. In my teenage years I devoured Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books set in St Mary’s Mead, For many, it’s the archetypal English village but Christie was careful to ensure that the place wasn’t immune to the encroaching changes of the modern world. A council housing estate is injected into her later novels which provides Miss Marple with a new array of characters to observe.
In my twenties it was the turn of Ruth Rendell’s Kingsmarkham to come alive in her Wexford novels. The town felt resolutely based in Sussex; a county market town with a rural outlook. More recently, as Scandinavian crime fiction dominated my reading, Hakan Nesser has become one of my favourite writers. His Van Veeteren books not only have the fictional setting of Maardam but even the country where the town is located is obscured.
For In Bitter Chill, I wanted to create a working town, claustrophobic enough that its peace could be shattered by a child abduction thirty five years earlier. But I also wanted it to be large enough to house a police station with a CID unit, its own adult education college and a substantial hospital. None of the neighbouring towns felt quite right and so I constructed my own, Bampton, for the book.
Creating a fictionalised town gave me the freedom to allow the course of narrative to shape the book, rather than being bound by the geographical limitations of a real place. In doing so, the town came alive in my head. I hope I’ve managed to imbue the essence of Derbyshire into Bampton’s character. I’ve equally enjoyed expanding the town in In Bitter Chill’s sequel. There’s plenty left to discover.
In Bitter Chill is published by Faber