Book plots spring from small moments: an overheard snatch of conversation, a gravestone epitaph, a distant view of a walled garden. Just like seeds, they have within them unbound potential. The plot of The Funeral Owl flew into my head on unflapping wings one steamy summer’s day last year, as I sat in a polished pew in an empty fen church. The interior was cool and a welcome sanctuary from the sun, which on a clear day, hammers down on the shadeless wilderness of the West Fens.
This wasn’t any old church. It was Christ Church, Christchurch. Which, like New York, New York, is no idle repetition. NY, NY is the city and the state. C C, CC, is the church and its eponymous township. New York is the city that never sleeps. Christchurch has never woken up. And it’s not a city, it’s a township – in the South African sense, or even that of the American mid-West. The kind of place immortalised by Carson McCullers in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Certainly not a village – no twee church and thatched cottages. And not a town, because while Christchurch has most of the attributes of an urban area – shops, café, church, pubs, hair-dressers (Curl Up And Die) – they are strung out on a road network which seems sufficient for somewhere three times as big. Wind blows through the hundred yard gap between the mini-supermarket and the bus stop. So –a township, flung out on the silty fens, like the hotels on a Monopoly board.
The church came before the houses. The Victorians drained the fen which surrounds a low hill. (This is The Fens, so low means anything under six foot) Rather wonderfully the spot, an area of grass in a wilderness of reeds, was known as Brimstone Hill. The story was that in the 14th century the vicar of nearby Upwell found the devil in his church tower. He chased him out, across country, until they got to this low grassy hill and then the devil decided to return to hell. So, in a puff of smoke, he did, leaving behind a trace of fire and brimstone. Or was it named for the sulphur-yellow wings of the common Brimstone butterfly ? Perhaps.
It’s a fine church, a cut above the rather bleak brick chapels of the wider fens. I wonder what Henry Sayers, one of Christ Church’s first vicars, thought when he saw it, sometime in 1910 ? This is where crime enters our story. Henry was the father of Dorothy L Sayers, that doyenne of the Golden Age. She’d grown up in the fine rectory at Bluntisham – about twenty-five miles away. Her Fenland masterpiece The Nine Tailors reeks of Bluntisham, and the peaty Black Fens. Christ Church represents a bleaker silty reality, and must have provided Henry with a much reduced living. No fine rectory here, and no Gothic stone church, just the simple brick lines of Christ Church.
This explains my visit on that summer’s day. I’d driven out with nothing much in mind but to plot Sayer’s story, leaving Ely cathedral in the rear-view mirror, zigzagging over the Bedford Washes – dry in summer, but an inland sea in winter – until I got to Christchurch. I’d rung ahead and a friendly churchwarden let me in through the oak door. The township still has a folk memory of Dorothy – apparently she used to visit her parents (both buried now in unmarked graves in the churchyard.) She brought with her a child, John Anthony, who she passed off as her nephew. One suspects the fen gossip machine knew the truth, and that must have been a scandal in itself. To add lustre to her reputation she used to spend the evenings sitting on the churchyard wall smoking a cigarette through a long mother-of-pearl holder.
But I sat inside, while somewhere behind an oak screen the churchwarden arranged flowers. It was then I discovered why the church, and indeed the township, is named for Christ. A local family gave the church two Italian ‘old masters’ – copies, but very fine, to mark its endowment. One was reduced to a blotchy fungus-ridden canvas by the fen winters. It has now gone. But the other survives, despite some damage. Both depicted aspects of the crucifixion. The atmosphere in the church was extraordinary that day – as if the spirit of story-telling itself was captured under the art deco painted roof. I studied the picture. It was crammed with Renaissance rural detail – not the countryside of the Holy Land at all, but the close-knit busy landscape of the Roman plain. Peasants working the fields, an innkeeper, a shepherd and sheep. I wondered if I could build an entire modern crime fiction plot around a painting hanging in a fen church. And more – a plot which hinges on one tiny detail in that picture. So I made up a peasant called Stefano, and he appears in the fictional painting, which hangs in the church in the centre of Brimstone Hill, my fictional setting in The Funeral Owl. He’s chasing his hat which has been blown off in the wind. It was a start, and like all promising ones, it led onwards, as if by its own magic.
THE FUNERAL OWL by Jim Kelly is published by Severn House