Oxford has to be the crime fiction capital of the country. I emphasise the word ‘fiction’ in there, of course, because the city’s crime rate is actually pretty low. Especially among academics, though if you believe Morse or Lewis or Endeavour there can’t be a college in the whole town that hasn’t lost a posse of professors to murderous revenge or scholarly jealousy. Don’t get me wrong – I love all those series and re-watch them endlessly, but they’re no reflection of the real place. Like everyone else who lives or has studied here I enjoy watching the city recreated on screen (and play location bingo every time, with extra points when someone takes thirty seconds to walk between two streets that are actually several miles apart). But it does mean the city feels a wee bit crowded as a setting for a new crime series.
Or at least that’s what I thought, when I started writing Close to Home. I set it in a real neighbourhood, not far from where I live, which is a fascinating example of an area where old and new parts of the city intersect, and Oxford’s different communities overlap. And yes, the university is there, in the background, but very much in the background – no quads, no gowns, no dastardly dons. In fact, I went so far as to call my ‘Oxford’ something different altogether, at least in the version of the book that went to publishers. I was convinced they’d think Oxford had been done to death – literally and metaphorically.
How wrong I was. The first thing my (now) editor at Penguin said to me when we walked through the door was “this is Oxford, right?” And the second thing she said was that it had to be Oxford. Thank heavens for Find & Replace….
But it’s more than that – of course it is. As my detective Adam Fawley says at the beginning of the second book, In The Dark, “if you’ve ever been to Oxford, you’ll know: it’s all or nothing in this place – when it rains the stone is piss-coloured, but in the light, when the colleges look like they’ve been carved from cloud, there is no more beautiful place on earth.” And thanks to the Morse franchise, every crime fiction fan in the world has that picture in their minds, so I can concentrate on showing people an Oxford they won’t know so well. An Oxford where the crime and the murder and the revenge are darker, more domestic, closer to home. An Oxford where a little girl can go missing from her family’s barbecue party on a hot summer night and no-one even notices she’s gone….
Close to Home is published by Penguin. In The Dark will follow next July.