My crime novels set in the Derbyshire Peaks usually have two timelines. I’m fascinated by crimes which have a long gestation, old hurts that simmer away for years, even decades, until they explode into violence. In my first three books I wrote about periods I remembered. Being a child in the 1970s, for example, in my first book In Bitter Chill where I described the party dresses we wore and the freedom of playing out on the streets until dusk. For my next two books, it was the turn of the 1980s, remembering my visits to dodgy pubs where you could get a drink aged fifteen and also the vast amount of Hammer films I watched late at night.
For my latest book, The Shrouded Path, I had a clear idea of where I wanted to set my crime. After the sweeping cuts made by Richard Beeching in the sixties, the Peak District lost many of its train lines. A decade or so ago, however, two former lines were made into cycling and walking tracks, the Tissington Trail and the Monsal Trail and revealed to a new generation examples of the industrial revolution heritage of the Peaks. The Headstone Viaduct, for example, was much derided by John Ruskin for destroying the beauty of Monsal Dale but is now revered as a stunning piece of architecture. It was while I was cycling through one of the old tunnels that I thought what a wonderful location for a crime it would make. I wanted to show, however, the railway line as it was when it was in use which meant setting part of my story in the 1950s, a decade I really only knew through music, films and books of that period.
Every writer knows that there’s only so much research you can do online. The best way to capture the feeling of a time or a place is to speak to people. Many audiences who come along to author talks in bookshops and libraries remember the decade well and were more than happy to share their reminiscences. It was clearly a time of expanded horizons. After the austerity of the 1940s, rationing ended and there was a general feeling of optimism for the future. On a trip around writer Alan Garner’s Cheshire home, his wife, Griselda, explaining why they undertook a vast project to remove a mediaeval house from one site to their own land, explained those who had grown up in the 1950s were imbued with a spirit that thought anything was doable.
It was clearly a great time to be a teenager. Looking through my mother’s photo album, it is stuffed full of pictures taken on her box brownie camera of groups of girls, their skirts rigid from the stiff petticoats underneath, posing in parks and in coffee shops. There are also lots of photos of her tabby cats which goes to show, judging by my own Facebook posts, that nothing much has changed. I used the idea of female teenage friendship as the basis of the crime story in The Shrouded Path. Six girls walk into a railway in the 1950s and only five emerge. The act of violence which takes place in the tunnel has reverberations up to the present day. It was a wonderful decade to research and hopefully readers will enjoy my depiction of this period.
The Shrouded Path is publshed by Faber on the 6th September.