The authors who are the bloggers on Murder Is Everywhere post about the countries in which their books take place. “Place” is as much a character in each of their books as are the fictional people who inhabit that place. As with realtors, their mantra is “location, location”.
Some places conjure memories or associations that are meaningful, positively or negatively. Dan mentions battlefields. Just outside Washington, DC, is Masassas, VA. My children have walked more than a few Civil War battlefields under the guise of a vacation. One of the first battles of the Civil War is referred to by the historians of the north as the battle of Bull Run; their southern counter-parts refer to it as the battle of Manassas.
On the battlefield is a house. Judith Henry was an 85 year-old invalid who couldn’t leave her house. During the battle, one of the commanders on the Union side thought that Confederate troops were firing from the Henry house. He ordered an artillery attack on the house. One of the shells went through the wall of the house and struck Mrs. Henry as she lay in bed in her second floor room. She died later that day. That story makes the battle of Bull Run unforgettable.
Earlier this week I was thrilled to learn that the nondescript patch of parkland near my home in west London, where I take our dog for her twice daily walks, is actually a Civil War battlefield. True, it doesn’t possess the reverent, sombre atmosphere of the battlegrounds of the First World War – the battle was way back in 1642. Nor is it as well preserved as the sites of the US Civil War (I didn’t see many wheezing joggers, park bench drunks or pooper scoopers when I visited Shiloh). In fact it’s not preserved at all. It’s just there. And that’s what I love about London. There is so much history lurking round every corner that no one can get that excited about an ancient battlefield.
I’ve always been secretly excited by the idea of standing on any given spot and thinking ‘A long time ago, something happened here.’ In London that feeling takes on greater resonance, because the presence of history is carved into the landscape, impossible to avoid. You can turn the corner of an unprepossessing street and find yourself staring history in the face. Or, as was the case with me when I was researching my first novel The Blood Detective, be riding in a taxi.
I had the plot for the book yet nowhere to set it. At the time I was living in North Kensington, on the outskirts of Notting Hill, which at that time was full of tourists who were expecting to see floppy-haired Englishman like Hugh Grant around every corner. I knew and had witnessed a far seedier, edgier side to the area; its history was one of abject poverty, slum housing, and racial tension. The chocolate box image projected by the movie contrasted with the reality I knew, but still I never thought of setting a book there,
Then one day I was in a cab approaching my street. The driver pointed out a small street beside the railway arches, filled with a row of identikit 1970s houses.
‘You know what that used to be?’ the cabbie asked
Any Londoner will tell you that getting in a discussion with a black cab driver is unwise, unless you’re clinically insane or a purveyor of far right wing politics. So I feigned disinterest. As any Londoner will tell you, disinterest does nothing to deter a chatty cabbie. Only outright disdain will do.
‘It was Rillington Place,’ he added.
Disinterest be damned. I couldn’t get enough of this. For those who don’t know, 10 Rillington Place was the scene of a set of notorious murders by John Christie in the 1950s, for which another man was wrongfully hanged. The case was turned into a film, with Richard Attenborough playing Christie, the mild-mannered murderer next door
After he dropped me off, I went to back to Rillington Place. I wandered down the street. I counted the houses. There was no number ten. The street name had been changed. It’s layout altered. The houses had been razed to the ground and replaced. Yet they still couldn’t bring themselves to build a number ten. Instead, between numbers nine and 11, there was a gap, filled only by a tree.
I had my setting. A theme, too. That no matter how hard we try, the past cannot be swept away. Places still bear the effect of what has gone on before, even if that imprint exists only in people’s minds.Cheers.