15 December 2015

HOW I FELL INTO CRIME


Please welcome my Tuesday Talk guest - 
Fay Sampson...

This year sees the publication of my 50th book – The Wounded Thorn (Severn House). It comes with some astonishment to find that this is also my 10th crime novel.

I never set out to write crime fiction. One of my hobbies – or should I call it an addiction? – is researching my family history. It’s not just all those fascinating human stories I’ve uncovered, it’s the process of doing the research. 

I’ll never forget the shiver that went down my spine the first time I saw the cross my great-great-great-grandmother had made in the marriage register, or the horror with which I thought I saw the churchwarden’s accounts compiled by my ancestor crumbling on to the desk, only to realise it was the sand with which he had blotted the page. Or the day Kashinda Fulford threw open the lid of a chest in the hall of Great Fulford stuffed with documents going back to Tudor times, and more or less said, “Help yourself”.

And then there are the “brick walls”, those seemingly insurmountable problems when the usual lines of research run out. In another incarnation I was a maths teacher. I love solving problems. With family history, there is that feeling of triumph when you follow a hunch down an unconventional route and come up with the answer.

So that is what In the Blood was going to be about: Suzie Fewings pursuing her ancestors and sharing some of the colourful experiences which had happened in the course of research. Yet, without my consciously planning it, dark deeds in the past were paralleled by dark deeds in the present, possibly involving her teenage son. Before I knew what was happening, I had a crime novel on my hands. And my publishers didn’t want it to be a one-off, so the Suzie Fewings series was born.

That was surprising enough. I don’t read a lot of crime fiction. There are evenings when I look at the TV schedules and think that there must be more to life than crime series. But the crime writers I do get hooked on have another dimension to their writing. I particularly love the novels of Tony Hillerman about two Navajo cops. There is a crime to be solved, of course, but there is also a richness of knowledge and understanding of Navajo culture, beliefs and sacred ceremonies. Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy Sayers add their own layers of personal interest and colourful settings to enrich their crime stories.

So for me, the “other dimension” of the Suzie Fewings novels was family history research. I hoped that whoever read the books would not only enjoy the story, but gain some insights which might aid their own research. There is an appendix giving the sources I used. It also shows the parallels between features of the fictitious villages and towns and similar things in the real ones where I gained my inspiration.

I’d surprised myself already by finding myself working in this genre. But another surprise was waiting for me. Out of the blue, Lion, who had published many of my children’s books, contacted me to ask if I would write a crime series for them. I said, rather plaintively to my agent, “I never intended to be a crime writer,” to which she replied heartlessly, “You’re a natural.”

So here I was, committed to writing not one but two crime novels a year.

But before I could embark on the new series for Lion I had to discover what my “extra dimension” in these would be.

Right from the start, from the very first children’s book I wrote, my principal inspiration has been place. I don’t start with the idea for a story and think, “Where shall I set this?” Rather, there are places which grab me with their evocative setting and I think, “What could happen here?” I was pleased with a reviewer who once wrote that the setting became the prime mover of the story.


In the course of a long writing career I had fallen in love with the Celtic culture of post-Roman Britain and its parallel in Ireland. In pursuit of Celtic saints I had travelled to remote and beautiful parts of the British Isles. I determined that these would provide the settings for the Aidan Mysteries and that stories from more than a thousand years ago would be entwined with the modern crime. I chose for the first book the evocative healing hermitage at Pennant Melangell, where the road runs out in the mountains of Powys. I was delighted when The Hunted Hare won the CRT Award for Fiction Book of the Year.

As with The Hunted Hare, so in this 50th book, The Wounded Thorn, my new amateur sleuths Hilary and Veronica find themselves caught up in unexpected violence in one of the most sacred places in Britain, Glastonbury.

Wearyall Thorn
I have sometimes found it necessary in my Author’s Note to apologise to the good people of the places I have used as my setting for the havoc I have wrought upon their holy places. Setting fire to the church at Pennant Melangell, blowing up a part of Glastonbury, not to mention the individual bloodshed. But sacred places have never been immune to violence. Indeed, they have often attracted it. Vikings raided the monastery on Lindisfarne and slaughtered the monks. The last abbot of Glastonbury Abbey was hanged on Glastonbury Tor. Thomas à Becket was murdered in his own cathedral. These realities grab our imagination. It is the shocking contrast between the holy and the deeply profane. A Christianity which recognises only the peaceful and reverent uses of these spaces is flying in the face of the facts.

The British Isles are rich in such sites. I recently celebrated my 80th birthday at Avebury – at the only B&B in the world where you can wake up in the middle of a Neolithic stone circle. It was a holiday, not a working trip. I put my notebook away and led the family on a walk around that whole sacred landscape – the West Kennet stone avenue, the burial chamber in West Kennet Long Barrow, Silbury Hill, finishing up with champagne in the stone circle.


Avebury  Toast
Definitely no plans to write a book set there.
And yet ... watch this space.
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