Friday, April 17, 2009

The Book You Have to Read: “The Quiet Stranger,” by John Buxton Hilton

(Editor’s note: This is the 49th installment of our Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from British journalist-turned-author Stephen Booth, who has penned nine novels so far featuring Peak District detectives Ben Cooper and Diane Fry. Their first adventure, in Black Dog, appeared in 2000. Booth’s new book, The Kill Call, was published by HarperCollins UK earlier this month. To read January Magazine’s interview with Booth, click here. You’ll find his blog here.

I’ve been asked so many times why I chose to set my Cooper and Fry series in England’s Peak District. There are plenty of good reasons. All those wonderful atmospheric locations. The enormous diversity of settings crammed into a relatively small area. Three thousand years of history, much of it visible right there in the landscape, from Neolithic stone circles to derelict lead mines, from plague villages to Second World War aircraft wrecks. And all the pressures and conflicts that come from being the second-most-visited national park in the world. Yes, it’s true--the Peak District comes second only to Japan’s Mount Fuji in the league table for visitor numbers. This is because it isn’t really remote, but has big cities right on the doorstep, the people of Sheffield and Manchester treating the Peak as their own back yard.

Writing about this district lets me explore the increasing social divide between rural and urban Britain. There’s even an inherent symbolism in the geological division between the two halves of the Peak District--the White Peak and the Dark Peak, with pretty limestone villages and wooded valleys on the one hand, and vast stretches of bleak, empty moorland scattered with eruptions of dark gritstone on the other. White and dark, good and evil. My characters could literally walk the line between the two as they moved around the landscape. For all these reasons and more, it was such a perfect setting for my kind of crime novel.

There was another reason, too, why I chose this setting for my fiction: I couldn’t think of another crime series that took place in the Peak District, or even in the county of Derbyshire as a whole. Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution (2000) is partly set there. Carla Banks’ The Forest of Souls (2005) uses it, as well. But there had never been an entire series. The Peak District was all mine. It appeared too good to be true. And, of course, it was.

It seems incredible now, but I was six or seven books into the Cooper and Fry series, probably writing Dying to Sin (2007) or The Kill Call, when someone mentioned the name of John Buxton Hilton. Unlike me, this writer was actually born in the Peak District. In the town of Buxton, in fact, though this was also his mother’s maiden name. He knew the area as a native, and it really showed in his books.

Hilton was born in 1921, which might almost have put him into the “Golden Age” of British crime writing, except that he didn’t get his first novel published until 1968--Death of an Alderman, featuring Superintendent Simon Kenworthy of Scotland Yard, who went on to be the hero of a further 16 books.

The author had packed quite a bit into his life by that point. As a young man, he fought in the Second World War, and was drafted into the Intelligence Corps, where one of his assignments (at the age of 22) was to interrogate German officers serving in concentration camps at the end of the war.

After a distinguished career as a teacher (introducing language labs into UK schools), Hilton turned to crime fiction. He wrote not only the Superintendent Kenworthy series, but, beginning in the 1970s, he also penned six books featuring Inspector Thomas Brunt and another half dozen in the Inspector Mosley series, which he published under the pseudonym “John Greenwood.”

By the ’80s, he was a crime writer of some fame, with followings both in Britain and the United States. Ironically, it was a heart attack that brought his career in education to an end and enabled him to spend all of his time writing. I say ironically, because it was a similar attack which also caused his sudden death in 1986, just after he’d celebrated his 65th birthday. By that time, he had produced 29 whodunits. Not bad going for someone whose serious writing career had begun only a decade earlier.

But “whodunits” is probably the wrong designation for his work. Hilton wasn’t really in the Agatha Christie tradition. He said of himself: “I suppose I am less interested in puzzles--and certainly less in violence--than in character, local colour, folklore, social history and historical influences, most of which loom large in most of my books. With these ingredients I try to write the sort of books that I wish I could find to read.”

Inspector Brunt was a Derbyshire-based detective. The six books in which he stars--Rescue from the Rose (1976), Gamekeeper’s Gallows (1976), Dead-Nettle (1977), Mr. Fred (1983), The Quiet Stranger (1985), and Slickensides (1987)--employ their Peak District settings in much the same way that I aim to do now with Cooper and Fry. Each of Hilton’s tales uses the background of a real historical event and goes on to explore the way the past can affect the present--a theme which has always fascinated me as a writer. The difference is that his are not contemporary novels, but are set in Victorian times. Nonetheless, Hilton brings the landscape of the Peak District to life, re-creating the tough existence of a hardy people living in scattered villages and farms. In some respects, the area he describes was not so different from the Derbyshire I write about today!

The Quiet Stranger, published by Collins Crime Club, is in a way the odd one out of the series. It takes Inspector Brunt, a character already established in the previous four novels, back to the time when he was a young detective constable in the 1870s. Brunt is a thoughtful detective, who takes the time to study people, and has the ability to listen. In addition, the books are full of memorable secondary characters, including Sergeant Jimmy Nadin, the benign eccentric, “looking like an organ grinder’s monkey done up in a suit,” who treats their boss, Inspector Pickford, “as a mere myth.”

But these yarns are not cozies. They can be very dark. The Quiet Stranger, for instance, hinges on a true story--the systematic abuse of hundreds of young children sent as orphans from London to work in a cotton mill in a remote Peak District dale. The return of the “quiet stranger” of the title stirs up all the old memories. As that stranger says of one child, the fact “that he did not die was due only to human capacity for not dying.” Following the stranger’s unwelcome return to the village, a nurse is hacked to death and he finds himself the prime suspect. But, as in all good murder mysteries, the evidence is not clear-cut. The London Times praised this book as an “atmospherically gripping historical chiller.”

Of the other titles in the Brunt series, Mr. Fred is a disturbing tale about a child molester, Gamekeeper’s Gallows concerns a missing girl, and Dead-Nettle and Slickensides are set among the then-declining lead mines of the White Peak area.

Hilton’s crime novels found plenty of fans on both sides of the Atlantic. In the words of The New York Times Book Review in October 1980: “The traditional British mystery lives on in John Buxton Hilton’s books.” But, 23 years later, all of his books are out of print. It took me months to collect the Hilton novels now in my collection. One of them I still haven’t managed to acquire. Sometimes the old Collins Crime Club titles can still be spotted on library shelves, faded and well thumbed. My copy of Dead-Nettle is stamped “Berkshire County Library”--no doubt the result of a surplus book sale.

My suspicion is that I read some of the Inspector Brunt books many years ago, probably when I was a teenager, devouring everything I could get a hold of then. The fact that I later forgot the author so thoroughly is a chastening thought for every writer.

READ MORE:Stephen Booth and the ‘Number One Fan,’” by Ann Giles (Bookwitch).

1 comment:

Lourdes said...

Just checked and my library has many of his books. Another author I hope to read soon!