Today is Day 9 of the Blog Tour for BONES IN THE RIVER. Last stop on the tour is ShotsMag Confidential, where I’m the guest of the remarkable Ayo Onatade, talking about taking the first book in the Lakes Crime Thriller trilogy, DANCING ON THE GRAVE, from being a standalone into the start of a new series.
Although I’ve said I’ll do three books with CSI Grace McColl and Detective Nick Weston for the moment, I’m not ruling out more. And if the response is as positive as it’s been so far, that has become a distinct possibility!
When is a Series not a SeriesThere was Never Going to Be a Second BookWhen my Lakes-set crime thriller, DANCING ON THE GRAVE came out in late 2018, it was fully intended as a standalone novel. In fact, I stated as much in the sub-title of the book.
I’m not quite sure who I was trying to convince.That story is my take on the Washington Sniper incident from back in 2002, but transported to the English Lake District. I focused the story around four of the main characters—rookie CSI Grace McColl; recently transferred Detective Constable Nick Weston; the sniper himself; and the disturbed teenage girl who becomes his spotter.Unlike my first-person POVCharlie Fox series, DANCING ON THE GRAVE was written in close third-person viewpoint, so I could get right inside the heads of the characters—including the perpetrators. That made it feel, to me as I wrote it, unlike the usual police procedural. The story allowed me to explore a number of themes that were important to me, about the abandonment of former military personnel after their service was up, and what seems to be the current obsession with ‘being famous’ without regard to reason.But I didn’t think it would be an easy book to follow up, even if I’d been intending to. Reviewers and readers had other ideas.Such was the response to Grace and Nick that I was eventually persuaded to give them a second outing. (Although, strictly speaking, Grace’s first appearance was in a short story,Tell Me, which you can currently read on the Crime Readers’ Association website.)The basic idea for BONES IN THE RIVER has been with me in some form or another for more than fifteen years. Back in the early 2000s, I was living in the small market town of Appleby-in-Westmorland in Cumbria, while building a house in the Eden valley. Every year in the first week in June, Appleby Horse Fair takes place in the town. It’s been held in one form or another since medieval times, but since the beginning of the last century it’s grown into the largest gathering of Gypsies and Travellers in Europe.Held from Thursday to the following Wednesday (but mainly Friday to Sunday) the Fair attracts around 10,000 members of the Travelling community—quadrupling the population of the town. Another 30,000 visitors flock in to watch the spectacle of horses being washed in the River Eden and shown off along the Flashing Lane.Locally, it’s greeted with mixed feelings. There are those who love it for the extra business and revenue it generates. And equally those who hate it for the disruption it causes. Not just during Fair week, but also in the run-up to the event, as the different Romany clans begin to assemble in outlying villages.It is, I was told, a very good time to settle old scores. If one of your neighbours has pissed you off, you wait until the Fair to get your own back, and blame it on the Gypsies. The police are always out in number and trouble is, shall we say, not unknown.So I set my story against this backdrop. It was somehow a metaphor for what was going on in the country at large over Brexit, where outsiders were viewed with suspicion and distrust. My aim was to portray without romanticising or demonising either. People are people, and there are good and bad of all types.I also wanted to look closely at the effects of a split-second bad decision on someone who has spent their life on the ‘right’ side of the law. To see the slow, corrosive consequences as they are forced to compound their sins.And, having discovered the title BONES IN THE RIVER as part of a song by Gillian Welch, I knew I was going to have to make the River Eden as much a character in the book as the people.Once again, you see one crime as it’s committed and I make no effort to hide the identity of the perpetrator for long. But then a second body emerges, and there’s more mystery to the who and why.If people react as well to BONES as they did to DANCING, then it’s a style I hope to repeat. I’ve already promised a third instalment with Grace and Nick. After that, it’s up to my readers. If they like what they see (including the Force Medical Examiner, one Dr Ayo Onatade) then there will be more crimes to come in the wild hills of Cumbria!
Today is Day 4 of the Blog Tour for BONES IN THE RIVER. Today I’m the guest of Tina Hartas at TripFiction. This site specialises in the locations of books, so wherever in the world you live, or are thinking of visiting, you can find a book there which is set in that particular place. As Appleby-in-Westmorland is central to the story of BONES IN THE RIVER, that was the obvious topic of our conversation:
Talking Location With author Zoë Sharp: APPLEBY-IN-WESTMORLAND
#TalkingLocationWith…. Zoë Sharp, author of BONES IN THE RIVER: Lakes crime thriller Book No2 in Appleby-in-Westmorland
It was the street names of Appleby that first fascinated me—Scattergate, Low Wiend, Battlebarrow, The Sands, Doomgate. They sound more like something out of Game of Thrones than a small market town in Cumbria.
But Appleby—the ‘in-Westmorland’ part was only added in the 1970s when the county of Westmorland was abolished—dates back to the Norman conquest. Its claims to fame include the fact that George Washington’s father received his classical education at the Grammar School in Appleby, and the town has been represented in parliament at different time by William Pitt the Younger and by Viscount Howick, who became Earl Grey. Both men went on to become Prime Minister.
Lady Anne Clifford lived and restored Appleby Castle in the 17th century. She founded the alms houses on Boroughgate, gives her name to an ancient path, Lady Anne’s Highway, that stretches a hundred miles from Skipton Castle to Brougham Castle in Penrith. Independent of spirit at a time when women were seen mostly as property, I give a nod to her in BONES IN THE RIVER by creating a pub called the Lady Anne’s Arms. There are plenty of fine pubs in Appleby but, considering the events I have happen there, I don’t think any of them would thank me for using a real location.
The river of the book title is the Eden, which runs through the middle of Appleby. It rises high above the Mallerstang valley to the east, and eventually spills out into the Solway Firth, ninety miles to the north. It is, apparently, one of the few rivers in England that flows northwards.
Appleby is the home of the annual Gypsy Horse Fair. This is held in the second week in June, lasting from Thursday to the following Wednesday, although the main days are Friday to Sunday. It takes place on Fair Hill, which was originally unenclosed land just outside the borough boundary, where the old Roman road crosses Long Marton Road. The latter is closed to traffic during the Fair, when it becomes the Flashing Lane, where horses are trotted up at great speed to show them off for potential buyers. This is after, of course, they’ve been washed in the Eden.
There are records of the first fairs at this site going back to the medieval period. They went through various incarnations until, at the turn of the last century, the event had become a major fixture on the Gypsy and Traveller calendar. Today, the Fair is huge, attracting around 10,000 from the Travelling community—the largest such gathering in Europe. Another 30,000 spectators descend on Appleby.
It’s a misnomer that the Fair takes place by Royal Charter from King James II. It actually has a ‘prescriptive right’ to exist, after having done so for so many years. In 2020, sadly, the coronavirus outbreak has led to the Fair’s cancellation.
I can’t help a certain feeling of irony that the very year BONES IN THE RIVER comes out (on May 26 2020), where Appleby, the Fair, and the surrounding area plays such a big part—will be one of the rare occasions the Fair will not go ahead.
When I lived in Appleby, I always knew it would be a wonderful time and place to set a crime thriller. After all, such a large influx of strangers into a small community is always going to cause friction. Not only between incomers and locals, but also among neighbours. “It’s a good time to settle old scores,” I was told. “You can get your own back on people who’ve annoyed you all year, and blame it on the Gypsies.” The fact that so many people converge on the town, stay for a limited period, then scatter again, creates a time imperative to solve any crime that takes place there.
I knew that I wanted to make the course of the River Eden an integral part of the story. From Water Yat at Mallerstang—an open area where the Gypsies often set up camp—through the amazing waterfall at Stenkrith and the wide, shallow stretch in Appleby where the horses are taken into the water to be washed. The river became more than simply a location—it became another character in the book. And it’s those stories, where the setting is as vital to the narrative as the things that happen there, are so often the ones I enjoy reading—and writing—the most.
Read the illustrated version of this piece over on TripFiction.
A couple of weeks ago, on a Monday morning, I was supposed to fly to Venice for a four-day break. It’s a city I’ve always wanted to visit but never managed to see. I was hoping that the timing—late February—would mean the weather would not be too warm for some serious walking around, the infamous odours would not be too, well, malodorous, and the crowds would be bearable.
I was due to arrive the day before the end of the annual Carnevale di Venezia, so a chance to see the masked costumes for which the festival is famous before everyone dispersed. Ideal.
The fates were not with me on this.
Over the weekend before I was booked to fly, the news was suddenly full of the first coronavirus outbreak in northern Italy—in Lombardo, which quickly spread to neighbouring Veneto province. The final two days of the Carnival were cancelled.
Cancelling the trip would not result in a refund. By that time, it was the morning of the flight out and the Foreign Office guidelines were that it was OK to travel if you took sensible precautions. The greatest number of fatalities seemed to be among the elderly and those with underlying health problems.
Plus, come on—it’s Venice!
My travelling companion was in her seventies (although is undoubtedly fitter than I am) and she also has asthma.
Even if I did not contract anything—and I was bearing in mind the dangers of passing through several international airports as much as the country of destination—what about the possibility of quarantine? Every news report brought a steady increase in numbers of those infected. I had no desire to have our trip forcibly extended by two weeks, as happened to holidaymakers in a hotel in Tenerife, or those aboard several cruise ships.
Not only that but three friends living locally, whom I see on a regular basis, have undergone recent cancer treatments that have left them with compromised immune systems. Another friend is prone to serious respiratory illnesses.
Becoming ill myself would be one thing.
But being responsible for passing it on to someone else? For that I would find it hard to forgive myself.
So, the flight came and went and I was not on it. Instead, I have been visiting Venice vicariously by indulging in movies partially set there. The end of Casino Royale, for instance—particularly the scene where James Bond and Vesper Lynd arrive, on a rather beautiful yacht.
Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade had some scenes set there, and during a more stylish era to boot.
And finally, The Tourist mostly takes place in Venice, which provides eye candy not only in the city itself but also in the forms of Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. So, plenty for all tastes.
But that’s not all.
Because, staying put has meant more travelling for me rather than less. I’ve walked into isolated farmhouses on the side of Cumbrian fells in the Eden Valley. I’ve watched Gypsy horses being washed in the River Eden at Appleby-in-Westmorland. I’ve leaned over the shoulders of two detectives as they interrogated a suspect in the death of a child. I piggybacked onto a drone flight over a waterfall, searching for trace. And I was there when someone who should know better tried to plant evidence to incriminate another.
Yup, I’ve been caught up in the latest work-in-progress, which will be out in May. It has been slightly delayed due to STILL only having one arm working properly.
Because, let’s face it, the greatest journeys anyone can make are inside their own head. And no matter what the travel restrictions, now or in the days to come, the travel agent of a good book is always open for business and you can usually get a first class seat.
This week’s Word of the Week is Scrivener’s palsy, which is the old-fashioned name for writer’s cramp. It is also called mogigraphia, and is a disorder caused by certain muscles in the hand and forearm going into spasm, or being attacked by cramp, when the sufferer is writing or playing an instrument.
Read the illustrated version of this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.
As I write this, early in October, the news is full of what’s happening in Syria. In human terms, it’s an utter tragedy that is unfolding as we watch. In political terms, the ramifications could resonate world-wide.
Normally, I shy away from commenting on politics. But last year when I was looking at the underlying themes for BAD TURN, the latest Charlie Fox crime thriller, I knew there was going to be an international arms dealer involved. I also knew I there were going to be differing opinions within the dealer’s organisation about which side of a conflict he was going to supply—or refuse to supply—with arms and equipment.
Syria was, to me, an obvious candidate. And not just Syria but the Kurdish population of the region. The Kurds inhabit eastern Turkey, areas in the north of Syria, Iraq and Iran, as well as touching into Armenia and Azerbaijan, almost up to the border with Georgia.
When Syria slowly disintegrated into civil war following the Arab Spring, the rebels, including the Syrian Kurds, were supported by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. The Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad was backed by Russia, Iraq, Iran and Hezbollah.
The situation in the region is incredibly complex and has no easy solution. I knew the Kurds had been instrumental in the suppression of ISIS in Syria and northern Iraq. I also felt, rightly or wrongly, that the Coalition forces involved in the first Gulf War had called upon groups such as the Iraqi Kurds to rise up against Saddam Hussein, then abandoned them to his not-so tender mercies afterwards.
The civil war in Syria has been ‘characterised by a complete lack of adherence to the norms international law’ according to a United Nations report. More than five million Syrians have fled the country during the conflict, with over six million being recognised as Internally Displaced Persons. An estimated 13.5 million required humanitarian assistance.
While both sides of the conflict are guilty of human rights abuses, the Syrian regime was named by the UN as one of the worst offenders on its annual ‘list of shame’. It is estimated that at least 60,000 people have died through torture or the dire conditions in Syrian government jails since 2011. Many of the violations are judged to be war crimes.
As things seemed to quieten down over last winter, I wondered if the underlying themes I’d chosen for BAD TURN were still relevant. And particularly the point that one of the major players in the story might have a certain sympathy for the plight of the Kurds and want to find a way to assist.
For one thing, during their battle against ISIS, the Kurds captured and held many thousands of accused ISIS members in detention camps across north-eastern Syria. This included more than ten thousand actual fighters as well as supporters. Pleas for international help in dealing with these detainees have gone unanswered.
Now, with the Turkish incursion across the border into Syria, there are fears that the inevitable chaos could lead to a wholesale release or escape of prisoners and ISIS regaining a foothold in the region.
When I originally looked at the situation in Syria as a theme for BAD TURN, I saw it as a larger conflict being played out on a smaller stage. I tried to condense it down into one man’s efforts to do the right thing when there was no right answer. Events of this month have suddenly made it all rather more prophetic than I ever intended.
Somehow, I’d much rather have been way off base.
For the past ten days since the new Charlie Fox novel, BAD TURN, came out, I’ve been on the road—virtually speaking. I’ve travelled halfway around the world without ever leaving my desk. I’ve been Blog Touring—or perhaps that should be Tour Blogging?—rather than the physical kind of touring. And it’s been fun.
Of course, in the past I’ve travelled all over the place to libraries and bookstores for the publication of various books in the series, quite often using a trip to the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention to kick things off. As Bouchercon is held in a different city/state every year (even making it over to the UK several times) it means that the starting point has also always been different.
But, this time around I knew I wasn’t going over to Bouchercon and work-in-progress projects are beginning to pile up. So, doing another blog tour, ably organised by the fearsomely efficient Ayo Onatade, seemed like a good choice.
I’m told that sometimes authors rely on their blogger hosts doing a series of reviews but I hesitate over this way of doing things. What happens if one of the reviewers involved really doesn’t like the book? After all, I would have thought they have far too many books on their teetering TBR piles to read it first, just to make sure.
So, I prefer to do guest posts and articles on topics related to the book, mixed in with a few reviews where blogger/reviewers are happy to do them.
Read the whole of this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.
Day 5 of the Blog Tour for BAD TURN and today I’m the guest of the terrific Tina Hartas at TripFiction, recalling my visit to rural New Jersey and why I felt the state made a great location for the opening scenes of the book.
New Jersey may be the sixth smallest state in the US but it certainly punches above its weight when it comes to a reputation for corruption and crime. After all, it was home to Tony Soprano, and while I acknowledge that the Soprano family home on Stag Trail Road was fictional, North Caldwell NJ was not. What better state to locate my own international arms dealer with possible ties to the darker side of the trade?
Before I got out and started exploring, all I had really seen of the place was the inside of Newark Airport, parts of Jersey City, and the train ride under the Hudson to Penn Station. I admit that these areas were probably not really New Jersey’s best side, although the view across the river from Jersey City to Manhattan Island was quite something.
It was a pleasure, therefore, to rent a car and drive out west from Newark into the rural farmland that makes up so much of the state. I passed signs for places that I’m used to seeing at home in the UK—Bedminster, Tewksbury, Bloomsbury and Hampton—just not in that order.
Once I got off the main 78 highway, I found myself on winding roads bordered by woods and fields. The traffic thinned almost to nothing. And my mind, as it tends to do, turned to thoughts of…ambushes.
Read the rest of this post over on TripFiction.
One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about writing the Charlie Fox books is that they are not tied to one location. A part of me can see the attraction of a familiar locale and I know it might be a good idea to do this. After all, tours of Rebus’s Edinburgh, Morse’s Oxford, or Aimée Leduc’s Paris are undoubtedly popular.
But every time I sit down to write the next instalment in this series, deciding where she’s going to be heading off to is one of the things that keeps me hooked. The very nature of Charlie’s job in close protection means she has to be minutely aware of her surroundings. I take it as a challenge to try to weave in as much of the ever-changing dynamic between Charlie and her environment as I can into the fabric of the story.
For BAD TURN, number 13 in the series, I wanted a real European setting. I took Charlie to a bodyguard training school in Germany for one of the early books, HARD KNOCKS, and on a bikers’ fast trip around Ireland in ROAD KILL, but this time out I decided it was high time she made a return to mainland Europe.
I’d driven down to the southern area of France just before starting BAD TURN, and the scarcity of both people and other vehicles once we got away from the cities really set my imagination going. Tailing someone without other traffic to use as cover, for example, would present its own difficulties for Charlie.
Read the rest of this article over on Shotsmag Confidential here.
The annual Gypsy and Traveller Horse Fair, which takes place at Appleby-in-Westmorland in early June is reputed to be the largest of its kind in Europe.
Around 10,000 Gypsies and Travellers attend from all over the UK—including Irish Travellers, British Romanichal, Welsh Romanies (Kale), and Scottish Gypsies and Travellers. The New Fair, as it’s also known, attracts more than 30,000 visitors.
Although at one point I spent several years living in Appleby, I never actually went. The crowds and the inevitable traffic jams getting in and out of the town were the main reason. As is always the way, it wasn’t until this year, long after I’d moved, that I decided I should go.
Read the rest of this blog over on MurderIsEverywhere.