A mirror to its own community: the latest Whitstable Pearl novel is a hymn to the decline of the printed word

The antagonism between the old and the new lies at the heart of Murder on the Downs, the latest (and strangely prophetic) chapter in the developing ‘Whitstable Pearl’ series of crime novels by Julie Wassmer. It permeates the book – in its people, in places, in ways of thinking. This tension is distilled into what is the real issue at the centre of the book – the clash between technology and the printed word. Pearl Nolan, restaurant-owner-cum-private-detective is constantly checking her smartphone, reading the latest features from the local newspaper, the Chronicle, online long before the published headlines hit The Street. Internet turnaround is leaner, faster, and more readily available than newspapers.

It’s also about the tension between the older generation and the young; whilst Pearl is efficiently navigating her smartphone to read the latest revelations about the case, or texting DCI McGuire (with whom she shares both the investigation as well as her heart), it’s her mother, Dolly, who resorts to picking up and reading an actual newspaper. Although the novel relies on the traditional murder and investigation as its narrative outline, the driving force is its head-on look at media power – the influence it wields, its ability to sway minds, and the lengths people will go to in order to create and control headlines.

The central theme of the book concerns the threat to a stretch of countryside by a proposed property development. Wassmer presents a nicely-balanced view from both sides of the argument – those who would protect history and those who advocate for necessary change, in this case the building of affordable homes for a younger generation increasingly forced out of Whitstable by its spiralling house prices. ‘Progress doesn’t have to be a dirty word,’ argues one of its advocates. But there’s a deep-seated desire to protect the area, which mobilises a group of protestors.

‘Throughout history, people have always fought for what they value. Rarely is it given – it has to be earned – and defended with determination, commitment and strength of purpose.’

Reading that clarion-call in the current climate of crumbling arts and the collapse of opera-houses, theatres and concert-halls under the impact of COVID-19 felt prophetic – it feels like a highly appropriate time to be reading the book. As Martha, one of the main characters, observes: ‘Do nothing and there’ll never be change. But everything we do – or we don’t do – makes a difference.’

Wassmer controls the pace and set-pieces of the drama well; the set-piece of the medieval pageant atop the downs has a nice cinematic feel, leading into the lighting of the beacon to symbolise the protest’s public beginning. There’s a Gothic denouement atop the Black Mill (a genuine former working mill that stands at the top of Borstal Hill – location and geographical accuracy remains a constant throughout the series, and is a major aspect of the appeal of the books both for local reader as well as aspiring literary visitors), complete with flashes of lightning and ominous thunder. And the Black Mill is again a significant emblem of the old-versus-new dynamic – standing in the mill, Pearl is afforded a view of the estuary, in whose waters stands the modern wind-farm, its red lights glowing in the darkness. There are also some gently comic touches; a moment of, if not coitus interruptus, then coitus notquitestartedus in a secluded meadow, and a nicely tart dig at a paper’s presumption of impartiality:

“We do try to give a balanced view on most issues.”
“You mean you like to sit on the fence to please both parties ?”

The mill; the silver Lexus (and it always IS a silver Lexus); the wind farm; the ancient woodland of Benacre Wood; the historic Crown on the Downs; like pieces in the chess game which is also a theme in the novel, these elements are, as much as the characters themselves, symbols of the town and its identity, the traditional and historic (such as the remnants of the historic Blean Woods) pitched against the silver Lexus, a metaphor for all the DFLs (Down From Londoners) who have no respect for the town’s way of life.

So, the book turns out to be (as one might expect from a writer) a hymn to the passing of newspapers and the decline of the printed word as the internet becomes increasingly widespread. “In the last fifteen years over two hundred local newspapers have disappeared in the country, and more than half the towns have no local newspaper at all” reflects Chris Latimer, whose family own the local Chronicle. “A good local paper holds a mirror to its own community.” A sentiment true not just of this book, but also of the unfolding series as a whole.

Maybe the smartphone is the real sinister figure casting a shadow across the whole the novel after all…

Murder on the Downs is published by Little, Brown UK.

Crabbed Age and Youth: a slow maturing of style in Murder on the Pilgrims Way

The fourth book in the developing Whitstable Pearl series of crime novels by Julie Wassmer, Murder on the Pilgrims Way, is a meditation on age, as perhaps is fitting for an evolving canon that, in this its fourth instalment, reaches a new level of maturity and literary accomplishment.

Taking her heroine out of both her seaside town of Whitstable and her usual haunt of Canterbury, Wassmer instead opts to place her in an idyllic rural retreat near Chartham, setting the scene for that classic of the crime genre, the Country House Murder. It is a bold move, placing the book directly in the lineage of a British literay tradition reaching from Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and J Jefferson Farjeon to later luminaries such as PD James and Reginald Hill. This affords plenty of opportunities for vivid description of rural scenes and lakeside trysts which perfectly capture the lazy haze of an English countryside lulled by summer’s warmth, as well as giving Wassmer the opportunity to explore a more focused arena.

The preoccupation with age and the impact of growing older is an element which operates beneath the novel’s surface, but underpins the narrative, in particular the gradual evolution of the character of its heroine, private detective-cum-restaurant owner, Pearl Nolan. This time, we see her struggling to come to terms with her own growing redundancy both to her restaurant, which is increasingly able to manage without her, and to her son, Charlie, who is living an independent life studying at university, but who returns occasionally to work at the restaurant, thereby bringing together and magnifying those two elements which are the focus of Pearl’s life, but which are able to function without her involvement. Pearl is acutely aware of this herself, at one point reflecting that ‘having turned forty she felt as if she was entering a new era, the second act of a play in which she was the main character, but unsure of her role.’ Elsewhere, other characters reflect that ‘that’s the nature of growing older, isn’t it ? Somehow our roles are always reversed.’ The central playboy character, Nico Caruso, is a celebrity chef who trades on his youthful good looks, contrasting with Marshall, the godfather to the lady who owns the country house at which the story unfolds, who is elderly and walks with a cane. The mill at Chartham, visible from the gardens of the estate, is ‘old enough to be mentioned in the Domesday Book;’ later in the novel, Old Harry, ‘the oldest bell in the Cathedral,’ is heard to ring. Excavations at a local field connected with medieval shipping unearth ‘an ancient boat…but apparently it disintegrated on contact with the air.’ The fragility of age, and of history, lies like the buried boat not far below the prose’s summer-hued surface as the world ‘old’ tolls like the cathedral bell throughout the novel.

Pearls of wisdom: author Julie Wassmer

The character who could provide meaningful focus for an increasingly isolated Pearl, but with whom she cannot quite make things happen, is DCI McGuire, with whom she has been fencing romantically since the first novel. McGuire is still wrestling with his status as an outsider, as a Down From Londoner, since his relocation to Canterbury, although for him this is ‘something behind which he could hide.’ The constant conflict between the local and the outsider is a recurrent theme throughout the books, and a useful means of generating tension both on the larger, social, scale, as well as between Pearl and McGuire themselves. McGuire, too, cannot escape the issue of aging, as he nostalgically reflects on ‘the lyrics to an old pop song’ and his floundering relationship with Pearl.

The classic plot device of assembling all the suspects together in one place for the final denouement, arising in a pleasingly organic manner from the nature of the novel’s central theme of a week-long cookery course, builds the tension nicely  towards the end and allows Pearl a dramatic moment to examine the motives, means and opportunity of all the suspects before solving the case, in a fashion reminiscent of Poirot wrapping things up on the Nile or the Orient Express.

Overall, this is a deeply satisfying novel that boldly positions itself in a classic crime fiction sub-genre, and which works all the better for it, giving it a unified concept and identity away from the hymnody in praise of Whitstable and its environs, a strong feature of the preceding books. Wassmer can’t quite resist celebrating her home-town, though (and why not); ‘one of the town’s greatest successes was its ability to adapt without sacrificing its inherently quirky nature,’ an observation which can also apply to Wassmer’s series of novels itself and which highlights what is proving to be one of its greatest strengths.

Murder on the Pilgrims Way is published by Constable / Little Brown Books.

The art of crime-writing: Murder Most Female at the Beaney

There was a series of horrendous murders in the Beaney last night. Not, thankfully, in real life, but in the minds and the words of crime writers Lisa Cutts and Julie Wassmer, in a wide-ranging and fascinating panel discussion entitled Murder Most Female. Women in crime fiction – both as characters and as authors – is a topic currently en vogue in the lead up to the Staunch Book Prize, launched back in January and for which the inaugural prize in November “will be awarded to the author of a novel in the thriller genre in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.” Created in response to what Cutts recognised last night as the progressive darkening in tone of the genre, the prize has caused some controversy in its desire to combat what it sees as ‘an overload of violence towards women in modern fiction.’

Pearls of wisdom: Julie Wassmer

Cutts and Wassmer write in contrasting styles; the former in the Police Procedurals genre, the latter in what has been called ‘Cosy Crime,’ a sub-genre which avoids graphic violent or sexual content; interestingly, last night both writers declared that they had not set out specifically to write in these styles, it was only after publication that they each found they had been labelled as such, in order to position their novels in the huge sea of fiction for the ease both of marketing departments and readers alike. Cutts, who also works as a full-time police detective, observed that “it is men who are more likely to meet a violent end,” and that the progressively darker tone of recent crime fiction will  appeal to some but not all readers. Wassmer replied by that perhaps this reflects readers exploring more gruesome aspects of society from the security of their own home: “they feel safe reading about horrendous crimes sat in bed with a cup of hot cocoa!”

Prize Cutts: Lisa Cutts

As for the labels under which each writer works, Wassmer revealed that she had to look up precisely what ‘Cosy Crime’ meant after seeing it applied to her books on Amazon, but in fact it challenges her to push her writing beyond the bounds such a label imposes. In contrast, Cutts is comfortable working within hers – for now, at least – as it is useful for marketing and helping readers, but not necessarily a priority for writers themselves.

Both women stressed the importance of research to their writing. Cutts attended an autopsy in order to inform part of one of her novels; she came away, she says, awed by the amount of work and commitment which goes in to them. “They’re not as clean and quick as they are on TV; they take hours!” she declared, whilst ruefully admitting to having worn the ‘wrong sort of shoes’ as she hadn’t anticipated standing for so long. For her Whitstable-based series featuring private detective-cum–restaurant-owner, Pearl Nolan, Wassmer spent last summer exploring locations including Reculver, Sheppey and Oare in order to widen the scope of her character’s travels. “Details are important,” Wassmer stated: “you don’t want a sackful of mail criticising a point in your book!” Although she balanced this by admitting that, for her, it is important to remember that, after all, it is the writer’s own world, one that they have created, and that on one level they can do what they like. Wassmer has had reviews where readers take issue with the geography of Whitstable as it appears in her books, with particular roads not leading to exactly the right road. Cutts says she often ends up shouting at television programmes; “No, no, no; you didn’t caution him!” before adding reflectively “it’s why I don’t really watch much crime drama on TV…”

Both writers also emphasised the hard graft required in writing, the need for self-discipline in order to see a work through to its conclusion. Cutts sits at the laptop each day, even when not enthused about the prospect. “Sometimes it feels like housework, and nobody wants to do housework!” Wassmer in turn referred to her experience writing for television’s Eastenders for twenty years, which has stood her in good stead in its relentless expectation that she would deliver to a regular deadline.

The work of both writers is unified by the idea of familiarity; “We both write what we know” Wassmer observed incisively, with her work projecting a strong love for the community of Whitstable, where she has lived for twenty years, and Cutts’ series starring Nina Foster informed by her work as a real-life detective, drawing on her experiences investigating murder and the protocols that are a part of the investigative process. Cutts made it clear, though, that her books do not simply draw on genuine cases, transplanting them into her work with the odd change of name and geographical details – “Not only would it be incredibly disrespectful,” she acknowledged, “it would also drag families through something horrendous that happened in their lives. And that’s what people perhaps don’t realise – the far-reaching effects on people and families that murder has.”

As the event drew to a close, what was clear was the passion, enthusiasm and the dedication both writers have for writing crime fiction, underpinned by the sheer hard graft of getting the words down on the page. There was a clear friendship between them – both live and work in the local area – which was extended to embrace a fascinated audience, and both were happy to chat afterwards about their work.

Crime writing aficionados can catch both women in action again at Murderous Medway, part of the Rochester Literary Festival, with panel discussions and writing workshops on the weekends of the 6th and 13th of October.

A hymn to a Whitstable Christmas: Murder on Sea by Julie Wassmer

There’s a hidden protagonist at the heart of Murder on Sea, the second book in the developing Whitstable-based series of crime novels by Julie Wassmer, whose identity becomes apparent as the book unfolds; and I’m not giving away anything to do with the novel’s tricksy plot when I reveal that it’s actually the weather. Set against the backdrop of a December-shrouded seaside town, the weather plays a crucial and distinctive role in giving the book its seasonal qualities, creating a suitably wintry atmosphere against which the action unfolds. There’s a wonderfully magical touch right at the very end of the book, too, which reveals the story’s true romantic heart – well, it’s Christmas (in the book), isn’t it ?!

As usual, the novel is deeply rooted in its depiction of Whitstable itself, the book really a hymn to the town’s distinctive qualities; windswept beaches, boutique shops, a decorous high street, and wonderfully-titled alleyways. Forays into Canterbury are equally grounded in the real geography of the city, littered with streets and places which will be familiar to local readers (there’s quite a pleasurable feeling to be able to recognise places you know well in books, somehow…).

The best touch in the novel, which become apparent towards the end, concerns a greater level of meaning behind a series of bitter postcards which have been sent to various residents in Whitstable; suddenly, the antagonistic missives assume a greater significance, and the atmosphere ratchets up a notch; the reader finds themselves suddenly thrust into the world akin to David Fincher’s Se7en (for those who know the film), although without the same gruesome episodes. But this gathering-together of the mysterious postcards and elevating them to such heightened overtones is one of the many pleasures the book offers.

Admittedly, having just finished the novel, it’s not the right season in which to be reading it (especially given the current heatwave), but the book conveys both the atmosphere and the spirit of a suitably wintry Chrismastime, evocatively creating scenic touches of a town bedecked for the festive season, and using the weather as a valuable ally. There are some deft musical touches to enhance the flavour – carolling voices and the chime of church bells filling the town’s high street, Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy piping at the church fundraising evening, the Salvation Army band playing Once In Royal (‘the horns sounded suitably mournful as though in respect of another death in the town’ is a deft and cheeky touch). It doesn’t matter in what season of the year you read Murder on Sea; like an Advent calendar, its chapters open onto suitably Christmas vistas that will evoke the season no matter when you read it.