Writing the Regional Narrative: Vera Stanhope and Kate Daniels (Review: Harbour Steet and Monument to Murder)

It’s quite difficult to find a novel set in Northumberland, whether contemporary or classic. Therefore, when I do manage to come across one, I tend to pick it up. While browsing Waterstones in Newcastle, I came across a whole table dedicated to regional crime novels. I picked up two books, Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves and Monument to Murder by Mari Hannah, using the excuse of “it’s for my dissertation on regional Gothic” for buying extra books when I wasn’t on a research shopping trip. They were useful for my dissertation, in the end, and I’ll probably end up picking all of the Vera Stanhope and Kate Daniels works. However, while both are reasonable crime narratives in their own ways, one work was better at depicting Northumberland than the other.

 

Missing the Mark: Monument to Murder (2/5)

 

Monument to Murder is the fourth instalment in Mari Hannah’s Kate Daniels series. Mainly, we follow two women: Kate Daniels herself, a formidable DI with Northumbria Police investigating the discovery of two bodies located on Bamburgh beach, and prison psychologist Emily McCann, who finds herself the focus of an inmate’s obsession. Herein lies my first issue: the characters are all very, very similar. Kate, Emily, and Kate’s ex Jo, all seem to be cut from the same cloth: beautiful in near-middle age, craving company but unable to commit to it, formidable, intelligent. While these traits are perfectly fine in one character, to have them present in all three of the novel’s main characters is more than a little bit unimaginative. In fact, I found it quite difficult to tell them apart for a while. Cookie-cutter characters are common in crime novels, I know, but that doesn’t mean I should expect or appreciate such a device, especially when used as egregiously as Hannah uses them. The plot itself was also somewhat disappointing. While I was interested in finding out who committed the murders, and had ample suspects to choose from, the final reveal was… utterly anticlimactic. And not in a good way. More in an “…oh, okay,” kind of way. The hints, if they were there at all, were not well executed, and the alternative perpetrators were all far more interesting than the one Hannah went with in the end.

The regional aspect of the narrative, however, is where Hannah fails the most. I feel that if an author wishes to set their work in Northumberland, they should do more than splurt locations in the hope of coasting by on that basis alone. I’ve been to Acklington, the town which has HMP Northumberland attached to it, and I can tell you that it is not “a pretty little village” as Hannah describes. The fact that it has a prison attached to it should tell you that it’s not going to be much of a beauty spot. Additionally, the dialogue is completely weak. I’m aware that Hannah was not born in the area, moving to the North East from London, but the local dialect is an integral part of life here, and therefore for any narrative drawing on this setting to work, especially on a local, the dialogue must be realistic. Granted, this may be down to bad writing rather than ignorance – all of the dialogue in this work feels like it was constructed by writing down every trite cliché that can be found in crime narratives, putting them into a bowl, and picking one out at random when the need arose.

All in all, if you want a quick, easy work that doesn’t make you think, then this work might be a good read for a long flight or train ride. However, if you prefer a crime narrative that has a personality, or relies on more than just a great setting (which, in the case of somewhere like Bamburgh, provides enough by itself without any author intervention) to carry the narrative, you might find yourself disappointed in Monument to Murder.

 

On the Money: Harbour Street (5/5)

 

Harbour Street is probably the more well-known of the two works that I am discussing, as Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope series has been dramatized in the form of ITV television series Vera, which has ran for eight seasons. Through direct comparison between both works, it is easy to see why. Harbour Street does not boast the rugged setting of Bamburgh, preferring to remain in the more grimy settings of the Newcastle Metro and the fictional village of Mardle, based on Amble. The discovery of an elderly woman stabbed to death on the Metro leads Vera Stanhope and her partner Joe Ashworth to Mardle, a secretive seaside community further up the Metro line which turns out to be hiding far more than the killer of Margaret Krukowski. Unlike Kate Daniels, who gets lost in the sheer quantity of characters who are far too similar to herself, Vera Stanhope leaps off the pages. I can see her face, hear her voice, imagine the sloshing of her wellington boots, even though I’ve never so much as watched a trailer for the Vera series. She is utterly original, an especially fresh breath of air in the crime genre. I say that because, unlike most crime protagonists, who in an almost Bond-like way are agelessly attractive, and always seem to have someone new to have overly descriptive sex scenes with. Vera, on the other hand, is an overweight, ill-dressed middle-aged woman. She is described outright as “fat” throughout the novel, and is candid about her loneliness. The reveal of the killer, too, is done far more interestingly than Monument to Murder. While the true killer is somewhat low on the suspect list, at least they are on the suspect list, and the realisation for the reader comes at the same time as it comes to Vera and Joe Ashworth, if you’re paying close attention. To me, that is what the reveal in a crime narrative should be: not the obvious choice, but someone who was only under slight suspicion until the perfect evidence is revealed after a long investigation.

Harbour Street gets the regional aspect so, so right. Vera is exactly as I would imagine a stout Northumbrian fishwife – she speaks right, looks right, dresses right. Cleeves gets the dialect perfectly right without making it unreadable. The way Val Butt especially is portrayed is so brilliantly on the nose that she, like Vera, leapt from the pages and was standing before me, hacking up phlegm in her pink dressing gown. My only gripe is that, much like with Acklington, I’ve been to Amble, the town which Mardle is allegedly based on. And, like Acklington was misrepresented in Monument to Murder, so too was Amble misrepresented in Harbour Street. It’s a pretty lively town – a bit on the rough side, but I certainly wouldn’t describe it as secretive. It’s not on the Metro line either, but semantics. Additionally, it is important to remember that Mardle is only based on Amble, and therefore has no obligation to be completely realistic.

As I said earlier, if you want a breezy crime novel that doesn’t require much of you, then you’ll really enjoy Monument to Murder. However, if you want a unique, on-brand thriller that respects its setting instead of appropriating it, I would highly recommend Harbour Street.

Check out my new (since the last time I wrote on the blog, at least) Bookstagram at @RiddellReads

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A Belated Thank You Letter to Louise Rennison

Dear Louise,

I’m sorry this took me so long. Being a year and a half late for anything is fairly inexcusable. Especially when my lateness is essentially indefinite, given the fact that you will now never see this.

But let’s forget that for a moment. You dedicated your life to making people laugh, so moping about things neither of us can change seems a little disrespectful.

I want to thank you. Not just for the laughs, which were many, but for something which I think your work was instrumental in achieving for me.

Like most people, between the ages of eleven and seventeen I was an asshole. And, like most eleven-to-seventeen year olds, I thought that was perfectly normal behaviour. I’m the first born, so my parents went into this experience just as blindly as I did. Due to this mutual blindness, we all ended up bumping into each other in the dark many, many times. There was conflict. That conflict was never due to a lack of love – quite the contrary – from deep love comes a desperation to understand your loved ones, and when you can’t achieve the level of understanding that you need, frustration builds.

My Mam, being a young girl herself once upon a time, knew to just sit back and let me ride out my phase. My Dad? He had a tougher time. I (lovingly) describe him to friends as ‘the most stereotypical dad-type that has ever existed’. He has his own armchair. He likes to put the football on. He laughs at his own (terrible) jokes. He sucks at technology. If they replaced JustGirlyThings with JustDadThings, my Dad would be the mascot. As a testament to his dad-ness, the concept of raising a prepubescent girl probably scared him to death. I don’t blame him.

He didn’t like you at all, at first. Considering the fact that I spent most of my rebellious phase completely buried in the Georgia Nicolson series, I’m not surprised in hindsight. It got to the point where, if I was being particularly horrible to be around, those books would be taken off me due to fears that they were a bad influence. Depending on good behaviour, I would eventually get them back. This happened on and off for quite a while. Until, one day, I got them all back. All except for one. Every so often, the missing book was replaced, and the next book in the series would disappear for a little while. I think you can see where this is going. Oddly, I didn’t grasp what was going on until one day I happened upon a very pink book lying on my Dad’s bedside table. That was the eureka! moment.

He was reading them.

I can summarise my Dad’s reading habits in two authors: Charles Dickens and Bill Bryson. I’m not home often anymore, but every time I am, you can bet there is a copy of Bleak House or Little Dorritt is lying on that bedside table. With that in mind, imagine my shock when I found …And That’s When it Fell off in my Hand lying there.

I didn’t say anything at first. If I knew anything about Dad, it was that he loved reading, and loved encouraging us to read. Despite his initial dislike for your work, he would still buy your books for me when they came out, and told me and my brother many times that he would “never say no to buying us a book”. So, for him to be reading something didn’t shock me. In my mind, he just picked it up because it was available. I decided to let it be.

Something else changed. Something which was subtle, and gradual. We started getting on a lot better. I don’t think that was only due to you, but I think you were certainly a large part of that for reasons I will explain in a moment. I was growing up, so I was beginning to ride out my phase and become much easier to be around, and when I had my moments (because, yes, I still had them) Dad seemed much more patient and understanding. Neither of us said anything, we just let life slowly get better and better.

Dad has a loud laugh. He just has of those voices that can carry its way through a whole house. One day I found him sitting in his armchair laughing at one of your books. Really laughing. This time, I’d caught him in the act. I had to ask.

I was somewhat right about his motivations for reading your work – he was curious. But it was a little more layered than that. He wanted to know what was making me the way that I was, to discover if it really was you that was turning me into the horrible teenager that I had been for those last few years. What he actually found was the same thing that I found; a funny, intelligent set of works that perfectly represented young girls trying to figure out who they were. I wasn’t being an asshole for the sake of it, I was being an asshole because I was confused. Of course, like Georgia, I didn’t know I was confused. I thought I knew everything. Reading your books now, at twenty-one, I can see the confusion in Georgia. Did I see it back then? Probably not. She changed just as frequently as I did, so to me her thought processes were the most logical thing in the world. The one thing I will always remember about our conversations regarding you was something Dad said; “every father who has a daughter should read these books.”

Now, I would describe my relationship with my Dad as damn near perfect. I feel the same way about both of my parents – the depth of their love for me is something I genuinely find difficult to comprehend at times, and I feel incredibly lucky to have them, and to have been raised by them. A lot of my motivation for success is so I can give them some kind of reward for all of the time, all of the patience, all of the love that they invested in me.

So, what on earth does that have to do with you? Well, you gave me something which pretty much all teenagers beg for: for adults to understand them. Yes, Georgia makes me laugh until I hurt, but there’s more to it than that. You helped me realise that all of my Dad’s frustrations were born of love rather than anger, and you helped my Dad figure out that I wasn’t lashing out at the world to hurt him or my Mam.

Sorry if this letter wasn’t particularly funny. I wanted it to be, but it just didn’t turn out that way. Kind of like you not expecting your books to turn out to be a very helpful guide for fathers. But I’m not thanking you for being funny, at least not right now. Maybe I will in another letter. But for now, let’s leave it here.

Thank you. And remember, never eat anything bigger than your head.

Amy