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.
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