Andrew Taylor and Speech House, Revisited

July 13, 2011 at 11:53 am (Anglophilia, Mystery fiction, To Britain and back 2011)

One of the special pleasures of our recent tour was once again seeing Andrew Taylor at Speech House in the Forest of Dean. The year may have been 2011, but the author and the venue were the same as in 2006:

Andrew Taylor and our Blue Badge Guide extraordinaire Roz Hutchinson at Speech House in 2006. Seated across from Roz is our witty and erudite lecturer, Carol Kent.

Upon seeing me, Andrew Taylor expressed his gratitude for the (extremely favorable) review of The Anatomy of Ghosts that I posted in this space in April. As soon as I recovered from my delighted surprise, I assured him that the praise was well deserved.

  Before we sat down to luncheon, Peter Hands, Speech House’s new owner, gave us a brief history of the place. He proved to be a fine raconteur as well as a genial and welcoming host.

After lunch, it was Andrew Taylor’s turn to speak. He began with the story of a true crime: the poisoning of one Harry Pace. The crime occurred in Coleford, in the Forest of Dean, in 1928. But before getting very far into this macabre tale, Taylor warned us that the Forest of Dean was a strange place, bound as it was by the Severn estuary and the River Wye. Some incomers who intended to take up residence there found themselves so unnerved by the place that they could not stay. One gets “the sense of an enclosed world.” It’s a quality Taylor finds ideal for the setting of crime fiction.

Harry Pace, a sheep breeder, was by all accounts a nasty piece of work. Among other depredations he abused his wife, the small, pretty Beatrice. In May of 1927, Harry visited his doctor complaining of his severe stomach pains. His symptoms strongly indicated arsenic poisoning. Arsenic was, at the time, a common household item; moreover, it was used in sheep dips. Was it possible that Harry’s walrus mustaches, acting as wicks, had drawn the substance up toward his mouth while he was working at the sheep dip?

Such was the speculation at the time. And yet, Elton Pace, Harry’s brother, had  seen Beatrice lying athwart the body of her agonized husband and exclaiming, “Harry, Harry, you be dying!” Indeed he was, and did, and she was brought to trial for his murder. The damning testimony of Harry’s brother might have been fatal to Beatrice. But she looked so lovely and appealing, sitting there in the dock…

Beatrice Pace, in the late 1920s

Beatrice went free. Outside the courtroom, her brother-in-law and his family were set upon by the townspeople. They were outraged by the words spoken in defense of Harry, whom they knew full well had been a  reprobate and a terrible husband.*

Andrew Taylor drew a very interesting conclusion from this tale of cruelty and retribution. It illustrates, he said, “a quirky and local” form of justice, administered by people who knew the parties involved and knew the truth of the matter. He was not, of course, advocating vigilante justice. Rather, he was making the point that in former times, where the administration of justice was concerned, the sensibility of the local community counted for something. This stands in stark contrast to the present time, where the meting out of justice has attained a generalized, if not mechanized, quality, primarily because of advances in forensic science and the increasingly bureaucratic nature of law enforcement.

Taylor is of the opinion that both writers and readers are dismayed by these developments. We prefer novels and stories that deal with characters that seem real to us. We want to observe what happens to them they are placed under extreme duress. (As he was articulating this point, I thought of Ruth Rendell. Her mastery of just this kind of situation is, in my view, unparalleled.)

Taylor went on to describe the process of researching the post World War Two era for his Lydmouth series. This delving and digging transported him to a different world. Not only was the past proving to be a foreign country – it was proving to be an alien one as well. Taylor discovered a mindset that was radically different from that of the present time – and not, he assured us, just because everyone smoked! People’s ideas about right and wrong were very different, especially where sex was concerned.

Lydmouth – a conflation of Lydney and Monmouth – provides the setting for a series featuring Detective Inspector Richard Thornhill and reporter Jill Francis. Thornhill is married with children, but his relations with his wife are strained. Adding to the stress is the fact that the family  are”incomers”: a new position in the police force has brought them to Lydmouth. When Richard Thornhill and Jill Francis meet, a sympathetic connection, palpable though barely acknowledged, is established. But the obstacles to any relationship they might desire to have with each other are formidable. Taylor assured us that in those days, a policeman’s  career would never have survived the scandal of an extra-marital affair.

Taylor has conceived the Lydmouth series as a portrait of a community in a time of change. As for the love story, he conceded that he had no idea how it would ultimately turn out.

   I first read An Air That Kills in 2006. I remembered liking it a great deal. When I learned that we’d be seeing Andrew Taylor again, I re-read the novel. liking it even more the second time. I recently finished the second in the series, The Mortal Sickness. I just can’t recommend the Lydmouth novels strongly enough:  the sense of place, the compelling nature of the crimes, the equally compelling characters, the  beauty of the writing – all are superb. (And the fact that they remain out of print here is most frustrating.)

Andrew Taylor is the author of another series, the Roth Trilogy, which was dramatized and shown on British television in 2007. He also write standalone historical novels, three of which I have read and greatly enjoyed: An Unpardonable Crime (titled The American Boy in the UK), Bleeding Heart Square, and most recently The Anatomy of Ghosts.    

Taylor is currently working on a novel set in New York during the time of the Revolution. It’s about shifting loyalties and loyalties put to the test by seismic political events – like the Revolution. The working title, perhaps not surprisingly, is The Loyal American.

Returning to a theme he’d touched on earlier, Taylor lamented the mechanization of contemporary life in general and of crime fiction in particular. There is a danger, he warned, of crime fiction’s becoming dehumanized by the increasing emphasis on forensics and electronics. He speculated that the increasing number of historical crime novels now being written are a result of a disaffection with the current scene in general and a disinclination to deal with the technical aspects of computers, cell phones, and forensic science in particular. (Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and State of Wonder, voiced similar concerns in a recent article in the Washington Post.)

Taylor stated that as time goes on, writing gets harder rather than easier. He added that one of the liabilities of doing extensive research is that the process becomes an end in itself: immensely enjoyable and absorbing as well as providing the perfect excuse to avoid actually having to write! Finally Andrew Taylor enumerated what he believes to be the three qualities of a successful career as an author: hard work, inspiration – and luck.

After his talk, Andrew Taylor signed  books and posed for photos with various members of our group. He was unfailingly gracious.

Our group with Andrew Taylor, in the beautiful dining hall at Speech House

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*A more detailed account of the Pace affair can be found in Gloucestershire Murders by Linda Stratmann. (This fascinating book also contains a recounting of a tragic miscarriage of justice that occurred  in Chipping Campden the 17th century. It’s known as the Campden Wonder. Roz Hutchinson amazed us with this strange tale in 2006, when we actually stayed in the lovely Cotswold village of Chipping Campden.)

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Last month, I was privileged to be part of a panel discussion at the library. We’d been asked to present book talks on titles of our own choosing. One of the books I chose to recommend was The Anatomy of Ghosts:

2 Comments

  1. Laurel L. Anderson said,

    I’m so glad you are promoting Andrew Taylor. He is a wonderful writer.
    Andrew’s book, The Anatomy of Ghosts, is beautifully written. It drew me in and wouldn’t let me leave. Thanks for recommending it.

  2. Joann Keesey said,

    I have to remember to check your blog more than once a month Roberta! I’ve just spent a pleasurable Sunday morning reading your recent posts for July and remembering our trip. I too enjoyed Andrew Taylor’s talk and wholeheartedly recommend the Lydmouth series.

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