Steven Saylor, Peter James; and further recollections of Crimefest 2011

September 3, 2011 at 12:32 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, To Britain and back 2011)

In a recent post about lunch with some book-loving friends, I mentioned having recently read a new Gordianus the Finder story that appears in the July/August issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction.   I first heard about this story at Crimefest in May, specifically at a panel discussion entitled “An Affair To Remember: A Walk Through History.” During the question and answer period, I asked Steven Saylor when we might expect the next Gordianus the Finder novel to appear. I got a most unexpected response: Gordianus would be appearing next in a series of short stories. His creator would be taking him back to his youth, age eighteen to be exact. Along with Antipater, his (older and wiser) traveling companion, Gordianus will visit the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, as well as certain other venues.

These stories are slated to appear in various publications throughout the coming year. They’ll ultimately be collected and published in a single volume in the summer of 2012.

The story that I read, entitled “The Witch of Corinth,” possesses the sprightly dialogue, fast moving action, and vivid recreation of the ancient world that we Steven Saylor fans have come to cherish. In 146 BC, the Roman army laid siege to the Greek state of Corinth. They ended by destroying the place utterly, slaying all the men and selling the women and children into slavery. Fifty-six years later, in the course of their travels,Gordianus and Antipater find themselves on the Isthmus of Corinth, at the heart of the what remained of that once great and wealthy city.

Click to enlarge

As Antipater dozes in the midday heat, Gordianus wanders off among the ruins:

Heat and thirst made me light-headed. The piles of rubble all looked a like. I became disoriented and confused. I began to see phantom movements from the corners of my eyes, and the least sound–the scrambling of a lizard or the call of a bird–startled me. I thought of the mother who had killed her daughter and then herself, and all the countless others who had suffered and died. I felt the ghosts of Corinth watching me, and whispered words to placate the dead, asking forgiveness for my trespass.


In addition to the Crimefest panel on historical fiction, Steven Saylor also took part in a panel discussion called “Born To Be Bad: The Nature of Evil.” Appearing with him on that occasion were Peter James, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Andrew Taylor, and Steve Mosby. I was full of admiration for their willingness to tackle a Big Subject in a serious way.  Of course, the panelists knew that they were limited in the number of profound insights they’d be able to offer up in the fifty minutes allotted them.

Here’s a tantalizingly brief snippet of video from this session. The subject was evil tyrants. Andrew Taylor speaks first; then Seven Saylor. (Peter James is seated to the left of Andrew Taylor.):

My notes from this session are scattershot; nevertheless, I’m going to transcribe them here as best I can, with clarification and attribution where possible:

Peter James spoke of his experience in visiting Broadmoor, a high security psychiatric hospital. About half the patients are schizophrenics, he told us; the other half are sociopathic.

One panelist referred to a Japanese book whose title was along the lines of: How To Test Your Sword on a Chance Wayfarer. (Further investigation suggests that this phrase is actually the translation of a Japanese verb. See “A Test Case for Moral Relativism,” an entry on a blog called The Constructive Curmudgeon – a name I wish I had thought of.)

Steven Saylor warned against glamorizing the great and powerful people of the past. To that end, he proffered a piece of advice ascribed to the writer L. Sprague de Camp: ‘Great leaders should be viewed through stout bars!’

Andrew Taylor spoke of the notorious Fred West, whose career as a child molester and serial murderer began in the early 1970s. (He had told us about this person when our group lunched with him at Speech House.) Being something of a student of true crime, both here and in the Britain, I was amazed not to have heard before this of this truly appalling man. Taylor assured us that Gloucester and the surrounding countryside were paralyzed by fear during the rampage of West and his equally coldblooded wife Rosemary. This placid region is the last place where you’d expect such horrors to occur.

As often happens in cases like this, the recitation of terrible events was punctuated at intervals by outbreaks of black humor.At one point, Icelandic crime writer Yrsa Sigurdardottir commented that Iceland has only one recorded instance of a serial killer: his victims numbered two!

After that, my notes from this session contain only random snippets, unattributed:

Serial killers are characterized as lacking in empathy and being on a power trip.

The crime fiction genre is possessed of a remarkable elasticity. (I like the use of that word in this context.) It ranges from stories of violent crime to “cozies.” In crime fiction, evil exists to be punished, and the situati0n surrounding it somehow resolved. Is this wishful thinking? Mention was made of the cathartic aspect of crime fiction.

The perception of the nature of evil is wide ranging and changes over time. In addition, evil is culturally dependent. Children ask why, as do adults: Why are people evil? Crime fiction often deals with these issues (as does true crime, I might add).

The murder clear-up rate in the UK is 93 per cent. For rape, that percentage is two. Being raped change one’s life for the worse and forever. It is like being in a car crash from which you never fully recover.

These two phrases stand by themselves in my notes: “The routinizing of evil,” and “The socializing of evil.” With regard to the routinizing of evil, the Stanford Prison Experiment was mentioned. This was carried out  in 1971; I had not heard of it previously. Wikipedia has an entry on the subject, and the study has its own website.

My final entry for this session is this: “The capacity for hate is tied into the capacity for evil.”

The rest is silence…

Well, these are very deep waters, as you can see. I for one am ready to clamber out of them! Still, I wish I could rewind the session and play it through once more. And the same holds true for “An Affair To Remember: A Walk Through History.”


At this juncture I’d like to say something about about Peter James, who was one of the Featured Guest Authors at Crimefest 2011. (The other was Deon Meyer.) James writes a series of procedurals set in Brighton and featuring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. The first title in the series is Dead Simple. Things gets off to a terrific start in this novel with a drunken bachelor party that gets out of control. Just how out of control – well, read it and find out for yourself. Roy Grace is an immensely appealing protagonist, and although I found the book’s climactic action scenes somewhat over the top, I nevertheless enjoyed Dead Simple and look forward to reading more Roy Grace procedurals.

Peter James at the podium, on the evening of the Crimefest Gala Dinner and Awards Ceremony

[One of the reasons why you gotta love Wikipedia:  Here’s the opening sentence of the Peter James entry: “James is the son of Cornelia James, the former glovemaker to Queen Elizabeth II.” ]


One of the best things about crime fiction conventions is that they afford writers and readers a chance to get to know one another. It was a great pleasure to see Martin Edwards, Ann Cleeves, and Andrew Taylor once again. But I was especially pleased to meet Steven Saylor for the first time. I’ve been an enthusiastic reader of his Gordianus the Finder novels ever since Roman Blood, the first in the series, came out in 1991. These novels served to reawaken my interest in ancient history and its literature. That interest culminated in a journey to Italy in the Spring of 2009. This was a return, actually. I had not been there for forty years. (How was it? Every bit as fabulous as I’d hoped it would be.)

I’m often impressed by the rapier-like wit and the verbal thrust and parry employed by the British in settings that are unrehearsed and conversations that are completely spontaneous. Thus it proved with the panel discussions at Crimefest. But one  of my chief sources of delight was that Steven Saylor was able to thrust, parry, and crack wise with the best of them! He has, it turns out, a terrific sense of humor, which he can deploy at a moment’s notice and to great effect.

The last Gordianus novel, The Judgment of Caesar, came out in 2008. Click here to read my review.  Steven Saylor has been doing plenty since then. Be sure and look at his website. You’ll find not only information about all of his books but also links to sites with more information about ancient history and literature.

Steven Saylor


I’m not sure if I will ever have a chance, in this space, to do justice to Bristol, a city rich in history and fascinating architecture, and boasting the world famous Clifton Suspension Bridge 


Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a man of small stature and enormous accomplishment

We stayed at the Bristol Marriott Royal Hotel, right next door to Bristol’s beautiful Cathedral.


Ron had the inspired idea to cue the video while the cathedral bells were in full cry (as was the wind):

Permalink 2 Comments

“In Name Only: Forgotten Authors” – a Crimefest panel discussion

July 30, 2011 at 12:05 pm (books, Mystery fiction, To Britain and back 2011)

I liked each of the panel discussions I attended at Crimefest; one that I particular enjoyed was entitled “In Name Only: Forgotten Authors.” Participants were Peter Guttridge, Caroline Todd, Sarah Rayne, and Adrian Magson. Martin Edwards served as participating moderator. The purpose of this panel was to recommend worthy crime fiction titles and authors of whom those in the audience may not have heard. First, here’s Martin Edwards making the introductions, while injecting some humor into the proceedings. (There was actually plenty of humor throughout the Crimefest events; it was a big part of what made the experience such fun.)

There were several authors whom I’d met before and was especially pleased to be seeing again at Crimefest in Bristol, England.. Martin Edwards, whose novels I very much enjoy and whose unfailingly gracious demeanor I appreciate, was one of them. (If you read Martin’s blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name, you’ll discover that he’s an enthusiastic reader and reviewer of “forgotten books.“)

Peter Guttridge led with John Frankliin Bardin’s The Deadly Percheron, and engrossing and original work recently reviewed in this space. Caroline Todd – one half of the mother-son writing team known as Charles Todd – followed up with her own suggestions. Two were by William E. Barrett: The Left Hand of God and The Edge of Things. Another was The Yellow Room by George Shipway. After that, it was as if the flood gates had been opened: recommendations of authors and titles flowed fast and furiously from the panelists. It was evident that all were not only writers  but avid readers as well. And, I might add, outstanding book talkers; I pretty much wanted to read everything these enormously persuasive writers were urging on their listeners:

  One author I was especially curious about was George Shipway (1908-1982). I had trouble getting information about him until I found this article  by Alan Fisk. The piece appeared originally in Solander; I located it on Books and Bricks  and am grateful to the blogger for obtaining permission to place it there. (Stumbling upon Solander is one of the many instances of serendipity I experienced while doing research for this post. It’s a magazine that’s put out twice a year by the Historical Fiction Society.)

  In The Dolly Dolly Spy, Adam Diment (born in 1943) introduced a spy for the sixties: the pot-smoking skirt-chasing Philip McAlpine. Between 1967 and 1971, Diment wrote four novels featuring this rather unique character. Then both the protagonist and his creator dropped out of sight. Click here for a fuller treatment of the subject of Adam Diment, the crime writer who himself became something of a mystery.

R.C. Sherriff was an author I actually knew. He wrote a play called Journey’s End, in which he drew on his own experiences as a captain in World War One. First performed in London in 1928 and starring a rising young actor named Laurence Olivier,  it was an immediate hit and has gone on to become a classic. (I first encountered Journey’s End in a literature textbook in use in my English teaching days.)

   What I didn’t know is that R.C. Sherriff wrote numerous other plays, as well as film scripts and novels. One of the panelists – I don’t recall which one – recommended The Hopkins Manuscript, a scary-sounding apocalyptic tale published on the eve of the Second World War. Click here for a review.

Not much is known of the life of R.C. Sherriff. I was intrigued by this blurb for a BBC radio program about this author:

RC Sherriff wrote the play Journey’s End following his own experiences of the trenches in the First World War. Unflinching but deeply humane, it was a huge hit in the West End and a global export in some 26 languages. But the man who wrote it remains something of mystery, an insurance agent who lived quietly among the rolling lawns of Esher. Robert Gore-Langton tries to find out more.

Entitled “The Man From Esher and His Theatre of War,” the program aired in 2006.

  Some of the authors mentioned by the panelists have not been entirely forgotten because their books have been made into films or TV shows -or, as is the case with Leslie Charteris‘s Simon Templar, aka “The Saint,” both.   The film The Quiller Memorandum was based on the novel by Adam Hall. “Adam Hall” was the pseudonym of Elleston Trevor. More than one panelist expressed admiration for this author.

     The stellar cast of The Medusa Touch included Richard Burton, Lee Remick, and Derek Jacobi. The 1978 film was based on the novel by Peter Van Greenaway. Then there’s The Left Hand of God, written by William E. Barrett and made into a film in 1955 starring, of all people, Humphrey Bogart as the faux priest.

Martin Edwards mentioned that there are now several small presses dedicated to bringing works such as these back into print, in some cases using print on demand technology. Ostara Publishing is currently engaged in this undertaking, as is Rue Morgue Press .

Probably the most intriguing story I’ve come across in my labors regarding this post is that of a book called The Notting Hill Mystery. It was actually published as an eight part serial in a magazine called Once a Week. It began appearing in 1862 and was finally published as a novel in 1863. ( This edition of the work contained illustrations by George DuMaurier, grandfather of Daphne DuMaurier.) Charles Felix was the name ascribed to the author of The Notting Hill Mystery. This was obviously a pseudonym. Paul Collins, an academic and editor, announced in an article in the New York Times in January of this year that he had determined the identity of the actual author: Charles Warren Adams, sole proprietor of the firm that had published the book. (Collins was interviewed  by Scott Simon of NPR. Click here to listen to the interview or read the transcript.)

This novel is very highly thought of. The eminent critic Julian Symons declared that in the annals of detective fiction, The Notting Hill Mystery was far ahead of its time.


The Notting Hill Mystery can be viewed online in its original form.   Click here for the first installment. To access all parts, scroll down to the bottom of this Wikipedia entry. 

This article on the Forgotten Authors panel appeared in Shotsmag, an online Crime and Thriller e-zine.

The above mentioned titles are not easy to obtain. Most are out of print. The local library, not surprisingly, owns none of them. Here’s what I’ve done so far:

1. Requested via interlibrary loan The Paladin and The Imperial Governor by Goerge Shipway;
2. Ordered The Notting Hill Mystery from Amazon.

And yes – I’m hoping for another revelatory reading experience like the one I’ve just had with The Deadly Percheron

Author Gallery

Victor L. Whitechurch

Patricia Wentworth

William E. Barrett

George Shipway

R.C. Sherriff

Leslie Charteris

John Frankiln Bardin

Actor David Hemmings, left, and Adam Diment. Hemmings was slated to play Philip McAlpine in the film version of THe Dolly Dolly Spy. The film was never made.

Permalink 5 Comments

John Franklin Bardin’s The Deadly Percheron; with thanks to Crimefest 2011 in general and Peter Guttridge in particular

July 24, 2011 at 6:05 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, To Britain and back 2011)

Ah,yes: The Deadly Percheron.

The what?

A Percheron is a type of draft horse originating in the province of Le Perche, in France. An informative (and refreshingly poetical) piece on the breed’s history can be found on the site of The Percheron Horse Association of America. In Bardin’s novel, this animal – and I mean the real thing, not a picture representation or a stuffed toy- is used as a calling card, not once but twice, by a supremely cunning criminal.

First published in 1946, The Deadly Percheron takes place in New York City in the early 1940s. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Jacob Blunt was my last patient. He came into my office wearing a scarlet hibiscus in his curly blond hair. He sat down in the easy chair across from my desk, and said, ‘Doctor, I think I’m losing my mind.’

At first, I thought I was in for a lighthearted romp. I could not have been more wrong.

Jacob Blunt’s delusions, if delusions they be, are so fantastical that psychiatrist George Matthews feels a powerful urge to investigate them beyond the confines of his examining room. Jacob invites Dr. Matthews to accompany him back to his apartment, and thence, to a  bar. Driven by is curiosity, Matthews accedes to his new patient’s request.

At Jacob’s apartment, the doctor meets two young and lovely women. But this is just a brief stop on the way to the real destination: the bar, where according to Jacob, they will meet a leprechaun. When they reach their destination on Third Avenue, the doctor observes that “…a large van had been parked in front of the place–a truck with deep sides and screened windows near the roof of its storage space not unlike an oversize paddy wagon.” He wonders idly about the van’s contents but then forgets about it almost at once, so focused is he on what or whom he and Jacob are about to encounter.

Inside the bar is the “leprechaun.”

Inside the van is the Percheron.

From that point on, things become increasingly weird. Then suddenly George finds himself imprisoned in a nightmare scenario straight out of Kafka.

One of the best things about this novel is the author’s evocation of 1940s Manhattan. The establishment alluded to above is “the usual Third Avenue bar room with Rheingold neon signs in the windows and sawdust on the tile floor.” Coney Island also figures prominently in this narrative. Here’s a description of the clientele that typically patronize one of the island’s eateries in the late evening hours:

Brassy blondes, flashily made-up redheads, rarely a glossy headed brunette, showgirls, wives of entrepreneurs, lady shills…as well as their masculine counterparts in checked suits and pointed-toe shoes, barkers,  grifters who operated the ‘sucker’ games, pitchmen and the ‘big boys’ who owned the concessions.

The writing is excellent. I’d love to quote more of it, but it would be hard to do without giving too much of the plot away. My coming to this novel “cold” had a lot to do with how much I enjoyed it.

John Franklin Bardin was born in Cincinnati in 1916. In 1944 he moved to New York City, where in addition to writing novels, he worked as an advertising executive, journalist, and teacher. Click here for a short but informative biographical sketch provided by Centipede Press.


I had never heard of either John Franklin Bardin or his extraordinary novel before this past May. For me, one of the highlights of Crimefest 2011 was the panel discussion entitled “In Name Only: Forgotten Authors.” The first speaker in the group was novelist and critic Peter Guttridge. It was his enthusiastic recommendation that led me to read The Deadly Percheron.

I’ll have more to say about this panel discussion and about Crimefest in general in subsequent posts. Meanwhile, see if you can get your hands on this book.( It’s out of print, naturally; I think I got my copy, a Poisoned Pen Press reissue, from Once you’ve got it, be prepared to be up late reading it. The Deadly Percheron may be the most compelling and thoroughly original novel I’ve  read so far this year. 

Permalink Leave a Comment

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


*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.)


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:

Permalink 2 Comments

Fascinating Facts about Britain: Offa’s Dyke and the Staffordshire Hoard

July 8, 2011 at 6:22 pm (Anglophilia, To Britain and back 2011)

It began more than three years ago, on a golden evening of high summer. I’d started out from Knighton that morning on what was projected to be  a six-day tramp along the southern half of Offa’s Dyke.

These are the opening sentences of Borrowed Time, a novel by one of my favorite authors of psychological suspense, Robert Goddard.    I read this book shortly after it came out in 2006; at the time, I had no clear idea of just what Offa’s Dyke was.

Here is the definition and description provided on the Offa’s Dyke Association site:

Offa’s Dyke is a linear earthwork which roughly follows the Welsh/English boundary. It consists of a ditch and rampart constructed with the ditch on the Welsh-facing side, and appears to have been carefully aligned to present an open view into Wales from along its length.

The author speculates that the dyke must have been about 27 meters [approximately 88 feet] wide and 7 meters [approximately 23  feet]  from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the earthen bank. He adds: “The origins of the Dyke are shrouded in mystery so that many of its aspects are speculated upon rather than being fully understood.”

And who, pray tell, was this Offa personage, he of Dyke fame? Offa was the King of Mercia from 757 to 796.  Well, that explains it, doesn’t it..? Mercia was an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, located in what is now called the Midlands. Here’s how Britain looked at  the time of Offa’s death: 


Since our sojourn was taking us along the Welsh borders, it was inevitable that we would pass close to the Dyke, which is now a popular walking path.   In fact, by the look of this map, we passed very close to it in two places: Monmouth and Hay-on-Wye. And yet we never actually saw it – or I didn’t, at any rate.

Pam offered us an altogether more irreverent and less scholarly, if more succinct, definition of the Dyke: “a hill in England and a ditch in Wales.” Beneath those words, scribbled in the midst of a rather bumpy bus ride, I can barely make out the following: “Devil and gander made Dyke.” What…? A website for the Teme Valley recounts the legendary claim that “…the dyke is just a deep furrow ploughed in the night by the devil using a plough pulled by a gander and a turkey cock!” (I found this bit of lore repeated on a number of sites dealing with the Dyke.)

The National Trails site offers these fascinating facts about the ground traversed by the Offa’s Dyke Path:

In its 177 miles / 285 kilometres it passes through no less than eight different counties and crosses the border between England and Wales over 20 times. The Trail explores the tranquil Marches (as the border region is known) and passes through the Brecon Beacons National Park on the spectacular Hatterall Ridge. In addition it links no less than three Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – the Wye Valley, the Shropshire Hills and the Clwydian Hills.


A major event concerning the history of the Kingdom of Mercia occurred in July of 2009 with the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard. It’s the largest trove of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found – and it was found by one Terry Herbert, an ordinary bloke who enjoyed poking around in farmers’ fields with a metal detector, a tool  purchased at a car boot sale for two pounds fifty (about four dollars). Mr. Herbert was 55 and unemployed at the time he quite literally struck gold. Judging by this piece from the March 23 2010 edition of the Sunday Times, his money worries are well and truly behind him.

Here are some of the prize finds from the Staffordshire Hoard:

Pectoral cross

Zoomorphic mount

Helmet cheek piece

Stylised sea horse

Permalink 2 Comments

Fascinating facts about Britain: the River Severn

July 5, 2011 at 10:50 pm (Anglophilia, To Britain and back 2011)

What’s the difference between the River Severn and the Severn River? The first, also known as “the King’s highway,”  is in Britain. The second is Right Here in Maryland! One county over, to be precise. The American Severn is fourteen miles in length, with headwaters in western Anne Arundel County.  Ultimately it empties into the Chesapeake Bay at Annapolis, capital of the Free State and home to the United States Naval Academy.

[Click to enlarge]


With a length of  220 miles, the River Severn is the longest river in Great Britain.  Originating in Wales, it meanders through the Cambrian Mountains of that country and then goes on to Shropshire, Worcestershire, and Gloucestershire, finally emptying its waters into the Bristol Channel.

The River Severn is the dark blue line

As the bus bore us away from the Wye Valley and towards Bristol, our guide Pam informed us that we were following the course of the Severn. This river carries with it a rich store of myth. The best known story is probably  that of the nymph Sabrina, who drowned in the waters of the Severn, to be subsequently reborn and incarnated as “the tutelary goddess of the river.” (Click here for more on the mythology of the Severn.)

The Severn in Shrewsbury, taken from Shrewsbury Castle (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Finally Pam told us about the Severn Bore. This is not, she assured us, a person! As defined by Wikipedia, a tidal  bore is a “…tidal phenomenon in which the leading edge of the incoming tide forms a wave (or waves) of water that travel up a river or narrow bay against the direction of the river or bay’s current.” The result of this collision of contrary forces is a rolling wave that advances along the river. It is similar to a tsunami but on a smaller scale and in a more confined area, specifically on a river as opposed to an ocean.

Surfing the bore is a popular activity. Here’s an excellent video of the bore as it advanced along the Severn in March of last year. The music – The Ride of the Valkyries by Wagner – is exactly apt! And you’ll see that there are modes other than surfing that allow one to take part in this exhilarating experience:

Permalink 2 Comments

Phil Rickman calls on us on our first evening in Ross

July 4, 2011 at 6:53 pm (books, Mystery fiction, To Britain and back 2011)

In the depths of the English countryside, a place hard to find in guidebooks and hard to pinpoint on a map, we encountered a rockin’ night out with the local teenagers!

  There we were on our first night at The Chase, a (presumably) staid English country house hotel in the town of Ross on Wye, when a high school prom got underway on the grounds of the establishment. The event went forward with the riotous exuberance that typifies such occasions. In addition, another fairly large and noisy party was making use of  the adjacent bar area. The place was jumping.

It was against this somewhat distracting backdrop that Phil Rickman came to speak to our group. Rickman is the creator of a unique and intriguing protagonist: Merrily Watkins. Merrily is a deliverance consultant for the Church of England. In former times, she would have been called an exorcist. Whatever it is called, it’s a post she’s assumed with some reluctance. It’s bad enough having to fight in the first place for credibility as a female minister. Add to that her dealings with situations that seem to involve the paranormal and the supernatural, and Merrily’s status as a serious professional is questioned even further. It is not, however, the skepticism of others that is her chief difficulty: rather, it’s her  own doubt and uncertainty that are the real problem.

In the course of writing the novels in this series, Phil Rickman has spoken to a number of actual deliverance consultants. He tells some fascinating tales gleaned from these interviews, though he is invariably discreet with regard to their source. He himself is persuasive when it comes to paranormal – or at least, putatively paranormal – phenomena. He is well acquainted with the ghosts haunting the Welsh borders, and with the true crimes that have happened there as well.

From left to right: Valerie, a member of our group; Pam, our superb Blue Badge Guide, Kathy Ackley, who put the excursion together; Nicky, the tour manager (and also a Blue Badge Guide); and Phil Rickman

Permalink Leave a Comment

Torquay, Greenway, and Agatha Christie

June 30, 2011 at 2:48 am (books, Mystery fiction, To Britain and back 2011)

At one point in our travels in the fall of 2006, we found ourselves sailing up the Dart Estuary toward Dartmoor. Above us, on a bluff overlooking the river, stood a lovely home surrounded by greenery. Roz Hutchinson, our Blue Badge Guide, informed us that this was Greenway, the country home of Agatha Christie. It had recently been acquired by the National Trust, but was not yet ready for viewing by the public. 

We sailed further along the River Dart.  Greenway was gradually lost to view. But I made a silent vow: namely, that one day soon I would get inside that house.

And last month I did just that.

Greenway was finally opened to the public in February of 2009. This article from the Telegraph includes a video made for this auspicious occasion.

For Ron and me, this was a return to Torquay.  The 2006  Smithsonian tour had commenced there. We’d stayed several nights in the Imperial Hotel; our room overlooked the graceful curve of the harbor. There were festivities in progress, and as evening drew on, fireworks were discharged. (“All this  for us? – you shouldn’t have!”)

This time, we were only in Torquay for a single day, a Monday, the final day of our tour. And what a day it was! For one thing, in an unexpected (and very welcome) turn-up, our guide for Torquay was once again Roz Hutchinson. In addition to that, our guide for Greenway, and indeed for All Things Agatha, was John Curran, award winning author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks and acknowledged authority on the life and work of the Queen of Crime.

John Curran, with one of the Greenway guides in the background

Our Torquay excursion began with coffee at the Grand Hotel, where a young Agatha Miller spent the first night of her honeymoon with Archie Christie. Located right on the water, the Grand is a lovely old Grande Dame of a hostelry. Then it was on to the Torquay Museum and the Church of St. Mary  the Virgin in Churston Ferrers, both places visited by Ron and me on our 2006 journey.

  The museum contains a wonderful trove of Agatha-related objects; it also features an illustrated timeline of Christie’s life.

The Church of St. Mary the Virgin is the church attended by Agatha Christie. It is but one of many ancient edifices dedicated to religious observance that one finds all over England. Built in the fourteenth century, it was restored in the nineteenth. When we were there the first time, we were greeted by Mark, an elderly gentleman who had been a gardener at Greenway during Christie’s lifetime. But Mark was not there this time. Roz told us that he’d been ill. Ron and I felt his absence.

Mark and Roz, in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in 2006

One of the  church’s principal claims to fame is the Good Shepherd stained glass window donated by Dame Agatha herself.

Next door to the church is the Churston Court Inn, where we had lunch. The restaurant is housed in a twelfth century manor house which has been meticulously restored.

Now all of these activities were by way of a build-up to the main event: the tour of Greenway House.

This gracious, historic domicile, usually closed on Mondays, was opened especially for our group. And by the time we reached the front entrance, John Curran was in full flood as he commenced telling the story of Agatha Christie and her family at Greenway.

Here’s a video of John speaking to our group. Unfortunately the wind made it impossible to record his voice clearly. You probably won’t be able to make out much of what he’s saying, but you can get a general sense of his warmth and enthusiasm:

Agatha Christie and her husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, took up residence at Greenway in 1938. It was a house Christie had long known about and admired:

‘One day we saw that a house was up for sale that I had known when I was young…So we went over to Greenway, and very beautiful the house and grounds were. A white Georgian house of about 1780 or 90, with woods sweeping down to the Dart below, and a lot of fine shrubs and trees – the ideal house, a dream house.’

My overall impression was of a cozy, intimate dwelling place, very different in size, scope, and purpose from the imposing estates one often sees in England. John Curran told us that the Greenway experience aims to simulate that of a casual visit to friends or neighbors, who have just stepped out for a short time. In an article in the June issue Smithsonian Magazine, Robyn Brown, who manages the property for the National Trust, describes her conversations – one could almost call them negotiations – with Christie’s daughter, the frail and elderly Rosalind Hicks, just prior to Greenway’s being open to  the public: “The sticking point for Rosalind was that she didn’t want us to create a tacky enterprise–‘the Agatha Christie experience.'” In fact, Rosalind initially wanted the house stripped bare of its contents. Brown countered that in that case, the house would seem soulless. Moreover, if objects were brought in from elsewhere, they would lack authenticity. Brown then proposed that the home’s contents be left in place, and that the impression be given that the occupants were just temporarily absent and were soon to return. And indeed, that is the feeling you get as you go through the rooms of this very special place.

During the Second World War, Greenway was requisitioned by the Admiralty. It was then occupied by Flotilla 10 of the U.S. Coast Guard.  Lt. Marshall Lee, one of the guardsmen,  painted a frieze that runs along the wall of the library just beneath the ceiling.  In essence, it’s a pictorial history of the war as experienced by Lee’s group, from its beginning in Key West, Florida, right up to its billeting at Greenway.

At the war’s conclusion, the unit’s Commander asked the homeowner if she would like them to remove the receive. Christie replied that on the contrary, it was part of history. She elected to keep it as it was.


John Curran begins the introduction to his book as follows: “I first saw the notebooks of Agatha Christie on Friday 11 November 2005.”

Mathew Prichard, grandson of Agatha Christie, had invited Curran to see Greenway prior to the National Trust’s planned renovation of the property. For one devoted to Christie’s work, this was an irresistible opportunity. Even so, John Curran had no inkling of the discovery that awaited him…

On an upper floor of the house, he found himself confronting “…two locked rooms, silent guardians of unimaginable literary treasure and heart’s desire for every Agatha Christie enthusiast (but in reality accessible to very few).” One of these rooms contained a collection of signed first editions of Christie’s work, and also books written about her. The second room contained more  books as well as all manner of manuscripts, memorabilia, and other papers. This is what happened next:

On a bottom shelf was an ordinary cardboard box with a collection of old exercise copybooks…

I lifted the box on to the floor, knelt down and removed the top exercise book. It had a red cover and a tiny white label with the number 31. I opened it and the first words that I read were ‘The Body in the Library – People – Mavis Carr – Laurette King.’ I turned over the pages at random…’Death on the Nile – Points to be brought in…Oct 8 – Helen sequence from girl’s point of view…The Hollow – Inspector comes to Sir Henry – asks about revolver…Baghdad Mystery May 24th…1951 Plat Act I- Stranger stumbling into room in dark – finds light – turns it on – body of man…A murder has been arranged – Letitia Bailey at breakfast.’

All these tantalising headings were in just one Notebook and there were over 70 more still stacked demurely in their unprepossessing box. I forgot that I was kneeling uncomfortably on the floor of an untidy, dusty room, that downstairs Mathew was waiting for me to begin dinner, that outside in the November darkness the rain was now spattering the shuttered window. I knew now how I would spend the rest of the evening and most of the weekend. And, as it transpired, the next four years…

[from Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran]

When John took us into that room, he announced with a proper sense of drama that we were about to enter “the holiest of holies.”

John Curran was constantly pointing out connections between objects in the house and Christie’s fiction. For example, this portrait of the author at the age of four hangs in the Morning Room:

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller, aged four, painted by Douglas Connah in 1894

Upon seeing it, my first thought was of Mary Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878): 

In both paintings, the children seem to exhibit the same lassitude. But John Curran zeroed in on the doll held close by the child Agatha: “Doesn’t that remind you of the story ‘The Dressmaker’s Doll?'” At the time, I had not heard of this story. I’ve since read it. It’s a strange tale that begins as an eerie encounter and ends on an unexpectedly poignant note. (“The Dressmaker’s Doll” is included in the collection Double Sin and Other Stories.)

Two Christie novels, both featuring Hercule Poirot, use Greenway and its grounds as the setting for the action: Five Little Pigs and Dead Man’s Folly. In Five Little Pigs, it’s the grounds behind the house leading down to the river – specifically the battery and the boathouse – that figure prominently in the narrative. I’d already read and very much enjoyed this novel, and had been looking forward to seeing these locations. Unfortunately, the day was windy and rainy. John Curran was willing to take us, but he warned that the footing was rather precarious. Although several of our group did make the trek down to the boathouse, Ron and I declined. And so there was an opportunity missed.

I hadn’t read Dead Man’s Folly at that time, but I purchased it at Greenway’s small but well stocked gift shop. I enjoyed the novel a great deal, especially since I could imagine the characters inhabiting the Greenway I had just seen.


I think I speak for everyone who came on this excursion when I say that we were simply astonished by John Curran. Not only does he possess an encyclopedic knowledge of Agatha Christie’s life but he also has a deeply impressive grasp of her oeuvre. We were told that he had stayed on in Bristol after Crimefest so that he could take our group through Greenway. John Curran is an exemplary scholar and a generous and gracious person.

    Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Making, the follow-up to Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, is due to be published this fall.


Masterpiece Mystery’s Six by Agatha contains some recollections and reflections by Christie’s grandson Mathew Prichard, as well as an interesting slide show.

The BBC posted this feature on its site at the time of Greenway’s opening.

The National Trust provides a summary of Greenway’s history.

Finally the English Riviera site offers a veritable trove of Agatha info!


Permalink 4 Comments

Ghosts and legends of England and Wales

June 21, 2011 at 10:48 pm (To Britain and back 2011)

  In the introduction to The English Ghost, Peter Ackroyd states that “England is a haunted country.” He elaborates:

Several explanations for the ubiquity of the ghost in this land, can be offered. Alone among the countries of Europe, England is bordered by the original British (or Celtic ) nations. The popularity of the English ghost tradition–the English see more ghosts than anyone else–is deeply rooted in its peculiar mingling of Germanic, Nordic and British superstitions. The English are also in many respects obsessed with the past, with ruins, with ancient volumes. It is the country where archaeology is placed on national television, and where every town and village has its own local historian. Ghosts therefore may be seen as a bridge of light between the past and the present, or between the living and the dead. They represent continuity, albeit of a spectral kind.

While passing through the countryside of Herefordshire, we heard the story of a young woman who, believing her lover to be unfaithful, did murder him. Later she found that her suspicions had been unfounded. Upon learning the truth, she killed herself (pined away?). It is said that her ghost now haunts a well – I couldn’t make out for certain exactly where.


As we passed Goodrich Castle, our Blue Badge Guide Pam recounted the legend of Alice Birch. It seems that she and her lover Charles Clifford found themselves on opposite sides during England’s ferociously contested Civil War. They had both sought refuge in the castle, from whence they were at length forced to flee. Seizing Clifford’s steed, they made for  the River Wye in a desperate attempt at escape. But  the river was in full flood, their horse lost its footing, and they were drowned. They are said to haunt both the river and the castle. Learn more on “the eternal lovers and their watery fate” at Richard Jones’s site Haunted Britain and Ireland.


Weobley (pronounced “Webbley”) is one of the destinations on the picturesque black and white villages trail. In Weobley, we visited the Parish Church of St. Peter and St. Paul.  

The church offers a small guidebook for visitors. Here’s how it opens:

Christians have worshipped here for nearly 1,000 years. Wibba, son of Creoda, King of Mercia, founded “Wibba’s Ley” as a defensive outpost against the Welsh in the 6th century. The first mention of a resident priest at “Wibbelai” comes in the Domesday Book of 1086.

(Pam informed us that the suffix  “-ley” indicates a clearing in a forest.)

A strange and sinister legend has attached itself to a large stone cross that stands in the yard of this church: If you walk around it backward, all the while reciting the Lord’s Prayer, you will summon the Devil. Read more about “The legend of Old Nick” at the Haunted Hereford site.


Located in the village of Kington just outside Hereford, Hergest (pronounced “Hargest”) Court exudes an air of melancholy. The original manor house dates from the thirteenth century. Toward the end of the 1400’s, Thomas Vaughan, also known as “Black Vaughan,” resided at Hergest Court. It is his ghost that is said to haunt the premises in the form of a large black dog. Alan Rickman, among others, believes that this is the dog that gave rise to the legend used so compellingly by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Alan Lloyd, our guide at Hergest and a friend of Alan Rickman’s, shares this conviction. (Read more about about “The demon death dog” on the Haunted Hereford site.)

In this video clip, our tour manager Nicky introduces Alan Lloyd. He in turn begins recounting to us the history and legend of Hergest Court and the surrounding area:

If you perform a search for “Hergest Court,” your results will include a number of ghost hunting sites (like this one). It’s prime ghost spotting territory. When we were there, it was cold and windy, with periodic lashings of rain -weather seemingly ordered up by central casting for  this particular encounter.

Here’s an eloquent appraisal by Richard Jones:

Hergest Court is now a shadow of its former glory. It is a sad looking house of white walls and dark timbers that exudes a weary air of detached indifference.

And yet, somewhat to my amazement, a family with young children were preparing to move in.

Though the house seemed bleak, the surrounding countryside was very beautiful:


Mention should  be made here of the Red Book of Hergest. This ancient volume dates from the fourteenth century and was owned for a time by the Vaughan family. Ultimately it was given to Jesus College Oxford, where it now resides. The contents of the Red Book – so called because of its red leather binding – provided some of the source material for the Mabinogion, a collection of tales both historical and mythological set primarily in Wales. A landmark translation of the Mabinogion from Welsh into English was done by Lady Charlotte Guest in the nineteenth century.

A page of the Red Book of Hergest


As we were getting ready to depart, Alan Lloyd hopped onto our bus. He wanted a final chance to persuade us that the ghost of Black Vaughan, in the form of a dog, was the original inspiration for The Hound of the Baskervilles:

He struck us as a man on a mission, with an almost inexhaustible supply of rhetoric. As you can see (and hear), he possesses a wonderfully declamatory style, which, we were assured, is characteristically Welsh.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Stokesay Castle in Shropshire: “…quite simply the finest and best preserved fortified medieval manor house in England.”

June 7, 2011 at 12:44 pm (Anglophilia, History, To Britain and back 2011, Travel)

By the end of the thirteenth century a wool merchant named Laurence of Ludlow had become one of England’s richest men. In the way of the wealthy throughout history, he wished for a material representation that would stand as a  signal to the world of his new found prosperity. This was the result of that quest:

Stokesay Castle, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I could wax philosophical about the passage of time, the persistence of memory, ghosts in ruined castles and abbeys, but others have already done so with far more eloquence than I could ever summon. Instead, I offer our pictures as mute testimony to all of the above:

The north tower

Inreicate carving on the overmantel in the solar

The South Tower

The majestic Hall. Writing in the English Heritage Guidebook, Henry Summerson tells us that "The three great wooden arches over the hall are a rare survival for this period." (The third arch is just out of range of the camera.) Built in 1291, it stands essentially unaltered since that time.

The picturesque gatehouse, added on in 1640-41

Look out beyond the few outbuildings: the countryside, green and undulating, stretches out, seemingly without end.

              If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.

Little Gidding, T.S. Eliot


Click here for more on the history of Stokesay Castle, and here for more visuals.

Permalink 2 Comments

Next page »