If you’re out to describe the truth, Albert Einstein once said, leave elegance to the tailor. A shame, then, he didn’t live long enough to meet the urbane, suave and generally god-like Andrew Taylor (right). Herewith be Andrew’s doodlings on Bristol’s CrimeFest, the essential ingredient of hard-boiled crime, and the true crime story behind his latest novel, BLEEDING HEART SQUARE …
“I’m just back from CrimeFest in Bristol, the first of what looks like becoming an annual event in the crime writing calendar. Two years ago, the organisers, Adrian Muller and Myles Allfrey, brought the long-running American convention to Left Coast Crime to Bristol. But this was their very own event, and - in the opinion of most people I talked to - all the better for it. The weather was uncharacteristically fine as well, which helped. And Bristol itself is a city always worth returning to.
“An immutable natural law governs these conferences, which is that the bar exerts a dark gravitational pull that most crime writers are powerless to resist. I had hardly arrived on Friday morning before I found myself sitting at a corner table with Ruth Dudley Edwards.
“A certain amount of inevitable camera wobble is visible in the photograph (right), which shows from left to right in a mutually supportive cluster (eight legs are so much more stable than two) Laurie King, Richard Reynolds of Heffers Bookshop in Cambridge, Ruth and myself. Later on, Ruth won the Last Laugh Award (and the loudest cheer) at the Gala Dinner.
“By a curious coincidence on more than one occasion I found myself in the bar with Declan Hughes. We continued our conversation at the gala dinner, which is when Declan was discussing the idea that hard-boiled crime fiction tends to blossom in cities at a particular point in their development.
“Anne Enright made a similar point in her Guardian review of Declan’s latest, The Dying Breed (John Murray): “Declan Hughes’ Dublin recalls Hammett’s San Francisco and Chandler’s 1940s LA – hot-money towns in which the social wax was not yet set. What hard-boiled does best is portraying the moment a society turns respectable, or tries to ...”
“It was one of those light-bulb moments. Dublin, Declan was saying, has reached its hard-boiled era. Context is all. It’s widely recognised that there is a relationship between particular types of crime fiction and the societies in which they flourish. But it’s an idea rarely explored in much depth, and I wish someone would do it for me ... but maybe they have?
“I was at CrimeFest primarily to promote my next book, BLEEDING HEART SQUARE. As that is set in the 1930s, I’m not entirely sure what context has to do with it - unless of course I’m rather behind the times, a possibility my children often suggest is better than plausible.
“The book derives from a story my grandmother told me about what she used to call “our” murder. In 1899, a bear-like philanderer named Samuel Dougal seduced a sweet-faced, middle-aged spinster named Camille Holland. She was some years older than himself. He was attracted to her fortune. He persuaded her to buy the Moat Farm near Saffron Walden in Essex with some of her money.
“The farm belonged to my granny’s family: as a child in the 1890s, she and her sister often stayed there and played in their white pinafore dresses beside the moat. Only 30 miles from London as the crow flies, it’s an isolated and curiously bleak spot, even today. The nearest house, the Vicarage, was nearly half a mile away over muddy fields.
Miss Holland was a fragile, finicky town-bred lady, accustomed to pavements. Mud scared her. So did cows. She was a prisoner.
“Three weeks after they moved into the farm, Dougal shot Miss Holland by the bridge over the moat. He buried her in a disused ditch. Over the next four years he methodically embezzled her fortune while living the life of an aspiring country gentleman.
“Dougal was a compulsive womaniser. At one time he was having affairs simultaneously with two sisters and their mother. Most of his victims were country women. He owned one of the first bicycles in the area, and it is said that he taught his prospective victims to ride in the meadow north of the farm. He persuaded them that it was essential for them to remove their clothes before lessons.
As a result, he fathered a rash of unfortunate little bastards. This is what upset people in the end, and started them asking awkward questions. The police traced the embezzling first. Then they moved into Moat Farm and began to look for Miss Holland.
“The investigation was national news. People sold postcards of the farm. There’s one of the police searching the moat. When they found what was left of the body, the place became a tourist attraction, attracting ghoulish crowds in a holiday mood.
In the end she was identified largely by her clothes. Dougal sold his story to The Sun (he claimed it was all a dreadful mistake, for which he blamed his unfortunate predilection for brandy).
“Dougal was hanged at Chelmsford. If he had had the sense to bury Miss Holland in the farm’s midden, it is unlikely that after four years there would have been enough left to identify her.
“Other elements fed into BLEEDING HEART SQUARE - not least the real and strangely atmospheric Bleeding Heart Yard and its surroundings north of Holborn in London. And then there’s the British Union of Fascists, who marched their way into the book via a curious museum in the Forest of Dean. But all that’s another story.” – Andrew Taylor
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.