Monday 27 January 2020

Chasing Hares by Christina James @CAJamesWriter BLOG TOUR @saltpublishing @EmmaDowson1 #ChasingHares

Gordon Bemrose, a shady local businessman who lives in a large house on an island in the River Welland, decides he can make easy money from the property by using it for Country House murder weekends. For the first, introductory, weekend he recruits ten people from very different backgrounds: Ava and Reggie Dack and Lizzie and Jackson Fox, two self-made couples from Essex; Sonia and Richard Renwick, respectively a successful beautician and her husband, who is a failed writer; Dora Westerman, a lady of indeterminate age and obviously very slender means; Amelia Baker, an English literature student; and Margarett and Colin Franklin, a mixed-race couple of modest origins whom all the others look down upon. Reluctantly assisting with the festivities are Patti Gardner, Gordon s niece, who has been roped in to speak about the work of a SOCO, and Anton Greenweal, his nephew, who has achieved instant fame on a TV reality show and will be the lead actor in a short play to be performed during the weekend. The play is central to Gordon s plans: he intends it to be based on a popular farce, but with a macabre twist as its finale.
Events take an unexpected turn when a real murder takes place; and DI Yates, investigating, discovers that each of the guests had an ulterior motive for participating in the crime weekend. Everyone on the island becomes a suspect, including Patti, his former girlfriend. Meanwhile, an epidemic of hare coursing is sweeping the county. This illegal and cruel sport is pursued by cynical gamblers who bet high stakes on whose dog will catch the hare. On her way back to Spalding police station from a meeting in Bourne, DS Juliet Armstrong discovers a badly-wounded Saluki that has been abandoned by hare coursers and is determined to bring them to justice.
The eighth DI Yates novel is a modern take on the country house murder story; it also explores the crime of hare coursing, which is currently top of the agenda for police forces in Lincolnshire.

Chasing Hares by Christina James is published by Salt Publishing.
My thanks to the publisher who invited me to take part on this Blog Tour today. I am delighted to welcome the author to Random Things today with a fabulous guest post that's all about Lincolnshire!

Soldier Bob, Golden Age Crime and Hare Coursing: Chasing Hares, the new DI Yates novel
Chasing Hares is unique among the DI Yates novels in that its two (related) plots were both suggested to me by other people. 
In the summer of 2018, I called in on my friends Madelaine and Marc, who live in a very old cottage at the edge of Spalding, just at the start of Cowbit High Bank and a stone’s throw from the bridge that crosses the River Welland at Little London. There is an island in the river on the Cowbit side of the bridge. Locally it’s known as St Catherine’s Island, but I – or, rather, the crooked protagonist of Chasing Hares – have called it Holyrood Island in the novel. 
It was a hot, sunny day. Anthony and Marcus, the current residents of the house on the island, run the Spalding water taxi during the summer months and had offered us a trip up the river. Before we set off, Anthony showed us round the house and made coffee. As we sat in the garden outside, I said I had almost finished writing Gentleman Jack and the conversation turned to what I should tackle in my next novel. 
I can’t remember who suggested I should write about this island: it was Madelaine, Marc or Anthony, or a combination of all three. Marc, who’s a fount of knowledge when it comes to the local history of Spalding, said he’d heard there used to be a row of small cottages on the island – hovels, really – and that a retired soldier had lived in one of them between the wars. Local people called him Soldier Bob. Anthony had heard this story, too. 

Cottages at Locks Mill on St Catherine Island (now demolished)

Reputedly the soldier was half-crazed – he was probably a First World War veteran suffering from shell-shock – and trigger-happy. He was also a recluse. He didn’t take kindly to having people disturb him. Someone approached his cottage one day and Soldier Bob shot the man dead. Anthony’s version of this was embellished by the detail that the victim was the postman and Soldier Bob had shot him through the letter-box. 
Soldier Bob was arrested and tried for murder but acquitted – and presumably taken into care – on the grounds of insanity. I found this story fascinating, not least because of the humanitarian verdict delivered by the jury at the trial. Particularly at that period, the people of Lincolnshire were better-known for their conservatism and staunch support of establishment values than letting offenders off the hook. It was astonishing, therefore, that this jury had taken an enlightened view of a murder committed by someone who was probably suffering from PTSD, long before the term itself was invented. Soldier Bob’s acquittal belongs to the period when the top military brass still considered that the army had been perfectly justified in shooting World War I deserters suffering from shell-shock; and was years at least thirty years before the death penalty for murder was abolished. 
Listening to the tale of Soldier Bob, I could see that setting the next novel on the island offered great possibilities. I didn’t want only to tell the tale of Soldier Bob, however – though it is mentioned in Chasing Hares – because for some time I’d been toying with the idea of writing a novel that drew inspiration from the Golden Age of crime fiction, but with a modern twist. 
A popular device used by Golden Age crime writers – I mean authors such as Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and my favourite, Dorothy L. Sayers – is the country house crime story. It has a lot to recommend it: a group of people gather in a country house, usually secluded and some distance from civilisation; a murder is committed; one of the people present must have been the murderer; all turn out to have had motives for killing the victim; and the reader is titillated along the way with accounts of gracious living, exquisite dresses, sumptuous picnics, fine dinners, afternoon tea, torrid love affairs, the lot. 
I thought it would be interesting to create a modern-day version of such a gathering, spiced with a little bit of irony; and, to update it further, and as a double irony, instead of depicting an upper-class social event, to make the reason for the gathering a crime mystery weekend. Instead of being presided over by a suave and cultured society hostess, the party in Chasing Hares is hosted by a perennially mean and crooked wheeler-dealer, Gordon Bemrose. Instead of representing high society, his guests hail from humbler – and in some cases, dodgier - walks of life; and, like their more august Golden Age country house counterparts, all are potential murderers. Instead of being entertained by a chamber orchestra or string quartet, their entertainment is a play, a bowdlerised version of Arsenic and Old Lace, put on by the local amateur dramatic company but starring Gordon’s actor nephew, Anton Grunweal. 
The second part of the plot was suggested to me by a policeman who has been following my blog for some time. He contacted me to say that the biggest single problem modern rural police forces have to deal with, particularly in East Anglia and parts of Northern England, is hare coursing. I’ve since carried out quite a lot of research on this, and it’s a truly horrific crime. It’s not just the hares that are hurt – they’re horribly mutilated by the dogs before they die – but also the dogs themselves. They’re often badly injured by colliding with each other or spraining or breaking their legs by trying to follow the hare as it changes course rapidly to try to throw them off the scent. There’s nothing ironical or tongue-in-cheek about the hare coursing passages in the novel – they’re deadly serious.

All the members of the Lincolnshire police force I’ve communicated with while writing Chasing Hares have been friendly, humorous and approachable. They’re good fun and obviously get on well with most of the Lincolnshire folk they meet (the hare coursers mostly come from outside the county). I feel sure that if they’d known Soldier Bob, they would have approved of the result of his trial. As for Bob himself, I’d very much like to know how his story ended. It would be nice to think that he made a complete recovery, but somehow I doubt it: he’d been ill for too long, and the treatment available at the time would have been primitive. One thing is certain: he never returned to St Catherine’s Island. 
© Christina James, January 2020.

C.A. James was born in Spalding and sets her novels in the evocative Fenland countryside of South Lincolnshire.  
She works as a bookseller, researcher and teacher.  
She has a lifelong fascination with crime fiction and its history. 
She is also a well-established non-fiction writer, under a separate name. 

Twitter @CAJamesWriter

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