Sunday, 7 June 2009

Canals and Crime

Yesterday evening we went on a canal cruise that involved a very good dinner, consumed in excellent company that included crime writer Kate Ellis and her husband Roger (picture getting on to the narrow boat). The round trip along the Macclesfield Canal began and ended at Bollington, on the Cheshire side of the border with Derbyshire. There can be few more restful or enjoyable ways to travel.

And yet. Canals have been a scene of fictional crime more often than you might guess. I’ve even been responsible for one short story myself, ‘To Encourage the Others’, which included a canal-side murder.

Philip Scowcroft, an indefatigable researcher and expert on the genre, recently sent me a copy of an article he wrote some years back on the subject of ‘Canals and Waterways in British Crime Fiction’. Classic titles cited include The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, the first great spy story of the last century, and The Pit-Prop Syndicate by the alibi king, Freeman Wills Crofts.

Among the many other titles Philip mentions are Death in Little Venice (2001) by Leo McNair, and Joan Lock’s historical mystery Dead Image, as well as a book I have read, Night’s Black Agents, by the under-rated David Armstrong. The Llangollen Canal features in Andrew Garve’s The Narrow Search, and a fictionalised Stourbridge Navigation in Marjorie Eccles’ Requiem for a Dove. The most famous book in this sub-genre is, though, surely Colin Dexter’s acclaimed The Wench is Dead, which is distantly based on a real-life case.


pattinase (abbott) said...

This certainly takes me back to our year in Worsley. Thanks for the reminder.

Eric Mayer said...

And let's not forget Georges Simenon, who actually lived and wrote, on his boat the Ostrogoth while traveling the canals of France. The Maigret novel I read recently, The Death of a Harbormaster, takes place mostly in a town near a lock. According to the end the book was finished "...aboard the Ostrogoth, Ouistreham (Calvados), October 1931."

Martin Edwards said...

Quite right, Eric. And in fact Philip mentions Simenon - I hadn't realised he was interested in canals.

Paul Beech said...

Glad you enjoyed your Saturday evening afloat, Martin. I love the River Weaver and regularly walk the banks of the canalised section, the Navigation, which runs through the valley below my village of Moulton. Grey herons everywhere and a variety of wildfowl, not to mention rabbits in the gorse and foxes on the prowl. Wonderful with the sun setting beyond the Winsford salt mine, spooky under a cold moon!

Didn’t realise you’d written a canalside murder – must look that one up! Have you read Peter Robinson’s short story ‘Shadow On The Water’ (in John Harvey’s anthology ‘Men From Boys’)? Quite excellent, I think.

Fascinating, isn’t it, the way writers of different types will draw quite different material from a common setting or experience? From a riverbank or canal cruise, for example – yourself a murder (‘To Encourage the Others’), Bob Westall a supernatural yarn (‘The Call’), Roy Fisher a poem (‘Birmingham River’). Of course a painter or composer will abstract different things again.

The inland waterways have a mystery and charm all their own and, if you haven’t done so already, I’d recommend you check out the Anderton Boat Lift near Northwich, which links the River Weaver to the Trent & Mersey Canal 50 feet above. The historic lift reopened following restoration in 2002. It would make another good blog post – and maybe spark a murder mystery too!

Regards, Paul

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Paul. I don't know the Peter Robinson story, but will seek it out.
I do know the Anderton Boat Lift. My dad used to say it was said to be one of the seven modern wonders of the world. Could indeed be a good setting for a story....

Jerry Coleman said...

My favorite canal mystery (o.k., its most on the Thames), is Swing Swing Together by Peter Lovesey, which parodies Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat along with the mystery. Also add to the list Ronald A. Knox's The Footsteps at the Lock.

Jerry Coleman
Belmont, California

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Jerry - thanks. Although Lovesey is one of my favourite writers, I haven't read that one so I'll have to check it out. I have got a copy of the Knox book but have yet to read it.