Friday, 20 February 2015

The Tale Behind the Tell

Today's guest blog is by Mark Sennen whose latest novel in the DI Charlotte Savage series is Tell Tale.

At the back end of last year Shots Mag ran a piece by Graham Hurley on the Badlands of East Devon.   As anyone who reads Hurley will know he’s recently moved his attention west, transplanting Jimmy Suttle from Portsmouth to Exeter. Apparently Hurley had a hard time convincing his publishers that East Devon was a suitable place to set a crime series. Plymouth, where my own series is set, is forty miles farther west and I think an entirely different proposition. A quarter of a million people live here betwixt moor and sea, in recent years the numbers swelled by hordes of students (a pejorative description, but one used by locals). Add high levels of deprivation and mix in the soldiers and sailors from the Army and Navy bases and you’ve a melting pot, which could at any moment boil over. With nuclear submarines, high level drug running and people trafficking too there’s no shortage of material to work with. The city can even make two morbid claims regarding serial killers since Rose West lived in Plymouth for several years (OK, it’s a stretch - she was only ten when thankfully she departed for good) and Dennis Nilsen spent a year at the city’s Seaton Barracks.

For me though, although I do feature Plymouth in my stories, it is from the rural environment that I draw much of my inspiration. There’s weird goings on aplenty out in the countryside, perhaps best epitomised by one of The Falmouth Packet’s most popular stories from a few years back concerning a man and a muck spreader. To spare the blushes of the more sensitive reader I’ll leave out the details. Suffice to say you can Google it.

The central plot in Tell Tale, the latest DI Savage novel, itself came from a newspaper story, this one achieving national and sensationalist coverage. The Daily Mail surpassed itself with the following headline:

Satanic cult blamed for ritualistic killing of Dartmoor foal which was horrifically mutilated in centre of ring of fire during full moon

Excellent stuff. Job done. Synopsis written courtesy of a work experience subbie at The Mail. Except a few months after the story broke the police admitted that forensic analysis had revealed the pony had actually died of natural causes, there was no evidence of human involvement. By that time it was too late. The Mail had moved on to other things and my Satan worshipping baddies had crawled out of their demonic corners. No amount of Holy Water was going to get them to lie down and be quiet.

Not being a fully - or even half - paid up devil worshipper I decided to read up a little on theistic and atheistic Satanism, the latter being of the most interest (and the least scary). I decided most readers weren’t going to be too bothered by the distinctions between the various branches and their knowledge would be informed by popular culture. From there it seemed obvious to me that the ‘action’ in the novel would centre around prehistoric sites. Luckily Dartmoor is blessed with hundreds of these. None quite match Stonehenge or Avebury in grandeur but situated within the sometimes desolate landscape of the moor they are in their own way as mystical.

I set about visiting several stone circles and stone rows and discovered many of the sites shared a common feature known as a kistvaen. These are small box-like tombs which had huge rocks placed over them thus sealing the dead inside. The dead? Oh no, I thought, not only the dead. I challenge any crime writer to look at one of these things and not think how easy it would be to entomb a living person within such a place. We are a strange bunch, crime writers, being in that most delicious yet disturbing position of being able to expound the most heinous theories and yet still remain at liberty.

So here was my opening scene - a man buried alive in a prehistoric tomb - courtesy of a wholly inaccurate newspaper story. Since I already had the final scene in the book (linked as it is to the sub plot which has been running through the entire series) I was left in the position of merely having to find 100,000 words to fill the gap. In the end selling my soul to the Devil might have been easier, but that, as they say, is another tale.

More information about Mark Sennen and his books can be found on his website. You can also follow him on Twitter @MarkSennen and you can also find him on Facebook.

Tell Tale by Mark Sennen (£7.99, Avon)

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