Friday, 31 July 2015

Henry Christie - Location and a Sense of Place

Nick Oldham, author of the Henry Christie series, became a police officer at the age of nineteen, and served on the front line for most of his career. This month sees the release of his most recent Christie novel, Unforgiving.

Unforgiving is the twenty third entry in my series of crime novels featuring Henry Christie, a detective with the Lancashire Constabulary, who began life as a detective sergeant on what was then the Regional Crime Squad in my first book, A Time For Justice. Henry has risen slowly, and unsteadily, through the ranks to reach the lofty heights of Detective Superintendent and the role of Senior Investigating Officer – and impending retirement – in the latest book.

Most of the novels are set in and around Blackpool, which I once described as ‘the world’s brashest, trashiest seaside resort, alive with daytime fun and night time thrills’ – and Unforgiving is no exception to this.

I like to use real locations for my stories because I believe doing so gives them an anchor of authenticity and something readers can relate to, either from their own knowledge or a bit of research. However, I have been known to take geographical liberties to suit the stories and all errors in that respect are my own doing.

I was a cop for thirty years in Lancashire and although I was never actually stationed in Blackpool I did work in the resort on many occasions, particularly during the 80s and 90s (decades which now seem very long ago!). The first reason I spent time there was because officers from all over the county were drafted in annually to police the huge political conferences that used to be held there, the Conservative and Labour parties alternating their yearly visits, with the Lib-Dems crammed in there somewhere along the line. The police operations were huge, costly, and usually quite enjoyable.

That said, I was an armed officer (with a Smith & Wesson Model 10 revolver by my side) at the Tory party conference in Blackpool in 1985, the year after the Brighton bombing. It was a scary time, with another IRA attack a very real possibility and police snipers on all the roof tops.

In the mid-80s I joined the newly-formed Operational Support Unit and although I was based in East Lancashire at the time, our unit (essentially a go-anywhere, do-anything squad) spent a great deal of time travelling to Blackpool, usually at weekends in summer, to provide local officers with support.

It was about this time I began to see Blackpool as a great setting for crime stories, which were beginning to fester in my mind.

Most serious reported crime in Blackpool is concentrated on a 250 metre-wide strip, running north-south, with the Irish Sea on the right and Blackpool on the left, which is of course the core of the resort; the place where money is prised from people, legally and illegally. I found it fascinating that the majority of crime was committed in the area where people, including families, came to have fun. Many of them were, of course, unaware of anything untoward going on around them. Inland, behind this strip, Blackpool can be quite genteel and middle class, although there are some pockets of great deprivation to be found in high rise flats and on some council estates.

So Blackpool became the setting for the majority of my novels, although I have slowly extended my geography to include much more of Lancashire (and other parts of the world) as Henry’s character grew and his role as a Senior Investigating Officer expanded as the books progressed.

However, when I was planning and writing Facing Justice in 2011, the sixteenth Henry Christie book – which began life during one of the worst winters we’d had for some years, when we were snowed in for almost a week around Christmas 2010 (read the novel, see the link!). I was also looking for a location to suit the story, a village somewhere out in the wilds of Lancashire. Unfortunately I could not find a ‘real’ village in the particular location I wanted to use – up in the far reaches of the Lune Valley. So I invented a village called Kendleton. It was a mix of some of the villages I love in Lancashire, such as Dunsop Bridge, Slaidburn and Newton: picturesque, with a village green, shop and pub, and I put it on a fictitious tributary of the River Lune.

I never really dreamed I would return to the village in subsequent novels, but because of the way Henry progressed in his life – he now lives with the pub landlady – that is exactly what happened and Kendleton has become very much a real village to me. I can vividly visualise it as I write, and it has become, crucially, another character in the stories. I actually love writing about Henry taking his breakfast sandwich and mug of coffee out onto the pub steps in the early morning and watching the mist rise from the village green and maybe spotting a red deer launching itself back into the woodland beyond.

But Kendleton does not exist, other than in my strange mind.

I have had readers approach me during my talks, telling me they have pored over maps of Lancashire to try to find this place without success. I take this as a compliment because it shows just how real a fictional place (and characters) can feel to people, including myself. Although it is a made-up place, it does have an anchor in reality and it is populated by some good, strong characters such as Alison – Henry’s intended – and her daughter Ginny, the inebriated local GP and his farmer friend who prop up the bar of the Tawny Owl like the two old geezers in The Muppets.

But still, the question remains – where is Kendleton?

Some clues: it is located somewhere in north Lancashire in the area where the Forest of Bowland abuts the River Lune Valley, somewhere near Mallowdale Fell (where Henry and his friend Karl Donaldson almost came to grief once). It can be reached by driving out of Lancaster along the A683 and turning right somewhere after the village of Caton and heading into the hills…except you won’t find the road to Kendleton unless you happen to be very lucky. I’m told it appears for just one day every 100 years, or am I just thinking about Brigadoon?

So the action in Unforgiving begins in the reality that is Blackpool and then swings in the latter half of the book to fictional Kendleton, but just because it is a quiet village in the back of beyond, it does not mean that nothing goes on here, as Henry finds out to his cost. In an earlier book, Bad Tidings (the nineteenth book in the series), Henry is warned by his mother, ‘Secrets. All villages have secrets. Lots of them. And they always surface at some time or another. Nothing ever remains secret forever, and nor do the lies…’

You can find more information about Nick Oldham on his Facebook page.


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