Entertainment & Arts

Crime wave: Why are so many writers inspired by East Anglia?

Martha Kearney
Image caption Martha Kearney looks at what inspires crime writers, as part of The Books that Made Britain series

I stood on the windswept, desolate beach and then dipped my head below the blue and white police tape.

As blue lights flashed, I watched the ambulance team at work. But there was no hope. The corpse lay motionless on the pebbles.

This was no scene of crime, however, but a reconstruction for our BBC Four programme about authors in East Anglia.

In fact your chances of finding a body on this coastline are about the same as Norwich winning the Premiership (sorry Canaries fans).

Drowned graveyards

This region has one of the lowest crime rates in the country yet boasts an astonishing preponderance of crime writers.

I'm not sure what the collective noun should be - a dagger, a poison pen? Anyway some of the best-known authors have lived and worked here.

Just think of PD James, Ruth Rendell, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Dick Francis and Nicci French.

So why has this landscape inspired so many macabre mysteries? Accompanied by a team from BBC East, I travelled across Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire in order to find out.

Image copyright AFP/Getty
Image caption PD James (left) and Ruth Rendell are among those who have been inspired by the landscape

One of my favourite places is Dunwich on the Suffolk coast. I've often braved the elements and pebbles to swim here.

Eight hundred years ago it was the capital of East Anglia and an international port; at its height rivalling 14th Century London. But violent storms and erosion have swept it all away. Local legend has it that you can hear the bells from churches under the sea on a windy night.

Sometimes the drowned graveyards yield up bones onto the beach, a macabre idea that rather appealed to PD James.

In fact, I met members of a local reading group who told me about an old man who used a skull as a football when he was a boy. No wonder her fictional character Adam Dalgliesh thrived in this landscape where sky and sea merge to create an aura of mystery.

Image caption Martha at a reconstruction of a crime scene

As I discovered, crime writers see the world in a rather different way, wearing the reverse of rose-tinted glasses.

Henry Sutton teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia and is himself a successful crime writer.

We met on sand dunes on the outskirts of Great Yarmouth.

Sutton told me: "This is an area which has been designated outstanding natural beauty, so to me the most dramatic thing I can do with that is to put in right at the centre of that, perhaps over there a badly-mutilated naked corpse."

'Kindred sense of crime space'

He agreed with me that there's a bond between this flat windswept coastline and Scandinavian noir.

"You know just a short way across the North Sea they are kindred crime spirits. There's no doubt about that. This to me feels Henning Mankell, feels like The Bridge, or even The Killing. There is a real closeness, a kindred sense of crime space."

Part of the charm of East Anglia are the remote communities you find which feel untouched by modern life. Dorothy L Sayers was inspired by the isolation of the Fens for one of my favourite books, The Nine Tailors.

Featuring her aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey, this novel is set in a remote village in the landscape that was reclaimed from the sea 500 years ago.

That created a battle with nature which continues today. That sense of impending doom, the chaining of natural forces, gives a literal undercurrent to Sayers' writing.

We journeyed from the 1930s - in a vintage car - to cutting-edge modern crime fiction written by the husband and wife team Nicci French.

They're responsible for more than 20 bestsellers. I was gripped by their story which is set on an island, a fictionalised version of Mersea Island off the Essex coast which they infuse with a sense of menace as in this extract.

"I used to love Sandling island at night: the silence, the slap and murmur of water, the smell of salt and mud, the chime of halliards and the forlorn cry of birds. Now it terrified me."

If your mental picture of East Anglia conjures up brightly painted beach huts at Southwold or charming flint-built churches, you just need to turn to the region's famous crime writers to send a shiver down your spine.

The Books that Made Britain, featuring Martha Kearney, was broadcast on BBC Four and is now available on BBC iPlayer

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