Having read Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s novel I Remember You (Ég man þig) and seen the film adaptation, I found myself thinking about the theme of isolation.
A group of three adults head from Reykjavík to a remote outcrop of the Westfjords where they plan to do up an abandoned house and set it up as a B&B. The house is one of a few scattered buildings in all that remains of the abandoned village of Heysteri. Although not an island, it can only be reached by boat as there’s no roads over the mountain. In summer, it’s busy with visitors who want to climb or walk the hills and mountains that surround the area, but come winter and you are entirely cut off and alone.
In Ísafjörður, a boat ride away, lives a psychiatrist whose son has disappeared. His marriage collapsed in the face of their family tragedy, and he endures emotional isolation. He’s started to see what is either an apparition or a hallucination of his missing son. And a local woman, who was obsessed with the boy’s disappearance, has hanged herself in a church – which, it just so happens, had been moved from Heysteri and rebuilt.
Sigurðardóttir usually writes crime fiction, but even her “straight” crime fiction contains supernatural elements, be they a character’s fascination with seventeenth-century witchcraft, or the legend of babies who can still be heard crying on the rocks where they were left to die of exposure. There’s lots to learn by osmosis about Icelandic history, culture and traditions in her work.
The River Colne at Wivenhoe. 19th century.
You will go to the devil, die when you will, you will go to a rare place when you die.
I’ve always written fiction, so being commissioned to write non-fiction has been quite… surprising. But in a good way.
The trouble is that all the research that went into Poison Panic and Fatal Evidence stoked my fiction-writing brain-muscles. For the whole time that I’ve been writing those books, stories and characters began to take shape. It’s a bit like watching a candyfloss machine – the sugar spins round the stick, and what was air and granules becomes a novel.
Initially, it was a short story based on suspected poisoner Mary May. There was going to be a detective sent up from Scotland Yard, there was going to be a plucky governess, there was a to-do with some bottles, and there was a blacksmith…. And I wrote a tense dinner scene, and had no time to write more. So I carried on with my non-fiction and started work on the biography of Victorian forensic scientist Alfred Swaine Taylor. And Taylor decided to nose his way into my fiction. He wanted to be in a novel. He demanded it. I told him this was churlish behaviour, considering R. Austin Freeman had already based his detective Dr Thorndyke on him. But Taylor wouldn’t leave me be, so I let him wander about at will. But all he did was stalk back and forth past a flimsy theatre set of a north Essex village; a flint-covered church and a timber-framed pub. He didn’t look very pleased. I wasn’t either.
But it was a documentary about Scottish crime writer William McIlvanney, father of “Tartan Noir”, which helped me see the light. The setting for his gritty tales were the shipyards on the Clyde. And there was a shipyard and a dock where I grew up. In fact, if it wasn’t for that shipyard, I wouldn’t exist: some of my family only moved to Wivenhoe, a village on the River Colne in Essex, to work on the shipyard.
I’m not enough of a daftie to claim that the Colne and the Clyde are interchangeable, but that idea of the crime novel and the river, the shipyard and the dock was the moment that the vague, floating idea was forced into sharp focus.
I was on holiday in Kefalonia as a child when I saw my first dead body: the rather wrinkly 16th century St. Gerasimus. He wasn’t on view for tourists, only for the eyes of the Greeks, but my grandad had spent so long faffing about with his Kodak that we were the last two tourists left in the church when his coffin was opened. He almost looked as if he was asleep, but it was hard to see if he was breathing under his thick velvet brocade gown. A monk chanted as a queue of penitents shuffled towards him, each kissing a velvet cushion placed over the papery saint’s feet. A little boy – about the same age as me – was lifted up so he could kiss the cushion. Having been raised Congregational, going each Sunday to a chapel which didn’t even have the mere suggestion of coloured glass in its windows – no statues, no gilding, and certainly no incorrupt saints – the spectacle fascinated me. Perhaps because my father was an undertaker (our family Volvo estate doubled as transport for “customers”), it had extra resonance, as if seeing St. Gerasimus helped me to understand what my dad did, dressed all in black with his very large umbrella.
Since that day, the concept of incorruptibles has fascinated me, so when I found out that Verity Holloway had written a novella about them, I knew I had to read it. Set in a not-too-distance future, as the world’s rising waters consume the land, St. Silvan is looked to as a symbol of hope by the residents of the drowning world. The pretty-boy saint travels by night, visiting other incorruptibles, including secular figures such as Lenin and an Anatomical Venus. A saintly Avon Lady, he recommends lipstick and powders to touch up the ancient figures. But as St. Silvan starts to remember who he was in life, the cracks start to show.
I spoke to Verity about her novella, her writing process and about her book The Mighty Healer, which is out later this year.
At some point, Poison Panic will be available on Amazon. How very exciting. Because I had a couple of minutes in which my brain demanded something to do and because it had no better idea, I searched for my name on Amazon. I wasn’t surprised that it queried if I’d spelled “Barrell” correctly, suggesting I was looking for a Helen of Troy barrel hot brush – but I was surprised that it returned a result for Lament for a Trapped Spy. It’s a novella I wrote as a teen and self-published like a fanzine, some stapled-together photocopied pages. I sent it through the post for a couple of quid, and about 50 were ever produced; it’s been out of print for years. How on earth did it get on Amazon?