John Milton, poet and polemicist, famously found the problem of depicting good in Paradise Lost difficult. Heaven is boring. Evil was much simpler. We can all picture Hell easily enough, fire and brimstone usually does it, or take a look at Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ for a more psychedelic version.
Similarly in crime and crime writing, certain phrases, and certain key words, trigger gratifyingly vivid imagery. The Corsican Mafia, the Neapolitan N’drangheta, the New York Crime Families, Harlem, New Orleans, most things Russian, and undefined areas such as ‘the badlands’ or ‘the Mexican border’ or ‘bandit country’. All these are redolent of mystery, pregnant with menace. Nowadays, of course, it’s Scandinavia. Scandinavia today evokes not thoughts of Elder Edda, Ragnar ‘Hairy Britches’, Ikea, Abba, moose and a generous state funded social security system, but gloomy, atmospheric death. Edward Munch’s Scream has been brought to monochrome life.
England, however, is more problematic for crime scenery. The national gift for understatement extends to place names. Gangs of Weston Super Mare, the Hertfordshire Mafia; they simply don’t have the same ring as their American equivalents. The lack of romance even extends to roads. Highway sounds so much better than A or B road. Route 66 or the Interstate, the New Jersey Turnpike being more romantic than say, the A5 or the M62 or the North Circular Gyratory system.
London does, however, as in so many things, buck the trend. Parts of London, anyway. I, for example, was born in Streatham. Streatham, eh… Now that lacks a certain something for crime writing, but the hospital I was born in fortuitously lies in Lambeth. Now, Lambeth sounds great, it’s been around since 1062. Blake lived there: that’s a kind of canonisation for a London district, right up there with the Kray twins, music hall and the Blitz. So the parts of London that are in Time to Die are the bits that resonate, not just with me because I maybe lived and worked in them, but to anyone. How can you read the place names of Bow, Highgate, the City, Bermondsey or Soho without a sense of wonder?
The same rules apply to counties. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with for example, Gloucestershire or Buckinghamshire, except for the fact they sound parochial. Could a man or woman walk the mean streets of Bedfordshire? Where actually is Middlesex? The area, not the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. Again, there are exceptions. Essex for example. Essex. Terse, to the point.
When I lived in North London - in Highgate (the cemetery, Karl Marx, the Vampire) - I would often escape to Essex at weekends. It’s got lovely countryside. Essex has been unfairly treated in recent years, hijacked by dodgy T.V programmes. It used to be a kingdom in its own right. The list of famous people from the county is huge. But why it works as a crime location is that it has a slightly sinister ring to it, you don’t want to mess with Essex; it’s that kind of place. And, of course, it has the sea.
Time to Die is not a travelogue. It’s not a guide to London or a guide to the areas around London. Sometimes details have been changed, roads have been added where they don’t exist or place names altered so as not to give offence, but hopefully it’s true to the spirit of these places. The Romans (also fond of London and Essex) had a name for this, Genius Loci. Time to Die is a tribute, not just to people, but to place.
Alex Howard's Time to Die is available now in both paperback and e-book formats.