Why Brighton is the Perfect Setting for a Crime Novel
'I assure you that I dread the idea of going to Brighton as much as you do, but I am not without hopes that something may happen to prevent it.' – so said Jane Austen in a letter to her sister in 1799.
When I told people I had become the divisional commander for Brighton Police the announcement evoked one of two reactions:
'Oh, Brighton – how wonderful! All that culture and the beautiful seaside. The Chief Constable must really like you.'
'Good luck! You’ve got your work cut out sorting out all those drunks and druggies. It’s a sewer by the seaside.'
The truth, of course lay somewhere in between.
The columnist, writer and Brighton resident Keith Waterhouse once famously quipped, 'Brighton has the air of a town that is perpetually helping the police with their inquiries.'
Indeed, beneath the veneer of Regency respectability and the success of its entrepreneurial residents – it is one of the top UK cities to start a business – lurks a seedy underbelly.
And as you stroll jauntily down Queens Road from the railway station to the seaside, forget about building sandcastles on the beach; there is no sand, just the stones that Mods and Rockers hurled at each other during their pitched battles of the 1960s and 1980s. Rising above you to the east is the hilltop racecourse, with its picturesque downland and coastal views; this was where the Razor Gangs prowled in the 1930s, keen to give rivals a ‘Glasgow grin’ – the scar from a slice from ear to mouth which looks like a joyless smile.
‘Slaughterhouse of Europe’, ‘Crime Capital of Britain’, ‘Drugs Death Capital of the UK’ are all labels that have quite accurately described the city over the years.
Being the only person in the last forty years to have served at Brighton at every rank from Police Constable to Chief Superintendent, I had a unique insight into the good, the bad and the ugly of the city that I loved.
It is one of the most stunningly beautiful cities in the UK, home to a wonderfully creative population, a long-favoured home to many great writers, artists and actors. It is a thriving conference centre with two renowned universities, one-off shops and a vast array of innovative restaurants and unique hotels. Yet it struggles to shake off its dark side.
Leaving aside high profile crimes such as the attempt to blow up the Government in 1984, day to day the city sees some pretty gruesome examples of man’s inhumanity to man.
A villain stabbed to death and his body chopped up and left for carrion. Fifty-two people dying one year for no other reason than their addiction to heroin. A man dragged off the street, beaten half to death and left blind for a few hundred pounds. Rampaging protestors intent on invading the City’s police headquarters. All this tested the brave young men and women who formed the thin blue line between good and evil.
No wonder people like Elly Griffiths and Peter James set their brilliant crime stories in this city of contradictions. The harmonious and horrific which exists cheek by jowl needs no invention but it creates a fabulously fertile ground for mystery and murder, and that is why we love it!
Graham Bartlett is a friend of crime writer Peter James and was a long-serving police detective in Brighton, the city once described as Britain’s ‘crime capital’. Together, Bartlett and James have written an account of the most infamous and challenging cases ever faced by Brighton police. Death Comes Knocking is out in Paperback now.
Brighton is the drugs capital of England, a place with a long history of violence and crime, Las Vegas by the sea. But for me it’s also home, a place where I have lived since I was five. I learnt to swim here, probably within a stone’s throw (lots of stones on Brighton beaches) of the homeless people living under the pier. I went to school in Kemp Town, not far from the Race Hill where the razor gangs, immortalised by Graham Greene in Brighton Rock, indulged in extortion with a little knife crime on the side. I was too young for the original Mods and Rockers but I watched the Quadrophenia-inspired imitators fight it out on Marine Parade.
Brighton is the perfect setting for books that depict the darker side of the human psyche, as writers like Green, Patrick Hamilton and Peter James have shown, but when I set out to write my first crime novel I turned to the beautiful but desolate beaches North Norfolk for inspiration. Why? Well partly because my heroine, Ruth Galloway, is an archaeologist and Norfolk is full of long-buried bodies, but also because Brighton still seemed too safe to me. It was home, a cosy and welcoming place. I couldn’t imagine setting a murder there. Norfolk, on the other hand, seemed strange and somehow other. I could appreciate its beauty but I could also see the potential for dark deeds being committed there. After all, from the garden of Eden onwards, there’s something compelling about evil things happening in beautiful places. With one exception, the Ruth books are all set in Norfolk and, over eight books, I have explored the eroding coastline, historical Norwich, the pilgrimage site of Walsingham and sundry places in between. I haven’t used up East Anglia by any means but I began to hanker after writing a book set in my home town.
It was the Variety that came to my rescue. My grandfather, a Music Hall comedian, left me his playbills when he died and, looking at the names – Raydini The Gay Deceiver, Lou Lenny and her Unrideable Mule, Petrova’s Performing Ponies – I began to conceive the idea of setting a series in the 1950s, in the dying days of Variety. And where better to base this series than in Brighton? Modern-day Brighton might seem cosy to me - a delusion, as my friend the ex-Police Chief Superintendent Graham Bartlett always tells me – but the past was a different place altogether. I could just imagine murders being committed in those theatrical boarding houses, backstage at the Hippodrome or even in the sinister underground police cells at Bartholomew Square. I immersed myself in the 1950s and wrote The Zig Zag Girl, the first in the Stephens and Mephisto series.
I’m now writing the fourth Stephens and Mephisto book and the ninth in the Dr Ruth Galloway series. It feels like a good balance to me. The Norfolk books, which are concerned with the distant past, are set in the present. The Brighton books, about the 1950s and the challenges of the future, are set in the past. And I can live happily with my delusion that Brighton is a safe and cosy place to live.
Elly Griffiths is a prolific writer of bestselling crime fiction. The Sunday Express described her writing as mixing 'cosiness and sharpness...in a way that recalls the best of Agatha Christie'. She is the creator of the Stephens and Mephisto series, the third installment of which is The Blood Card, which is new to hardback.
Main Image: Not in the Spotlight, The Old Pier, Brighton (c) Caroline Granycome