By Derek Gunn
The Crime genre is very popular at the moment and, as with most popular genres, it is a very busy one. It is difficult to get noticed on the shelves when there are so many books vying for our attention. Yes, we have Amazon sending us notifications of books similar to any we might have bought and, of course, on-line blogs and magazines that critique, review and generally inform us about the next big thing. Among this deluge of information it is hard to choose which new author to read next. My assignment this month is Judith Cutler. Judith is a very busy lady with five on-going series to her a credit.If there is one thing that gets me to sit up and take notice it is an author who has steadily built up a following and created their characters over a period of time. I had not read Judith before I must admit, however, this is more my loss than hers. The main series feature amateur sleuth Sophie Rivers, Chief Superintendent Fran Harman or Detective Sergeant Kate Power. All the novels revolve around her native Birmingham.
Like many writers I have talked to, Judith starting writing early in life in Grammar School and then life got in the way and it wasn’t until she was in her thirties that an illness gave her the time and the distraction to take a pen back up and begin to write again. Of course, the path to publication was not an easy one – it rarely is but she persisted and finally the first of the Sophie Rivers novels was released. Since then Judith has been unstoppable creating new characters and engrossing stories ever since.
The latest novel, BURYING THE PAST, is a Fran Harman novel. This is a crime novel with very real characters dealing with very real day-to-day problems as well as the crimes around which the novel centres. This is the fourth novel in this series and the book wastes no time in throwing us into the action. Fran is getting married; we know this from the last novel so I am not divulging any secrets here. Along with the chaos with planning the wedding they are trying to move into their new home, The Rectory. Extensive repairs are needed, a skeleton is discovered in the garden and a fellow officer commits suicide.
All this in the first ten pages no less. No-one can accuse the author of a slow burner. As well as all this there are thefts in the area, a rape victim and there I stop. There is plenty to keep our favourite Kent lass busy. Of course her personal problems escalate also with her fiancé, Assistant Chief Constable Mark Turner for those of you who don’t follow the series, having family and work issues as well. Suffice it to say that with the real prospect of being homeless Fran has to dig deep and ensure the separate investigations get sufficient attention as she delves into the history of The Rectory to tries to solve the murder.
Of course the crimes and the family issues are compounded by the politics where two senior officers are in a relationship and how that is viewed by those who report to them. All in all, my mind was swirling with the plot lines. Luckily Judith is very adept at handling these different strands and pulling them into a very satisfying story.
I had not read any of this series before. This can be quite daunting when the characters are firmly established with extensive histories. Certainly it is best to read the stories in order as you will get the full benefit of this very fine writer, but that does not mean that the novel cannot be read out of sequence. Judith quickly establishes the characters and the story carries you along for the ride from there. The characters leap off the page and you will quickly feel at home as you tear through the novel. I could certainly see this series transferring well to the small screen, it’s certainly better than many of the series currently showing.
Judith kindly took a break from writing the new novel to answer a few questions.
Your characters certainly have a lot to deal with in life, not to mention the crimes themselves. Has this evolved over your career or have you always brought this realism?
I’ve always preferred to put my characters through a bit of distress: if the rest of us have to bear it, why shouldn’t they? At least few of my major characters, even the police officers, are completely dysfunctional – they have private lives, they love and support other people, they tend not to be grumpy all the time, they’re not alcoholics… But if you write about middle aged characters such as Fran and Mark, then they must come with some history and probably increasing health problems. I don’t think either of them is yet due for a triple bypass, which is what happened to a protagonist in my Lina Townend series, but you never know…
The procedural element in the novel is very realistic and the politics and jealousies are done beautifully, where do you get your knowledge and inspiration from? Surely teaching was not so cruel.
Teaching was far crueller! The tales I could tell… Curiously one of the fans of my early series featuring Sergeant Kate Power was a policeman, who was pretty well running a book on which force I’d worked for.
How do you write?
Do you have a ritual, do you plan out every detail or do you see where the story leads?
I like to have an idea, which I usually glean from the news or from an expert in the field. I like to know how to begin the novel and how to end it (usually, though I once changed the one who done it at the very end) but I really can’t plan in detail. Once I’ve told the story, I don’t want to tell it again.
Can you tell us about your new series? Will it be set in and around Birmingham?
There’s no new series in the offing, yet. I’m happy with Fran and Linda as protagonists, though I’d love an occasional return to the series that got most critical plaudits – Tobias Campion’s adventures. As for Birmingham, I’d love to write about such a vibrant, beautiful city and its wonderful people, but it’s changing so fast I’d have to move back there to write about it convincingly. I’d have to go to Symphony Hall concerts, go to the opera, visit the ever-changing Staffordshire Hoard exhibition, watch cricket at Edgbaston and go out to West Bromwich to cheer on the Albion. And I’d never have time to write a single word…
In between work and writing do you have any time to read? Who do you enjoy most?
Er – between work and writing? Writing is my work. I do it full-time! OK, I have a deep and ongoing relationship with my organic garden, I play tennis and dance to keep fit, I do some voluntary work through the church – but truly, I’m a full-time professional writer. I don’t get nearly enough time to read, but my tastes are catholic – review copies coming my way (I do occasional reviews for the ezine SHOTS), the classics, books by friends such as Amy Myers and Kate Ellis… Alas, two of my other favourite crime writers have recently died, Margaret York, who was a fine writer and incredibly kind and generous to me when I was a new writer, and Reginald Hill, whose enormously intelligent novels were always the high point of my reading year. Non-genre? Well, I was taught by David Lodge, whose work I respect deeply, and I will always turn to Ian McEwen’s latest novel with eager anticipation.
Fran and Mark have a new set of personal problems to overcome: he’s recently retired and hasn’t quite settled into his new life. The cuts in the police budget and consequent staff shortages mean that Fran, who’d happily sunk into a job reviewing cold cases, finds herself in charge of two very live ones.
When they’ve sorted out everything to their (and my) satisfaction, I should love to write some more short stories, my first love. And then, who knows – will Lina and Griff uncover another antiques trade scam that someone would rather keep hidden? Or will the Rev Tobias Campion need to leave his pulpit and seek out a criminal in need of redemption?
Whatever your taste in the current crop of crime novels there is always room for an intelligent, realistic and well-written story. This is not a doorstopper by any means but it doesn’t need to be. There is no filler, no scenes for the sake of them. This is a great story, populated with characters you will laugh with, squirm with and care about. I would advise reading the first three books first, but this is so you can enjoy them rather than because you need to. Personally I will now have to search out Judith’s other novels to keep me going until the next one comes out.
Judith Cutler is the author of more than thirty novels, many in short series. She enjoys writing about feisty women of a certain age, such as BURYING THE PAST’s protagonist Fran Harman, who has made a welcome return to her computer. Judith’s short stories have been widely broadcast and anthologised.
To learn more about Judith, please visit her website.
Visit Derek at: www.derekgunn.com.