Article published on September 6, 2016.
Nothing stays hidden forever.
In the depths of winter in an isolated Yorkshire hamlet, a teenage girl, Melanie Muncy, is missing.
The elite detective unit Cold Storage dispatches its best man to investigate. DI Jim Brindle may be obsessive, taciturn and solitary, but nobody on the force is more relentless in pursuing justice. Local journalist Roddy Mace has sacrificed a high-flying career as a reporter in London to take up a role with the local newspaper. For him the Muncy case offers the chance of redemption.
Darker forces are at work than either man has realised. On a farm high above the hamlet, Steven Rutter, a destitute loner, harbours secrets that will shock even the hardened Brindle. Nobody knows the bleak moors and their hiding places better than him.
As Brindle and Mace begin to prise the secrets of the case from the tight-lipped locals, their investigation leads first to the pillars of the community and finally to a local celebrity who has his own hiding places, and his own dark tastes.
Reviewer Mike Stafford rated Turning Blue by Benjamin Myers very highly, saying, ‘The writing is masterful. The descriptive power throughout is akin to the best metaphysical poetry.’
Benjamin Myers agreed to answer some questions:
MS: It’s hard not to read Turning Blue through the prism of Operation Yewtree. Is that where the book came from?
BM: It sits at a confluence of ideas really, though the whole Savile / Yewtree story certainly cast a huge shadow over the novel. I’d interviewed Rolf Harris while working as a journalist, and Ian Watkins too, and their stories were also all over the daily news while I was writing Turning Blue, so it was hard not reflect on the horror of their crimes, feel huge sympathy for their victims and also meditate on the fact that we can never really know what people are up to. And when I say people, I mean men. And when I say men, I mean the most corrupted, morally repugnant, psychopathic and just plain wrong men.
So that idea of an occultist world – secrets buried beneath the surface of everyday life; men who wear metaphorical masks in public – is really the backbone for the novel. It all filtered in there by dark psychic osmosis, shaping the book as I continually redrafted it. Operation Yewtree set the tone if you like, which is one of unremitting bleakness. Like most of my novels it explores the idea of power, and the exploitation of power, and though it might be the darkest thing I will ever write, I was always aware that real life is ever darker. Nothing happens in Turning Blue that hasn’t happened out there somewhere. The daily news remains my primary source of inspiration.
Turning Blue takes the reader to some very dark places. As a writer, how easy is it to come back from those dark corners of yourself after you’ve written a passage or chapter?
It takes its toll. Turning Blue had a very negative effect on me mentally – but then I suppose, how could it not? I consider myself a fairly stable person with a healthy and pretty quiet life, but even so, the subject matter is so severe it provoked bouts of anxiety, exhaustion and depression. In order to survive, you have to strike a balance between exploring these dark places on the page, then stepping away from them and doing something else entirely – in my case, walking in the countryside, laughing as much as possible, watching TV or doing mundane repetitive tasks like chopping wood. You can’t let the book take complete control of your life. You have to tame that beast, ride it…then slaughter it and move on. That’s why I never read my books once they’re published. Even talking about them is difficult sometimes. I don’t understand how some writers can go out there on the promotional circuit, reading the same passages and answering the same questions, week after week. To me, that’s like picking at an old wound. I like to move onto the next thing, and let word-of-mouth take its course.
Jeffrey Deaver once said that cities are now uniform, and that if you want to understand a nation’s unique character, you have to go to its countryside. Is that a fair comment?
That’s an interesting observation. I lived in London for twelve years but now live in a small Pennine town and am intoxicated by the British countryside, so have experienced both sides. The city is an amorphous entity, it is ever-changing, ever-expanding, yet cities do share certain core characteristics. A ‘London novel’ would have to be quite original and special to succeed beyond the usual themes of urban alienation, yet people still keep writing them. In the countryside things are deeper rooted and the timescale is different. There is space to breathe and think – or hide. Rural life is also patronised and looked down by some people: they see the countryside as a romanticised theme park. Watch Countryfile and you might believe rural England to be all about flapjacks, watercolours and knitting, which it clearly isn’t.
To me, the countryside is about old ways butting up against modern life – it’s about the friction between the two – and it’s also about myths and agriculture and dialects and animals and raw beauty. The cycle of life is there outside your window to be observed every day, in plants and animals and weather. So the countryside is an amorphous entity too, it is ever-changing and diverse in different ways. It is far from backward, as some more metropolitan people might believe – but you have to learn how to read it differently.
On a similar note, why do you think crime fiction has been so heavily wedded to city living over the decades, when it’s clearly the agricultural world which has the greater claim to daily death and violence?
In the past two centuries in Britain and across Europe we’ve seen a broad shift from agricultural living to urban (and, more recently, suburban) living. The way we live and work and eat and travel has entirely changed as a consequence. The cities as we know them are relatively young; most are only a few centuries old, which is very new in the grand time-line of societal evolution. In America, even more so: go to cities in, say, Texas or to LA even, and everything is new. They appear to have landed from space into the desert, almost fully formed. Their foundations are shallow.
People appear to be living very different lives than we did for thousands of years beforehand. The nature of society has changed, and with it our narratives have changed to. As you say, death and violence is visible in both cities and the countryside, but I think that shift towards urban/suburban living has produced a fear of the countryside. We have moved so far away from the land that we no longer understand it. And when we don’t understand something – whether that’s something that howls from the woodland or the experience of walking down a dark country lane alone at night – we fear it. I find it sad that evolution has taken us away from what was once the norm, and we have become domesticated to the point of torpor and ineptitude.
Also, yes, the agricultural world is one that is beset by violence and accidents and, these days, is often dominated by great monstrous machines that are awesome spectacles to observe. They are almost characters in themselves.
Bleak as it is, would it be possible to write about the English north the way you do without a great deal of love for the place?
I love the north of England – or aspects of it, anyway: primarily the people and the landscape. Culturally and economically the north has produced so much too, yet still London receives the lion’s share of investment. But I’m not a vocal champion of the north at the expense of other regions or countries, because that would make me parochial and, despite everything I’ve just said, it is the 21st century and one must always look outwards. But, yes, there’s plenty to love here. You can live much cheaper up north and the further you go, the friendlier people become….and that includes right up through Scotland, which I feel a strong affinity to.
I do wish the countryside was more ethnically diverse, but I think that will come in time as different diasporic communities spread their wings beyond the conurbations.
Writing-wise it is endlessly inspiring and I am aiming to document the counties of the north in a series of novels – so Pig Iron (2012) was set in Durham, Beastings (2014) in Cumbria, Turning Blue (2016) in North Yorkshire and my next novel, and possibly the one after that, are set in West Yorkshire, where I live. I also recently took part in a multi-media project centred around Hadrian’s Wall, so have been writing and researching ancient Northumbria too. A story set in the East Riding is also possibly a future concern.
It all forms a body of work that I hope will one day be viewed as an alternative fictional history of the many aspects of the North of England. Most of the big London-based publisher just don’t seem to understand why I would want to do this.
Can you tell us something about what you’re working on now?
My next novel is called The Gallows Pole and will be published in 2017 by Bluemoose Books. It is based on a real-life gang of forgers and murderers called the Cragg Vale Coiners, who ran a criminal enterprise in the Upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire circa 1770, in the final days before the Industrial Revolution changed England forever. I feel it is perhaps a culmination of everything I’ve worked on to date, combining crime, poetry, myth, landscape and experimental fiction, and also contains themes which are relevant today: rich versus poor, the class system, a fear of outsiders.
Following that I am currently completing a sequel of sorts to Turning Blue, which revisits the two lead characters – Roddy Mace and James Brindle – a year on and finds them in various states of mental disrepair, and who are forced back together due to circumstances: namely a spate of attacks in a small, bohemian hill-town. It is a folk crime novel, combining old and new fears. Hopefully it is written in such a way that it works as a stand-alone book too.
Are happy or tidy endings facile?
‘Facile’ might not be the word I would choose, but life rarely has neat and tidy endings so I like to think that stories continue long after the final page, and should be written as so. Ambiguity is good, though so many publishers and readers seem to want to experience redemption and know that the good guys always win in the end. Which they just don’t. I prefer to write books that provide an unforgettable experience for the reader. Maximum emotional and even physical impact is my aim, even if that means an ending that leaves the reader in tatters – for which I can only humbly apologise in advance.
Turning Blue by Benjamin Myers, published on 1 August, 2016 by Moth Publishing, in paperback at £7.99
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