Sally Spedding does not write cozies. Some people have called her novels “creepy chillers.” They are not for the faint-hearted. They frighten me. But that, I think, is what they are supposed to do, and they do it with style, with top-notch plotting and narrative skill, with brilliant, gradual build-up of suspense that keeps you turning the pages even when something deep inside you whispers, this is dangerous stuff, you will not be able to banish it from your mind.
My own interest in her work was caught first by her biography. She comes from Wales, as do I, and lives partly there and partly in the French Pyrenees. Most of her novels and stories are accordingly set in what the English call “foreign parts,” Wales being as foreign to many Englishmen as anything in the Pyrenees. The settings are very important in her work. She conjures them up in bone-chilling prose. Landscapes that you might previously have thought to be picturesque emerge slowly in her narratives as darkly terrifying places. These are surely “noir” mysteries, with a vengeance.
In her novels—she has published five and there are two more on the way—we do not follow the adventures of a set of characters, getting to know them and perhaps like them more and more from novel to novel. Quite the contrary. Each novel and each short story is a world unto itself. A unique cast of characters peoples its own landscape. There is no familiar detective who seeks to bring criminals to justice, and who gives readers a comforting sense that they know who is in control. P.D.James has famously said, “What the detective story is about is not murder but the restoration of order.” The thrillers of Sally Spedding are at the opposite pole of crime writing. They are about murder, and they have nothing to do with the restoration of order. Perhaps all they have in common with the traditional detective story is that they do have mysteries to be solved. Early on in Spedding’s novels, mysteries are hinted at, lurking horrors are obliquely suggested, dark secrets are pointed to, and then slowly, inexorably, horrifyingly, these dark secrets are uncovered, not giving us, the innocent readers, a sense of order restored, but rather a frightening sense that if ever there was ground under our feet, it is there no more, that our innocence itself is an illusion.
How does Sally Spedding, master of this particular craft, do this? I am going to look at two of her novels and a collection of short stories
My introduction to her work was the novel Prey Silence (2006). Open up the book, and look at the prefaced “Problem Page,” where fictional readers in little ads ask for helpful hints about how to deal with life in France, one of them Wardle-Smith, a main character in the book. You might be forgiven for thinking that the novel will satirize the Englishman’s dream of having a country house in the beautiful French countryside. If you look at an actual web site, e.g. Living France, you will see plenty of examples of the “real thing:” English couple finds happiness and fulfils dreams in rural France. The coolness (froideur) of the locals towards foreigners, mentioned with bewilderment on Spedding’s “Problem Page,” is only a tiny first hint of a different reality. As we all know, there is no more love lost in France than in Wales between the local inhabitants and the foreigners who move in buying land and property, pushing up prices and so on. But any thought the innocent reader might have that Sally Spedding is going to write a light satire on such social questions is dispelled right away in Chapter One. The farewell cocktail party given by a neighbor in a comfortable English suburb for the Wardle-Smith family of four, about to set off on their French adventure, borders on that kind of satire, but there are already too many hints of weirdness in the family, the Prozac-taking wife—her apple juice untouched in her glass, her gaze fixed on what, he couldn’t fathom—the nine-year old son looking up at his father with huge calf-like eyes, in Dad’s stomach, a knot of panic. Small notes of anxiety amidst the macho banter with his male friends that attempts to paper over the ever-widening cracks will fail.
The scene is thus set in England for what is doomed to be a disastrous move, and Spedding then takes us to France: Section after section of third person narratives introduce the various viewpoints of the main French characters who will people the landscape into which the Wardle-Smiths are about to insert themselves: the neighboring thug-like veal farmer, his beaten-down mother, the attractive young woman, a motor-bike riding activist investigating the disgusting farming methods of the veal farmer, we meet each one in person, and tiny pieces of the frightful history which has preceded the arrival of the Wardle-Smiths are sparingly distributed, so that by the hundredth page of this 450-page novel we are desperately wishing that the Wardle-Smiths would go back home, would not move into what turns out to be a filthy, unfurnished fermette with a dirt floor, no plumbing or electric light, a dark and dreadful cellar. And yet amazingly, by this time, Spedding has built up the story in all its detail of character and place in such a way that we know and even horrifyingly understand that Wardle-Smith must go through with it. And so he does, as the action builds up faster and faster to the bitter end. And so do we, caught up against our will in the mystery of it, turning the pages to find out what really are the secrets buried in this horrible house, and in the hearts and lives of the local inhabitants, so casually and characteristically dismissed by the English at the opening cocktail party as “frogs” and now exposing their much less than casual hatred of the “rosbifs,” the “Anglais,” who have descended on their land. Like it or not, these 450 pages are a narrative tour de force
I do not know the Pyrenees, but I do know the mountains of Mid-Wales, the setting of another Spedding novel, A Night with No Stars (2004). I know the way the Welsh talk English in Rhayader, I know the language of the chapel and the attitudes of suspicion that abound in the country as whole toward the English, the Saesneg. Sally Spedding captures the cadences of speech. She captures the beauty of the landscape—in bad weather a very bleak beauty. I have rarely seen it as bleak as it is in this novel. Spedding colors the scene to creepy effect it with words out of the Celtic heritage, Samhain, the Celtic Halloween and Beltane, the Celtic May, with people who dabble in Druidic myth—and with the dreadful ravens always hovering in the background, deeply symbolic in Celtic mythology, as the “heroine” of the novel learns. This central character, Lucy Mitchell, is not Welsh, but she has read a book in her childhood, Magical Tales from Magical Wales, and has an interest in Celtic beliefs; she has also (surprisingly) written a dissertation on the Welsh poet, R. S. Thomas, whose view of Wales is considerably bleaker than that of her Magical Tales, but when in the first chapter of the novel she is brutally and humiliatingly assaulted in her workplace, an upmarket publishing house in London, she sets off with a small inheritance to buy a property in Wales, hoping to find rural peace and Celtic regeneration. (She should have read R. S. Thomas more closely.)
Another outsider with a dream about to turn into a nightmare. The closer she gets to Wern Goch, the house on the Ravenstone estate that she wants to buy, the more her happy fantasy of the rural life fades, and the greater her fear grows that she going in the wrong direction, but simultaneously greater grows her sense that she cannot turn back. When she reaches the turn-off on the road to her dream house, a classic Spedding passage draws us a literal picture of this twofold recipe for disaster:
The unmade track in front of her was barely wide enough for a car let alone anything bigger and once she’d manoeuvred the Rav into its tight confines, she could hear the scraping of hawthorn against her paintwork. No way could she stop to check the damage because there wasn’t enough room to get out. A wave of panic hit her. She must keep going because the longer she was there, the greater the risk of something else meeting her head on and wanting to pass.
And so she goes on deeper and deeper into trouble and less and less able to turn back, and we with her. As in Prey Silence, the other characters are introduced early on in their own voices though in third person narratives, thus Mark Jones, the son of the house owner, handsome, crazy, a poet, a laborer, a man with strange rapport with the huge ravens that inhabit the land; other characters too, not even in Wales, whose connection with the central plot is still a mystery. There are secrets in Wern Goch that Lucy begins to know about, but no one will explain them to her. The wife of the owner, mother of Mark, was horribly murdered fifteen years before in this house, but why? By whom? We, the innocent readers are early caught up in the plot, tantalized by the pieces of mystery that are dropped into our laps, reading on, guilty of going with Lucy on this dangerous path, guilty of wanting to know the worst, not comforted by the small suggestion of a new order at the very end, our heads and consciousness saturated with the horrific images that have “solved” the mystery.
Spedding’s collection of short stories, Strangers Waiting (2008) might be a place for readers to start who would like to get a first-hand sense of her work quickly. She succeeds amazingly in even very short pieces, some as short as 4 pages, in setting up immediate question marks in our minds, with unsettling details, hints as to an underlying enigma and then an ever-faster moving story on to the climactic end that brings its horrific revelation. The two novels that I have discussed happen to tell the story of outsiders who try to penetrate an impenetrable homeland and pay the price. There is one such story in this collection, but apart from this, every one has a radically different plot. They run the gamut of Spedding settings, from France to Wales, with occasional forays into the rest of Britain. All third person narratives, each story has one point of view, one language to suit the character, sometimes the victim, sometimes the murderer – for these stories are all about murder, about the darkest places of the human psyche. We watch with horror as a cold and vicious French woman, respectable, a retired school teacher, cleaning her windows with hatred in her heart, moves towards her own destruction: A realistic slice of life? We see an elderly lady, a poet, on a cruise designed for those who have lived too long: A piece of science fiction? We see a girl on a beach in 1851, she has loved her father, her brother, has hated her mother, has she? has she? the story loops back and we follow it through until the revelation of the beginning brings us to the terrible end: A historical fantasy of hate? Every story in this collection is a brilliant piece of narrative. Much too brilliant to read if you do not want the balance of your own mind to be disturbed.
Who reads such chilling thrillers as Sally Spedding’s? Mysteries that do not fit into any one standard genre but skirt the edges of several: crime novels, yes, but also horror novels, paranormal, historical, they will not be categorized. Sally Spedding has herself said: “I’m not writing for your archetypal over-60’s female who lives in Okehampton and enjoys ‘cozy crime.’ I want to stir things up a bit. Give readers a fright.” The three works that I have discussed here have given me a fright, many a fright. But, as readers of this blog know, I have my own problems with “cozy crime,” because crime, as we all know, is not cozy. Murder is horror. Is Sally Spedding looking this fact in the face while cozy mystery writers are simply avoiding it and writing murder mysteries for fun? But, and this is still a mystery to me, do people read horror stories for fun? Sally has agreed to be interviewed for this blog and I am looking forward to this very much. Many questions to ask.
Books discussed here:
A Night with No Stars. London, Allison and Brody, 2004 (novel)
Prey Silence. London, Allison and Brody, 2006 (Novel)
Strangers Waiting. London, Allison and Brody, 2008 (Short Story Collection)
(The title story in this collection, Strangers Waiting, was first published in CWA’s best British Mysteries, 2005. It was also winner of the H.E.Bates Short Story Prize.)