In the final instalment of our 100 Page Turners from Wales series, Emma Schofield introduces our panel’s selection of titles with the theme of ‘Conflict and Crime’.
The nights are still drawing in as we reach this final category in our series of 100 page turners from Wales, which makes perfect backdrop for the books on our ‘Conflict and Crime’ list. The judging panel’s selection includes a range of novels which explore the impact of simmering conflicts and rash actions on the lives of their characters.
One of the earliest entries on the list is Amy Dilwyn’s A Burglary which follows the story of heiress Ethel Carton, who is burgled while staying in Llwyn-yr-Allt, the local poacher who is wrongly accused of the crime and the officer who is actually accountable for the robbery. A relatively gentle entry on the crime and conflict list, the novel offers moral dilemmas and a wry look at class divisions of the time. Published over seventy years later, Menna Gallie also touches on class divisions in her 1959 novel Strike for a Kingdom which centres on the murder of a mine-manager who is found dead. As the search for the truth unfolds, suspicions run high among the close-knit community and old tensions are brough back to the surface. Both novels have as much to say about their social and political settings as they do about intriguing narratives they present.
The changing times have not lessened the impact of crime and conflict writing from Wales, the more recent entries on our list pack a pretty strong punch of their own. Kate Hamer’s tense story of a missing child in The Girl in the Red Coat offers a compelling read, simultaneously tracing the stories of eight year old Carmel and her mother, Beth, who embarks on a frantic quest to find her daughter. There is similar tension in D. K. Fields’ 2019 novel Widow’s Welcome in which the writing partnership of David Towsey and Katherine Stansfield plunges us into an alternative world where a murder becomes a calling-card for an even more sinister crime. Widow’s Welcome tackles politics and the importance of free speech, all while maintaining a pacy murder mystery. Both novels make for intriguing and engrossing reading.
While crime seems to take centre stage in many of the novels on our list, the theme of conflict and its consequences is never far behind. Raymond Williams situates The Volunteers in the midst of a striking coalfield where tensions are running high and journalist Lewis Redfern finds himself caught between striking miners and the police in a high stakes investigation which leads him to uncover a secret organisation. Meanwhile family conflict lies at the heart of Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands, in which a young boy establishes a disturbing dialogue with an imprisoned serial killer in his quest to uncover the truth about what happened to his late uncle. Gripping and deeply uncomfortable in places, the novel traces the impact of denial and family feuds on a vulnerable child struggling to make sense of his own family’s history.
Perhaps the most poignant of all the texts nominated by our judging panel in this category, is Alun Lewis’ collection of shorts stories, In the Green Tree. The collection, punctuated by Lewis’ own letters to home, is based on its author’s own experiences of serving for the British army in India during the Second World War. Personal and packed with vivid imagery of war and society in turmoil, the stories in the collection are tales of human lives torn apart by circumstances beyond their control. The shadow of war and the imminent threat of death are everywhere in the stories, an inescapable force which seems to surround each of the characters offering little prospect of escape. It is, perhaps, an ominous foreshadowing of Lewis’ own death which occurred while on duty in Burma in 1944. It is a stark reminder of the fleeting, but precious, nature of life and the destruction which conflict and crime can wreak on that life when left to run unchecked.
Conflict and Crime
Blacklands, by Belinda Bauer (2009)
Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Steven Lamb digs holes on Exmoor, hoping to find a body. Every day after school, while his classmates swap football stickers, Steven goes digging to lay to rest the ghost of the uncle he never knew, who disappeared aged eleven and is assumed to have fallen victim to the notorious serial killer Arnold Avery. Only Steven’s Nan is not convinced her son is dead. She still waits for him to come home, standing bitter guard at the front window while her family fragments around her. Steven is determined to heal the widening cracks between them before it’s too late. And if that means presenting his grandmother with the bones of her murdered son, he’ll do it. So the boy takes the next logical step, carefully crafting a letter to Arnold Avery in prison. There begins a dangerous cat-and-mouse game between a desperate child and a bored serial killer.
‘An excellent first novel, with a highly original plot.’ The Times
‘Belinda Bauer is such an interesting writer – a restless intelligence that always goes its own way, but always comes up with something that feels both surprising but inevitable.’ Lee Child
The Girl in the Red Coat, by Kate Hamer (2015)
Synopsis: Eight-year-old Carmel has always been different – sensitive, distracted, with an heartstopping tendency to go missing. Her mother Beth, newly single, worries about her daughter’s strangeness, especially as she is trying to rebuild a life for the two of them on her own. When she takes Carmel for an outing to a local festival, her worst fear is realised: Carmel disappears into the crowd. Unable to accept the possibility that her daughter might be gone for good, Beth embarks on a mission to find her. Meanwhile, Carmel begins an extraordinary and terrifying journey of her own. But do the real clues to Carmel’s disappearance lie in the otherworldly qualities her mother had only begun to guess at?
‘An engrossing read to be devoured in a single gulp.’ The Sunday Times
A Buglary, by Amy Dilwyn (1883)
Synopsis: First published in 1883 as a three-volume novel, A Burglary tells the story of the heiress Ethel Carton, who is burgled while staying in Llwyn-yr-Allt. A local poacher is blamed, but the burglar is young officer Sylvester, who has fallen for Imogen, Ethel’s headstrong young cousin. A charming, enjoyable story which illustrates that people can inspire love without realising it.
‘It is simply a rattling good read with all the elements of the sensation novel in full play: criminality, thwarted romance, a catastrophic (and symbolic) fire, spiced with a nice sense of wry humour and gentle sarcasm at the expense of pretension and snobbery.’ David Painting
Strike for a Kingdom, by Menna Gallie (1959)
Synopsis: First published in 1959, this unusual, highly praised novel is set in the coal-mining valleys of Wales at a time of near-starvation. After a much-hated mine manager is found dead, suspense and suspicion grow among the miners, men who, despite their poverty, abound with humour and warmth. The tension grows until the truth about the killing is discovered by one of the miners’ own leaders.
‘Fresh and beguiling.’ Times Literary Supplement
‘A beautiful novel with a great control over voice and theme, and it deserves much more love as a classic of Welsh literature.’ Adam Burns, One Book at a Time
Cardiff Dead, by John Williams (1940)
Synopsis: Cardiff 1999. The city’s booming. The Welsh Assembly kicks off in a welter of sexual scandal, fireworks and Shirley Bassey. So does the Rugby World Cup (well give or take the sexual scandal anyway). Cardiff 1999. Charlie Unger’s dead, been lying in his flat for a week. Charlie was old Cardiff through and through. Like Dame Shirley, he was a black kid from Tiger Bay. He found fame and fortune in the fifties as a boxer, lightweight champion of the world. Charlie’s funeral brought the Wurriyas back together again – five lost souls looking for a place in their city’s brave new millennium.
‘Taking the lead from Ellroy, in the way Pelecanos, Peace, Rankin and the rest have, Williams has staked out his own territory – Cardiff.’ Uncut
Owen Glendower, by John Cowper Powys (1940)
Synopsis: It is the year 1400, and Wales is on the brink of a bloody revolt. At a market fair on the banks of the River Dee, a mad rebel priest and his beautiful companion are condemned to be burned at the stake. To their rescue rides the unlikely figure of Rhisiart, a young Oxford scholar, whose fate will be entangled with that of Owen Glendower, the last true Prince of Wales – a man called, at times against his will, to fulfill the prophesied role of national redeemer.
‘Powys’ great historical novel, Owen Glendower… is a book to handle, to make notes in, to savour… Brilliant.’ The Guardian
The Golden Orphans, by Gary Raymond (2018)
Synopsis: Francis Benthem is a successful artist; he’s created a new life on an island in the sun. He works all night, painting the dreams of his mysterious Russian benefactor, Illy Prostakov. He writes letters to old friends and students back in cold, far away London. But now Francis Benthem is found dead. The funeral is planned and his old friend from art school arrives to finish what Benthem had started. The painting of dreams on a faraway island. But you can also paint nightmares and Illy has secrets of his own that are not ready for the light. Of promises made and broken, betrayal and murder…
‘A sharp, pacy novel that has all the best hallmarks of the literary thriller…’ Patrick McGuiness
Widow’s Welcome, by D. K. Fields (2019)
Synopsis: Dead bodies aren’t unusual in the alleyways of Fenest, capital of the Union of Realms. Especially not in an election year, when the streets swell with crowds from near and far. Muggings, brawls gone bad, debts collected Detective Cora Gorderheim has seen it all. Until she finds a Wayward man with his mouth sewn shut. His body has been arranged precisely by the killer and left conspicuously, waiting to be found. Cora fears this is not only a murder, but a message. As she digs into the dead man’s past, she finds herself drawn into the most dangerous event in the Union: the election. In a world where stories win votes, someone has gone to a lot of trouble to silence this man. Who has stopped his story being told?
‘There is more than meets the eye in this gripping and inventive debut… Rife with intrigue, deceit and cultural tension.’ James Aitcheson
‘An utterly absorbing tale set in a fascinating world.’ Mick Finlay
The Volunteers, by Raymond Williams (1978)
Synopsis: A worker is killed in the striking coalfields of South Wales. Some months later a government minister suspected of being connected with the death is shot. Lewis Redfern, once a radical, now a political analyst and journalist, pursues the killer, a lonely hunt that leads him through a maze of government leaks and international politics to a secret organization: a source of insurrection far more powerful than anyone could have suspected – the world of the Volunteers.
‘Every reader of the The Volunteers can testify to its power and pace as a detective thriller.’ Tony Pinkey
In the Green Tree, by Alun Lewis (1948)
Synopsis: Through his letters home and six short stories, Alun Lewis paints a vibrant picture of life in India as a British serviceman during World War II. Intimate, vivid, observational and always filled with emotion, In The Green Tree is a rare literary example of one Welshman’s experience of empire and war.
‘[Lewis’ writing is] wistfully strong and evocative as those lonely wartime pill-boxes one sees stranded by time on coastal marshes.’ M. Wynn Thomas