The most memorable fictional crime-solvers are creatures of their own settings. Where would Sherlock Holmes be without a foggy London street – and a villain lurking in the shadows? Or Miss Marple without a cute cottage in a country village? Or Philip Marlowe without a seedy bar and a blonde in trouble?
So when I decided to write a mystery novel featuring crime reporter Colin Crampton, I was faced with a problem. Where should he live and work? I couldn’t have Crampton working for a real newspaper because he pulls scams so outrageous they would make the sleaziest scandal sheet blush. So I decided to create a fictional paper called the Evening Chronicle. It was tempting to make the Chronicle a national in London’s traditional newspaper district of Fleet Street. But Crampton needed a more intimate setting to display his talents. And where better than Brighton?
I’ve worked as a freelance journalist based in or near Brighton for 35 years. So I know at first hand that Brighton has an enviable image in the rest of Britain – part London-by-the-sea, part pleasure playground. But it is also an ideal setting for a crime novelist because it has its darker side. After the notorious trunk murders of 1934 – when dismembered parts of a woman’s body were discovered in a plywood box at Brighton railway station – the town was dubbed “the queen of slaughtering places”.
Graham Greene famously used the violence of 1930s racecourse razor gangs in his novel Brighton Rock. So I thought Brighton would be an ideal stage for a crime reporter who is a campaigning journalist with a fatal flaw. He will stoop to any low trick to expose the truth and see justice done.
The next question was when should the stories take place. Evening newspapers hit their peak circulations in the 1960s – before local radio, television and, later, social media developed a mass following. The circulation of the real-life Brighton Evening Argus (as it then was) topped 100,000 during the decade. In those days, you’d get the news first from an evening paper. Some ran through as many as eight editions during the course of a day.
Besides the 1960s is one of only two decades ever to have attracted its own adjective (and a couple of capital letters) – the Swinging Sixties. (The other was the Roaring Twenties.) They say if you remember the Sixties, you weren’t there. But if you need some hints about what it was like, think the Age of Aquarius. New music, new ideas. Social reform. Let the sun shine in. Hippies. The Rolling Stones. Young fashion. Mini-skirts. Flower power. Make love, not war.
If you lived in Brighton in the sixties you could sense the town was having more fun than at any time since Prinny – Britain’s future King George IV – chased his favourite mistress Mrs Fitzherbert around the Old Steine. The place was in fine form. It had two piers thronged with visitors. Colourful summer seafront illuminations were a joy for holidaymakers rather than a threat to the environment.
The Lanes- the eighteenth century heart of the town – were packed with antique shops and bargain hunters. Volk’s railway rumbled along towards Black Rock before the marina became – in the view of some – a blot on the seascape. Punters packed the racecourse – without a razor gang in sight. The most important political conferences rolled into town each autumn. There were quirky restaurants such as Antoine’s Sussex Grill (speciality: crêpe Suzette) in Middle Street and Prompt Corner (speciality: kippers in cream) in Montpelier Road. And you could buy a set of false teeth made out of peppermint rock at a kiosk on the pier.
What better atmosphere could you want for a crime mystery? Except, perhaps, a dead body or two.