In this feature, we ask our Crime Cymru authors to name six things that influenced their life and shaped them as a writer. This week, multi-genre novelist and poet Katherine Stansfield speaks of her admiration for Daphne du Maurier and highlights the importance of her Cornish roots to her writing.
I first read Daphne du Maurier’s novel My Cousin Rachel when I was a teenager and was captivated by the deep sense of unease that runs through the story. Very little actually happens in the plot: a young man seeks to discover if his beloved cousin was murdered by the cousin’s new, devastatingly attractive wife, while at the same time coming under her spell himself. But du Maurier makes every small development seem vitally important and shot through with malice. She’s brilliant at conveying obsession as well as characters who transgress the norms of their community, whether that be through social status, sexuality, ‘foreignness’.
As a teenager I found all this hugely powerful and my admiration for My Cousin Rachel has remained with every regular re-read. What has struck me more recently is the way the novel sets up a tight mystery: did the titular Rachel kill the narrator’s cousin? Everything is geared to answering this question, and, in that way, it seems a classic of the mystery genre with an amateur sleuth at the helm. But the novel plays with genre conventions by having an unreliable narrator and eschewing a clear answer at the end: two key aspects of my own crime novels the Cornish Mysteries. My Cousin Rachel gave me a blueprint for the kind of mystery I wanted to write: compelling and character driven with a good bit of tricksiness.
This has to be my partner David Towsey – partner in life as well as in writing. Dave and I met as undergraduates at Aberystwyth University where we were both studying English and creative writing, albeit in different years. Almost immediately we began sharing our writing with one another to develop our work and get that crucial reader response, something which has continued ever since. Dave is the first person to read my new stuff and he gives that most valuable gift to a writer: honest feedback. Sometimes brutally honest! But always necessary and my writing is stronger for his expert eye. I do the same for him and we’ve developed a kind of creative symbiosis, even though we write very different things. I’m afraid we’re the kind of insufferable couple who are constantly talking about narrative because we’re both obsessed with storytelling – a handy common interest! We each published our own individual fiction series before deciding to co-write a few years ago and the result is our fantasy crime trilogy The Tales of Fenest which is published by Head of Zeus under the joint pen name D. K. Fields. It’s a police procedural in a made-up world where elections are won through storytelling.
One TV series
I’m afraid I’m going to cheat here and list a raft of them. As a teenager in the mid to late 90s I watched every crime series going on the four channels which were then available. Looking back now it seems a heyday of adaptations from the bestselling crime novels of that period: A Touch of Frost, Dalziel and Pascoe, Morse, Wexford, Cadfael. My great aunt lived with us as a family and she loved crime on the telly – David Jason as Jack Frost was her favourite. I would get into my pyjamas and sit on the floor by her armchair and we’d watch together, just the two of us. I loved the way a whole mystery could be contained in a single episode. It was immensely satisfying: you could see the whole thing, start to finish, including the answer to the puzzle, before you went to bed. I never saw the end coming and that amazed me too. I was too young to appreciate the novels that those TV dramas were based on but the adaptations gave me a deep sense of crime plotting, even if I wouldn’t be able to articulate that for a good few years to come.
It’s important to acknowledge that the list above is male-centric. There are no women detectives in those programmes, and for a long time TV crime drama in the UK was a male-dominated world. Thankfully that’s changed in recent years, and I wonder if the fact I have written two series which both feature female detectives is a reaction to the male-only police procedurals I watched as a teenager – bringing into being something I knew was missing and which I wanted to see.
Having thoroughly enjoyed the TV adaptations of Ellis Peters’ Cadfael novels when they were first broadcast, I’ve only recently started reading the novels themselves, and I love them. For the uninitiated, the books are set in twelfth century Shrewsbury and feature a Benedictine monk as the sleuth. There are twenty books and I’ve been reading them in order from the first onwards which has been a satisfying project in and of itself, seeing how a series character develops. Peters brilliantly meets the challenge of the crime series: the individual cases must be wrapped up by the end of each book but the central character needs to develop as the series moves forwards so there’s a tension between closure and a sense of openness. Peters also gives readers the familiarity which is the joy of an ongoing series. The world of the Abbey of St Peter and St Paul, where Cadfael makes his home, remains relatively unchanged, despite warring monarchs who send the country into tumult. Cadfael’s herb garden and workshop are some of the most comforting places in fiction that I’ve ‘inhabited’.
I grew up on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall which is a very rural, very beautiful place, but an isolated one. To see my friends outside school I needed a lift from my parents. There was no public transport to speak of, no shops in walking distance, no street lights – not much of anything apart from sheep, ponies and carrion birds. When I wasn’t watching crime drama on the television, I was out walking on the moor, reading or writing my own stories. It could be a lonely place, but I think now that I was fortunate because those years proved very fruitful for the development of my imagination and my engagement with books. I don’t think I’d be the writer I am today without that experience and it’s no surprise to me that my solo novels have all been set in Cornwall and explore real places and real events in Cornish history. Since leaving Cornwall, I’ve lived in Wales which has been hugely important to my development as a writer, but growing up on the moor set me on the path to where I am now.
Before I wrote fiction, I wrote poetry. I read a lot of it too, as a teenager living on the moor and then later when I went to university. I studied it as a reader and I put that knowledge into practice as a writer. Poetry’s use of sound patterns, the nuanced world of rhyme, the emphasis placed on cadence and rhythm has strengthened my prose writing tremendously. Crime fiction is, in many ways, a totally different beast to the lyric poem, but I’m sure the descriptive writing in my crime novels has an edge and a precision it wouldn’t have without my poet eye and ear. My ability to shape individual characters’ voices is sharper too. I think that’s why I’ve continued to write and publish poetry alongside my crime writing. Poetry has much to teach the crime writer about form as well. If you’re interested in the formal tensions of a sonnet, you’re probably going to enjoy plotting a murder mystery too.
Katherine Stansfield is a multi-genre novelist and poet who lives in Cardiff. Her Cornish Mysteries crime series is set in the 1840s and features unorthodox detective duo Anna Drake and Shilly Williams. The pair investigate crimes based on real events in Cornish history and involve a good dash of local folklore. Think ‘Sherlock Holmes meets the X Files meets Daphne du Maurier’. The most recent instalment is The Mermaid’s Call. She co-writes a fantasy crime trilogy with her partner David Towsey, publishing as D. K. Fields, and has published two full length poetry collections and a pamphlet with Seren.
The Cornish Mysteries series is published by Allison & Busby: Falling Creatures (book 1), The Magpie Tree (Book 2), The Mermaid’s Call (Book 3). All three are available in paperback and as ebooks and can be purchased here.
You can also find Katherine’s Cornish Mysteries and the D. K. Fields trilogy on her Bookshop page.
Katherine’s poetry collections can be found here.