Last night my mother and I took ourselves off to the nearby town of Ilkley to The Grove Bookshop, a friendly independent. We were attending the launch of Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by the late local author Gil North. Gil North, the pseudonym of Geoffrey Horne, was from my home town of Skipton and his series of novels are set in Gunnarshaw which is so recognisably Skipton that I can often pinpoint his route as he travels about.
The event was well attended and the talk given by crime novelist Martin Edwards was excellent, setting Cluff firmly in his early '60s context, a world where crime fiction was beginning to happen on TV as well as in publishing. Martin is the consultant for the British Library's phenomenally successful reissues of forgotten Golden Age crime; he also writes the introductions for the Cluff books.
Martin made the point during his talk that Gil North has a sparse writing style and that the books are brief, almost novellas, much like the Maigret books that North admired. I was prepared therefore when I started my first Cluff book this morning for the rather staccato sentences. Initially I thought the style was so brief as to be clunky, but very quickly I found it both easy and appropriate, rather craggy and sharp like the landscape of the moors and the traditional demeanour of Yorkshiremen!
My next shock was the great contrast of the tone of the book with the cover. The nostalgic covers of the British library series are indeed half their charm, but this story is not set in the charming Skipton of the modern tourists on their bus trips or narrowboat rides, coming to Skipton for cream teas and fish and chips, the castle and the pretty canalside walks. This is the old-fashioned, stuck in its ways Skipton of the late 1950s. A semi-industrial landscape where farming is an industry, and the livestock, and the mud, and the mills and the (then) filthy canal make it grimy not charming. Nor is the story a traditional whodunnit. Cluff knows his man and dogs his trail. More than anything else this reminded me of a film called Hell is a City, an unlikely piece of Mancunian film noir that came out the same year (1960) staring Stanley Baker as Inspector Harry Martineau.
Cluff is steadfast in a rather brutal way. Hard-boiled, in a rather Yorkshire way. And the language reflects this reality rather than the typically placid crimes of the home counties detectives. Graves are not a place of rest when they're 'gashed' into the landscape. Furniture is not arranged, it is 'thrust'. Ginnels (alley ways) don't wind, they 'burrow' like an escaping animal. The imagery is also straight from film noir:
Cluff leaned against the lamp, idle, nonchalant, large in the grey afternoon...He was motionless, his face shadowed by the flopping brim of his hat, his hands in his pockets, his stick dangling from his right wrist.
Cue cliched film noir pic:
But in fact it does blend the urban and the rural in close and dark proximity, much as Hell is a City does. "The canal was still and murky, black, evil-smelling" is echoed not relieved by the moors: "Perpendicular black crags raised themselves above still black pools of peat-stained water".
Hell is a City also shows an industrial landscape merging with the moors and the street-wise detective at home in both:
Hell is a City was first a novel by Maurice Procter and was published a few years before the Cluff books. Proctor was born in Nelson, another mill town on the edge of the moors. He was then a police offer in Halifax, another ... well you get the picture. The plots are completely different but the dark tone of the film is so similar.
I've thoroughly enjoyed this foray into Skipton's murkier past and enjoyed seeing it in my mind without the day-trippers. The dark tone and the psychological persistence of the detective are offset by the essence of the man: as Martin Edwards says in his introduction, Cluff is 'unquestionably a man of genuine compassion'.
Hell is a City, by the way, is an excellent film of its type, available on DVD or you can pay to watch online at the excellent BFI website.
Martin Edwards has a write-up about Cluff and Skipton on his blog with pictures showing the area in its more familiar pristine self.
The second Cluff novel The Methods of Sergeant Cluff is due out in September. I hope the British library follow up with the rest of the series.
There's an excellent review on Past Offences and I thoroughly with his assessment that North has, "unforgiving descriptions of women"! I could write a whole new post about that.
And lastly, I met a friendly librarian at the talk who told me that Skipton library is having a big read along led by another local crime novelist, sometime in September, which locals might like to look out for. There is a photo of me and a stand of Cluff books on the library twitter feed!