Frances Brody: Yorkshire crime writer comes to the Ilkley Literature Festival
THE travel instructions were admirably precise. “The 12.27 from York (destination Blackpool North) makes three stops before Cross Gates, arriving 12.53. I’ll meet you on the platform.”
Frances Brody is as good as her word and yet something is amiss. I shouldn’t have travelled from York to Leeds on a workaday diesel. There should have been steam and smuts in the air, a proper locomotive belching out a trailing plume of smoke.
Instead of a 15-minute walk down an alley besides the railway to the house Frances shares with her sister, we should have been bowling along in a vintage Jowett with the roof down.
This would have more fitting. After all, Frances Brody is the author of mystery novels set in 1920s Yorkshire and featuring that stylish and pin-smart amateur detective, Kate Shackleton.
Frances is about to publish the seventh in her series of charming and compulsive crime mysteries featuring Kate. A Death in the Dales begins with her heading to Langcliffe for a holiday with her recuperating but indomitable niece, Harriet.
The holiday offers another chance for Kate to rekindle her relationship with Dr Lucian Simonson. It’s a tentative romance overshadowed by murder (that’s what happens when you meet in a novel called Murder on a Summer’s Day).
Some years earlier, Freda Simonson was the only witness when a pub landlord was killed across the street. She went to her unquiet grave certain the wrong man had been hanged for the crime. The holidaying Kate is pulled into that old mystery, and into more recent dark puzzles too.
The pub murder dates to reports of a similar incident that Frances uncovered in the Craven Weekly Pioneer. A story from an 1871 edition reported that the landlord of the inn at Langcliffe had died after being pushed over. When Frances read this during her research, the final piece of her novel fell into place.
Frances never intended to write crime novels, she says, but was urged in that direction by a mysterious image. “I had this picture in my head of a man trapped behind a high wall and he couldn’t return to his family for some reason, I don’t know why. So I thought someone might be able to solve this. And that’s where Kate Shackleton steps in.”
Her heroine jumped out at Frances from an old photograph. Her family has albums going back 100 years or so. She was looking at these one day when she came across a striking portrait of a woman from the 1920s with bobbed hair. “She was quite bright looking and I thought: ‘That’s her’.”
After that, Frances went to look for a house. “Kate lives in Headingley because her husband, who didn’t come back from the war, was a surgeon at Leeds General Infirmary. So I knew she would live in that area.
“I went looking and I found the house for her and it has a little wood behind. I knew by sight the person who lived there. I saw her walking around the wood and I said: ‘Your house is going to be the place where my detective character lived in the 1920s’. And she looked at me a bit strangely and I chatted to her thinking she might ask me in.”
She didn’t and now Frances laughs at the memory. “I think she was a bit cautious about me.” In the end she was glad she didn’t go in because this left her free to create the house in Kate’s image.
Frances likes to root her novels in the actual. “I have to feel everything is real. I went to look at the car she would drive and I chose a 1913 Jowett. I also looked at the kind of clothes she might wear and everything about her,” she says.
“I have the old Ordnance Survey maps so I can see where the streets were and where she would go and how long it would take.”
Such an independent heroine appealed to Frances after writing historical family sagas, in which the working-class heroines led more restricted lives. “In sagas the heroines never have any money. They are always broke and if they want to go on a trip to London, someone always has to pay their fare for them.
“I thought it would be very nice to have someone of private means. Because if you want someone to be a detective, they have to be able to go somewhere at the drop of a hat.”
Kate Shackleton is a modern heroine who represents the changing role of women. Frances summons her spirit with a quote from Millicent Fawcett: “Before the First World War, women were serfs. Afterwards, they were free.”
“That period after the First World War was such a period of great upheaval. What Kate tries to do, as well as discover the circumstances surrounding her own husband’s demise or disappearance, is to help other women. Because it was a time when some men maybe took the opportunity to start a new life somewhere else when they came back. And that draws her into sleuthing.”
Frances has lived as far away as the US, but Yorkshire has always held her heart. At the age of 19, she went to Manhattan, where she worked as a secretary for five years. Then Yorkshire called her home, and she returned to write two novels that were turned down. After that she attended Ruskin College in Oxford. “It’s a place for people who don’t have many formal qualifications. I had RSAs in shorthand typing and English; that was all I had.”
Frances could have stayed in the city to study further, but felt the pull of the North again. “I just wanted to come back to Yorkshire. I went to York University and I did history and English and when I left there I went into teaching.”
She finished university in 1976 and worked at Bradford College, leaving after five years to write plays and short stories, and later those sagas, under her real name of Frances McNeil. Her drama Trappin’ (slang for getting a boyfriend or girlfriend) went onto the GCSE curriculum.
As a child Frances used to visit an elderly woman known as Auntie Amy. “She lived on Beckett Street in Leeds and after school on a Friday, I would take the bus and go and stay with her for the night.” Memories of Aunty Amy helped when she created Kate Shackleton. Another personal connection provided her pen-name. “Brody’s a made-up name or a stolen name,” Frances says.
She first heard Brody as a nickname mentioned by her late writer friend Jill Hyem, who scripted the TV series Tenko, and liked the sound of it. This led Frances McNeil to look up Frances Brody.
Does she identify with Kate? “There probably is a little bit of that in it,” she says. “But she’s cleverer than I am, she’s quicker on the uptake.”
And with that it’s back to the station, still on foot and not in that vintage Jowett.
Frances Brody is taking part in a Crime & Curry evening at the Ilkley Literature Festival tonight.