The Distant Dead
The Distant Dead
Lesley Thomson can make your flesh creep at will. Her sense of place, during the Blitz or in the present, is remarkable. This is her best novel to date. Mark Sanderson The Times.
Cleaner-turned-detective Stella Darnell connects a murder in Tewkesbury Abbey to a decades-old mystery in wartime London. From the number 1 bestselling author of The Detective’s Daughter.
A woman lies dead in a bombed-out house. It looks like she’s another tragic casualty of the Blitz, until police pathologist Aleck Northcote proves she was strangled and placed at the scene. But Northcote himself has something to hide. And when his past catches up with him, he too is murdered.
Beneath the vast stone arches of Tewkesbury Abbey, a man has been fatally stabbed. He is Roddy March, an investigative journalist for a podcast series uncovering miscarriages of justice. He was looking into the murder of police pathologist Dr Aleck Northcote – and was certain he had uncovered Northcote’s real killer.
Stella Darnell used to run a detective agency alongside her cleaning business. She’s moved to Tewkesbury to escape from death, not to court it – but Roddy died in her arms and, Stella is someone impelled to root out evil when she finds it. Now she is determined to hunt down Roddy’s killer – but then she finds another body…
What gave me the idea?
During the night of 10th December 1940, my granddad, an officer at London’s Pentonville Prison, sat with Jose-Wahlberg, a young convicted spy. The note of gratitude which Wahlberg wrote to Albert Nelson, on a cigarette packet perhaps minutes before he was hanged for treason, is still in our family’s archive box. I haven’t dramatized this in The Distant Dead, which is a murder mystery, but it did inspire me set the novel in the 1940 London Blitz.
While I wrote the Distant Dead during 2020’s first lockdown, I had planned it before Covid-19 overtook the world,. However, I didn’t have to be a genius to find parallels between the privations and strictures of the Blitz and those set out by Boris Johnson’s government to protect the National Health Service. The pandemic slogan, ‘We’re in it together’ was a wartime rallying cry too.
In 1940 rules made criminals of the law-abiding, for leaving a chink in a blackout curtain or a gas mask at home. In the pandemic too, well-intentioned people ignored or broke rules around ‘Bubbles’ and high days and holidays. Living with limitations on movement, seeing businesses vanish and reading of the daily death toll, I felt affinity with the civilians on Britain’s home-front in 1940-41. History was just a breath away.
My research for the Distant Dead.
Lockdown meant I had to cancel my appointments with for instance, the National Archives, the Metropolitan Police Archives and the University of Sussex archives. I did make extensive use of UKPressOnline, the BBC’s British Genome Project and of the British Newspaper Archive. I read many books and watched government propaganda films. A core book was Murder Capital: Suspicious Deaths in London 1933-53 by Amy Helen Bell. (Manchester University Press, 1988). Myth speaks louder than reality and I read that, while shelterers in the tube did huddle over board games and sing Vera Lynn songs, in the dark stations and stairways, women were also raped and murdered. Crime was rife. The Nazis weren’t the only enemies.
Another book I carried with me everywhere was Massé, H. J. L. J. (Henri Jean Louis Joseph), b. 1860. The Abbey Church of Tewkesbury: With Some Account of the Priory Church of Deerhurst, Gloucestershire. Reprinted with corrections. London: G. Bell, 1906. Moreover, I used it like a modern day guide while I explored the Abbey and above all, as I depicted this special place of worship and reflection in The Distant Dead.
Lastly, in 1941, nineteen-year-old Maple Church, a ‘respectable’ clerk with Hackney Borough Council was murdered in a bomb-damaged building after a night out in London. My character Maple bears no resemblance to Maple Church however I named her by way of tribute. I hope Maple is resting in peace.
Click on these images to see photographs I took while writing The Distant Dead.