I live in West Wales – have lived here for more than 35 years, and I find it easy to use as a setting for my domestic noir novels. But just to season the brew I have also made use of the town where I was born and lived for nearly 30 years. Luton, Bedfordshire, 32 miles north of London, on the M1, trains to St Pancras and, of course, Luton airport. A town squeezed into a gap in the Chilterns, chalk downs that I still miss.
Luton is not an obvious setting for intense domestic drama or gritty urban thrillers – at least it wasn’t when I left it, back in the 80s. Might have changed by now, of course. The Luton I remember was a town that went out of its way to be non-descript, the epitome of suburban, too close to London to establish an identity of its own but too far out to share in the glamour of the capital. While Wales wears its history on the surface, you had to dig deep to find Luton’s. History is there: one marshy area around the source of the River Lea (now trapped in a concrete pipe behind a scenic metal grid), is an acknowledged Neolithic encampment. It is surrounded by playing fields and a 1970s housing estate, because, whatever its history, Luton has always felt like a post-World War II development, spreading ever north, east and west (not south because Luton Hoo blocked the way) from a slightly Art Deco central hub.
It has its sinister side, of course, like the painted Christ on St Saviour’s Church near my grandfather’s house, which seriously used to freak me out as a child.
But despite its desperate anonymity, my memories of Luton, photographic shots gathered together, shuffled and redealt like a pack of cards, to create my fictional Lyford, offered me everything I needed for psychological dramas in an urban setting. In Motherlove, for example, there’s the Arndale Centre, built, while I was living there, over the graves of many small lanes and backstreets, cutting the town centre in half like a Berlin wall. Nearby is the library, where I once worked, the scene, in the book, of much explanation.
The location that brings the stories of all the characters together and provides the setting for the greatest drama, is Lyford’s Portland Park. Town parks offer a peculiar hybrid zone, where an illusion of countryside stands within an ocean of brick, concrete and tarmac.
It offers grass, trees, flowing water, ducks to feed and squirrels to chase, but it’s hemmed in. Iron gates can lock people out – or in. There is always, to my mind, something slightly sinister about a park.
Lyford’s Portland Park is modelled on Luton’s Wardown Park. I’ve missed some of Wardown’s defining features: the mock-Tudor museum and the suspension bridge, but others are there – the meandering paths, the boating lake, the drinking fountain, the willows. I’ve even restored some – the boat house, in my story, still has boats.
Wardown Park began as a farm – truly rural ‒ became a gentleman’s estate, and then a civic amenity, for the benefit of the town that now engulfed it. People could go boating on the lake. They could even swim in it. Its calm waters are stroked by weeping willows and swans glide across it. But the inflow is clogged with filth, and the outflow is a stagnant roadside ditch. There could be anything beneath the surface of that lake. Keys. Lost wedding rings. Loot. Bodies…
Just as there could be all manner of things beneath the surface of so many lives.
In The Unravelling, I focussed on the council estate to the north of the town where I grew up. A prime example of 20th century development smothering history beneath brick and tarmac but that history managing to sneak to the surface in places and sometimes sinister ways. The estate is built on a wedge of land between the old hamlet of Leagrave (still had a thatched cottage in my day) and the railway that had sliced across Leagrave Common in the 19th century.
It was land that had comprised farms and market gardens but as the estate gradually swallowed it up, in the hectic bid to rehouse the nation after World War II, little remained except murky trenches channelling feeder streams of the embryonic River Lea. They ran between ranks of new houses, littered with detritus, before disappearing into dark ominous culverts and reappearing mysteriously, streets away.
At one point, on the edge of the estate, the murky brook was crossed by The Lane, a muddy track, hemmed in by the last surviving trees on the estate. Fifty years before, it must have been a cart track leading to a farmhouse, but when I was a child it was just a forgotten shortcut across a corner of abandoned undergrowth. It crossed the stream on a broad rotting timber bridge although, naturally, all self-respecting children taking that route to school preferred to cross alongside the bridge on the iron sewage pipe.
Such images lend themselves to imaginary drama. Even as a child they did. Trolls lurked under the footbridge. The culverts were full of leaches that would suck your blood if you ventured in. Coal Black Charlie would sneak up behind you and catch you if you didn’t run the last part of the gloomy lane. So they provide fair game for a psychological crime writer. Sinister memories gilded by nostalgia when I see that old farm track these days, neated, straightened and paved, running between new blocks of des-res flats. A nice place to walk the dog. If it had remained as it was in the early 60s, children probably wouldn’t be allowed near it anymore.
But health and safety and modern parental paranoia aside, any innocent suburban setting can offer scope for drama, because the real monsters are the ones within us.