Narrow Marsh sits beneath St. Mary’s cliff upon which stands the Lace Market. The old thoroughfare of Narrow Marsh covered the marshy land between this cliff and Leen Side (now Canal Street), an area once notorious for its slum dwellings, diseases – and crime.
Back in the mid-eighteenth century, Alfred Coney, a disposer of stolen goods, lived at The Loggerheads on Cliff Road where he mixed with highwaymen such as Dick Turpin. Alfred Comey and his wife Martha also knocked about with dodgy duo Bouncing Bella and Lanky Dobbs who lived just behind the Loggerheads. Dobbs worked as the local chimney sweep, a job that allowed him to discover where people kept their valuables, information he fed back to Coney. Alfred Coney would then whistle out of a window, in code, each different whistle signalling for a different type of burglar, whatever the job required. One toerag awaiting a whistle was Slimmy, purportedly the best burglar in Nottingham.
In Victorian times the master criminal Charlie Peace was in Narrow Marsh. Having murdered Constable Cock, Peace was in disguise and on the run. He met Sue Thompson who became his mistress. She knew he was a wrong un but claimed to have “never had any of the goods so stolen” and later gave his whereabouts to the police. Peace evaded capture by exiting through a skylight. Not unlike Robin Hood, Peace’s exploits have been romanticised in popular culture, his legend living on in Penny Dreadfuls, music halls, ballads, theatre and early cinema. Nottingham Playhouse hosted a production of *Michael Eaton’s play about Charlie Peace, starring Peter Duncan.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Narrow Marsh remained a rabbit warren of alleys, courts and yards, and was still notorious for crime and poverty. In 1905 its name was changed to Red Lion Street after a local inn, a forlorn hope that its fortunes would improve. Much of the area was demolished in the 1920s and ‘30s, the slums cleared for some of the first purpose-built council houses. At the foot of 70-foot high sandstone rock of St. Mary’s Cliff – beneath landmarks like the Contemporary, Unitarian Church (Pitcher and Piano) and National Justice Museum – is the former Loggerheads. No longer a pub, The Loggerheads still stands and is the setting for much of Nicola Monaghan’s new crime novel Dead Flowers.
Dead Flowers is a true Nottingham novel. Written by a Nottingham author and set entirely in the city, Dead Flowers opens with a nod to Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. What follows is a gripping dual narrative, featuring a busy Loggerheads of the late 1960s/early ‘70s and its 2017 neglected version. Living in The Loggerheads is former detective now forensic analyst Doctor Sian Love, a 46-year-old who takes matters into her own hands after finding human remains in the pub’s basement. In the book, The Loggerheads ownership passes through key characters.
Cliff Road had always fascinated Monaghan with its “strange position right at the bottom of a cliff” and she brings to life her two fictionalised versions of the street. The author’s Loggerheads of fifty years ago is a vibrant place populated with working class characters, all flirting, fighting and having fun, while its modern version provides the perfect venue for this intriguing tale. Both storylines work and feed off one another, the reader often one step ahead of Sian Love as we get to follow the fortunes of two young couples; their expectations, ambitions and violent descent. With thoughtful social commentary and moments of menace that bring to mind Malcolm Mackay’s crime books, Dead Flowers is a new entry into the top ten of crime novels set in Nottingham. It’s a contemporary page-turner with a nostalgic heart, all from an author with an ear and an eye for working class Nottingham and its people. Take this line as evidence:
He nodded and shrugged at the same time, an odd gesture that older men in Nottingham seemed to be the masters of, especially when they had an opinion.
It seems fitting that Monaghan’s Sian Love is a forensic analyst as the first national police forensic science laboratory opened in Nottingham (in 1934). Two years earlier, the UK’s first message sent over a police car radio had also happened here.
Nottingham’s reputation as a *City of Crime, as ‘Shottingham’, was/is uneasy and unjust. The Brexit-pushing David Davis once declared that Nottingham was “reminiscent of 1930’s Chicago”, a rep that brought the director of Scandi drama The Killing here. The Danish director and screenwriter Birger Larsen set and filmed his gritty crime drama Murder in Nottingham in 2016, shooting the city through a blood red filter. It was to be the last of his dramas as he died a few months later.
Nottingham’s gift to televised crime dramas has been notable. Beeston born Barry Foster played the Dutch Detective Van de Valk on ITV in the 1970s, Retford born Phillip Jackson played Chief Inspector Japp in Poirot and DS Sharp in A Touch of Frost, and Nottingham’s Vicky McClure gives scene stealing performances in hits like Broadchurch and Line of Duty. McClure is just one former member of Nottingham Television Workshop (based at the edge of the old Narrow Marsh area) to have starred in crime dramas, and we don’t stop there. Silent Witness and New Tricks were created by former Nottingham murder squad detective Nigel McCrery, and John Harvey’s Resnick made his way onto our screens in the early ‘90s with Tom Wilkinson playing Nottingham’s favourite sleuth.
If Dead Flowers ignites your interest in Nottingham based crime fiction then you’ll probably enjoy John Harvey’s twelve-book Resnick series which follows Nottingham’s changing inner-city of the late 20th Century, and its struggles with poverty, unemployment, violence, weapons, drugs and gang culture.
So, which are the best crime books set in Nottingham? Here’s a bunch to look out for.
Darkness, Darkness by John Harvey (2014)
The final Charlie Resnick novel came in 2014, finishing a series that began with Lonely Hearts in 1989, named as one of the top 100 crime novels of the 20th century. Darkness, Darkness, another highlight of the series, takes Resnick back to the 80s and the miners’ strike. Structured with split timelines the soon-to-be-retired detective reflects on the turmoil of those times, his role in them and how a fractured Nottinghamshire is coping in the aftermath. It’s a fitting finale that has inspired a stage version. Other highlights of the series include Cold in Hand (2009), Last Rites (1998) and Easy Meat (1996).
Final Score by Frank Palmer (1998)
Former journalist and Keyworth resident Frank Palmer wrote two crime series set in the East Midlands. His police procedurals featuring career copper DI ‘Jacko’ Jackson ended with 1996’s Dark Forest when Jacko was retired and replaced by Phil ‘Sweeney’ Todd. Final Score is the 6th Todd novel. It opens with the injured Todd limping after a fugitive before entering the moneyed world of professional football. The race-against-time plot takes us to the Radford, the City Ground, the Old Market Square, HM Prison Nottingham and the Royal Children pub as Todd mixes with superstars and jailbirds in an eventful novel with touches of humour. ‘Jacko’ Jackson even pops up at one point.
Blink by K L Slater (2017)
Nottingham’s Kim Slater has written several standalone YA novels that have won more awards than some authors have readers. Whilst her YA books often feature crime, Slater also writes psychological thrillers as K L Slater. With a million satisfied readers, and counting, she continues to pen two crime books a year. Blink begins in the Queen’s Medical Centre, the protagonist trapped in a world of silence. Three years earlier her five-year-old daughter had disappeared after leaving school, gone without a trace. The protagonist must find a way to make herself heard and find her daughter. Slater likes her Nottingham settings as much as she likes her twists.
No Way To Say Goodbye by Rod Madocks (2008)
Beeston’s Rod Madocks took a decade to write his haunting debut novel. A former officer in Mental Health Commissioning, the author spent two years working in a mental hospital for the criminally insane and he draws upon the experience in his hard-hitting story. Jack Keyse is looking for the truth about what happened to his former girlfriend who vanished in 1986, and he’s prepared to use his professional contacts to close in on those he thinks are responsible.
Death Duty by Clare Littleford (2004)
Both of Clare Littleford’s crime novels are set in Nottingham where she was living and working at the time in Nottingham City Council’s housing department. In Death Duty, her second book, social worker Jo Elliott is attacked and knocked unconscious assuming she been an unlucky random victim. Further events and clues suggest that she may have been targeted, her attack having some connection with a case she was involved in eight years earlier. Like Kim Slater, Littleford gained an MA in creative writing at Nottingham Trent University. She lives in Beeston.
Trace and Eliminate by Keith Wright (1992)
In the 1990s, real life Notts detective Keith Wright wrote four crime novels, published by Constable, and he uses his insider’s knowledge to bring the work of Nottingham Police station to life. Trace and Eliminate is book two of Wright’s Inspector Stark series and has David Stark second in command at Nottingham Divisional CID, a temporary role as acting Detective Chief Inspector. It’s 1987 and Stark attempts to solve the seemingly motiveless murder of a hard-working family man. The killer is at large and about to strike again.
Dead Certainty by Glenis Wilson (2015)
The hero of Glenis Wilson’s mystery series is Harry Radcliffe, named after her birthplace and current home of Radcliffe-on-Trent. Wilson has been a member of Nottingham Writers’ Club for four decades and Dead Certainty is the first in her acclaimed series set in the ruthless world of horse-racing. Radcliffe is a champion jump jockey and racing columnist who is asked to ghost-write the autobiography of retiring racehorse trainer Elspeth Maudsley, but someone is determined to stop him.
Top Hard by Stephen Booth (2012)
Stephen Booth, a resident of Laxton near Retford, is best known for his Cooper and Fry series, currently at 18 books, set in the Peak District. More recent editions have seen his crime fighters venture into Notts as Diane Fry has worked at the Major Crime Unit based in St Ann’s Police Station, and then at Nottingham’s new East Midlands Special Operations Unit. Booth’s Notts novel is the standalone Top Hard, set in a world of injustice, among people still haunted by memories of the miners’ strike. Stones McClure tries to put his old life behind him but survival in the coalfield villages of Notts depends on the Top Hard Rule – you can’t trust anyone these days.
Bone and Cane by David Belbin (2011)
Having written a Nottingham based police YA series, The Beat, about young police officers, David Belbin returned to the city for a crime series set during the Blair years. In the first book Bone and Cane, Sarah Bone is to become a Labour MP but is she responsible for a terrible injustice? Meanwhile her ex-boyfriend Nick Cane is fresh out of prison for growing cannabis in one of Nottingham’s caves. The (so far) three-book series tracks their struggles as their very different careers and lives are threatened. Nottingham’s underworld, political intrigue and scandal underpin the books. Books two and three, What You Don’t Know and The Great Deception, as just as good.
A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene (1936)
Nottwich – the city a few hours from London in which A Gun for Sale is set – is Nottingham; the ‘gun’ for hire is Raven; his hit a Czech Minister for War. After returning to England, Raven is paid in stolen notes. Bent of revenge the ruthless anti-hero pursues the agent who crossed him. A cat-and-mouse chase follows as a detective-sergeant tracks Raven to Nottwich. With American gun and girl noir at its peak (Chandler, Hammett, Cain etc), Greene’s Nottingham novel is a worthy addition to the genre. The author’s Nottwich is the grim Nottingham he remembered from his time here, the town that “makes one want a mental and physical bath every quarter of an hour.” As the action takes place it appears to the reader that the killing Raven was hired for may have been intended to trigger a world war.
The Body Beautiful by Raymond Flynn (1998)
This isn’t technically a Nottingham novel, as Eddathorpe is a fictional coastal town known as Nottingham-by-the-sea, but with dialogue such as “Taka looka that, me duck!” it’s worth inclusion. Raymond Flynn was a Notts police officer, working in the CID and heading up the fraud squad, and there’s evidence of his 26 years of expertise in his in-jokes and procedural details. The Body Beautiful is the 5th in Flynn’s Eddathorpe series with DCI Robert Graham and it’s a seedy affair. The local answer to Miss World dies just as the cops close in on her stalker.
Other crime novels set in Notts to look out for are C J Tudor’s The Taking of Annie Thorne, a horror-tinged psychological thriller; Beyond Reasonable Doubt by Gary Bell, the first of a new legal series featuring Elliott Rook; Blackmail by Michael Stokes, the debut novel of a retired judge who had previously lectured in law at Nottingham University; Shallow Waters by Rebecca Bradley, a dark police procedural that introduces DI Hannah Robbins; Influence by Chris Parker, about the dangerous, mind influencing Marcus Kline; The Coal Killer by Trevor Negus, in which a murderous group are at work during the 1984 miners’ strike; The Daylight Thief by Alan Williams, a journey through time inspired by actual events; Truths by Rebecca S Buck, about two women separated by two hundred years but inescapably connected; To Fear A Painted Devil by Ruth Rendell, in a fictionalised area of Notts a young man dies on the night of his wife’s birthday party; The Deed Room Michael R D Smith, set in the cut throat world of corporate law; and I Came To Find A Girl by Jaq Hazell, about a student who becomes involved with a very creepy guy.
Nottingham has also produced one of the UK’s youngest crime writers, Aaliyah Neil (A. S. Neil), who was just eleven years old when her book Simon Dovers was published. The Colonel Frank Seeley student from Mapperley wrote about a boy with an eye for crime who one-night stumbles across a dead body. Neil migrated to England from Jamaica with her parents when she was a baby.
Maybe it’s time Nottingham lost its city of crime image and became known as a city of crime writers. This article only looks at the crime books set here, I’ve not begun to mention the many great and successful crime writers with links to the city. Nor have I touched on our true crime books. Nottingham Noir is alive and well.
*A. R. Dance’s novel Narrow Marsh is set in the area during the early 19th Century when it was one of Nottingham’s worse slums.
*Charlie Peace: his amazing life and astounding legend is the title of a 2017 book by Michael Eaton.
*City of Crime is the name of a 1997 anthology of fifteen crime stories set in Nottingham. Written by Notts writers, about half the stories are by crime writers (Belbin, Harvey, Flynn), the other half by writers known for other literature (such as Middleton, Sillitoe, Myerson).