dinner-party-2There’s frequently a point in a book where it’s nice to have characters grouped round a dinner table discussing the latest plot developments.  This can be helpful for giving the reader an update on where the story’s got to – not to mention doing the same for the author, who is probably utterly confused by that time anyway, and may well have lost the synopsis, flow chart, and chapter precis all so optimistically started around Chapter One.  Not that I ever do lose such things, of course.  Well, not often.  Hardly ever, really.

It’s remarkable how much it matters to get food right in books. The meals that characters eat or cook can be an insight into their personalities.  An invitingly-laid dinner table can set a scene, although the wrong kind of meal can ruin it altogether.  You can’t really have the hero and heroine dining on fish fingers or frozen chicken nuggets as a prelude to the grand bedroom scene.  On the other hand, neither of them will want to spend half the evening in the kitchen peeling grapes for sole veronique, or diligently tweezering bones out of a trout.  Ordering pizza or dashing out to collect a take-away, however tasty and convenient (not to say avoiding the necessity to wash up afterwards) doesn’t seem to quite fit the scenario.

ghost-songFor Ghost Song, I managed to churn out a song about food, for the Edwardian music-hall performer, Toby Chance, to sing.   I called it All Because of Too Much Tipsy Cake – by which I mean Toby called it that.  Tipsy Cake, as a dish, hails from the mid-eighteenth century, and it was a beautiful and dangerously rich version of the trifle we eat today – layers of fresh sponge cakes, soaked in sherry and brandy.  When Toby Chance sang the song on the stage of his (fictional) theatre – The Tarleton – it was an instant success, and next day the barrow boys and the street sellers were whistling it in Covent Garden – in those days, the equivalent of reaching No 1 in the charts, and trending or going viral on Twitter.

sin-eaterIn The Sin Eater, one of my favourite minor characters, Nina Doyle who runs her own catering business, lurches from one culinary disaster to another, frenziedly pitting half a kilo of cherries for duck á la Montmerency while menacing echoes from a macabre Victorian murder swirl around her – and later causes mayhem when a pair of live lobsters, intended for a waiting Thermidor pot at a Soho supper party, try to escape their fate, resulting in a traffic jam in Old Compton Street.

Sending characters out to restaurants can bring a whole new set of problems.  Any genuine restaurant you use will undoubtedly have changed hands by the time the book is published, and the new regime will most likely be so disastrous that the 2-star Michelin rating will have been summarily removed.  Alternatively, the place will have been taken over by a tattoo parlour or a chain store selling cut-price DVDs.

There’s also the problem of fashions changing in food, which can date a book beyond redemption.  It’s not so long since it was the height of sophistication to dine on prawn cocktail, steak Diane, and Black Forest Gateau.  Now, it’s more likely to be chorizo, squid-ink pasta, quinoa, and a variety of dishes with complicated and usually unpronounceable names.  (By the time this article is posted, it will probably be something else again).  It is, though, rather heartening to note that many menus now include bread and butter pudding, and also fish cakes, and that even The Ivy currently offers its own version of a hamburger – admittedly with pommes allumettes and dill relish, but still…   Not that I’ve ever actually created a character who’s rich enough to eat at The Ivy, or sufficiently organised to be able to plan his or her life sufficiently far ahead to get a table there.

The nineteenth century is far safer for describing fictional dining experiences in real restaurants.  There’s Rule’s, where you can refer nonchalantly to the oysters and to Henry Irving eating there on account of the Lyceum being just a few doors along…  (‘Oh, Sir Henry often comes in on matinee days.  Very partial to a bit of steak and kidney pudding between his Richard III and his Othello, Sir Henry is.’)

simpsons-1There’s also Simpsons in the Strand with the silver-domed trolleys that would be wheeled to the tables to avoid disturbing the restaurant’s chess players.  (‘Don’t take the roast beef to the corner table yet, Fred, there’s a battle going on between the Sicilian Defence and the Queen’s Gambit.’)  There’s surely a good murder plot in there, with a chess-player bumped off between pawn to queen’s knight 4 and a bishop’s fianchetto, but with nobody noticing the corpse until the waiter starts carving the joint.  Also, using Simpsons means you can sprinkle your text with names such as Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. You never know when this might be useful in a plot.  And then, of course, there’s the Café Royal, where, if you get the dates right, it’s almost obligatory for a character to remark, ‘Oh, I say, isn’t that the writer chappie, Oscar Wilde, over there.’

It’s probable that Oscar Wilde would not in the least have minded sitting down to a freshly-delivered pizza, and that Henry Irving and Charles Dickens would have thoroughly enjoyed a hearty take-away chicken korma.

But I’m still not sure about that seduction scene over the frozen chicken nuggets.




ghost with bookGhosts, like any character in a book, need a motive – a reason for haunting.  They don’t just turn up because there’s a vacant slot at the moated grange, or because the grey lady at the old rectory wants someone to make a fourth at bridge.  They don’t attend night classes on the subject.

Usually, ghosts haunt because they’ve been cheated out of something.  Or because they’ve been punished or even executed for a crime they didn’t commit.  Or defrauded of an inheritance.  Often they’re murder victims, of course.

attic-1The creation of ghosts is interesting.  There are so many guises they can be given.  They can be sad wailing shades who inhabit chilly ruins or cobweb-shrouded attics, or who drape themselves over stone fountains, and flit through tanglewood gardens.  They can be murdered Tudor queens or spectral bridegrooms or walled-up nuns.

They can even be charming gentlemen in Elizabethan outfits, hinting slyly that they know where an undiscovered Shakespearean folio is buried.

But when I embarked on writing the second of Michael Flint and Nell West’s ghost exploits (the first was in Property of a Lady), I wanted a ghost who had a completely different set of motives.

I started by exploring the old religions.  There’s a treasure house of material in ancient legends and lost rituals – except that not all of the rituals are lost. That search turned up munslows-gravethe practice of sin-eating – an extraordinarily ancient custom. There are references to it as far back as the Old Testament and in some Aztec beliefs, but there are also much more recent traces of it.  In Shropshire is the grave of a man called Richard Munslow, who died in 1906 and who is believed to have been the last known sin-eater in England.

In remote parts of the world, where an ordained priest couldn’t be brought to a dying person in time for a confession, the sin-eater would undertake the task.  He – only rarely was it a ‘she’ – would be brought to the dying person’s bedside.  There he would eat bread and drink water – wine if it could be provided – which had been placed on the breast of the dying one.  It was believed that by this act the sin-eater removed the sins from the dying person, and took them onto his own soul.   It’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to make a connection between the sin eater and the Jewish ‘scapegoat’ of the Old Testament.

sin-eaterThe descriptions that exist of sin-eating rituals resemble each other strongly.  The isolated hill farm or croft – the small, low-ceilinged room, smoky and dim from candle light and woodfires.  The dying man or woman reciting the list of sins committed.  And the sin eater absorbing the sins as he ate the symbolic meal. Afterwards he scurried off to find a priest to confess the catalogue of sins.  If he couldn’t find a priest he might even go to another sin eater.

The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica has this entry about sin eaters:

‘A symbolic survive of it (sin eating), was witnessed as recently as 1893 at Market Drayton, Shropshire.*  After a preliminary service had been held over the coffin in the house, a woman poured out a glass of wine for each bearer, and handed it to him across the coffin  with a “funeral biscuit”.  In Upper Bavaria, sin-eating still survives: a corpse cake is placed on the breast of the dead and then eaten by the nearest relative, while in the Balkan peninsula a small bread image of the deceased is made and eaten by the survivors of the family.  The Dutch doed-koecks or ‘dead cakes’, marked with the initials of the deceased, introduced into America in the 17th century, were long given to the attendants at funerals in old New York.  The ‘burial cakes’ which are still made in parts of rural England, for example Lincolnshire and Cumberland, are almost certainly a relic of sin-eating.’

*This is possibly a reference to Richard Munslow of Shropshire.

 One account I found of the sin-eater’s incantation is this:

 ‘I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man.  Come not down the lanes or in our meadows.  And for thy peace I pawn my own soul.’

I think it was that  phrase, ‘I pawn my own soul’, that triggered the plot of the book.  Supposing a sin eater took on a batch of sins – including the most mortal sin of all?  Murder.  And supposing that sin-eater died before he could offload the sins?  Died – with his soul in pawn – believing he carried a murderer’s guilt?   It seemed to me that if ever a ghost had a strong and slightly unusual motive for haunting, surely this was it.

And so the second book of the Michael Flint/Nell West series, The Sin Eater, came into sin-eaterbeing.










The haunted house series, featuring Michael Flint and Nell West, was born several yearsahh-2 ago, when I was asked to write and present a ghost-story evening at a local historic house.  There were so many legends attached to the place it was almost a question of auditioning the resident spooks to decide which to use. (‘No, sorry, we can’t have a headless horseman because of Health & Safety regulations…’ ‘Chain rattling is fine, though, providing you keep the noise down…’)

Tales ranged from spectral footsteps to an old lady in a rocking chair, and the amiable figure of a shopkeeper, apparently waiting to serve customers with a variety of goods. In the psychedelic 1960s a séance was held in the house, but the findings were ambiguous. (Reports of a cavalier appearing during the séance were never considered reliable, largely because he apparently winked at one of the female ghost-hunters.)  I took two or three of these tales, stirred in a couple of my own, and presented the result as a series of diaries ‘found’ during renovations of the house. Spooky music, operated from a portable stereo behind a curtain, lent a touch of eeriness.

Since then I’ve repeated the performance in various venues. A marvellous Victorian theatre redolent of gaslight and Henry Irving… A delightful old bookshop, where Pepys might have browsed…

We do not need to dwell on the night the stereo jumped forward to a recording of The Archers that had been inadvertently left on it.  It was unfortunate, though, that instead of spectral midnight chimes from an abandoned church and the mournful hooting of an owl, the all-too-recognisable Ambridge theme music romped rollickingly in.

And it’s always interesting and fun to research ghost tales within the different places, and adapt the original setting to the locality. Because is there a town or village in the UK – in the world in general – that doesn’t have its own ghost legend?

For Property of a Lady, which was to become the first of a series, (although I didn’t know that at the time), I disinterred these diaries, hoping they could be used as a base. There are many downsides to ghosts, but there are also a few advantages, and a large advantage is that they don’t date.

But if the ghost who walked through those pages was still credible, the diaries themselves needed a modern-day frame.   They needed modern people to find them, read them, be affected by them.  So, strongly aware of treading in the steps of the incomparable M.R. James, but hoping to print new footsteps of my own, I created an Oxford don – Michael Flint – as reluctant hero.
As for the house – the ‘Property of a Lady’ of the title – I moved it to the Shropshire borders, and summoned up a house with a dark reputation and lingering remnants of a strange legend – the legend of a nightmare figure carrying a grisly lantern.  A figure that wandered the countryside, and sometimes got inside the house itself, and that chanted eerie lines from an old country rhyme as it went:

‘Now open lock to the Dead Man’s knock,ingoldsby-1
Fly bolt, and bar, and band!
— Nor move, nor swerve
Joint, muscle, or nerve,
At the spell of the Dead Man’s hand.
Sleep all who sleep!– Wake all who wake!-
But be as the Dead for the Dead Man’s sake…’

For that beautifully macabre verse, (of which I’ve included only a fragment here), I’m hugely grateful to the Reverend Richard Barham and the marvellous Ingoldsby Legends. In particular, I’m indebted to him for the macabre tale of the Hand of Glory.

In Property of a Lady the house is called Charect House – according to the dictionaries also pronounced CARECT – which is a very old term for a charm: a spell set down in writing. Literally in characters – to ward off evil.

In 1749, a charect was apparently found on a condemned murderer in Chichester Gaol – he had it smuggled in so he could cheat the gallows. And the eerie thing is that he did cheat the gallows. While he was being measured for the irons in which his hanged body would later be displayed, he expired on the spot from sheer terror. Which perhaps goes to prove the old saying that the devil never honours his side of a bargain.

Did the long-ago owners of Charect House give it that name to ward off evil? If so, did it work? Well, it’s all in the book – the first of the series.

Ghost stories should be listened to or read in complete safety. They require a warm room – firelight – curtains drawn against the night, doors locked. All the things that reinforce security, so that you know the ghosts can’t get you.
Or can they?



It’s a fact of life that there are times when the shadow can be mightier than the substance.

nosferatu-bwshadowOver ninety years ago the German film-maker F.W. Murnau chilled cinema audiences with the 1922 silent movie, Nosferatu.  It’s still chilling people today, and probably the creepiest scene of all is where the vampiric  Count Orlok steals up the dark stairway, only his shadow visible on the wall.  Thus sparking off a tradition that was to go from Hammer to Twilight, and provide a stream of starring roles for actors capable of turning on sinister charm at the drop of a garlic clove.

In the 1960s film-makers again became aware that what you don’t see is often scarier than what you do.  Anyone who watched Hitchock’s The Birds will remember how menacing it was when ordinary birds began to gather on rooftops.   And with Roman Polanksi’s Rosemary’s Baby, did we actually see the demon who attacked Mia Farrow?  My memory is that we didn’t, although it’s always possible I had gone out to buy the popcorn at that point.

Fiction writers have always known that what you don’t see can be a whole lot scarier than what you do see, but sometimes there’s an irresistible temptation to add that last swish of the knife, to include that extra sh-dinner

The famous and exclusive Detection Club, (think Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton), reportedly required (and indeed may still require), its members to take an oath, part of which warns them to avoid: ‘Sinister Chinamen,’ (doubtless a sly nod there to Sax Rohmer, creator of the Fu Manchu books), as well as ‘divine revelations, and poisons unknown to science’.  The oath also apparently forbade members to purloin other people’s plots, ‘whether under the influence of drink or not’, but that’s probably another story.

ghost-2Translated into a warning to writers of pyschological thrillers, this oath might read:  ‘Let there be no superfluity of splattering gore, no unnecessarily-festering corpses, no wild-eyed axe-killers or gibbering maniacs springing out of cupboards.  Instead, let there be the midnight creak on the stair, the whisk of something sinister disappearing round a corner, a glimpse of the shirt-tail of a ghost rather than a glimpse of the ghost itself…’       And let the chills be understated, and let the reader’s own imagination fill in the blanks.

Because it’s another undoubted fact that radio has some of the best pictures. Continue reading