Author Julie Wassmer's Novel Tale
© Jonathan Elliott
The importance of Canterbury in my Whitstable Pearl Mystery novels
By Julie Wassmer
I have often been asked why I chose not to fictionalise the setting of my Whitstable Pearl Mystery novels but instead featured the town almost as another character in the books. The simple truth is – it didn’t occur to me to do anything else but to celebrate this very special part of Kent – which includes the great city of Canterbury just eight miles away.
A fascinating coastal town, Whitstable is adjoined by beautiful countryside with cherry fields and orchards close by, but it is to Canterbury that I have made many enjoyable and informative research trips over the past few years in order for the city to play its own part in my books. Pilgrimages, you might say.
Within the current eight novels in the series my characters often travel to the city by the most scenic route, on the winding road through Blean, flanked by countryside, with striking contrasts of summer colour provided by garden trees laden with clusters of pink cherry blossom or luminous golden chains of laburnum until finally cathedral spires begin to rise in the distance.
The Norman cathedral still dominates Canterbury’s landscape inspiring visitors with the same sense of wonder it must surely have conveyed to so many throughout the centuries. After Thomas Becket’s murder in 1170, the city became one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in the medieval world, with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales continuing its fame. Historically, the route into the city from Whitstable would have been one used by fisher wives. Now it’s the gateway to visitors from all over the world.
In actual fact, Canterbury was on the pilgrims’ map long before the murder of Becket, as far back as St Augustine’s arrival in 597, when the city became a stopping place for pilgrims on their way to Lyons and Rome. It also became part of what is still known as the Via Francigena - the major pilgrimage route to Rome from the north. Today, the 1,200 mile route of the Via Francigena into Rome is still undertaken - a journey which averages twelve weeks to complete on foot, crossing England, France, Switzerland and Italy while climbing to heights over 2,000 metres. A special Via Francigena passport can be obtained and stamped at the Information Centre in the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral.
The central character in my Whitstable Pearl novels, the eponymous heroine, Pearl Nolan, is a restaurateur who puts her earlier police training to use by opening a small detective agency in her home town, but she has a “partner in crime” in DCI Mike McGuire, a former Met detective seconded to Kent and working out of Canterbury CID. McGuire and Pearl constantly bump heads over cases but there’s a strong attraction between the two and their “will they-won’t they” relationship forms a serial element in the books – like the cliffhangers I used to employ when I wrote for BBC’s EastEnders.
While Pearl personifies “Old Whitstable” in being a native - like the oyster that made our town famous – McGuire is a DFL, the town’s acronym for those Down From London. Pearl has the sea running through her veins while McGuire is essentially a city man so I had to place him in Canterbury. For all their differences, Pearl and McGuire share a common purpose in solving crime, and opposites attract, so much so, that following the first book, The Whitstable Pearl Mystery, McGuire fails to return to London…
One glorious sunny Sunday afternoon, I made a special trip to Canterbury to find McGuire a suitable home and came across the perfect spot for him off a courtyard in Best Lane, in an apartment overlooking the Great Stour river, which runs like an artery through the heart of the city. The owner, Steve, and his son, Michael, kindly allowed me to take a look around their home while explaining some of the history of the property and how it had once been an art gallery.
That day, I also discovered how an archaeological excavation had taken place at another property in Best Lane after an old music shop had changed hands. In the course of some repairs, a discovery had been made of a fine medieval ‘crown post’ roof. A dig followed and archaeological levels were systematically removed revealing 12th century pottery and the remains of an early timber-framed building which had undergone many transformations - charted by the members of the archaeological trust that had peeled back those layers of history.
Archaeology then became a theme in my third book in the series, May Day Murder in which a visit to Canterbury’s Eastbridge Hospital of St Thomas the Martyr inspired me to feature an icon known as Our Lady of Vladimir - a copy of which can be found in the Pilgrim’s Chapel. Icons are said to be “windows into heaven” and this particular Hodegetria – or Virgin Mary icon – signifies the “the one who shows us the way”. Perfect for my storyline.
After a visit to St Augustine’s Abbey, where I once enjoyed a performance of Romeo and Juliet performed on a Volkswagen camper bus, I stopped by Dane John Gardens to research the burial mound and city wall. The gardens represent an oasis of calm in the busy city and in conversation with a local resident I learned how the old register office had once been situated here, backing on to the tree lined walk where happy couples once posed for their photos against the most beautiful scenery.
I also discovered culinary treasure when I learned that the old Dane John tea cabin had been transformed into a South American eatery run by Guillermo from Uraguay and Jorge from Venezuela. Don Juan, as it’s known, serves empanadas, paella, choripan (Argentine sausage), barbecued short ribs, arepas (Venezuelan cornbread with slow cooked brisket) and homemade maize or pear tart. I tried it all - and it was all delicious – so, in turn, it became one of McGuire’s favourite lunchtime haunts being only a stone’s throw from Canterbury Police Station.
In my second book in the series, Murder-on-Sea, Pearl headed to Canterbury while haunted by a recent murder she was investigating. Once through the Westgate Tower, the largest surviving medieval city gate in England, which stands like a sentinel at the entrance to Canterbury, she decided to make a visit to the The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge and free library. The distinctive Tudor revival building opened in 1899 but later underwent a £14 million pound makeover during which the museum was redesigned and extended with its original features restored, including the re-carving of one of the pair of griffins that guarded either side of the doorway.
In the Green Room which houses paintings by the artist Thomas Sidney Cooper, one particular work was to catch Pearl’s attention; The Stolen Horse, which shows an animal wide eyed with fear, galloping at full stretch with all four feet off the ground like a fairground horse on a merry go round while the stranger on its back looks back across his shoulder with a hunted expression. The image prompts Pearl to reflect on the murderer she seeks to identify who must surely be looking back across his or her own shoulder for Pearl to catch up with them.
But it’s in the upper rooms of the Beaney where, amongst donations of finds and mementos, and antiquities from Egypt and ancient Greece, that Pearl finds solace in her favourite painting; Harriet Halhed’s 1910 work, The Little Girl at the Door, its subject a tall, beige door in front of which stands a little girl, dressed in a black hat, winter coat and polished boots much like the ones Pearl is wearing that day. The child’s hands are clenched around the brass doorknob but as she looks back towards the viewer Pearl recognises in that moment how much she identifies with the girl in Halsted’s study, forever wishing to open the closed door, forever needing to solve the unsolved mystery…
The Marlowe Theare is also present in my books, in May Day Murder, which features an actress, Faye Marlow, and the latest novel, Strictly Murder, in which a young girl is murdered before she’s about to celebrate her birthday at the theatre. As a lover of vintage clothes, Pearl also makes a visit to Revivals, an iconic shop in St Peter’s Street that has delighted customers for over 30 years.
Research for my fourth book, Murder on the Pilgrims Way, was to lead to a exploration of the wonderful area surrounding Chartham and the Stour Valley. The Great Stour is actually Kent’s second longest river and boasts some stunning scenery along its banks. For my own “pilgrimage” I walked the Great Stour Way from Chartham - a three-mile, traffic free route into Canterbury alongside the clear Stour waters which are home to bream, barbell and brown trout. While colourful plants like purple loosestrife line the banks along the way, there’s also a variety of wildlife to be witnessed – including mute swans and kingfishers.
At a time when travel abroad may be problematic, a “staycation” in Canterbury and its environs comes highly recommended – for me it’s been positively inspiring.