I wrote six stand-alone crime novels but when the books ended, the characters I had come to know and care about disappeared. I decided to write a series, create a world I could live in for a long time, with people I could laugh and cry with, people who would grow and change in the sort of close community that still exists in Scottish small towns.
A woman appeared suddenly in my mind. She was tall, with an athletic build, not pretty but with clear hazel eyes and the sort of face it is pleasant to look at, and an attractive voice. When I first pictured her, she was struggling to get her kids out to school in the morning, before going off to her demanding job as a detective inspector.
So Marjory Fleming came into being. I knew she was tough and humorous, with a passion for justice. She had a loving family, but all the anxieties that go along with that, as well as the insecurities every woman feels when working in what is still a man’s world, even though she is more than able to give as good as she gets. She was the sort of woman I’d like to have as a friend.
It happened, just at that time, that I had occasion to go to an event in Scotland’s Book Town – Wigtown, in Galloway. It was at the height of the foot-and-mouth epidemic; farmers were in utter despair and businesses dependent on tourism were going bankrupt. Even with the car windows shut, there was the sickening, oily stench of funeral pyres, and the landscape was dead – no cows in the fields, no white dots of sheep grazing on the hills.
Thinking about the tragedy that was leaching the life from the rural community, I found myself thinking how dreadful it must be, in a place like this, to be in the police force, when the law it was your duty to enforce meant compelling farmers you might have known all your life to allow in the killing squads which would wipe out generations of livestock breeding. Then I thought how much worse it would be if you were also a farmer’s wife – so, with the terrible sadism authors show to the characters they love, I decided that was what Marjory Fleming must be.
I also somehow had a clear picture of the man who is her DS, Tam MacNee. I knew exactly what he looked like – short, with an acne-pitted face and a gap-tooth smile, always dressed in a white t-shirt, jeans, trainers and a black leather jacket – but I didn’t realise where he came from. Then suddenly, quite recently, I remembered that a very long time ago we had had problems with theft and I got a fright when I came downstairs to find, standing in my hall, a small man in jeans and a black leather jacket, smoking a cigarette. When I challenged him, he produced a warrant card – so he lives on in Tam MacNee.
As the series starts with Cold in the Earth, Marjory, who has always lived in the area, whose friends are all in the farming community, finds herself for the first time an outsider, with even her loving marriage to Bill threatened. And as the series goes on, the effects can still be felt – because in real communities, the terrible consequences of disaster do not vanish when the media loses interest.
I try, too, to highlight the very real problems in the countryside, which isn’t as romantically idyllic as it appears in the lifestyle magazines. In The Darkness and the Deep the background is a fishing village suffering from the destruction of the fishing industry. Lying Dead is set in a picturesque hamlet where local families have been driven out by the high prices paid for second homes. In Lamb to the Slaughter, the whole character of a town is threatened by a plan to build a superstore. The local effects of an influx of Eastern European workers is a theme in Dead in the Water and Cradle to Grave it is the force of nature – and the indifference of the local council – which brings disaster on an isolated community. In Evil for Evil a former soldier has to combat local hostility and face up to the lies he has lived with all his life and in Bad Blood a young woman’s search for the truth about her past revives terrible anguish in a village with a past. The latest book, The Third Sin, is about a group of young people whose pursit of pleasure ends in terrible tragedy.
The books describe a world where people may be cruel or weak or foolish, where bad things happen to good people, certainly, and sometimes to people who aren’t very good at all, but it is a world where most are kind and decent and honest, good neighbours and friends.
At the start of the series, DI Marjory Fleming is a policewoman for today. Her counterparts are in every police station in the country: modern working women with a husband, kids, aging parents and a home to run as well as coping with the difficult, demanding and utterly absorbing job. She is happily married to Bill, a farmer and their farm is Mains of Craigie, a few miles outside the market town of Kirkluce where the Galloway Constabulary has its headquarters. She stands 5’10” in her stocking soles, and this, together with her feisty nature, has earned her the nickname ‘Big Marge’. She loves her job, and believes her professional duty is not only to find the proof the law requires, but to serve justice within that law.
Her father, Angus Laird, was a policeman too, and in choosing her career, Marjory was influenced by a desire to prove to him that she’s every bit as good as the son he would have preferred – not that she ever manages. Indeed, her promotion to a rank he never achieved has made their spiky relationship even more difficult. Her mother, Janet, warm-hearted and lovable, keeps the peace between them and makes up for her daughter’s culinary inadequacy by keeping her family supplied with home-baking via The Tin, a trusty receptacle which goes out to Mains of Craigie full and comes back empty.
Her children are Catriona – Cat and Cameron – Cammie. Cammie has nothing on his mind except rugby while Cat goes through a typical teenager’s ups and downs. The family grows up along with the series and in the latest books they are both embarking on adult life.
Her sergeant, Tam MacNee, is a wee Glasgow hard man and the works of Robert Burns are his bible. His wife is Bunty, a lady generous in spirit as in girth, with a love of animals prompted by her inability to have children. Tam adores her since without her he might have found himself still living in Glasgow and drawn to the wrong side of the law, but being a poacher turned gamekeeper makes him a very effective officer. He and Marjory worked as partners before she got promotion, but he has never had any desire to rise to a rank which is more desk than leg work.
Galloway is in south-west corner of Scotland. It is a beautiful and little-known part of the world, by-passed by the main roads, with stunning and varied scenery, wide skies and unspoiled, old-fashioned small towns and villages. To the east lies the Irish Sea, to the south the Solway Firth, with its picturesque coastal towns like Gatehouse-of-Fleet and Castle Douglas. To the north stretches the Galloway Forest Park with its miles of moorland, lochs and huge Forestry plantations, home to red squirrels, deer and birds of prey. It’s a place of contrasts, from the windswept mountainous uplands to the Gulf Stream coast where palm trees grow in the gardens. It’s a place, too, of strong local communities, where lives are closely linked and friends have been friends down the generations.
The towns mentioned in the series do not exist, though their location is carefully described. Kirkluce, a market town where the Galloway Constabulary has its headquarters, is placed on the main road, half-way between Newton Stewart and Stranraer. Knockhaven, the fishing village inThe Darkness and the Deep, lies between the two villages of Port William and Monteith on Luce Bay. Drumbreck, the setting for Lying Dead, is on an inlet off Wigtown Bay. When the police officers move about the area, their routes are described using real place names and often road numbers. Lovatt Island, the island that is almost a central character in Evil for Evil, is placed beside the beautiful Isles of Fleet in Wigtown Bay.
A place that does exist, though, is the lighthouse on the Mull of Galloway. You can even see the very rock, below the cliffs to the north, where the dead girl’s body was found in Dead in the Water. And Clatteringshaws Loch with its Iron Age broch and Glenluce Abbey which feature in Bad Blood are real places though Dunmore, placed on the shores of Loch Ryan opposite Stranraer, isn’t.
Kirkluce is a very typical Scottish market town, couthy and confident, still not invaded by the superstores and the high street chains, with a wide high street with individual shops, pubs like the Cutty Sark – where Tam MacNee is a regular – and takeaways, a couple of small restaurants and a café as well as an old-fashioned hotel and a craft centre. People stop in the street to talk to friends as they ‘do the messages’ (get in the shopping) and rumours travel quicker than the tide on the Solway, which comes in faster than a horse can gallop.
Mains of Craigie, where the Flemings live, is mainly a sheep farm which during the foot-and-mouth epidemic, the setting for Cold in the Earth, suffered dreadfully. The farmhouse is slate-roofed old grey stone with the simple style of a child’s drawing – three windows up, two down with in the middle a door which is seldom used since everyone comes in through the mud room and the farmhouse kitchen. It is set amid soft rolling hills and below lies the old orchard, long past producing good apples but providing a home for Marjory’s precious flock of chookie-hens.