A highlight of the week-end was a canal cruise with dinner on board, starting out from Bollington in Cheshire and organised by my friend from schooldays, Stephen, who is the dedicatee of The Cipher Garden. Among our fellow guests were Kate Ellis and her husband Roger.
The very agreeable trip reminded me of an article sent to me a while ago by that great crime buff, Philip L. Scowcroft. Philip contributes to many publications, including CADS and Deadly Pleasures, and this essay, ‘Canals and Waterways in British Crime Fiction’, which started life in an American canal history journal, is a very wide-ranging overview.
Philip identifies The Canal Mystery (1928) by John Remenham – an author unknown to me, I must confess – as the first British detective story with a canal setting; that is, if one discounts spy stories and books set around the navigable River Thames. He points out that the Grand Union Canal features in books by Margery Allingham and Harry Keating, while the Oxford Canal plays a part in two of Colin Dexter’s novels.
A good many other crime writers have used canal settings in their fictions. Examples that Philip gives include Andrew Garve, Marjorie Eccles, John Gano and Reginald Hill. And there’s a pleasing paradox about this, which struck me as we dined on Saturday evening. For to drift along an English canal in a comfortable narrow boat is one of the most peaceful experiences imaginable. It takes the imagination of a crime fan or writer to turn such tranquillity into something sinister!