Great news everyone, the semi-regular Wednesday feature is back, with some fascinating guests planned over the next few months. And I’m kick-starting it with a quick look at myself, because I realised I never took that opportunity last time round. So, without further ado, let’s stoke the engines, release the brakes, and let the ‘Gravy Train’ steam into town…
Book Title: Gravy Train
Setting: Birmingham (UK)
Author: Tess Makovesky
So, why pick Birmingham as a location, I hear you ask? After all, it’s the dullest place on earth – nothing but Spaghetti Junction, motorways, factories, and endless 1960s concrete.
Well, no, actually. Birmingham is the UK’s second city – and quite probably the one with the least-deserved reputation. There is concrete (show me a British city without the stuff), but there’s also so much more. The tightly-packed city centre is a wonderful assortment of old and new, with everything from the gleamingly modern Grand Central station/shopping mall to the Town Hall, designed by the same bloke who came up with the Hansom cab.
Beyond that there are swathes of Victorian and Edwardian suburbs, scattered with gems from earlier times: churches, medieval manor houses, a mill that made it into The Lord of the Rings, even an ancient pub or two. And then – pure joy for crime writers like myself – there are the maze-like back streets, the vast parks, and best of all the canals. Birmingham has more miles of canal than Venice; they stitch the industrial towns of the Black Country together and form their own pasta-like sprawl across the landscape. There are canal-feeder reservoirs, bridges, tunnels; there are places where one whole canal system goes over or under another; there are entire sections in the city centre that are almost lost, and only reappear as ghostly imprints in the canyons between office blocks every now and again.
When I lived in Birmingham I found it hard to write about the city. There was a sense of it being a comfortable place to call home, rather like an old pair of slippers, and it was hard to see past that to view the place objectively. However, once I moved away the over-familiarity wore off and I began to set more of my stories and books there. ‘Wheel Man’ in the Drag Noir anthology from Fox Spirit Books uses the suburb of Acocks Green. My novella ‘Raise the Blade’ is set in various locations including the well-hidden Edgbaston Reservoir and Highgate park. ‘Gravy Train’ starts and terminates in the inner city district of Hockley (home of the world famous Jewellery Quarter) but stops off at Cannon Hill Park, the leafy suburb of Moseley, and Broad Street’s “entertainment quarter” along the way.
And, oh, those canals. The Worcester & Birmingham branch has a body fished out of it in ‘Raise the Blade’. And ‘Gravy Train’ makes equally good use of them, for all sorts of nefarious purposes. The old Gas Street basin, originally used for turning narrowboats around, gains a new function as a handy dumping ground for incriminating evidence. And when crime bosses George Leary and Vernon Ball set up a meeting to hand over some stolen cash, it’s the basin they choose, with all sorts of unexpected consequences.
I had a lot of fun writing about the various locations, and more fun re-visiting them recently to take lots of photographs. I’ll be posting those on my blog over the next few weeks and months, but in the meantime if you’d like to find out more about Birmingham, then take the train. Just please make sure it’s the ‘Gravy Train’!