Where the heck Wednesday: Tess Makovesky

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

http://www.tessmakovesky.com / Facebook / Twitter

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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’!

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Canal tour of Birmingham

These days I don’t get back to Birmingham all that often. However, we were in the area over the Christmas break so I took the opportunity to visit the city centre. The weather was freezing (there was still snow lying on the ground in the suburbs) but the sun was shining and the light was perfect for photography, and I wanted to try out my new camera on some of the sights. Most of all, I wanted shots of the area around Gas Street Basin, which is where large chunks of my new novel ‘Gravy Train’ are based.

And I wasn’t disappointed. I wandered all over the city centre, snapping away, and ended up at the back of the International Convention Centre, where Brindley Place meets Broad Street and where the canal network suddenly blossoms into the vast and picturesque Gas Street Basin.

It’s an amazing sight at the best of times, and very unexpected for the centre of a city that sadly, doesn’t have the best reputation for heritage, architecture, or anything much else. It’s not a reputation it deserves, as you can see from some of these photos. The area around Gas Street has recently been tidied up and the wonderful juxtaposition of old and new buildings, bridges, wharves, hoists, tower blocks and walkways gives it an atmosphere that’s hard to find anywhere else.

And if you believe the events in ‘Gravy Train’, it’s perfect for hiding the odd body or two as well!

Here’s a taster of the scenery:

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Gas Street Basin through the Broad Street bridge. The main thoroughfare of Broad Street, complete with Victorian buildings, runs straight across the top of this bridge; if you’re walking along the street you’d hardly know this was there.

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Picturesque canal-side buildings – many turned into bars and restaurants – line the towpath, which as I mention in ‘Gravy Train’ is edged in places by no more than a line of different coloured bricks.

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A view across the barges to the old Canal House (complete with hoisting gear) and some of the city’s swankier office blocks.

I took a whole heap of photos of other parts of the city and will hopefully share those over the next few weeks.

Digging up the dirt

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Yet another amusing little snippet from the West Midlands, where the Canal and Rivers Trust are about to start work on dredging some of the vast network of old canals. You might remember some of my previous posts about Birmingham having more miles of canal than Venice, so obviously they’ve got their work cut out. And I’m sure it will all be much pleasanter and better for the environment and the local wildlife as a result.

The crime writer in me can’t help thinking, though, that there are scores of criminals across the region having serious panic attacks at the thought of what those dredgers might bring up out of the depths. Drugs stashes, stolen money, loot, dead bodies… The results could help with half the unsolved crimes in the Midlands!

A Bridge Too Far

I’m putting the last few flourishes to a brand new novella, A Bridge Too Far, which is an unconventional noir escapade set around the back streets and canals of Birmingham.  (Hence the sudden appearance of the new header image, which I thought was rather appropriate.)

It’s an area I know quite well, having lived in the city for several years.  In the old days, it was strictly a no-go area of dark back alleys, litter-infested canals, strange people and sudden, violent encounters.  Muggings, drunkenness and begging were rife; the streets were smeared with a disgusting mixture of vomit and stale beer; and all in all you really didn’t want to hang around.

Then, in the 1990s, vast acres of old streets were cleared and the whole area refurbished, rebuilt, and generally spruced up.  Thanks to the proximity of the entertainment quarter along Broad Street there’s still the occasional drunken fight, but with the opening of the Symphony Hall, National Indoor Arena, Sealife Centre, and various posh shops and restaurants, the whole area is pretty much unrecognisable.

Even better, the developers left many of the more interesting old buildings in place, so there’s an eclectic mix of old and new which adds to the atmosphere.  After dark on a summer night, the canals and basins ring to the sound of laughter, pounding music and the chink of glassware.  But go at a quieter time and you can still find surprising tranquillity amongst the lock gates and boats.