Gravy Train locations #2: Vernon Ball’s lair

Unlike many crime bosses, Vernon Ball (or Ballsy McBollockface as he’s known by at least one of his underlings) doesn’t have a swish office in the city centre, or even a converted garage or factory unit. Instead, he works from home. And what a home. A large, detached, Victorian residence in one of the more prosperous suburbs of Birmingham, with a garden that overlooks the local park and space for a whole apartment in the basement where Todd the chauffeur-cum-bodyguard lives. And he’s very proud of that house:

Ball stood at his office window and stared out at the garden beyond. It was one of the perks of working from home – that and not having to join the daily commute. It was a nice garden, too – long and shady and manicured. A green oasis amongst the city streets. His pride and joy. He certainly paid the gardeners enough to keep it looking smart.

But today, not even the garden could help. Cynthia had been on the attack again. Not literally – he wouldn’t have let her get away with that. But right through breakfast he’d had to endure the endless whine of a slighted wife. Why hadn’t they moved to Edgbaston yet? All the really successful people lived in Edgbaston. All of her friends had houses there. She’d seen a wonderful house only the other day. When was he, Vernon, going to look at it?

The trouble was, he didn’t want to move to Edgbaston, even if it was smarter and more expensive and only three miles away. He liked it here. Moseley was a decent place to live. The house was huge, with plenty of space for his work, and the garden sloped down to the private park, with views over Moseley pool. Show him a swanky house in Edgbaston that could do all that.

I wrote this with a specific location in mind, and as you might have guessed from this excerpt, it’s in the prosperous, leafy suburb of Moseley. Moseley is unusual for a city suburb. It’s only about five miles from the city centre, but you could easily be in another world. The locals refer to it as a village, which seems daft in a settlement of around ten thousand residents, but you only need to go there to see what they mean. There’s a medieval church and rows of shops around what would have been a market place, and there’s still a sense of community. But it’s a long way from suburbia, and has its own slightly ‘hippy dippy’ atmosphere with a thriving café culture, health food shops and galleries. I once saw a district of Paris described as ‘Bobo’ or ‘bohemian bourgeois’ and thought that fitted Moseley perfectly.

I lived in Moseley for many years and know the area pretty well, and there’s one road I thought would be perfect for nefarious goings-on. It’s called Chantry Road, and it runs roughly perpendicular to Moseley’s high street in the general direction of Edgbaston. And it’s posh. Seriously posh, lined with a variety of large Victorian and Edwardian houses which get steadily bigger the further you go down the hill. Some are absolute monsters, with three or four stories, separate coach-houses and other outbuildings, and on one side of the road they do indeed look out over Moseley park.

parkgateThe park is unusual too, since it’s privately owned, and only accessible to residents of the suburb. When I lived there you quite literally picked up a key; now I believe it’s all done electronically. In spite of living there I only ever visited once, when the Mostly (Moseley… geddit?) Jazz Festival was in town, and found it’s a pretty little oasis of trees, hidden paths and a lake with ducks. Most folk who live in Birmingham probably don’t even know it’s there, or if they do it’s only the locked gates they walk or drive past on the way to work. And because I’ve only been once, I’m with the rest of them – I only have a photo of those same locked gates.

chantryThere are probably around a dozen to fifteen houses which fit the description of Ball’s home, and I couldn’t possibly say which one I chose to base his lair on. But the above picture (which I took last year) shows a selection of possible candidates, and gives a good overall impression of what the road looks like. Although I should stress that Ball himself is one hundred percent imaginary and as far as I know all the residents of Chantry Road are upright citizens who don’t run organised crime networks from their homes!

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Gravy Train locations: #1 Sandra’s pub

Tonight the usual group have retreated as far as they can to a table near the back. It’s so far from the windows it’s a wonder they can see the dominoes — and a three mile hike to the bar. Not that the windows help much anyway. Too small to let much light into the place, too grimy half the time. Mike’s supposed to keep them clean, but she’s given up asking him. He can’t reach half of them, can’t even clamber on a stool.

She peers at the nearest window now, wincing at the smears. She should probably clean them herself, but it’s just one more job to add to the endless list. And it’s not like the view is anything to write home about. Parked cars, dustbins, buses rumbling past…

This is one of the descriptions of Sandra’s pub, near the beginning of the book. I wanted to conjure up the image of a typical back-street city boozer, rather drab and down on its luck – which many of them are these days thanks to more people preferring to drink at home.

jewelquarterThe pub itself doesn’t exist, of course, but the area it’s based in does. Hockley is an inner city area roughly divided into two distinct sections by a busy main road (the A41 Great Hampton Street, if anyone is interested). To the south, slightly nearer the city centre, is the world-famous Jewellery Quarter (left) with its bustling streets of shops, cafes, the odd museum or two and a wealth of jewellery-making workshops. To the north is a quieter zone comprising terraced houses, back-street boozers and factories, crouched in the shadows of the vast Hockley flyover.

And it’s very much in the latter setting that I saw Sandra’s pub. Too far out of town to benefit from the tourist crowds; not far enough to be suburban and cool. Instead it inhabits a twilight world of buses and factory workers and trade waste bins, of punters who take up tables but never quite spend enough.

Anywhere but Hockley, she thinks. She hates the way people talk about it now, as though it’s paradise. It’s all the Jewellery Quarter this and the clubs and bars that, but she knows there’s Hockley and Hockley — and this is the wrong end. Besides, after dark it all looks the same. The kids getting drunk and falling down, the broken glass, the endless pools of sick. And she and Mike are stuck with this: a dead-end hole in a dead-end part of town.

To be fair to Hockley, it really isn’t as bad as I suggest. But Sandra’s had a bellyful and you can’t blame her for wanting to move to a better area of town with smarter properties and customers who spend more.

churchinnhockleyThe building itself is a mash-up of two or three different premises that I’ve either visited myself, or driven past on the bus. One, the Church Tavern (left, not my picture) in Hockley itself, used to be known for its colossal burgers and I went for lunch once with a work colleague – but it’s a little too spick and span for Sandra’s place. Others, such as the Railway Inn (also Hockley) and the Moseley Arms (further afield in the Highgate area) have more of the right look, if not the right location. And the bit about the old codgers playing dominoes comes from something I actually saw, at the Crooked House near Dudley before it got modernised.

I’ve realised that I never gave Sandra’s pub a name. If I had, it would probably have been something grungy like the Brown Cow, Spotted Dick’s or the Mangy Dog, to conjure up the grime and gloom of the area’s back streets. Although I suspect Sandra herself would refer to it as the Arsehole of Nowhere. But who knows, even she might actually come to like the place…

The drapes are pulled, the main lights turned down low, even though it’s a nasty night outside. Dark and beginning to spit with rain. Buses hurtling past. A typical Tuesday in a typical week in autumnal Birmingham. But they don’t need lights for what they’re doing. Just a couple of spotlights on standby, to illuminate their work. One aimed at the banquette by the door, one for where Mike will stand. She turns, and jumps. He’s already there, and with the gloom and the way he’s dressed — black jacket, white tux — it’s enough to give anyone the creeps.

GT v5Want to find out more about Sandra, her pub, and what happens to them both? ‘Gravy Train’ is available in print or digital from the Down & Out bookstore, or from Amazon and other retailers.

Raise the Blade locations: 2 – City Centre Gardens

This is a really dull name for a surprising little space tucked away behind some of Birmingham’s most well-known buildings.

Follow an unprepossessing alley-way between the new city library and the white bulk of Baskerville House and you come to an unappealing (if useful) multi-storey car park on the corner of Cambridge Street. So far, so ordinary, as are the high-rise blocks of flats beyond.

But just across the road from the car park is a small, but surprisingly attractive, city park. It must only measure around a quarter of an acre, if that, but it includes shrubs, trees, manicured lawns, flowerbeds, and a circular pillar-thing in the middle with more flowers inside.

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Annoyingly, I can’t find out a single thing online about the gardens or their history. How big are they? Who designed them? When were they opened? Are they on the site of a special building, landmark, or former park? I have no idea, which is quite frustrating. If anyone knows anything about them, please pass it on in the comments here because I’d love to know.

The paths are lined with benches and in good weather it’s a favourite lunchtime hang-out for office workers and staff from the nearby International Convention Centre/Symphony Hall complex, as well as locals and a scatter of visitors who’ve tripped over it.

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And it’s a lunchtime sandwich that proves pivotal for Nigel, the second victim in ‘Raise the Blade’. Noticing a foul smell, and realising it doesn’t come from his sarnie, he and colleague Vannie track it down to the space between their bench and the encircling wall.

‘Over there’ proved to be behind them, in the narrow space between bench and road, bounded by thick bushes and a low stone wall. At first, craning over the back of the bench, he couldn’t see anything that might be causing the niff. Then, behind a thicket of twiggy stems he caught a glimpse: black plastic, something spilling out.

When I visited last year to take some photos, the bench that best illustrates this was occupied by a couple of teenagers making out. Not wanting to look like I was taking an unhealthy interest in them, I snapped the benches further along instead. They don’t match the description in the book quite as well, but hopefully it gives some idea of the scene…

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As for hiding the body in the first place, well, this is an out-of-the-way corner but with main roads only yards away. After dark there’s probably not many people about, and there’s that multi-storey car park just across the road… Perfect for offloading, and either dragging the body in through the nearest entrance, or for someone strong, even lobbing it straight over the wall.

It put Nigel off his lunch, and caused him a bit of bother afterwards. But if you’re in this area of Birmingham with a few minutes to kill, make the effort to track the gardens down. And head to my website if you want to find out more about Nigel, the bodies, and ‘Raise the Blade’.

“Brilliantly dark humour”

Raise the Blade FrontI’m extra happy today, because the wonderful Jen of JenMed’s Book Reviews has tackled ‘Raise the Blade’ – and loved it!

She’s been particularly complimentary about the book’s ultra-dark humour, and also about the Birmingham locations, which I’d only just started to blog about in detail on here.

If you’d like to see more about what she liked and why, then head over to the review. (And have a good rootle around her site while you’re at it, because it’s simply stuffed with books.)

If you’d like a bit more information on those settings, then check out my most recent post, and keep your eyes peeled because I’ll be adding more in the next few weeks.

Raise the Blade locations: 1 – Edgbaston Reservoir

It occurred to me recently that I’d never really blogged in depth about the Birmingham settings in ‘Raise the Blade’, which is a shame for two reasons. One, Birmingham is full of amazing – and often surprising – locations, and two, they’re really important to the book. So, to set the record straight, and hopefully provide something of a guided tour around the city’s less-well-known nooks and crannies, I’ll be writing about various locations over the next few weeks.

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The first is Edgbaston Reservoir, which forms the backdrop to the discovery of the very first body in ‘Raise the Blade’. I first came across the reservoir in the mid-1980s, soon after I’d moved to Brum, when a couple of friends took me there for a walk. I was pretty cynical at first; the suburb it’s set in is leafy enough, but tends towards streets lined with houses rather than huge open spaces that you can use for long walks. Just how much of a lake could there be in such a relentlessly urban location, I naively thought. Well, it just shows how wrong you can be. A short stroll down a path between two properties took me to a whole new world. A world of wide open vistas stretching out all the way to the city centre skyscrapers and beyond; a world of yachts and ducks and great-crested grebes; a world of trees that feels a million miles from the busy, traffic-choked streets just a few hundred yards away.

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The reservoir was built (or at least commissioned – I don’t suppose he lifted a shovel himself) by Thomas Telford, the great canal engineer, in the early nineteenth century, and it was built for one purpose – to provide water for Birmingham’s vast network of canals. A small stream was dammed, and water was also piped from another reservoir around three miles away, and together they formed a lake covering some 58 acres – although the overall site including a round-the-lake footpath, grassland, woodland, and the dam, covers as much as 70 acres.

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Although the reservoir itself is open to the cross-city views and skies, the surrounding trees give it an enclosed, secluded feel, particularly in summer when the leaves are fully out. At the end furthest from the dam, large houses back onto the site, their gardens barely visible over high fences, often topped with wire. It was this location in particular that I used in ‘Raise the Blade’. Rotton Park Road, with on-street parking, is only a few hundred yards away, and the path from there slopes downhill, so it would be easy enough for a strong murderer to drag a body into the undergrowth. In the book, one of the fences has been damaged – enough for the foxes to get through – and this is presumably where the murderer gains access to Mrs Rai’s garden, and where hapless victim Brian finds the body and decides to hide it, setting the book’s characters off on a chain reaction of their own.

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This is just one of Birmingham’s many hidden gems. Dashing past on the surrounding streets you’d barely know it was there, which is another reason why it might be useful for disposing of unwanted evidence. All that nice deep water (40 feet, apparently); all those trees. And when the leaves are out, it’s barely overlooked. Of course, I’m not condoning leaving dead bodies there myself, but all things considered you can see why Duncan did!

You can find out more about the reservoir, its facilities, and the various events it hosts at the Birmingham City Council webpage here. And to find out more about ‘Raise the Blade’, its victims, and the other locations I used, head for my webpage here.

All photos in this article are my own. Thanks for reading – there’ll be another unusual location along soon.

Podcast!

Shure_mikrofon_55SThanks to an invitation from Eric Beetner and the nice folk at Writer Types, I have suddenly become Tech Girl.

Well, not exactly, but after much battling with software and microphones, I did manage to record two minutes of myself talking about the locations in my upcoming novel ‘Gravy Train’, which has now been included in Writer Types’ latest podcast.

You can find the podcast here – and don’t worry, it’s not just me waffling on, but includes loads of other cool stuff too including fellow debut novelists Aimee Fix and Michael Pool, plus music, plus author interviews, plus… well, head over there and you can see for yourselves!

In my case I’m talking about Birmingham’s canal network, which is a real hidden gem of the city and provides a major part of the backdrop for ‘Gravy Train’.

I’ve never done this recording/podcast stuff before, so I’m oddly proud of the result!

Instagram here we come…

I’ve finally got with the latest trend and joined Instagram, no doubt months (or even years) too late!

It was a “right fiddle” getting everything installed.  My mobile phone and/or tariff aren’t capable of supporting photo handling, so I set up an account on the computer.  Then I found I needed to download an app before I could post any photos.  What?  I thought Instagram shared pics instantly and virtually automatically.  Shows how wrong you can be.

I don’t use Apple and don’t trust Google so downloaded the Microsoft version of the app.  It took ages.  Checking files.  Restoring data.  Please wait.  Etcetera.  But after much finger-drumming it was finally ready.  I hit ‘launch’ and prepared to upload my photos.

Except that I couldn’t.  It wouldn’t let me.  There was a nice big shiny button labelled ‘share photos and videos’ right there in the middle of the screen, but it didn’t do anything.  At all.  I tried clicking, I tried pressing, I tried clicking again (and again, repeatedly), I tried swearing at it, I tried a special Tess Makovesky Hard Stare.  But even that didn’t work.

Frustrated, I Googled the problem and found I was not alone – the MS app won’t let you upload photos from your computer unless you have a… wait for it… touch screen.  How nice of them to let everyone know this before they download a useless app.  Not.

Fortunately a helpful techie site came to my rescue by recommending InstaPic, which is free to download from the Microsoft store and lets you upload pics to your Instagram account.  It’s not brilliant – I can only load one photo at a time, then have to close the program and re-open before loading another, single, pic.  But at least it’s something, and has let me get started with a few publicity stills for ‘Raise the Blade’, and some shots of interesting statues around Birmingham that I’d snapped over the years.

I’ll obviously be adding more, including other less well-known corners of Birmingham and some location shots for my book.  So to catch these, do feel free to follow me on  https://www.instagram.com/tessmakovesky/.  I’m looking forward to seeing you there.

Where the heck Wednesday: Graham Wynd

I’m delighted to announce the start of a brand new feature of guest posts on my blog, featuring authors talking about the locations of their books.  Called ‘Where the heck Wednesday’, it will run semi-regularly on Wednesdays (now there’s a surprise) and I’m hoping to include as many locations, near at hand and far flung, as possible.

I was going to start the ball rolling in mid-November, but I’ve had such a good response to the idea from fellow authors that I’m kicking it off early, and my first victim, er, guest, is noir writer Graham Wynd who writes dark, even bleak stories and novels with an added blend of humour and erotica.  Over to you, Graham, and thanks for taking part!

Book Title: Satan’s Sorority

Setting: Connecticut, USA

Author: Graham Wynd

http://grahamwynd.com | Facebook | Twitter

satans-sorority

“I set my novella about the devilish girls of Sigma Tau Nu at a mythical Connecticut college because I thought it fit the story well: Sandra Delites comes from New York City, but she’s clearly been exiled to the wilds of Connecticut as a punishment. I know the place well because I went to grad school at the University of Connecticut. After living in Cambridge I found it a bit…rustic.

There are a lot of cows. I mean a lot.

When people think of Connecticut it’s mostly the ‘gold coast’—the rich suburbs just a train ride away from Manhattan. The north east’s ‘Quiet Corner’ is worlds away from that rich life even in such a small state. It’s mostly farms and former mill towns, both struggling to stay afloat these days. For a city girl, it’s the middle of nowhere, so Sandra feels quite marooned.

The undergraduates I taught were oddly complacent. The chief advantage as far as I could tell about the location was that it was easy to get to Boston or NYC. I was amazed to find that most of my students had never been to either place. They really lived sheltered lives. They felt a bit like the kids from Village of the Damned grown up a bit.

But in the spring, these quiet kids tended to turn a little wild. There was a patch of time that riots broke out on the normally tranquil green fields of the campus, and a few times even cars were set on fire. The fraternities and sororities seemed to provide a good training ground for that on many weekends. I was glad to be living off campus most of the time. I didn’t actually hear of any of the greeks turning satanic, but I wouldn’t have been much surprised (joke). I grew up watching a lot of 60s and 70s movies that were all afraid of Satanists, so it was a fun bit of nostalgia for me.

I did cheat on one thing: Satan’s Sorority is set in 1959. I have Sandra and her sorority sister Trixie steal a book from the library, The Munich Handbook, which has a ritual to summon Lilith. It’s true the Yale Library has the Paul Mellon collection of alchemical books and manuscripts, but they didn’t receive that gift until 1967, and the Beinecke Rare Book Collection didn’t exist until 1963. I have the library doing a little conservation work on the book they’ll eventually have, which seems fair enough.

Admittedly I was probably far more interested in keeping the occult bits reasonably accurate than readers will be. You don’t have to believe that anything the least bit supernatural happens in the story—of course the sisters of Sigma Tau Nu think the devil made them do it, but it could all be in their heads. I guess when you’re spilling a lot of blood, you always have a reason—right?”

***

A writer of bleakly noirish tales with a bit of grim humour, Graham Wynd can be found in Dundee but would prefer you didn’t come looking. An English professor by day, Wynd grinds out darkly noir prose between trips to the local pub, including SATAN’S SORORITY from Number Thirteen Press and EXTRICATE from Fox Spirit Books, as well as tales in the Anthony Award-winning anthology Murder Under the Oaks and the Anthony Award-nominated Protectors 2: Heroes. See a full list of stories (including free reads) here.

Location shots

Several months ago, you may remember I shot off to Birmingham to take some photos of the locations I’d used in ‘Raise the Blade’.  They came out remarkably well and I was able to use some of them for a display at the book launch, which seemed to be quite popular.

Now, for those of you who couldn’t be at the launch, I’m posting some of them on here, complete with appropriate snippets from the book itself.  Hopefully it’ll give a better idea of the various settings I used, and the atmosphere.  Although I have to say it’s very hard to drum up spooky evening atmosphere in Highbury Park on a gloriously sunny morning… but you’ll just have to blame the weather for that!  Best laid plans…

Anyway, here, in no particular order, are the shots:

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Edgbaston Reservoir: The property backed onto the reservoir, so presumably that fence in the distance, beyond the clump of conifers, was where Brian had got in…

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City Centre Gardens: ‘Over there’ proved to be behind them, in the narrow space between bench and road, bounded by thick bushes and a low brick wall…

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Birmingham & Worcester canal: …stuck on the towpath with nothing but trees for miles.  Or at least that’s what it looked like, although in reality they were only a mile or so from the centre of town…

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Highbury Park: It was quiet tonight.  A duck quacked, and out in the water something plopped, but there was nobody else about…

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“Floyd Road, Hall Green” (not a real location, but might look something like this): The house looked ordinary enough – one neat semi in among all the rest.

 

Pictures to go

Well, that was a successful trip to Britain’s second city in search of location photos.  Surprisingly so, given the mixed weather, bitter wind, and my usual cack-handedness with cameras.

We spent two whole days dashing round various bits of the city snapping the locations from ‘Raise the Blade’, and I ended up with useful, useable, and attractive photos of almost all of them.  The only one I wimped out on was Winson Green prison.  We could have got there by car easily enough, but I’m always a little uneasy about being caught taking pictures outside a prison in case I spark a major security alert.  Some people may like being rushed by armed guards and hauled off for questioning; I’m not one of them.  So I’ll have to fall back on standard Google images for that one.

The rest, though, worked really well.  I snapped Edgbaston Reservoir, the Worcester Canal, the rather boringly-named City Centre Gardens, and Highbury Park, as well as a typical street scene in Hall Green where the murderer is supposed to live.

All will be revealed in due course, but in the meantime here’s a couple of shots of interesting sculptures near the Cube, on the canal junction at the back of the Mailbox shopping mall.  I have no idea what either of them are as there were no information signs, but once again it’s proof that Birmingham has some surprising and magical things tucked away in corners if you know where to look.

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And this gave us a few bad moments at Edgbaston Reservoir, but at least it doesn’t say ‘no dead bodies’!

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Picture trail

I’m hoping to get into Birmingham over the bank holiday, to take some photos.  Photos of Birmingham? I hear you say.  But one, it’s not that bad (honest!) and two, these are special photos, because they’ll be of some of the locations in ‘Raise the Blade’.

I set the book in various places around the city, including a city centre garden, a suburban park, a canal bank, and even the local prison.  Now what I’m hoping to do is capture those settings on film and develop an interactive map of some sort with photos of each different place.

Birmingham is quite a ‘closed book’ (forgive the pun) to many people, even here in the UK, and I’m hoping it’ll be interesting to show them just what’s out there – even if it is as a backdrop to multiple murders.

Now, where did I put my camera…?

Aha!

As a quick update to my previous post, the Birmingham Evening Mail have run an article on the locations used in The Game, and sure enough, they’re in and around the city.  We missed a few they picked up on, and picked up on a few they missed, but it’s always nice to be proved right!  And it made a great series even more enjoyable.

Sad to hear they’re actually knocking the old library down now.  It might be hideously ugly but it was one of the first buildings I got to know when I first moved to the city so it harbours some nice memories.  Plus it’s pretty much ‘one of a kind’ and I can’t help thinking there’ll come a day when people will regret sweeping it away just because it wasn’t instantly fashionable.