CRIME COMES TO CROWBY
I’d done my share of foreign travel. I’d done my share
of re-location from major city to major city in pursuit
of career – and other – opportunities. So it was as
much a matter of timing as anything else that I was
living in a relatively small English town when I started
writing the first Inspector Jacobson book. It just felt
natural and obvious to me to include the sights and
sounds of my daily life as the backdrop to the story
I was trying to create (write what you know might
be a writing class cliché but that doesn’t mean that
it’s not good advice for a new writer). And so the
fictional town of Crowby came into being. Medium
sized, not too far from Birmingham, pretty much in
the geographical centre of the nation. Middle England essentially – both geographically and conceptually.
England isn’t a big country of course. Nor is Great
Britain as a whole. You could fit all four of its
constituent parts – England, Scotland, Wales,
Northern Ireland – into Texas nearly three times
over and still have room to spare. Or you could cut
and paste them into California and only overwrite
slightly more than half the state. You can drive the
entire length of England and Scotland in a day if
you really push it. So basing Inspector Jacobson in
Crowby has never felt limiting. If I want to use
another location for a particular aspect of a
particular story I can do so easily enough without
un-suspending anybody’s disbelief. Jacobson’s
cases regularly involve London and Birmingham –
with walk-on roles for Manchester, Bristol, Brighton,
the Lake District. And because they’re set in the
globally connected world of now – post-internet,
post mass air travel – the UK itself is no border.
That first book took its readers to Amsterdam and,
in the subsequent six books, the Crowby universe
has extended itself where necessary to Barcelona,
Zurich, even to Big Sur and Santa Monica.
But Crowby remains the epicentre. An amalgam of
several real Midlands towns re-assembled in my
imagination and making maximum use of the area’s
iconic landscapes: canals, woodlands, abandoned
industrial sites, converted grain stores, cramped
red brick terraces and the contrasting leafy suburbs
of the wealthy. Contrasting lives too – although
modern crime pays scant attention to old-style
socio-economic distinctions, increasingly assimilates
itself across all social layers. The country house /
millionaire’s mansion intersecting with the 'sink'
estate and the middle-class enclave has become a
recurrent theme in the Inspector Jacobson books.
That’s probably also the reason I wanted to write
police-based crime fiction in the first place. A police
officer can realistically go anywhere, access any
level of society, in the course of an investigation.
In Britain, at least, no other occupation comes
pre-loaded with that immediate, inbuilt advantage,
making a fictional police inquiry an ideal instrument
to cut through and explore some of the denser
complexities of life in the twenty-first century.
So Jacobson and his close-knit team – DS Kerr,
Emma Smith, Mick Hume – have stayed put all
these years, dealing with Crowby’s worst cases.
Familicides. Kidnappings. Racist murders. Drug
syndicate killings. All the bad stuff that happens
in modern Britain turns up on their doorstep
exactly as it does for big-city coppers in London or
Belfast or Glasgow. It may do so less frequently –
but it does so often enough to give Jacobson, like
his real-life counterparts, half-a-dozen truly serious
cases to deal with every year: in fact, the most
recent official national crime survey revealed that,
in 2015, the most murderous place in the UK
wasn’t any of its big cities but the sleepy,
Lincolnshire town of Boston. All of that might have
been in my mind when, for the most recent book,
The Evil Thereof, I finally relented and gave
Jacobson and his team a serial killer to play with.
He’d been on the force thirty years, he was thinking
about retirement, he’d never encountered one
before – they were odds that, as a realist writer, I
felt I could live with.
Yet a crime novel that anyone would actually want
to read can’t just be concerned with ‘the facts’. Or
at least I don’t think so. Realism is fine and necessary
but it isn’t sufficient. There’s another simultaneous
level on which you’re also creating fables,
contemporary fairy stories. The knight battles with
the dragon, Inspector Jacobson uncovers the truth.
The same resolution, the same symbolic victory over adversity – even though we know that in the ‘real’
real world, evil often triumphs and the truth often
gets missed or hidden. That, for me, in the end,
remains the point of Frank Jacobson. Overweight,
unfit, rude and gloomy he may be. But he’s still a
hero, still an inspiration: whether a small-town one
or otherwise. One commentator called him a Stoic
which I quite liked as a description. Over and over,
a good man does what he can … what else can he
© Iain McDowall, 2017. All rights reserved.
This feature first appeared in Mystery Readers Journal, Volume 32, No. 4 (Small Town Cops II)