Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – The Literary Column with Jessica Norrie – Coasting with spies and criminals, 1903 – 2018

A welcome back to Jessica Norrie who by the sounds of it has had a productive summer. To kick off her new season of posts, Jessica is exploring books that are set on the coastline in various places around the world. I love the sea and hope that when we buy our final house it has a view of the ocean and all its changing moods.

There’s always a “new term” feeling about Autumn. You’d think less heat would make it easier to read. Yet it’s often a time when new projects take a lot of our energy, and we need to read plots that carry us forward in settings we can enjoy. What better than a thriller set by the sea? It’s a sub genre all its own and surprisingly hasn’t changed all that much between the first of these books appearing, and the most recent.

How to resist a hero called Carruthers, and frontispiece maps for reference during his journey? What remains with me from The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers (1903) are the shifting sandbars, mists and misleading tides of the Frisian coast, a place I’ve never visited but now have a strong picture of. This is yachting turned espionage, sunbather turned sailor as the yacht’s owner taught (him) the tactics for meeting squalls. You could indeed learn how to handle a boat from its pages, but the squalls aren’t just knotted ropes and bumpy seas. The Germans are stockpiling arms on one of the islands…This story was strong enough to influence government policy in the complacent early 20th century. The colonial attitudes and snobbery are of their time (fortunately), but it’s a ripping yarn and the author’s own life story is one you couldn’t make up.

Just before the next World War came Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock  (1938). I went to university in Brighton. My friend worked in the summer “on the deckchairs”. His pitch was next to the Palace Pier where takings were rumoured to be subject to protection rackets by the Brighton mafia. However elegant fashionable Brighton tries to be, the salt wind’s quick to rasp the stucco and rust the railings; Greene’s novel shows the same corruption right on the surface of his characters, including cynical, pathetic 17 year old anti-hero Pinkie. I haven’t seen the 2010 film, but Richard Attenborough in the 1947 version is on TV somewhere most weekday afternoons. Look out its classic entertainment next time you’re off work with a cold or getting over a hangover.

1938 was a vintage year for seaside thrillers. In Epitaph for a Spy Eric Ambler uses a setting that always works well – a French Riviera Hotel. (Quiz question: how many books/films can you name set in Riviera hotels?) Life’s always going to be tricky for Josef Vadassy, a stateless person in Europe on the brink of war. The last thing he needs is to become involved in espionage, cornered into spying on his fellow guests who in turn may be spying on him. Somewhere on the sunny beach or in the picturesque scenery, Vadassy manages to lose the one piece of evidence I had that proved my innocence. Plus he’s trapped in the hotel and unable to pay his bill. When the going gets tough, remember at least you’re not in his shoes.

You can’t argue with Agatha Christie’s plotting in  Dead Man’s Folly (1956). Clues, red herrings and dead ends abound; Poirot’s at his most poiresque. All the stock characters and set pieces are there, cocktail drinkers, peculiar locals, baffled police with lines like: “She was killed because she saw something. But until we know exactly what it was she saw – we don’t know who killed her.” Christie spends surprisingly little time describing her setting. Maybe I have such a strong sense of it because it was based on Christie’s own home, Greenways, just upriver from Dartmouth. After visiting two years ago. I paid homage in a murder mystery

Researching this article, I came across Helen Dunmore’s first novel from 1993, Zennor in Darkness. Helen Dunmore was a poet and novelist whose plotting and language both shone, the content and judgement always enough, never too much. This one’s about DH Lawrence and his German born wife arriving in a Cornish coastal village in 1917, to local suspicions and menace. So good to know there’s still a Dunmore I haven’t read; she died last year, too soon.

I hardly dare refer to myself in her company, but you get what you pay for, and my 2015 first novel The Infinity Pool is only 99p on Amazon UK throughout October. Even the German translation is on offer for 1.99€, until 10th October ( How does it fit this theme? Well, it’s set on a Greek island, and somebody’s disappeared…

For a course I’m doing, I had to read Ian McGuire’s The North Water. No wonder it was long listed for the Booker Prize 2016. This author is a rare wordsmith and the research is impressive – what doesn’t he know about 19th century whaling techniques in the Arctic? It’s a tense plot but the details of daily life and crime on and off board ship are repellent. I’m not sure all the violence is justified. However, if you have a strong enough stomach, you’ll learn a lot about writing. There’s also an interesting interview where he defends the language he uses.

Coming right up to date, this summer I read The Moment before Drowning by James Brydon (2018). Here’s a dark, sinister study. In 1959 Jacques le Garrec returns home to his Brittany village. He’s awaiting trial for crimes committed as a soldier in occupied Algeria. It’s all relative: for any French soldier to try another in this context is ironic and futile – they all behaved wrongly and Le Garrec is plagued by guilt. But his police experience means he’s asked to investigate the murder of a local girl, whose mother is deemed to have collaborated with the Nazis. Up and down the coastal road he drives, through wild winds to bleak dunes and fortified castles, as the local police inspector drinks the afternoons away… You may not fancy Brittany for a holiday after this, but the writing is high quality.

Finally, Gary Raymond’s The Golden Orphans caught my eye, also published this year. The writing is less elegant than Brydon’s, but Raymond certainly captures his setting. Cyprus is a troubled island full of ghosts and evil. The unsettled spirits of the people are stressed to breaking point among the frenetic chaos of Ayia Napa, and Raymond uses the division of the island to great effect in constructing his plot.

So there you go…enough watery crime to keep your reading afloat until I return. As always, please do comment, and maybe suggest themes to explore another time.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

About Jessica Norrie

Jessica Norrie studied French literature at Sussex University, and trained as a teacher at Sheffield. Then she wandered into parenthood, told her now grown up children stories, and heard theirs. A qualified translator, she worked on an eclectic mix of material, from health reports on racehorses to harrowing refugee tales. She taught, full time, part time, adults, children, co-authored a text book and ran teacher training. In 2008 she was inspired with the idea for “The Infinity Pool” and it appeared as a fully fledged novel in 2015. Meanwhile she sings soprano and plays the piano, walks in the forest and enjoys living in and using London. She looks forward to writing more in the future.

Jessica Norrie

About the Book.

In this thoughtful novel set on a sun-baked island, Adrian Hartman, the charismatic director of the Serendipity holiday community, is responsible for ensuring the perfect mindful break, with personal growth and inner peace guaranteed. People return year after year to bare their souls. For some, Adrian IS Serendipity. But Adrian disappears, and with him goes the serenity of his staff and guests, who are bewildered without their leader. The hostility of the local villagers is beginning to boil over. Is their anger justified or are the visitors, each in a different way, just paranoid?

As romance turns sour and conflict threatens the stability of both communities, everyone has to find their own way to survive. This evocative story explores the decisions of adults who still need to come of age, the effect of well-intentioned tourism on a traditional community, and the real meaning of getting away from it all.

One of the reviews for the book

Well-written and acutely observed on 14 December 2017

Jessica Norrie’s novel, set on a sun-drenched island somewhere in the Mediterranean, examines the personalities and pitfalls encountered on the sort of package holiday that offers holistic life-skills and self-improvement courses. While practising yoga and suchlike activities, guests at the Serendipity resort, together with staff and, from time to time, local villagers, confront social, personal and philosophical challenges.Norrie has a confident narrative voice and a shrewd and sympathetic view of human nature, which makes her account of the goings-on at Serendipity entertaining as well as thought-provoking.

The central character is absent for much of the book: this means that the reader builds up a picture of him through the thoughts and observations of other characters, like a photographic negative – he is defined by his impact on others. When he re-emerges in his own right, his condition is so altered that we learn about other people from their decidedly contrasting (and sometimes unattractive) reactions.

The prose is occasionally lyrical – as a swimmer emerges from a pool, “The water softly shifted to a forgiving stillness” – and consistently accessible. The author is very good on the strains inherent in a globalized culture. The gulf between Serendipity’s staff and guests on the one hand and the local community on the other sours into violence, which may not be entirely surprising since, as one of the resort’s denizens observes, “Our food and our water supply are better than theirs, so we don’t eat in their restaurants or buy their fruit, except in town where it’s so touristy; most of us don’t even try to speak their language; we don’t talk to them when they come to our bar; we expect them to put up with us sunbathing naked on the beach in front of their grandmothers – and then we go on about how beautiful the country is and how fascinating the local traditions are.”

The author also has a clear-eyed view of the reality beneath picturesque Mediterranean society. A young woman considers “meeting and marrying some local man and giving birth within the time honoured local conventions, kicking just a little against restrictions on her sex because that was what each new generation did, then in turn chivvying her own daughters and unconditionally adoring her sons.”

The Infinity Pool is a well-written and acutely observed examination of diverse lives.

Read some of the many excellent reviews and buy the book for 99p during October:

and on Amazon US:

Find more reviews on Goodreads:

Connect to Jessica


My thanks to Jessica for a stunning post to start her new season…Great choice of classic and modern books to tempt us. I know she would love your feedback and questions. Thanks Sally

21 thoughts on “Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – The Literary Column with Jessica Norrie – Coasting with spies and criminals, 1903 – 2018

  1. Thanks for the recommendations, Jessica. They all sound great. I studied at Sussex and lived in Brighton and Eastbourne for a while, so this post brings many memories. Good to have you back. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Weekly Round Up – Book Launch, Birch Maidens, Sausages and Spies by the Sea.. | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

  3. Great to read you again Jess, as opposed to merely singing about 30 yards from you! I’ve really missed your always beautifully written blogs, and this was a welcome return.

    I’ve read 3 of the books you review. All equally good. It simply hadn’t occurred to me the this type of fiction is a genre in itself!

    Liked by 2 people

I would be delighted to receive your feedback (by commenting, you agree to Wordpress collecting your name, email address and URL) Thanks Sally

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