Smorgasbord Posts from My Archives – The Literary Column with Jessica Norrie – Coasting with spies and criminals, 1903 – 2018

Jessica Norrie 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

The Magic Carpet – Jessica’s new release.

Outer London, September 2016, and neighbouring eight-year-olds have homework: prepare a traditional story to perform with their families at a school festival. But Nathan’s father thinks his son would be better off doing sums; Sky’s mother’s enthusiasm is as fleeting as her bank balance, and there’s a threatening shadow hanging over poor Alka’s family. Only Mandeep’s fragile grandmother and new girl Xoriyo really understand the magical powers of storytelling. As national events and individual challenges jostle for the adults’ attention, can these two bring everyone together to ensure the show will go on?

One of the recent reviews for The Magic Carpet on Goodreads

I must admit that I got an expected but completely welcome surprise when I read this book. The magic carpet is an intricate and beautifully told tale of a school project and several families involved. Each child in the class has been allocated a fairy story to take home and make their own any way they wish.

The narratives switches between each family and each chapter is dedicated to a different class member. Diverse, intriguing and almost voyeuristic, we are allowed to peep into the lives of each family as they tackle the homework project in very different ways. All the adults in the story are increasingly distracted by events in their own lives and it’s up to the children to bring everyone together.

I adore that Jessica Norrie has given each family a very unique identity through circumstances. culture and race. Each relationship and situation is delicately written and issues are tackled with sensitivity but bring he characters to life. I became invested in every single child in this novel.

This is a breathtaking and addictive story about stories, families and children.

Read the reviews and buy the book:

And on Amazon US:

Also by Jessica Norrie in English and German

Read the reviews buy the books:

and on Amazon US:

Find more reviews on Goodreads:

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 adults and children, co-authored a textbook and ran teacher training. In 2008 came the idea for “The Infinity Pool”, which appeared in 2015 (and in German in 2018). Her second novel “The Magic Carpet”, inspired by teaching language and creativity in multicultural schools, was published on July 22nd 2019, and she is working on a third. She also spends time blogging, singing soprano, walking in the forest and trying to move out of London.

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I know Jessica would love your feedback on the post and it would be great if you could share. thanks Sally

27 thoughts on “Smorgasbord Posts from My Archives – The Literary Column with Jessica Norrie – Coasting with spies and criminals, 1903 – 2018

  1. Pingback: Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – The Weekly Round Up – A Fairy Story, Evergreen, Chocolate, Health, New Books and Reviews oh and a lot of laughter.. | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

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