Author of the Month

Name: Ian Sansom

First Novel: Ring Road

Most Recent Book: Essex Poison

'Sansom successfully delivers prose worthy of Dorothy L. Sayers mixed with the quirkiness of Allingham and the theatricality of Marsh. '

October 1937 and Stephen Sefton is on a downward spiral. Out on the streets of Soho, Sefton is summoned to the offices of a man called Delaney – a man who Sefton owes a hundred pounds – and Delaney has called in the debt. Sefton has no means of paying him off and escape comes in the form of his employer, Swanton Morley and his daughter, Miriam who are about to embark on another book in the series of ‘County Guides’, this time taking in Essex. Morley is to be an honorary guest at the annual Colchester Oyster Festival. However, things do not run smoothly for the trio when the mayor dies at the event. Was it a case of eating a bad oyster? Or was it murder?

Sansom highlights Essex in the fourth of his ‘County Guides’ series. What Sansom does brilliantly is make Essex the main character in his book. He brings to the page the flavour, sights and sounds of an Essex long gone, but without making it feel idyllic. In fact, although Sansom’s books are a nod to the Golden Age of crime fiction, (even Morley’s cook is called Mrs Christie!), there is a grimy feel to his landscape. His book is populated with shady characters, people you would normally give a wide berth and who are willing to make a fast buck at the expense of their victims. All are vividly drawn whether they have a big or a small part in his tale.

Sefton is a tricky narrator. Still suffering from the damaging effects of his time in the Spanish Civil War, Sefton can at times be acidly witty and with the flip of a coin become morose and introspective. He is constantly battling with himself to be good, but the ground beneath him can sometimes feel very slippery indeed, leading him to acts he knows he will regret. His feelings for Miriam are not reciprocated, but I am not sure if Sefton would really know what love is due to being too wrapped up in himself emotionally.

Sansom’s word play is relentless and I felt a sense that he is in love with the English language. Humour is weaved amongst Sansom’s prose to lighten the darkness of a county populated by many on the breadline. Sefton is always referring to some article or book that Morley has produced making you wonder how Morley fits in all this writing with only a typewriter and none of the technology we enjoy today.

The ‘murder’ is not forefront of this book, in fact much of the book is determining if a crime has actually been committed. The main enjoyment is found on the adventures of the trio as they listen to local gossip on who had what on whom and who was taking backhanders. I may be wrong, but I sensed there were definite traces of Allingham’s ‘Campion’ novels as the three nudged nearer to the truth.

Sansom successfully delivers prose worthy of Dorothy L. Sayers mixed with the quirkiness of Allingham and the theatricality of Marsh. I thoroughly enjoyed my outing with Morley, Miriam and Sefton. I wonder where they will be heading next!

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) ‘Essex Poison’ is the fourth novel in the ‘County Guides’ series and Essex is the county in which you were born. Did you have to be careful not to upset anyone, especially in your own backyard?
Ha! You’re always going to upset someone, aren’t you? Upsets, irritations, misunderstandings: that’s what humans do. We take and give offence. But I certainly wouldn’t seek to cause offence. I’m pretty inoffensive, actually - as a person and as a writer. In fact, all of the books in the County Guides series are intended as celebrations of a particular county: ‘The Norfolk Mystery’, ‘Death in Devon’, ‘Westmorland Alone’. The whole series is a kind of grand hurrah: my Poly-Olbion. But since I’m slowly working my way through all the historic English counties - there are 39 in total, or more if you include the Ridings as separate entities, and the city of London, and the bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey - I’m sure to upset someone somewhere along the way. And I’m certainly setting out to challenge as well to celebrate. What are places hiding? What are their secret histories? What’s the relationship between the past and present, and between those who feel they belong to a place and those they regard as outsiders? Although they’re historical novels the books are not simply exercises in nostalgia: I am deeply suspicious of our current politics of nostalgia. Trump. Farage. Corbyn. Downtown. Strictly. Keep Calm and Carry On. La La Land. I think not just in England but worldwide currently we are being encouraged to look backwards and to cherish and comfort ourselves with what are effectively fantasies of the past - I think I’m probably trying to investigate what the difference is between that fantasy and the reality. Anyway, to answer your question: no offence intended to anyone in Essex.
2) You play around with words very much throughout these stories. Do you love the wordplay within the English language?
I gotta use words when I talk to you. Who was that? T.S. Eliot or someone? Someone like that. If I want to communicate I have to use words so I might as well try and find the very best, the most appropriate, the most startling, the most entertaining, the most utterly necessary - though always without appearing to do so, without showing off, without too much jus, too much word juice. The problem of course is that in trying to find the best and the most appropriate you are in fact constantly moving away from the reality you’re trying to describe. It’s a mug’s game, really - that’s definitely Eliot, and he was absolutely right.
3) Morley seems quite a formidable man and appears more machine than human with all the knowledge inside his head. I wonder what he would have been like with the technology of the 21st Century at his fingertips rather than a Hermes Featherweight typewriter. Is Morley based on anyone from real life? Are you anything like Morley?
Morley’s an autodidact - with all the peculiarities and the gaucheries and the strange enthusiasms and vast gaps in knowledge that tend to characterise the self-educated, then and now. He’s based partly on Arthur Mee, the man who wrote and compiled the Children’s Encyclopaedia, but also on T.E. Lawrence, and Max Beerbohm, Chesterton, the great eccentrics of the English literary tradition. He’s a man of letters. An enthusiast. I wish I was anything like that. I wish I had half his knowledge.
4) The stories are played out through the eyes of Stephen Sefton. He is quite a damaged character suffering flashbacks from the Spanish Civil War as well as being a drunk and a gambler. He does tend to cause his own troubles and is a bit of a scoundrel. What was it about Sefton that you wanted him to be your main conduit for these books?
Ah, well, exactly those things you identify: Sefton is the perfect narrator because of his weaknesses and his foolishnesses, his mistakes. He keeps acting out of the best intentions but things always seem to get worse for him and as time goes by - as the series progresses - his mistakes become all the greater. He descends into the very vaults of his being. He feels lost and unworthy. He’s defective and he can’t seem to fix himself. Doesn’t everyone feel a bit like that? Is it just Sefton? Is it only me? And of course his pessimism tempers Morley’s optimism. They make an odd couple - an odd trio, actually. (Miriam, Morley’s daughter, is often the voice of reason in the novels. She’s more brilliant than either of them, more practical, more daring - and yet also deeply flawed. She’s the necessary third man - except of course she’s a woman).
5) Your stories feel well researched and are full of facts of that time period. Do you have to stop yourself getting carried away by the research?
I’m glad they appear to be well researched - though there are always readers out there who are much better informed and who are able to spot the tiniest of errors. For which I’m very grateful, I should say - though of course also quite ashamed. For me research is often a substitute for writing. I could spend years simply researching the books and never actually write them. That would be lovely. The key is to know how much research is enough and then to trust my imagination to do the rest. My ambition is not to write history but to tell stories. (And before any readers write in to point out that history is a form of narrative and that stories imply chronology, yes, yes, obviously, but you know what I mean).
6) Your series has notes of Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham. Was this intentional and are you a fan of the Golden Era of crime?
Ah, you noticed! Yes, yes, quite right, a bit of a fan: Sayers, Allingham, Freeman Wills Crofts, Ronald Knox. I do think that Golden Age fiction - when you read it, rather than simply read about it - is quite innovative and peculiar and often very challenging. It’s not at all what we think of now as ‘cosy’. It’s not just problem- and puzzle-solving. I’ve never been much interested in the puzzling-solving element of crime fiction - who cares? I’m much more interested in the tone, in the contexts, in the relationships, the milieu, the opportunities it gives you to write about themes and ideas and issues and injustices. I think at its best Golden Age fiction is an example of writing in extremis - like Greek tragedy, or Gothic fiction, or Metaphysical poetry, or Milton, Blake, Beckett, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot. Honestly, I think Dorothy Sayers was a genius.
7) I love the photos that are included here. Was that something you insisted on to give the book an historic flavour?
Fortunately I didn’t have to insist: my publishers and my editors have been more than accommodating. But yes, the photographs are essential. I like photographs and illustrations in novels for the same reason I like footnotes and endnotes and acknowledgements and all other forms of para-textual material in books - epigraphs, appendices, forewords, acknowledgements, everything - because they blur the distinction between literature and the world. Where does the book end and where does it begin? The photographs appear to have a documentary function, to act as signals and signposts but in fact they’re really there to bamboozle and to intensify the effects of disorientation. Does that make sense? Does that sound ridiculous?
8) Are you a fan of crime fiction in general? What would you say are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you and would take with you to a desert island?
I go through phases. I’m currently going through a Chinese sci-fi phase. Liu Cixin. Cheng Jingbo. I’m obsessed with that at the moment. But yes, I do tend to read a lot of crime fiction. It would be difficult to choose just three crime novels. At different times I’d choose very different books. At one time I’d happily have taken all Simenons and nothing else. And then Pascal Garnier - he was a great writer, underrated. La Théorie du panda. L’A26. But if I had to choose just three, right now, today: Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, ‘The Blank Wall’; Patricia Highsmith, ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’; and maybe a Lawrence Block, from the Barney Rhodenbarr series. Actually, no, not Block: Harry Kemelman, the Rabbi Small books in one massive omnibus edition. If my own work could give readers just a fraction of the immense pleasure those books have given me I’d be very happy.