Fresh Blood

Name: Ralph Spurrier

Title of Book: A Coin for the Hangman

'...a very moving piece of fiction which felt extremely biographical.'

It all starts with a small photograph of a woman with forget-me-nots threaded through her hair. A wartime memento for a German soldier going off to war. Down through the war years and beyond, this photo is to become entwined with several deaths. The mystery is to be unearthed forty years later when it is mentioned in a diary found amongst a number of books and paraphernalia once belonging to the recently deceased, Reg Manley. The name rings a bell but is soon discovered to have been a hangman who had once been apprentice to the greatest hangmen of his time, Albert Pierrepoint.

Our detective, a bookseller by the name of Ralph discovers that Manley’s last execution was in 1953 with the hanging of Henry Eastman who left his executioner a diary, written days before he was to meet the man who would end his life. This is the story of Eastman, how he ended up at the end of a noose and a photograph that may well have led to murder.

I have known Ralph Spurrier more than twenty years and he begins his book with the great adage of writing what you know – so he begins his book with a bookseller called Ralph discovering something bizarre amongst a new acquisition. I am sure that during his many years as a bookseller, that Ralph (the real one, not the one in his book), has found many a strange item amongst people’s possessions. Even in my limited travels, I have found postcards and letters tucked away in second-hand books. It always gives me a frisson of nostalgia when you think that this item has been tucked away in between those pages for decades. Here, Ralph uses that basis as a launch pad for his novel.

For many years Ralph has been ‘writing that book’ and his first is well-worth the wait. ‘A Coin for the Hangman’ is steeped in atmosphere and Spurrier perfectly brings to life the sense of time and place whether it is war-torn France or London in 1953. Even the beginning sent me straight back to the 1980’s! This is what the author does so well. To categorise this as a psychological thriller doesn’t give Spurrier’s tale the proper respect. This has a much wider scope and has the feel of a Historical biography about it as Ralph takes us through the living nightmare of WWII as British soldiers discover Belsen and other concentration camps during the last days of the Nazi’s. This is not comfortable reading and Spurrier by no means sensationalises any of it. In fact, the full horror of these places is laid bare without any apology. My one detracting comment would be that although Spurrier perfectly ignites the sounds, sights and smells of the time, he does get a little carried away with his descriptions, which sometimes inhibit the natural flow of the story. However, Spurrier is superb at evoking periods and events with striking dexterity and uses his knowledge of Bibliophilia and films to stamp the sense of time perfectly. Many references to Golden Era crime novels litter Spurrier’s tale. These, and the birds, are a recurring theme throughout the book.

Some may wonder why Spurrier concentrates so much on the war when the murder and trial doesn’t occur until 1953, but it is wheels within wheels and this backstory leads us to a time when men were discharged from the forces and had to deal with being back in ‘civvies’ without any care or medical help to deal with their nightmares and psychological problems. These survivors of such a horrific war were deserted and left to fend for themselves on their home turf. Many were to get in to trouble with the law due to mental illness brought on by the war.

The hanging of Eastman is traumatic and Spurrier brings it perfectly home that we are better off without the death penalty which at times could be inhumane. Also there is mention of some of the miscarriages of justice that meant innocent men were hanged for another’s crime. Spurrier’s description of the whole process of hanging made it feel like something from a different world let alone a different time. ‘Whodunit’ is not fully explained, so don’t expect an Agatha Christie type ending with everyone in the drawing room and the solution explained by a private detective. As with life, there are ambiguities, loose threads that will never be sewn up. Spurrier leaves it to his reader to decide – and if you’re like me, then ‘A Coin for the Hangman’ will wander around your mind days after finishing it! This is a very moving piece of fiction which felt extremely biographical.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) You’ve come late to the crime fiction world haven’t you?
Yes, as a writer I should have got my head down and been published some 40 years ago but I have been immersed in the crime fiction genre for all of those years, first in publishing and then as a specialist crime fiction bookseller, Post Mortem Books.
2) What was it that inspired you to write a crime novel now?
I had been handling and selling crime fiction ever since Macmillan published their new crime list in 1970 followed by a long stint with Victor Gollancz’s long established “yellow perils”. In 1979 I began buying and selling secondhand books, specialising in crime and in 1984 I became a full-time bookseller with a good mailing list of customers who began to buy new titles as they were published - if I could get them signed. Thus began the core of my business with authors signing thousands and thousands of copies over the years. Dick Francis, Ruth Rendell, P.D.James, Paul Doherty, Reg Hill, Peter Lovesey, Caroline Graham, Minette Walters, Colin Dexter and many, many, others all allowed me into their homes with box loads of new titles for them to sign. This kept me busy for nearly 30 years and it was only when I stopped selling new titles that I suddenly realised that perhaps I, too, could write a crime novel. I had a good idea and I just needed the impetus to get on and do it.
3) You did a Masters Degree in Creative Writing at Sussex University. Some are critical of these courses. What is your opinion?
I’d already done an English degree at the same university as a 50 year old mature student and had thoroughly enjoyed the experience. When I saw the Masters in Creative Writing advertised some 10 years later I knew that if I was going to write at all I was going to need some kind of carrot and stick device to actually make me get down and do it. For me, it really worked as I had to produce a 15,000 piece of work - the central part of the published novel as it turned out - and this was critically assessed by not only my tutors but also by my fellow students. The stick was the deadline and the carrot was the critical praise received after the work was completed. It worked for me as I had a definite goal in view but I saw people there who were doing the course primarily as a pastime occupation and although that particular year we all gained our degrees only two of us have gone on to be published authors.
4) Your crime novel, ‘A Coin for the Hangman’ is unusual in that there is no ‘reveal’ of the perpetrator of the murder at the conclusion. Was this a deliberate ploy?
I have always loved the work of Roy Vickers who, in his masterly ‘Department of Dead Ends’ stories, reveals the culprit in the first line as did Francis Iles in ‘Malice Aforethought’. Conversely, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels played cat and mouse with the reader but always whipped the cloth away in the last pages to reveal the real culprit. I wanted to combine those two ends of the genre - and then turn both on their heads so that the reader who had been first led one way and then another is abandoned at the end to try and work out for themselves just who might have done it. It was the concept of author as being unreliable - one of the more fascinating concepts that we worked on at the degree course - that captured my imagination.
5) Is this concept of the unreliable narrator why you included yourself in the story?
Quite. Here is an author - the fellow with his name on the outside of the book - appearing as a character in the book, within the text. Just who is telling the story? The author? Or the author as a character? He’s a bookseller in real life and he’s telling us about this book collection and the story behind one of those books he finds in an estate sale. What’s true? Is this story real? In the afterword I explain that before the internet I could have passed the ‘novel’ off as a true crime story because I had used real people and real towns and events as the backdrop. It would have taken a determined researcher to uncover that all the characters - bar two - were fictitious. These days it just takes a couple of clicks to find all the information you want. Even so I still had readers who asked me if the story was actually ‘true’ - a perfect accolade for the unreliable narrator. Every author of fiction is a liar - it goes with the territory. I just took the additional step of showing to the reader that not only was I, the author, a liar but so was the character with my name a liar and that the author of Henry’s Diary - the kernel of the book - may well be a liar too. If we are all liars just who can you trust? It’s left to the reader to try and solve the puzzle at the end because the reader will be the one most likely to come up with the right answer. Or not. As we will see in the sequel.
6) There are a number of allusions to other writers in the novel. Was this deliberate?
Yes. The hero - if he can be called that - Henry, is a young man with a voracious appetite for books and he reads many crime novels of the period, Agatha Christie and Freeman Wills Crofts for example. But he would also have been a reader of other, more literary, material, novels, poetry and philosophical works that were around at this time in the early 1950’s. While we know for sure that he reads crime fiction and such authors as H.G.Wells, the other authors are hidden not only within the text of the diary he keeps in the condemned cell but also in the main body of the novel. One reader, much to my satisfaction, spotted an allusion to the opening of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ but missed the passing reference to the same author’s ‘Finnegan’s Wake’. Thomas Traherne, John Donne, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Guy Chapman (author of ‘A Passionate Prodigality’, a first world war memoir), Wilfred Owen, Keith Douglas (a second world war poet) Daphne Du Maurier (‘Rebecca’ as a book and as a film), Dante, Bemelmans, Jacques Brel (the renowned chanteur), etc etc - they’re all in there hiding, waiting to be discovered by the enquiring reader. Their words and phrases are buried in the text but provide an important insight to the mind of Henry Eastman who is - or more accurately - becomes an ‘Outsider’.
7) People have mentioned the switching of scenes and times backwards and forwards. Is this a difficult trick to pull off?
You have to be careful not to lose the reader in the various switches between real time and that of memory but once the device is recognised it shouldn’t be a problem. I was interested in the experience of the characters in the extreme situations that some of them found themselves in during the Second World War and the effect it had on their present day personae. I have two of my characters be part of the relieving army at Belsen and there can be little doubt that the horror of that experience had a devastating effect on their subsequent lives. When they and the rest of the combatants return home after demob there was a huge disconnect between what they had experienced away from home life and the world they came back to. Similarly, the women left on the Home Front had experienced loneliness and stress that did not necessarily disappear when the men folk returned. Into this post war Britain I place my five main characters all struggling to come to terms with a world that has changed but their memories and war experiences are never far away from the surface.
8) You have mentioned that there are two leitmotifs within the book. What are they?
Wagner’s Ring Cycle uses leitmotifs - musical fingerprints if you like - to highlight the appearance of characters or their involvement in the development of the story. Loge, the Fire God for example, is always represented by fast moving scales up and down as if to represent flickering flames. Other characters all have their own themes. Well, I wasn’t as adept as that but I did include two motifs that run through the book as way markers for the reader through the novel.

The first is railways. The story proper begins at a Bavarian railway station and it ends on the tracks by a small Wiltshire railway halt. In between we will encounter trains both physically and in books and films (‘Brief Encounter’ and ‘The Lady Vanishes’). The slightly detached observation of the world, facilitated through the train window is understood as analogous to the sensation of dreaming.

Second are the birds. They appear at moments of crisis and of memory recall and the eagle-eyed reader will spot them in people’s names, on the side of industrial chimneys and in children’s books. They are harbingers of doom and their very presence wraps the reader in suffocating wings.
9) What are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you and would wish to have on a deserted island?
ROY VICKERS: Department of Dead Ends. A prolific writer but he never did anything better than these short stories which reveals to the reader the identity of the murderer in the first line. The process of how the police – Inspector Raison – come to apprehend the murderer through a series of seemingly random and unconnected events is a sublime trick which he pulls off every time.

COLIN WATSON: any of his Flaxborough novels (Hopjoy Was Here, Lonleyheart 4122, etc.). It is supremely difficult to pull off a “comic” crime novel but Watson does it time and again while keeping the puzzle element well and truly bubbling along.

COLIN DEXTER: The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn. I admire all of Colin’s books. Erudite, clever and fair in that all the clues are offered up to the reader but which fools most of us right on to the last page. This particular title is so clever right from the title and the dedication (you have to know who the dedicatee is to get the clue) that I rate it as the star in Dexter’s firmament.