Published: 06:00, 24 February 2021
| Updated: 12:18, 24 February 2021
Crime novels have been moving south in recent years, depicting the beaches and towns of Kent as part of a mysterious underworld.
But why? Sophie Bird spoke to four writers of novels set in the county to find out what makes Kent the new fictitious crime capital.
Every setting a writer needs all in one county
"I was looking for a place which would be as big a character in the story as the people," says William Shaw.
He first chose to set his DS Alexandra Cupidi series in Dungeness.
Julie Wassmer chose the eponymous seaside town for the Whitstable Pearl series, Tony Bassett opted for historic Canturbury for Smile of the Stowaway and Natasha Bell favoured the iconic Dover coastline for This Nowhere Place, set to be published in March.
Tony explains: "Kent is very good for crime novels because it's got such a diverse landscape.
"You've got the rugged terrain of the Dungeness area, the beaches and it's close to London where crime is more prevalent. It gives you a chance to have various scenes and settings."
Julie, whose eighth Kent based novel hits the shelves in June, echoed this: "I consider myself very lucky not only to live in this county but to have such a diversity of storyline settings to choose from.
"With beautiful countryside and orchards, the great city of Canterbury and Whitstable’s stunning coastline which has proved to be so amazingly telegenic in the filming of the upcoming TV series based on my books."
Kent's vibrant history and modern politics
"The future, for better or worse, often is happening in Kent these days because of where it is," says Mr Shaw.
"It's this county facing out into Europe and conscious of being the border between England and Europe. That gives it all sorts of advantages for storytelling."
Being sandwiched between the Dover crossing and London - as well as the rich history of defending Britain's border against anyone from Romans to Nazis - Kent is centre-stage for narratives about how to deal with 'outsiders'.
More locally, in Whitstable, native oysters are unavailable during the summer festival, so the pacific rock oyster is enjoyed in the town instead. But this 'outsider' oyster has taken up so much of the local waters the Environment Agency is having to tackle their spread.
Julie says: "I use this as a metaphor for real-life tensions existing between local people and down-from-Londoners, while acknowledging that there’s a symbiotic reliance between the two.
"Our local economy depends on visitors but too many results in the kind of change which threatens the nature of Whitstable’s traditional charm."
The writers have picked from a range of local issues in their stories; from class disparities, to building on greenfield land, to the decline in coastal areas.
William, Natasha and Tony all tackle immigration in their novels, seeing Kent as the centre of the conflict since Brexit.
Natasha was inspired to write This Nowhere Place after taking a trip along the "iconic White Cliffs" in 2016.
She added: "For me, 2016 was a wake up call that having your politics, whatever they may be, was not enough. You can't be apathetic."
A choice between realism and escapism
Tony Bassett's Smile of the Stowaway was based on a true story.
In 2014, an Ashford couple discovered a man hiding under their motor home on the way back from Calais and called the police right away.
Reading this, Tony wondered what would have happened if the couple befriended the man and set him up with a job.
Tony said: "You want to make the book as realistic as you possibly can despite it being fiction. The reader can really come to terms with the story.
He added: "There are some really beautiful places in Kent. It creates a contrast; the beauty of the villages, the hills and dales and you've got people out to commit murder. Some of the more remote places can be scary as well as beautiful."
Depending on how grounded a writer wants to make their story, Kent's beauty is perfect for fantastical writing while its commonness can lend itself to more realist storytelling.
Natasha explains: "Place is always important for crime novels and crime fiction.
"It works two ways - we either want the places in our crime novels to be escapist, far away and beautiful or I think a lot of writers want them closer to home.
"When the setting feels tangible, somewhere you've been or lived, you get this uncanny sense this could be real."
Kent is a wonderful place - and not appreciated enough
All four authors are united in their love of Kent.
After living in York, the This Nowhere Place writer wanted her second book to highlight the way people attach identity to places.
Natasha said: "When you're younger you can feel very trapped in a place. But as you grow up, your relationship to that place changes because you understand it and you start to see its beauty. So, the title comes from a 16-year-old's perspective which is obviously a little gloomy.
"My argument is Dover is not a 'nowhere place' but it gets treated like it. For some reason we have allowed Dover's identity and history to be overshadowed by places like York or Bath or Edinburgh.
"Dover has just as much history as York but York is crawling with tourists and has a nice pretty bow on it. I felt defensive on Dover's behalf as people seem to just pass through."
This sentiment was echoed by William, who said of the county: "It's brilliant. It's a really extraordinary location and loads of people in England don't really know it very well."
Julie Wassmer has lived in the setting of her seven published novels for 22 years. She added: "In writing these books I really wanted to pay tribute to the town I fell in love with over two decades ago.
"Whitstable is a quirky place with an independent, anti-establishment spirit - which I think might be down to its old smuggling history. But it’s also quintessentially English and full of interesting characters - the perfect setting for this crime series."