Today I am delighted to have Harry Bingham author of The Dead House pop by the book review café. Harry Bingham is a critically acclaimed crime novelist, whose work has been published all round the world. He has also written fiction and non-fiction for a variety of major international publishers. Harry very kindly answered a few questions about his book and the extract included in this post
Hi Harry can you tell us a bit about the Dead House
The book is The Dead House. It’s a modern police procedural that features my Welsh detective, DS Fiona Griffiths. The crime at the heart of the book is a very modern (and very plausible) one, except that it takes a very strange ninety-degree twist when it encounters some weird medieval practices that live on in the very heart of remote, rural Wales.
And your detective isn’t quite normal either, is she?
No. She’s pretty much the opposite of the standard procedural type character. She’s young. She’s female. She’s petite. She’s junior. She’s teetotal. She really wants (and will one day get) a happy, ordinary romantic relationship. That said, there are a couple of twists. For one thing, her (adoptive) father once used to be one of Cardiff’s biggest crime lords. And for another, Fiona is in recovery from a – completely genuine – psychiatric condition known as Cotards Syndrome. Patients with the condition go through life believing themselves to be dead. (And yes, I did just say that. And yes, some poor people do really, truly have that condition. If you don’t believe me, check this out on Wikipedia.)
So tell me about the extract below?
My literary agent and editor would kill me if I showed you anything that was too much like a plot spoiler, so here’s a passage which narrates the meeting of my detective, Fiona, with a man (Neil Williams) whose teenage daughter (Bethan) went missing some eight years previously. This extract comes fairly early in the book, so you can read it without spoiling your appetite for the book proper.
What were you trying to do in that passage?
Well, I always like to make even ordinary encounters as atmospheric as I can. I always hate it when characters seem to interact on an empty white stage, so here I made full use of the remote rural setting. I also wanted to emphasise the man’s loneliness. How his life had effectively been shattered by the loss of his daughter. I didn’t want to make him a saint though, so he acknowledges that he and his wife were arguing in the run-up to Bethan’s disappearance.
Does anything strike you when reading it back through now?
Yes, actually! I realise that the passage is communicating that Neil Williams is still stuck in the past. So he’s (near enough) a hoarder. His house just accumulates boxes of rubbish, for no reason except that the man is unable to move on. For the same reason, he has loads of Bethan’s stuff, including pictures she did as a four year old, as though time hasn’t moved on since there. He hasn’t even divorced his wife, so even that romantic area of his life is stuck. And here he is, living on his farm with his fridge full of very basic food, some dried up plants, and only a collie for company. I think it’s rather touching, actually. I certainly hope so!
Neil Williams sits at table under the light.
The room smells of dog and cat and mud and maybe sheep. An oil-fired range cooker. Lino that’s unsticking itself from the floor beneath. Boots drying on a few sheets of newspaper. A flat cap, tweed, shiny with wear. A collie that barked twice at me when I entered, then jumped back onto the collapsing springs of an old armchair, where it’s been quietly licking itself ever since.
‘Bethan? I still think she might come back one day,’ Williams says. ‘I mean, I know that’s not what . . . I know that. But you know, it could happen. She was sixteen when she went, so she’d be coming up twenty-five now. Her whole life still ahead of her.’
The right answer to that—the right policish answer—would combine sympathy with firmness. A little splash of, ‘If you say so, sir,’ with a good, thick spread of, ‘Unfortunately, in these cases, the data tells us . . .’
I don’t take that option. Say, to my own surprise and certainly to his, ‘I vanished once. I mean, I was tiny. Only two. I remember nothing about it. But . . .’ And I tell him the story. The true story of my murky appearance in this world, when I simply appeared—from nowhere, unnannounced and unspeaking—in the back of my father’s Jag. ‘My adoptive father, that is. I’ve never met my biological parents.’
Williams stares at me in surprise.
I say, ‘So yes, it can happen. I’m trying to track down my original parents now. Maybe somewhere there’s a father, like you, wanting to know what happened to his little girl. Believing that that little girl might yet walk through the door. And of course it’s unlikely. These things are. But could it happen? Yes. Yes, I hope so.’
Williams—weathered face, brown hands, misting blue eyes—wants to reach out, to pat my hand, I think, or arm. He pulls back from that gesture, but taps a pile of papers on the table instead. Bills. A seed catalogue. Something to do with farm machinery.
‘Just a minute, love,’ he tells me.
Leaves the room.
The collie watches him go, but doesn’t move.
I offer the dog my hand and he, somewhat grudgingly, licks it.
I get up. Open the fridge, which is mostly empty. A paper bag with tomatoes. A loaf of bread. A half-eaten tin of beans. A smeary packet of butter. Milk, within its sell-by date. Bacon.
I find the kettle, put it on. The handle is sticky with something, I don’t know what. The counter too.
There’s a plant on the window sill which has dried up completely. Is now only sticks and barren compost. I find a bin and throw it away. By the bin, a little curl of dead leaves, chestnut and sycamore, from the trees outside. Tramped in here or wind blown. I throw those away too.
Williams has come back into the room at some point during this. Is looking at it with my eyes.
Says, ‘It wasn’t like this. Not then.’
And I do. Back in 2006, Neil Williams was married. Wife’s name was Joanne. When their only child vanished and their lives descended into the crapper, there were any number of police enquiries, social services reports and the rest. Neil’s farm isn’t much—two hundred acres of upland grass that would be marginal at best—but he has, or had, a side-business as a straw and hay merchant that earned the family decent enough money. No doubt this farmhouse always had an earthy agricultural quality, but no more so than plenty of the houses in the surrounding valley. Certainly none of those intrusive enquiries found anything remiss with the basic quality of love, care, and hygiene surrounding the young Bethan.
‘Joanne’s gone?’ I ask.
‘After Bethan . . .’ he begins, then starts again. ‘Well, I suppose we were arguing a bit even before she went. Nothing, so big. Not really. Just that Bethan wasn’t sure about life up here on the farm and Joanne had started to take her side. So, I don’t know, we were snappy and Bethan in the middle of all that. It was a bad few months, maybe, but you know, all families have their spats.’
He looks at me, wanting me to tell him that, yes, all families have their rough patches, and I duly give him the assurance he needs.
I ask, ‘Your arguments. Did you ever get violent? Did you ever raise your hand in anger?’
He says no and I believe him, but there’s enough in what he does and doesn’t tell me to hint that those arguments were bad, even without overt violence.
‘And after Bethan went, that was it really. Me and Joanne were both upset. She spent more and more time with her sister in Brixham. Torbay area, you know. England. And when she was here, it wasn’t the same. We were always at each other. Stupid things. And, in time, she stopped coming.’
‘No. It’s still odd though. Getting letters to Mr and Mrs Williams. I throw ’em away, often enough.’
He waves the papers at me that he’d left the room to collect.
The stack is cold and damp: the temperature and humidity of the house beyond this kitchen.
Photos. School reports. Postcards. Letters. Drawings and paintings.
Bethan’s life pre-abduction. There’s not much there. Not in terms of evidence, for sure, and these things would have been carefully evaluated by police at the time. But there’s not physically that much either. Just not much documentary record of a vanished life.
I turn pages. Look at Bethan’s four-year-old depiction of her home and family. A fat dad with a big red body, stick arms and legs, a smiley blue face on top. The mum the same, except smaller, and there’s some vague effort at a green dress. Little Bethan, with an orange body and holding a bright yellow balloon stands between the two.
The kettle’s boiled now and Williams make tea. Builders’ sludge for him. Peppermint from my own stash for me. While he’s doing it, I run some searches on my phone: “cleaning companies Carmarthen”. Tap through to any firms that look worthwhile.
‘What happened?’ I ask. ‘What’s your guess, this many years on?’
‘You’re her age, aren’t you? Sorry, I know I’m not meant to ask.’
‘I turned thirty this year. I know I look younger.’
‘Oh. Well, you’ll know from the police reports, love. There’s this . . . man. Len Roberts. Used to do some contracting work. Driving combines. Getting the silage in. That kind of thing. Very seasonal. Work like a devil for four months of the year, sit on your arse the rest.’
‘And he got close to Bethan. Or Bethan close to him. I don’t know. I didn’t like it. Neither did Joanne. But that’s how it was. She used to go over to his cottage, that old place of his. They used to talk, I don’t know what. It was like that maybe two months. Bethan swore the two of them weren’t, you know, weren’t –’
‘They were just friends. They weren’t sleeping together.’
‘Exactly. And we believed her. She was a sensible girl. Head screwed on. Not giddy. Then . . .’
‘Your girl vanishes. Everyone fingers this guy, Len Roberts, as the villain. His place is turned over. There’s any amount of evidence that Bethan had been there, including on his bed, but no trace of violence, no trace of sexual assault, and no trace of Bethan.’
Beyond our windows, the air thickens. A low mist is beginning to form, water droplets swirling the other side of the glass. It darkens too. It’s mid-November now, and the night gathers early, even more so up here, among these purpling hills. There are no curtains on the windows. No streetlamps lighting the yard beyond. Somewhere, in the darkness a fox screams. Twice, maybe three times repeated. Not a mating cry, I don’t think, but one of those warning shrieks that’s almost like a groan of disappointment. The noise has an almost asthmatic quality, but also something darker, wilder, vulpine. We wait until the noise has gone.
I say, ‘You should get this place tidied. Tidied and cleaned. It’s not good for you living like this.’
He says the kind of things I expect him to say. That I’m right. That he ought to. That he makes the effort now and again, but . . .
I interrupt. ‘I’ve got some numbers.’ Wave my phone at him. ‘They’ll come out. Bring all their own equipment. Three or four cleaners. One solid morning’s work.’
He stares at me.
I say, ‘It’ll be a couple of hundred quid. Do you have that? Is that OK?’
He nods. ‘Yes. I suppose.’
He looks perplexed. Perhaps he didn’t know that the South Wales Police, unlike their Dyfed-Powys cousins, arranged house cleans for crime-stricken men of a certain age.
I’m not sure my bosses know that either, but I make the necessary calls all the same.
I walk into the part of the house I’ve not yet seen.
Heaps of stuff. Way too much. Not quite hoarder levels, but definitely not-quite-coping levels.
‘I’m going to get a skip too. I’m going to tell the cleaning people to throw away anything you don’t definitely need. Nothing to do with Bethan. That stuff is sacred. But other things.’
I point to a stack of dead newspapers where the paper on top is dated 2012. A plastic crate full of dead oil filters and old cam belts. A cardboard box, full of something, I can’t see what, but its sides are soft and outward sloping in the damp.
The collie’s on my side now and wags his slow approval.
I make the calls. It’ll be more like five hundred quid when it’s all said and done, but five hundred quid well spent.
‘Then get someone in here. Once a week. Once a fortnight. OK?’
‘Say, “Yes, officer, I promise to do that.” And I’m going to check on you, mind.’
He doesn’t say what I told him to say, but what he does say is close enough.
‘A promise is a promise, Mr Williams,’ I tell him sternly. ‘And if one day, I do find my biological father, I wouldn’t want to walk through the door and find him living in a pigsty. I’d want to see a family home, ready and waiting for my return.’
Something has collapsed in his face now. His right hand is down with his collie. Massaging its neck, its ears. Getting those swift, long dog-licks in return. And Williams’s eyes are more than just misty now. They’re watery. Ready to overflow.
Some collapses are good, I think. Collapses that precede change.
He takes me to the door. Wants to hug me, I think, except he can’t find a way to do it and I probably don’t help him much.
‘Thank you,’ he says, ‘thank you.’
‘You didn’t answer my question. About what you think happened.’
He’s resting a shoulder on the door frame, leaning forwards into the night. An outdoors man, happier out than in.
‘I used to hate that man. Used to think about driving down the hill and killing him.’ A glance indoors into the kitchen catches the old pine dresser in its sweep. Where he keeps his shotgun, I’d guess. ‘Two, three years, I used to think about that every day. Kept me going in a funny way.’
‘And now? I don’t know. If Roberts did hurt my Bethan, I would kill him. I would do it, not that I should say so to you. But if he didn’t, and he always said he didn’t . . .’
I finish for him.
‘Then he’s suffered as much as you. Another life fucked up.’
‘Yes. Something like that.’
‘Have you ever spoken to him? Since then, I mean.’
‘No.’ His voice says he wouldn’t do it either. One of those rural feuds which will dissipate around the time that glaciers return to these hills.
I step out into the night.
I parked my car in daylight two dozen yards from the house, but the darkness here is so complete that I only find my way by pressing my blipper and waiting for the car to light up. When it does so, I see the mist has been thickening invisibly all this time. There’s twenty yards of visibility, no more. The car’s amber lights are haloed and softened, beckoning me across the mud and granite chippings of the farmyard.
At the car, I call back, ‘Thank you, Mr Williams. Good night.’
The Dead House by Harry Bingham is available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.
About the author
Harry is the author of the Fiona Griffiths series of crime novels, set in Cardiff and featuring a heroine described by the Sunday Times as ‘The most startling protagonist in modern crime fiction … brutal, freakish and totally original.’ Harry – slightly less freakish than his creation – lives in Oxford with his wife and young family. He also runs The Writers’ Workshop, an editorial consultancy for new writers. His books on Getting Published and How to Write are among the leading titles in their field.
Links to author
British detective Fiona Griffiths, one of the most engaging female protagonists in crime thrillers, is back with her toughest case yet.
When the body of a young woman is found in an old ‘dead house’ – the annexe where the dead were stored before burial in medieval times – of a tiny church in a small town in Wales, it seems that past and present have come together in a bizarre and horrifying way. For DC Fiona Griffiths, the girl – a murder victim whose corpse was laid out with obvious tenderness – represents an irresistibly intriguing puzzle, given Fiona’s unusual empathy for the dead. And when her investigations lead her to an obscure and secretive monastery hidden in a remote valley, she finds that the murder victim is far from the only victim of a dark and disturbing melding of modern crime and medieval religious practices. Only Fiona is capable of solving this brilliantly crafted mystery.
Amazon UK 🇬🇧