by Margaret Powling
Not for nothing has Hazel Holt been referred to as the Queen of Cosy Crime, a certain type of mystery in which a murder usually takes place within a small community and is solved by one of the residents. In Hazel’s novels – which are enjoyed as far afield as Australia, South Africa and the USA – the amateur sleuth is a retired widow, academic Sheila Malory, who lives in an idyllic Somerset cottage on the outskirts of Taviscombe with her cat, Foss and her dog, Tris.
So when did Hazel’s writing career begin?
“I was awarded a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge, where I met my husband, Geoffrey. After coming down from Cambridge I worked at the International African Institute where I stayed for 27 years. It was where I met novelist, Barbara Pym, and we had some wonderful times together. Barbara was very tall, very quiet, and very reserved, and I didn’t think I would ever get to know her, but we soon discovered we had lots in common. When she died, as her literary executor, I became involved in rescuing her unpublished work, editing her letters and diaries, and writing the Life.”
A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym was a best seller. Why then did Hazel, in a manner of speaking, turn to crime?
“I had always wanted to write fiction but the trouble with being an editor is that you are hyper-critical, especially of anything you write yourself. Suddenly, I had a sort of idea, and the miracle was that when I started to write, it was in the first person and instantly I had my own ‘voice’, which is essential for a novelist.”
Indeed, here the edges of fact and fiction blur as Foss is a dead ringer for Hazel’s own Siamese cat, Flip. Not only that, Hazel and Shelia are experts on the Victorian novel, in particular those by Charlotte M Yonge and, until recently, like Sheila, Hazel lived in what can only be described as a Grade 1 picture book cottage.
“When my husband died two years ago – we missed our Diamond wedding by just a year – I suddenly realized that, like Sheila, I was now a widow. As a writer, my instinct was to write about it, but of course, I realized that anything I might say in the 20th book of the Mrs Malory series would be inappropriate! However, after a while, I did finish the book I had started (A Necessary End). I found it difficult to find time to write because now I had to do all those difficult and necessary things that a husband often deals with, like direct debits, insurance, and income tax. I also had to pack up three generations of Things in what had been my husband’s family home and - an immense task, this - clear the barn of all the half-finished projects that had accumulated since 1924.”
Hazel found it hard to leave not only her family home, but also the gardens and orchard, with the fields and trees beyond.
“Flip felt the move even more than I did, and it was sad to see him walking round the garden, even though it’s a good size, like a prisoner in an exercise yard. I have moved to a pleasant bungalow in South Somerset, literally just around the corner from my family, which is splendid and, although I can’t walk more than a short distance, I can still drive down to the sea. Alas, not every day, like Sheila, and I do miss that. But I have stated another Sheila book. Unlike me, she will remain in Taviscombe in familiar surroundings and continue to gather information when she bumps into people while shopping. I can’t imagine her anywhere else.”
Why Taviscombe, which is recognisably Minehead?
“I gave the town the name of Taviscombe because, you see, Barbara used it in one of her books, No Fond Return of Love, so it’s an in joke for all Pym fans.”
Hazel’s cast of characters has changed little since the early novels: Sheila, her son Michael, her daughter-in-law Thea, and Hazel’s friend Rosemary (not forgetting Rosemary’s indomitable mother, Mrs Dudley) are all still there. Rosemary’s policeman son-in-law Roger has now been promoted, therefore a new copper, Bob Morris, assists Sheila with the crime solving (yes, I think that’s the right away around!). Hazel has become extremely fond of the characters she has created and while every story brings a new murder mystery the basic elements remain unchanged.
“From Barbara I learned to carry a story forward through some ordinary incident, chance meeting or overheard conversation. Everyday chores, and not just in domestic things but also in office life. What Barbara used to call ‘the thankless task of making an index.’”
“Angela Thirkell, the novelist – read her early ones, the later ones are a bit tedious – said, what one’s readers want is for you to write the same book over and over again. Sheila has grown older, she was in her 50s when I began, she is now a pensioner and refers to herself as such. I don’t think I can ever kill off Tris and Foss, though, so my readers will just have to exercise their ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’”
A Necessary End by Hazel Holt is published by Allison & Busby