Murder with intent: Alis Hawkins on her new Teifi Valley Coroner novel
Alis Hawkins is a novelist on a mission – and she’s already fighting on two fronts. Alis is determined to put Welsh crime-writing on the map while also shining a light on a nation’s forgotten history, one grisly murder at a time.A founder member of the Crime Cymru collective, Alis has just launched the print edition of the latest title in her Teifi Valley Coroner series – the e-book edition was released earlier this summer, but the Covid-19 pandemic forced a delay in publication of the print version.
Set in the 1850s, Those Who Know is the third installment in the series and continues to detail the trials and tribulations of Harry Probert-Lloyd, a former up-and-coming London barrister forced to return home to the family estate in Cardiganshire when his eyesight fails.
In the opening two books of the series – None So Blind and In Two Minds, Harry uncovers the dark truths behind the murder of a dairy maid and the discovery of a body on the Ceredigion coast after taking on the role of acting coroner for the Teifi Valley. In Those Who Know he faces a bitter election fight to make the post his own while also investigating the death of a village schoolteacher. He is aided throughout by John Davies, a former farm servant turned solicitor’s apprentice, who acts both as his eyes and right-hand man.
The series provides a much-needed insight into a criminally overlooked period of Welsh history with Harry the perfect albeit flawed protagonist. The deterioration of his sight coupled with his time in London make Harry a complex, multi-layered character, struggling to marry the radical liberal thinking honed in the courtrooms of the metropolis with the obligations of the conservative West Wales landowner he vowed he would never become – in a world he can barely see and one he all too often resents.
“When I first imagined Harry, he was a barrister,” said Alis of her lead character. “But I had to make it impossible for him to stay in London so I needed something that would incapacitate him to a degree but not completely disable him.
“Making him lose his sight made it interesting because it means Harry and John see things very differently – I did not anticipate just how differently. Harry visualises the world around him by remembering things.
“He is bringing to bear the years he has spent away, and he cannot now see West Wales as he used to because he is seeing it through the prism of London and a whole lot of different experiences and a very different mindset.”
Torn between idealism and pragmatism, the reality of the present and memories of his own idealised past, Harry is both outsider looking in and insider looking out as he seeks to bring justice to a world struggling to come to terms with massive social and industrial upheaval in a nation he barely recognises yet remembers all too well.
Memory is also key to Alis’ own writing process: although she grew up on a small dairy farm near Cwmcou just outside Newcastle Emlyn, she has spent her adult life living and working in England.
“Because None So Blind – the first in the series – is set literally where I grew up my memories were so, so clear and it didn’t really matter that I hadn’t been back that much, although I did go back quite a bit when I was actually writing it,” she said.
“When I was growing up life was absolutely idyllic. Honestly, a childhood on a small dairy farm in the Teifi Valley in the 60s and 70s – there was nothing better. It was fantastic.
“It was a proper community where everybody genuinely helped each other. Now I have done all this research into farming in the Teifi Valley I can see that that sense of togetherness has a very, very long history.”
A sense of community and shared history loom large in the books and while Alis goes to great pains to reiterate that she is not a historian, her novels are rich in social history – in the time, place, customs and events that shaped the people of West Wales in the early days of Queen Victoria’s reign.
Her drive to write the first novel came from a desire to explore the mindset that had sparked the Rebecca Riots, when workers in West Wales disguised themselves in women’s clothes to smash the financially-crippling toll-gates were increasingly appearing throughout the region. Equally importantly to Alis however was the need to highlight what has become a little-discussed moment in Welsh history – a moment that would be central to the modern-day cultural identity of the region had it happened anywhere else.
'I want to shine a tiny little bit of light on our country’s past'
“The Rebecca movement was a very complex thing during a riotous period in British history,” said Alis.
“I want to know why nobody talks about the riots now – why it isn’t really taught in schools.
“I amuse myself whenever I do talks outside West Wales by asking how many people have heard of the Rebecca Riots and invariably in England that is always, always, zero. Even in Wales, it’s like ‘well I kind of think I’ve heard about it, but I don’t know about it’. If it had happened anywhere in England it would be completely different – think how much of a hoohaa is made of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, which were tiny in comparison.
“What I want to know is why isn’t every third business in West Wales called Beca this or Beca that? It is as if everyone is ashamed of it.”
That interest in the Rebecca movement, coupled with the research she has carried out while working on the Teifi Valley coroner books, has sparked a passion for Welsh history, and also a very real desire to encourage others to learn more about our country’s past.
“It wasn’t my initial mission to begin with, but it has become a bit of one for me. I want to say to people ‘come on, look, this is our history’.
“One of the things I have really learned about the first half of the 19th century – when my books are set – is that Wales was not at all like England. In the period I am writing about things were different in Wales. For example, women were much freer, much more was expected of them. They worked on the farms much more than they did in England in the same period, they owned businesses much more than they did in England. The attitudes in Wales were very different to those in England.
“This is a really interesting period before Wales was made to behave more like England.
“In many ways the situation in Wales now is very similar to the situation as it was then. Probably 30 years before Harry goes back to the Teifi Valley – during and just after the Napoleonic wars – there was an agricultural boom because stuff from the continent was blockaded, but by his period people were earning less than their grandparents had – costs had gone up, incomes had gone down - and that’s exactly what is happening in farming in West Wales now. There was a boom period in the 50s, 60s, and 70s but once quotas came in the wheels started falling off that bus, so that is quite similar.
“We are also fighting the same linguistic argument now but at a different stage – they are about to go into the Welsh Not period (when the use of Welsh was heavily discouraged). They are about to start thinking ‘Oh, maybe Welsh is holding us back, maybe we do need to be speaking English’. We are at the other end of that now – there is still a language war going on but we are now thinking ‘no, the language we need to be thinking about is Welsh because being bilingual is good for you, it’s good for your brain, it’s good for the economy’. Cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb gallon – a nation without a language is a nation without a heart.
“I’ve become quite nationalistic to be honest, I am pro-Independence because I think Wales has been subjugated and is being disregarded, particularly by this current government.
“What I am trying to do, if I am trying to do anything, is get Welsh people, particularly young Welsh people, to read the books and think ‘Bloody hell, I don’t know about my own history, I don’t know what my forefathers were like – they were struggling, we are struggling’. This needs to happen now.
“I have become passionate about Welsh history because it just isn’t known. I want to shine a tiny little bit of light on our country’s past because people do read crime books and I’m hoping that people will get hooked in by the crime and take away a bit of the history.”
As missions go, reuniting a country with its past is no small task, but if anyone has the passion, drive and determination to do it – that person is Alis Hawkins.
Those Who Know is published by The Dome Press.
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