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The City of York and a Supernatural Sherlock

York has many claims to fame, one of the lesser known being that it has more ghosts and supposedly verified hauntings than any other British city. That being the case, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to discover that it also has more “ghost walks” too, with over a dozen different tours guiding punters through the murky alleys and snickelways.

Invariably led by budding actors in cloaks or period costume, you’ll find the Ghost Walk, the Original Ghost Walk, the Ghost Hunt, the Real Ghost Walk, the Ghost Trail and many others taking tourist groups around every night of the year. A Ghost Cruise sails along the River Ouse through the city centre, and York even has a Ghost Bus, where passengers are driven around the evening streets in an old double decker and told frightening stories.

These various operations have no love for one another and the guides often glare at each other as rival groups pass in the narrow cobbled streets. One night the simmering dislike may erupt into something resembling the Glasgow ice cream wars of the 1980s.

When I was planning a series of humorous novels about a private investigator (or consultant detective) resembling Sherlock Holmes, I chose York as the setting for two reasons. Firstly, as mentioned above, the small city openly embraces its paranormal side and my Bernard Quist books would draw on that. There’s a good reason why the Hound of the Baskervilles has always been the most famous and best loved of the Conan Doyle stories. Although it’s a truly fantastic novel, a good deal of its popularity stems from the supernatural element. Many readers love the supernatural, and here they get their favourite detective involved in a seemingly paranormal mystery of ancient legends, misty moorlands and a terrifying spectral beast.

A similar atmosphere permeates the Bernard Quist novels, but where the Baskerville hound turns out to be a real dog, similar to those huge things owned by estate money lenders and drug dealers, the eerie situations Quist and his assistant face are genuinely supernatural.

The second reason for choosing York should be obvious - this is such an amazing place and perfect for detective mysteries. Few writers have used the city as a backdrop and it’s difficult to understand why. York rivals Prague, Vienna and Saltsburg for architectural beauty and medieval splendour. Every stroll through the cobbled streets and snickleways is a stroll through history, with each turn bringing you face-to-face with Elizabethan fortifications, Tudor buildings and ancient taverns. I’ve attempted to use the city as an actual character in the same way that the Morse and Rebus novels breathe life into Oxford and Edinburgh.

Most readers will be aware of the Shambles, the Minster and the circuit of rampart walls and barbican gates that encircle the centre. Yorkshire readers may also be familiar with other locations in the stories such as the Golden Fleece (York’s most haunted inn), and the King’s Arms by the river, the pub which famously floods at the first glimpse of rain cloud. York was also chosen as the setting because it’s a short drive up the road from me which makes it very easy to check the various locations to ensure ideas and plot points work.

The Yorkshire Wolds to the east of the city also feature in the first book, Cat Flap. This area isn’t as famous as the Dales and the North York Moors and must feel like their poor relation – John F Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and that other Chappaquiddick brother who didn’t shine politically or get to sleep with Marilyn Monroe. I felt it was time the Wolds had a bit of a shout out, even if only to feature as a grisly murder scene.

I decided to try a new take on Sherlock Holmes with the character Bernie Quist – a different and original approach, and hopefully both urban fantasy readers and Holmes fans will enjoy the idea. Quist, his assistant and the other protagonists are likable and quirky, and the stories are humorous without being outright comedy. Quist operates from Baker Avenue, his eccentric personality and deductive methods resemble Conan Doyle’s sleuth and his assistant is named Watson, although this Watson is a black youth from a notorious housing estate and he’s definitely no doctor. The mismatched duo take on bizarre cases which invariably lead to the realms of the supernatural, a shadowy world Quist is all too familiar with. Reclusive and very much a loner, he has a dark secret which eventually comes to light in the first novel Cat Flap.

My original idea was to base the character on Basil Rathbone. Before I read Conan Doyle’s books, I grew up with the old films starring Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Jeremy Brett was the best and most accurate portrayal of Holmes, but my heart will always belong to this earlier pair, although why the genius detective would have Bruce’s character assisting him is a bigger mystery than any of his cases. Bumbling and dafter than a proverbial brush, Bruce’s Watson would make a wonderful friend, but he wouldn’t be your first choice as an ally when facing Moriarty or hell hounds. In making Quist modern, he lost the Rathbone similarities and, don’t ask why, but I often had Hugh Grant in mind when visualising his looks and eloquent voice.

I’ve included many tributes and nods to the Conan Doyle stories and hardcore fans should enjoy spotting these. Watson, for example, lives on the infamous Grimpen housing estate – named after the Grimpen Mire in Hound of the Baskervilles and described there as one of the most awful places in Britain. Because of the modern setting, my main task was to keep this a million miles away from the feel of the Sherlock television series. With the humour, the supernatural slant and various other factors, I’ve managed that.

I wanted quirky and surreal titles to reflect the content. Cat Flap refers to the ‘flaps’ surrounding the numerous sightings of big cats in the British countryside – the pumas and black panthers, such as the Beast of Bodmin Moor.

The Music of Sound is an obvious play on the famous story of nuns and Nazis, but features neither. Here Quist is involved with a singing superstar, a female mercenary soldier named Adler, and Laurel and Hardy.

The third book Judgment Clay does have Nazis in the form of white supremacists and their new political party – White Rose, a Yorkshire nationalist group. Quist’s missing person investigation involves these dubious people, a wealthy family of drug dealing criminals and a dark power that is worse than either.

The books are published by MX, the largest publisher of Sherlock Holmes in the world and, assuming Quist and Watson survive the dangers in the first three, there will be many more. Who knows? If all goes well, there may be Bernie Quist location tours one day in York, with rival guides glaring at each other.

‘Don’t believe what that twat tells you. Quist’s detective agency is supposedly at the end of this street, not that one.’

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