Extreme events are a catalyst: normal people do abnormal things. The Foot and Mouth outbreak in Cumbria in 2001 was a tragedy of epic proportions. Millions of animals were slaughtered, families torn apart, farms barricaded, communities paralysed, and businesses lost. Many individual lives were changed forever, and ‘Burning Secret’ is about some of those. At the heart of it are the innocents, threatened by events they could neither prevent nor control, and those who try to protect them.
I have deep family roots in West Cumbria, and it’s been my own home for the past ten years. Since I started to write this place has dominated my imagination. I’ve written before about the impact of catastrophic events on my community – my third novel ‘Fallout’ was set in and around the Windscale nuclear power station at the time of the reactor fire in 1957 - but then and now, the setting is the context, not the story. It’s the people who really matter, and this story is about a family with secrets that smoulder for too long. When violence erupts, the police officers who deal with it are also hampered by corrosive attitudes that linger like smoke from the burning pyres...
Burning Secret is a crime story set against the dystopian backdrop of the Cumbrian Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001. The relentless malevolence of the epidemic drives and deepens the plot, as a child’s disappearance tears a family apart.
Early in 2001, faced with the pestilence of Foot and Mouth, Cumbria descended into chaos. Twelve year old Helen Heslop has to choose: stay barricaded on the farm or move into town to carry on at school. She chooses to go to school, but freedom from the suffocating atmosphere at home quickly slides into confusion and fear. We see Helen’s new surroundings through her innocent eyes, and with mounting anxiety, as a man who introduces himself as ‘Uncle Colin’, gains her trust and then abducts her. The police enquiry begins.
The two lead characters in the rest of the story reflect the prevailing ambivalence in policing as old methods and attitudes give way to new. DS Anna Penrose’s career has been unusual, with a degree and army service in Bosnia before she joined the force. Her promotion is rumoured to be about gender, not merit. She is hot on budgetary efficiency, performance targets and painstaking evidence gathering. Her sidekick, DC Maureen Pritchard, by contrast, was a hairdresser before she joined the force. She has little patience with trendy ideas about gender, thinks of herself as ‘one of the lads’, and prefers intuition to fancy forensics. For Maureen, ‘targets’ are to be shot at.
The two women form an unlikely team, known by their colleagues as ‘The Two Peas’, but quite clearly as ‘unlike’ as it’s possible to be.
As the enquiry escalates, Penrose and Pritchard find they are losing ground in the gender war, and male colleagues muscle in on their investigation. The team, now headed by die-hard DI ‘Dinger’ Bell, needs help from the new ‘SOCO’ (scene of crime officer) Tony Wong, who has a passion for science, recent training in London, and a Chinese heritage. The ‘old guard’ shakes its collective head in dismay.
As the exclusion zones spread across the fells, and the smoke begins to rise from the burning pyres, the fight to find Helen becomes ever more desperate...
Exclusive excerpt from Burning Secret coming soon!
Foot and Mouth was a nightmare that lingers in the minds of many farmers in this part of the world. If I'm going to write about it as the backdrop to the 'front story' of 'Burning Secret' I have to get the facts right, and respect the memories of those who lived through it. Yesterday I was in touch with two 'voices' from that time, as I deepen my research to ensure the authenticity of what I'll soon…
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