A portrait of Wales-based crime fiction author Nicola Clifford
After more than a year with radically reduced social contact, we’ve set out to meet up with some of our writers around the British Isles so as to find out more about them and their writing.
by publisher, Erik Empson
How does a west country woman end up tucked away in the far reaches of mid-Wales? The spot itself is an interesting refuge, in the shadow of the Cambrian mountains, on a hillside with less than a whisper of phone reception, near villages that still have public toilets and with shops that close early on Wednesdays.
Within these hills, which connect the most westerly of the green-blanketed Brecons in the south, with the towering peaks of Snowdonia in the north, the stillness is palpable. Astronomers come here because of the clarity of the skies, and walkers head off the beaten track in search of the source of the Wye and Severn, the ever descending sometimes silver, sometimes black, currents which later on cut through the Marches to ultimately merge in a brown mess with the sea in the channel named after Nicola’s home town of Bristol.
These rivers gave much to the Industrial Revolution, and still give today. And the justifiable gripe of the Welsh, that England took its abundant resources and gave little back, is not limited to those who cry Cofiwch Dryweryn*, but apparent in a number of places – not least just to the south of this area when in 1941 the Government evicted centuries-old village communities, and installed the vast Sennybridge army training camp in their place. When this happened, one old woman with her back to her humble cottage and refusing to leave, asked Welsh scholar and poet, Iorwerth Peate, who was documenting the Epynt evictions, where he was from. When he replied Cardiff, she said: “Fy machgen bach i, ewch yn ôl yno gynted ag y medrwch”, Little one, return there as soon as you can, “Mae’n ddiwedd byd yma”, it is the end of the world here.
End of the world it was not and life moved inexorably along, but if a landscape impresses itself on character, then Nicola’s is similarly rugged, resolute and resourceful. And quite beautiful. Any fragilities – her work as a railway model engineer took its toll on her spine – are cushioned by good humour and stoicism.
Long before Rufus, her shaggy black and grey-haired whippet, finally drops its guard some, it is clear that Nicola exudes a generous and self-less nature. For years she worked as a prisoner visitor, often in far-flung and dangerous places around the globe. And no doubt some of these experiences with those on the margins and at the extremes, import themselves into her novels’ themes. A drug consortium getting rich by extorting the bored post-Industrial youth, corrupt cops on jollies, a love-sick but trigger-happy squaddie upsetting a town.
When outsiders think of Wales, these themes are probably not first to mind, demoted by rugby, rain, and the bucolic. But it is a complex place full of contradictions. Warm and cheery like Nicola, nosey and suspicious, like Rufus. And the uniqueness of Nicola’s writing lies in its capacity to convey these tensions in this juxtaposition of the cosy fireside warmth of the homestead and quite serious crimes – organised or otherwise.
The hero of her novels, local journalist Stacey Logan, is not really a hero, and she doesn’t desire to be. She is swell – bright, bubbly and brave. Her close relationship to her policeman boyfriend, keeps us in a fictional real world that has a domestic boundary. And the evidence of this can be found in how NOT FORGOTTEN, Nicola’s third book, is so exciting. When there is a threat that this safe place will be broken, the drama is thrilling.
This brings to life an inherent tension in our favourite genre – the whodunnit i.e. how we have the propensity to make light of the grave, and debate the most frivolous of things in all seriousness.
Nicola has worked in a number of professions over the years. Jewellery, engineering, as a bouncer – did I hear that right? – and has travelled extensively. As I observe one of her fully functioning scale railway wagon models, intricately made, and hear of the garden railway she built and maintained, the degree of patient commitment she puts into all of her projects, not just her writing, was admirably apparent. Like her silver craft skills acquired in India, her books too are delicate, precise and naturally elaborate.
I save the question about the bouncer for another time, no doubt just one of a myriad of stories Nicola has to tell, and after some quick putting the world to rights, the conversation moves to future plans. I shouldn’t have been surprised by now to hear Nicola has her next three books mapped out and in various stages of completion. The talk drifts back to whether these books are cosy, domestic, or something else – a body in a wheelie bin did come up. Stacey Logan isn’t going away, nor will her boyfriend if she has anything to do with it, so thankfully the spell isn’t broken.
I was delighted to be welcomed into Nicola’s home. Everything had its place and for a reason. On leaving, all of a sudden I am, with characteristic kindness, laden with an abundance of beautiful gifts – home grown carrots so fresh “they don’t know they are dead yet”, sweet courgettes, runner beans – and a home made loaf of Bara Brith tea bread so incredibly big and darned delicious it would have been a crime not to tear off large chunks and palm heel them directly past the jowls; once I’d reached a safe distance from Rufus, of course.
Nicola’s fourth Stacey Logan book is scheduled for release in early October. Links to her published titles can be found here: https://thebookfolks.com/author/nicola-clifford/
* Remember Tryweryn. One can still see this slogan daubed in various places around Wales. It refers to the destruction of a small town by the river of the same name to create a reservoir to furnish Liverpool with water against local wishes in 1965.