An oblique portrait of author Cheryl Rees-Price
by publisher, Erik Empson
Born near Taff’s Well, a small village in a vale north of Wales’ capital, on the slopes of The Garth, the hill that inspired Christopher Monger’s story and subsequent film An Englishman Who Went Up A Hill And Came Down A Mountain, local character courses through mystery writer Cheryl Rees-Price’s veins with as much certainty as the River Taff flows from the heights of Pen-y-Fan into Cardiff Bay.
It is apocryphal that this river gives rise to the demonym of Taff, or Taffy, which rose to prominence in the Great War to denote people from South Wales. More prosaically, that probably derives from the corruption of the Welsh name Dafydd. Like all nicknames of this nature, often it is not the terms themselves that offend but the connotations that go along with them. Personally, I don’t object to Brummie, but it certainly gets my goat if when asking where I am from, those who couldn’t place Birmingham on a map, are somehow triggered to intone “Beeearminghum” before quickly changing the subject. As far as it goes, I believe Taff is relatively benign but faced with the polite countenance of Cheryl, I am too shy to ask.
Cheryl did not stay in Taff’s Well. Few do. There one has a sense that time, though standing still, has other things to do. It has the only thermal spring in Wales, and the water is said to take 5,000 years to filter through the fissures in the limestone before it bubbles out next to the river. The swimming pool once there was long before Cheryl’s time – the story goes that the owner gave it to the council with the proviso that they maintain the pool – which they did, after a fashion, by filling it in and turning it into a bowling green. She moved to Cardiff and then on to a small town so discretely nestled in the foothills of The Black Mountain range north of Swansea, that I struggle to pinpoint it on a map.
Her wider family followed her, including her husband’s troop who, though born in London, also has solid roots in the region. That must have been quite a migration given that there are thirty-five members in all, sure to upset the census and have gold prospectors raising their ears. Okay, I take that a little far, but precious finds other than Cheryl are discovered in this area: the valley of the River Cothi at Dolaucothi, mined by the Romans, is one of the two main places in Wales that the metal has been mined.
Large family withstanding, Cheryl is too unassuming to be a matriarch although one imagines they couldn’t do without her quiet, reserved strength. The sparkle in her eyes betrays a keen intelligence, she is soft-spoken, and choses her words carefully. In fact, in every aspect, care seems to be what characterises this author.
Her books are set in regions she knows well, all local to her. Where fictional, the places are as authentic as the lichen coated and moss covered stone; where real, like Dinas Rock – a towering limestone prominence that is a setting in her forthcoming book – her research and attention to detail is impeccable. She revisits the locations, and checks angles or what can be seen from where, and ensures the events and descriptions are credible and realistic – where not, they are judiciously cut. With her husband she explores crooks, crannies and caves; mineshafts, quarries and hill tops; her eyes soaking up the detail as the rain bounces off her brightly coloured waterproofs. Indeed, should she stray from the secret places into the more tourist regions, she wouldn’t stand out were it not for her voluminous mane of strawberry blonde hair.
When it comes to storytelling, she is a meticulous planner. There are essentially two approaches to all writing: put pen to paper and see where the story takes you; or plan the structure and fill in the prose to fit. When on occasion I taught elements of composition and writing at university, I used to tell students that the former tended to allow for a more organic reader experience, the lifts and troughs natural like the tumbling foothills of the Beacons. The latter was the more scientific approach, potentially better at conveying information clearly but lacking the spirit and energy of the former. But readers of Cheryl’s books will recognise that this distinction does not apply here. The teetering balance of delicate narrative misdirection and deceptively simple positioning is compelling. The reveals, when they arrive, do not drop from the sky deus ex machina, but are always present in germ form – like a Hegelian philosophical ruse, the answer is deviously contained in the question – the complexity arises out of simplicity, and the conclusion satisfactory as if known innately all along. Readers sometimes report going straight back to the start of her books, to revel in the clues hinted at, and marvel at how they were carried away with their suspicions.
This is, in fact, the art of subterfuge. And the writer in this sense plays a game with the reader comparable to Cold War espionage. Double and triple bluffs, agent provocateurs and fifth columnists enter the stories, ready to make you take sides only to later doubt your principles. Being a good writer is not enough to pull this cheeky caper off, one needs the patience and cerebral acumen to juggle the various orders of intentionality, and deliver without upsetting the reader’s sense of fair play.
One imagines that the diligence corresponds to Cheryl’s career as an accountant. But the creative side, where does that come from? Not just from the evocative landscape but from being in the centre of a family and community and sharing its joys and sorrows – recently she has weathered her fair share of tragedy – in short, it must come from a deep empathy with other people.
To this day Wales has been a refuge for the disaffected and experimental. Cheaper to acquire land, easier to stay off the radar. Her principal protagonist, the delightfully named DI Winter Meadows who appears first in THE SILENT QUARRY, is the child of a hippy commune, loosely based on Tipi Valley, a congregation of the weird and wonderful living a low-impact, eco-friendly lifestyle in an accretion of ever-muddying fields, long before this became popular like quinoa and overnight oats. But Cheryl belongs to this region like the red sandstone found under its grassy hills – hard like rock but slightly brittle too.
It is a scorching day when we meet and Cheryl is noticeably uncomfortable in the sun, as much as she appears content to allow others to carry the conversation. Indeed, she generally ventures out more early mornings and evenings, when the star lies more obliquely, its light weak or on the wane. Similarly, I sense she avoids the limelight, sheltering from praise like one does from the winds that barrel in from the Celtic Sea. But this modesty belies her inner warmth which cannot help but radiate, and much to the reader’s benefit, she channels this into her characters. The swoon-worthy gentleness of DI Meadows, the light, playful vibrancy of his sidekick Edris, the naïve charm of the residents of the home for vulnerable adults in her second book, FROZEN MINDS.
I leave Cheryl thinking of rare gems, and the burden of responsibility to help such stars shine, with a gift of a nice bottle of white and chocolates tucked under my arm – I must do more of these visits – and journey on down to Cardiff, through Taff’s Well. The railway line that passes through here to Merthyr Tydfil was the first to serve the valleys, and the world’s thirst for its abundant mineral resources. Much has changed since then but much has remained the same. The stone cottages still shake when the trains pass along, and until very recently the heavy hammer of the foundry still clanged and shuddered out in the night; yet despite the imprint of its industrial past – the artificial hills made of colliery spoils far outdoing anything Hugh Grant could muster in the film of Monger’s book – there is the sense that nature is just waiting for the opportunity to take it all back again. Having met this precious writer, though, rest assured that would not be the end of the human story – we are nature, and working with it, rather than against it, we will prosper.
Cheryl’s sixth book, the fifth in the DI Winter Meadows series (Blue Hollow is a standalone thriller) provisionally titled LIES OF MINE, will be out in the next couple of days.
Links to all of Cheryl Rees-Price’s books can be found here: https://thebookfolks.com/author/cheryl-rees-price/