Portsmouth – known to the locals as “Pompey” – is, and has been for centuries, England’s largest Royal Navy base, 75 miles south of London in the country of Hampshire. Home to two-thirds of the UK’s surface naval fleet and with a reputation you might expect of a town filled to the gills with sailors. Rough, tough and known for the slightly scary moment called ‘chucking out time’ at the city’s local pubs. Pompey is in your face. But just a few miles off the coast across the English Channel is the sedate calm that is the Isle of Wight. Beloved by Queen Victoria and now by flush retirees. But if you think Pompey’s got the monopoly on crime in southern England (and here Brighton – an early Crime and the City subject – shouts ‘hold my coat!’ and starts a fight) over the calm and peaceful island just to the south, then think again. But first, Portsmouth (where, Charles Dickens was born and, as all good Sherlockians know Arthur Conan Doyle once tramped the streets of adjacent Southsea as a young doctor)….
If you want to get under the skin of Pompey, and that might involve losing a little skin off your knuckles, then former Pompey local Graham Hurley’s DI Joe Faraday series. Across the dozen books in the series DI Joe Faraday and his former partner-turned-gangster DC Paul Winter inhabit a city torn by violence, poverty, drug-dealing and petty crime. The series also features one of the best bad guys in recent British crime fiction – former football hooligan turned Portsmouth coke dealer Bazza Mackenzie. The series starts with Turnstone (2001) and across the series deals with just about every social and criminal issue in Portsmouth – the family wreckage that can by Navy life, drugs, the rivalry with nearby Southampton (“The Scummers”), prostitution, the legacy of the Falklands War and homelessness. The whole series builds to a major climax and is well worth reading in total. Hurley followed up with Faraday and Winter series with four novels featuring an acolyte of Faraday’s, DS Jimmy Suttle who leaves Portsmouth for a job with the Devon and Cornwall police force.
Author Pauline Rowson lives on the South Coast of England and writes the DI Andy Horton “Solent” series of 16 novels. For those not so au fait with southern English geography, the Solent is the strait between the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth. The series starts with The Portsmouth Murders (2006). They’re procedurals set in various locations in and around Portsmouth Harbour (and one excursion to the nearby Isle of Wight) and featuring Horton, who lives onboard a yacht in Southsea Marina. Most of the cases have a nautical angle somewhere along the way.
Also tapping into the maritime aspect of Pompey is JS Law’s Lieutenant Dani Lewis trilogy. Law served with the Royal Navy for 20 years, completed an MA in Creative Writing at Portsmouth University and lives in Hampshire. His character Lewis works for the Navy’s Special Investigations Branch (aka “The Kill Team”). In book one of the series, The Dark Beneath (2017), the death of a sailor on a submarine is ruled a suicide. Lewis knows the man’s wife was found brutally murdered only days before and now she must interrogate the tight-knit crew…two hundred metres below the surface. In The Fear Within (2017) Lewis a woman has disappeared without trace from a Navy ship – AWOL or kidnapped? And finally, The Coldest Blood (2018) sees Lewis in pursuit of a serial killer.
So much for rough old Pompey. Now across the Solent to gentler climes of the Isle of Wight. Though don’t think you’re safe just because the locals appear more genteel!!
Cardiff-born but now a local Isle of Wight author Mary Grand has set a number of standalone novels on the island. Psychological thriller The House Party (2020), set on the Isle of Wight, starts with an intimate house-warming party where a guest ends up dead at the bottom of the cliffs. In The Island (2021) sees Juliet return to visit her sick father and to be reunited with her three sisters. As her father lies dying he warns her there’s a killer on the loose. And in Good Neighbours (2022), Nia, escaping from her failing marriage, agrees to house-sit her aunt’s cottage in a quaint harbour town on the Isle of Wight finds the body of one a new friend lying on the beach and her own life now threatened.
James London’s The Island Murders (2018) starts with property surveyor and treasure hunter Sam Peters visiting the Isle of Wight. he literally strikes gold… only to be murdered soon afterward. Hampshire-based Detective Inspector Bruno Peach investigates roping in local school headmistress Janet Gibson as a sidekick.
A couple of popular series have taken trips to the Isle of Wight. Book five of Pauline Rowson’s aforementioned DI Andy Horton “Solent” series is The Isle of Wight Murders (2022) with Horton is taking a weekend break on the island only to find a distraught, young woman with a gun in her hand, crouching over one of the bunkers on an old golf course, a dead man at her feet. He accepts the case and his holiday’s over! And then there’s Murder in Transit (2024), book 22 (the most recent) in Edward Marston’s popular and long running Victorian Railway Detective series. On a stormy evening on the Isle of Wight Agnes Raybould and her companion find themselves an empty first-class compartment on the train. A middle-aged man, clearly in high spirits after dining at his club, joins them. within moments of the train leaving the station, Agnes and her accomplice strangle him. Yet another mystery for the railway detective, Detective Inspector Colbeck of Scotland Yard, who is swiftly despatched to Queen Victoria’s favourite country home, Osborne (which you can, if you find yourself on the island, still visit).
And so finally…All of these books just mentioned are surprisingly violent for such a placid place. So perhaps MC Eccleston’s art restorer turned amateur sleuth Astrid Swift cosy series might be more fitting for discovering the gentle Victorian Isle of Wight towns of Ryde, Cowes, Bembridge, Yarmouth or the seaside resorts of Ventnor or Sandown. Book 2 in the Astrid Swift series is Death on the Isle (2022). It’s summer in the Isle of Wight, and the islanders have little more to do than munch crab sandwiches, sip pints of Wight Squirrel, and complain about the hordes of tourists arriving for the world-famous Cowes Week regatta. But when the local busybody drowns in the harbour, what was set to be a relaxing sailing festival starts to turn deadly and even an island renowned for its welcome can turn a bit nasty. By the way, the first Astrid Swift cosy, The Trust (2022), finds her nearby in a seemingly wholesome Dorset village with a surprisingly odd group of locals – ‘It’s like the mafia, but with scones.’ And the third book in the series, Death Comes to the Costa del Sol (2023), finds Astrid in that beloved stretch of Spain for British retirees who haven’t retired to the Isle of Wight (think Florida, but with raucous tabloid newspapers, fish and chips and full English breakfasts).