22nd July 2022
It is my custom, when visiting somewhere that I have not been to before, to find a novel set in that location. So it was that, prior to a recent trip to Southwold on the Suffolk coast, I caught up with Julie Myerson’s Something Might Happen, which was published in 2003.
The story begins with the horrific murder of Lennie Daniels, a thirty-something mother of two, on a dark October evening in the car park near to Southwold pier. However, the novel is neither a whodunnit nor a police procedural. Instead, the focus is on the impact of the murder on Lennie’s family and friends and on the town as a whole.
The central character is Tess – Lennie’s closest friend – whose four children range from the 12-year old Nat to the 5-month old Livvy. The narrative is presented entirely from her perspective. Accordingly, much of the description is of the apparently mundane detail of family life: the untidiness of a child’s bedroom, the breast-feeding demands of the infant, Nat’s sullenness at being given crunchy peanut butter in his teatime sandwich…
Notwithstanding the author’s brisk and efficient style, the regular reader of crime fiction might be tempted to hurry through the minutiae of Tess’s daily life in the hope of making progress on the case itself. In the normal way, we find ourselves making our mental notes of the main suspects: Lennie’s edgy widowed husband, Alex; Tess’s spouse Mick, an unemployed journalist; the teenage ne’er-do-well, Darren… Are any of our suspicions valid? Who’s to say. The lead detective, Mawhinney – we don’t learn his full name – is pedestrian and unproductive and our efforts to assist him lead nowhere.
Mawhinney’s colleague is Ted Lacey, a family liaison officer whose main function is to safeguard the mental wellbeing of Alex and his two young sons. However, it is not long before he turns most of his attention to Tess – at times, I felt he was effectively stalking her. Her response to this is not entirely unsympathetic and, indeed, their developing relationship is at the core of Myerson’s theme of how a traumatic event – in this case Lennie’s murder – can serve as the catalyst to undermine the normal routines of everyday life that had previously appeared secure and stable.
There are two other important “characters” in the novel. One is the town of Southwold itself which, from my experience, is a very pleasant location in which to spend a couple of days. The fact that, in Myerson’s description, “it’s the end of the road, a dead end – creek, sea and river on three sides, the road going up to the A12 on the other” means that it has been spared an outward sprawl. In turn, this has served to emphasise the sense of separateness with which many small towns identify.
Myerson takes the opportunity to highlight the petty jealousies and vindictiveness that can fester in such communities: the dispute at the PTA meeting on which charity to support with the funds raised at the annual Carnival Parade; the annoyance of a local florist at not being requested to supply the flowers for Lennie’s funeral; the finger-pointing by the town gossips at a slow-learning youth as the possible murderer…
As usual, the reader/visitor to the vicinity can identify the local landmarks. The detail of the town will obviously have changed in the 20 years since the book’s publication, but it is still easy to mark the main references on the walk from the boating lake on North Road past the pier and down the promenade in front of the beach huts and the lighthouse as far as Gun Hill. I could also stroll down the High Street or Marlborough Road in the footsteps of Tess (plus buggy) and/or Lacey.
Similarly, we can work out the points of difference. In Myerson’s depiction, the Adnams Brewery and Distillery – Southwold’s largest employer – is renamed the Harriman’s Brewery. Likewise, the magnificent St Edmund’s Church – which dates from the 15th Century – becomes St Margaret’s, the location of Lennie’s funeral and, according to Tess’s recollection of the guidebooks, “the finest medieval seaside church in England”.
The novel takes a disconcerting shift at about the two-thirds mark, when some of the children – notably Rosa, Tess’s bright 8 year-old daughter – report seeing Lennie on several occasions in the town. The narrative then builds to another sudden and traumatic event in which the other significant character – the sea, here grey and threatening in Myerson’s autumnal setting, rather than apparently benign in the warm summer weather that I enjoyed – plays the key role.
It is this final development that reveals that, in effect, the story to that point has only been a rehearsal for what is to come. We are aware that Tess has been attempting to deal with the emotional challenge presented by the grief and shock of losing a close friend. But we also know that a far greater test now awaits her. In that sense, the conclusion of the novel is really only the end of the first Act.