Writing a Dartmoor Novel

Sixty years ago, when I first started to walk on Dartmoor, I wouldn’t have imagined that I’d ever write a novel set there. In fact, I’ve written two Dartmoor fictions, my thriller Dangerous Game, and my historical adventure set upon the Moor – Gibbet Hill, now out..

Easdon Summit

Writing the new one brought back lots of memories of those early days walking on Dartmoor, both alone and with friends, not to mention the walks with fellow members of the two rambling groups I’ve belonged to – the Moorland RA group and the Teignmouth and Dawlish Ramblers, both of which are still thriving. Memories of walking companions too who are long gone from us.

Mount Misery

In the earliest days, I used to catch the bus from Teignmouth, change at Newton Abbot after a hearty breakfast at the now demolished bus station, then walk most of Dartmoor on a rough line between Okehampton and Ivybridge. The eastern half of the Moor came first for me, everywhere you could get to by bus. Good buses too – running lots of cheap services, reliable – you always knew there’d be a late bus to pick you up!

I remember well my first excursions to Moretonhampstead and Manaton, both of which feature in my novel. When I’m writing fiction, the setting always comes before everything. Then some characters, then the sequence of events – I dislike the word plot, it freezes the minds of authors more than anything.

The setting then. Apart from a couple of invented houses, you can walk everywhere mentioned in my new novel. I could almost work out a trail that goes from one location to another, though it would be quite a walk.

When I think of Dartmoor now, I’m really imagining the Dartmoor I first knew – a wilder and lonelier place than it is now. Where you could walk all day and rarely see anyone. Then the evenings at home after the walk, when you’d read the classic writers of Dartmoor. Some of the tales those earlier historians told I’ve incorporated into my book – I’ve always been intrigued by the story of Kitty Jay, the Cry of the Dart, and the demolishing of Irishman’s Wall.

In later years I’d camp for weeks at a time on the old Moor, exploring those areas beyond the reach of a bus, motor cycle and drive to distant places. I well remember the rainy and breezy day I first climbed Gibbet Hill on western Dartmoor, which I’ve used as the title for my novel. It haunted me then as it haunts me still. It’s worth reading what William Crossing writes about it in his books Guide to Dartmoor and A Hundred Years On Dartmoor (do seek them out – near a century after his death, Crossing is still the Master of the Moor.)

I envy those folk who are discovering Dartmoor for the first time – there is no place quite like it. And I’m full of admiration for those brave campaigners who are seeking to see off those Dartmoor landowners who have elbowed aside the ancient traditions, laws and customs of the Moor.

Dartmoor – Wild and Free Forever! #SaveDartmoor


1817: Jonas Lyddon, rebel and revolutionary, returns home to Dartmoor, finding a land beset by trouble. Poverty in the villages and lonely farmsteads. Landowners enclosing the wild stretches of moorland where the poor grazed their animals. A perilous countryside where soldiers – unwanted after the defeat of Napoleon – haunt the woodlands, preying on unwary travellers.

But Jonas Lyddon also encounters the beautiful Kitty Jay and her sister, Tryphena, victims of a cruel society that has cast them aside. Both of them seeking love and belonging. Two women who hold out hope for better and kinder times. Can Jonas Lyddon lead the struggle for justice in this wild place?

Fail and you end your days… hanging on the sinister and windswept Gibbet Hill.

My New Book Out Today

Gibbet Hill – the complete in itself prequel to my William Quest novels – is published today!

Gibbet Hill – A Tale of Dartmoor...

1817: Jonas Lyddon, rebel and revolutionary, returns home to Dartmoor, finding a land beset by trouble. Poverty in the villages and lonely farmsteads. Landowners enclosing the wild stretches of moorland where the poor grazed their animals. A perilous countryside where soldiers – unwanted after the defeat of Napoleon – haunt the woodlands, preying on unwary travellers.

But Jonas Lyddon also encounters the beautiful Kitty Jay and her sister, Tryphena, victims of a cruel society that has cast them aside. Both of them seeking love and belonging. Two women who hold out hope for better and kinder times. Can Jonas Lyddon lead the struggle for justice in this wild place?

Fail and you end your days… hanging on the sinister and windswept Gibbet Hill.

A prequel – complete in itself – to the William Quest Novels:

Jack Higgins: The Eagle Has Landed

Very saddened to hear the news of the death of Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins), at the age of 92 at his home on Jersey. A great influence surely on everyone who writes thrillers,including me. Here’s a piece I wrote some time ago about his most famous novel, The Eagle Has Landed.


It’s now nearly fifty years since Jack Higgins published his bestselling war thriller “The Eagle Has Landed” and a good ten years since I last read it. Time for a re-read and a very satisfying read it was.

Now if you’ve only ever seen the very inferior film version put it out of your mind and find the book. And when I say find the book I really do mean find the extended version published in more recent years, rather than an early edition or the film tie-in edition. You can usually tell the one you want by the fact that it has an author’s preface by Higgins.

The more recent editions give the text as Jack Higgins actually wrote it. Higgins had published a number of thrillers under various names before this breakthrough novel. When he presented the idea of “The Eagle is Landed” his publisher commented that it was the “worst idea he’d ever heard of.”

But Higgins persisted. The first edition was butchered during editing, with whole scenes and characters cut. This is why I suggest buying a later edition where Higgins has restored the book somewhere nearer to his original intentions.

Not for the first time, a publisher has been proved wrong. “The Eagle Has Landed” proved to be an immediate bestseller, first in America and then everywhere else. By the mid nineties, when my copy was published, Higgins could remark – no doubt with some glee – that his book had sold 26 million copies and been translated into 55 languages.

The plot is relatively simple. Following the rescue of Mussolini from Italy by Otto Skorzeny, Hitler demands to know why his secret service, the Abwehr, can’t bring him Churchill out of England? The head of the Abwehr, Admiral Canaris, instructs his operative Max Radl to produce a feasibility study. As Radl progresses he finds that the task could actually be accomplished.

The plot soon takes wing: Radl finds that Churchill will be visiting a lonely village in Norfolk for a quiet weekend. Furthermore, the Abwehr has a spy in the village, a seemingly respectable mature lady called Joanna Grey. He sends in a skilled IRA gunman, Liam Devlin, to assist her ahead of the kidnap attempt. To carry out the mission he finds a disgraced paratrooper Colonel Kurt Steiner and his men to parachute into Norfolk and then…

I’ll leave it there, for this is so good a thriller that you need to read it for yourself.

Now if all of this sounds like common thriller material you couldn’t be more wrong. By the time he wrote “The Eagle Has Landed”, Higgins had learned a great deal about his craft. This is not just a thriller but a terrific novel full stop, written by a writer at the height of his powers. It always irritates me that, certainly on this side of the Pond, we have an awful snobbery about genre fiction. Thrillers and their like are somehow considered to be inferior to many other kinds of novel. And that’s a pity for some of the finest writing is in that genre.

“The Eagle Has Landed” becomes superior to the many similar war thrillers because of the tremendous characterisation. For a start it was written at a time when war thrillers abounded in Britain, where the Germans were portrayed – usually – almost as cartoon villains.

Higgins has said that he wanted to write about good men fighting for rotten causes. We see the horrors of the Nazi regime here, but we are also shown how people get caught up – for good or bad – by the march of history.

Max Radl, is a disillusioned war hero, slowly dying of wounds sustained on the Russian front. Kurt Steiner had been disgraced for rescuing a Jew from the Warsaw Ghetto. Joanna Grey, the Abwehr’s enemy agent in Norfolk, is being torn apart by her love for England and her hatred of the English, because of her experiences in the Boer War. Liam Devlin is a member of the IRA who’s become tired of some of the methods used to achieve a united Ireland.

Devlin is the star turn of the novel. (Higgins uses the character again at different ages in other books). He is by the English definition an Irish terrorist, though a very questioning terrorist. He is a poet who starts the book lecturing in English literature at the University of Berlin. He remains loyal to his cause throughout, but deeply suspicious of everyone else’s. This character is portrayed with such depth, integrity and understanding that any writer of literature would be glad to own him. Devlin stays in your mind a long time after you close the pages.

“The Eagle Has Landed” has one of the best openings of any thriller, with Higgins himself, as a character, visiting Norfolk in the 1970s; gradually uncovering the truth about what happened there in 1943. This beginning is a wonderful example of just how an opening chapter should be, each sentence drawing the reader further and further in. You’ll learn more from studying it than you would from a hundred text books or writing courses.

While the idea of Nazis arriving undercover in an English village is not new – it was first contemplated in an exciting film called “Went The Day Well” made during the war – Higgins was the first to portray the situation fairly from all sides. And to include an IRA gunman as a hero, well an anti-hero I suppose, in a thriller written at the height of the Troubles of the 1970s was a particularly brave move. Higgins moved the thriller genre on by providing a greater depth of understanding. Thriller writers have benefitted ever since.

The film version might pass an hour or two on a wet afternoon, but it shows none of the subtlety of Higgins’ writing. Whole sections of the book are lost and one major character is not there. Michael Caine’s Steiner looks as though he’s wandered in from some other film, Jean Marsh’s Joanna Grey is good but far too young. Larry Hagman’s American Rangers Colonel is a bit like JR Ewing doing his war service. Only Donald Sutherland as Liam Devlin comes close to the literary original. (Incidentally, Caine was originally supposed to play Devlin, but apparently thought that portraying an IRA soldier might be a bad career move. The late Richard Harris had a go as well, before the director decided on Sutherland). The direction of the film is unimaginative and some of the dialogue is occasionally risible.

“The Eagle Has Landed” deserves a more intelligent remake, perhaps as a mini-series where some of the depth of Higgins’s original could be explored.

But if you enjoy thrillers – certainly if you’re thinking of writing one – do read or re-read “The Eagle Has Landed.” Jack Higgins is a master of the craft.

Looking for a Seasonal Mystery?

My wife Annie’s novella The Holly House Mystery is set during the week before New Year.

It’s an affectionate homage to Golden Age detective fiction and the enclosed world of country house murder.

The last days of 1931. The body of a young house-maid lies near the ruins of an ancient priory. How did she die… with only one set of footprints in the snow? Inspector Chance investigates murder in a snow-bound, Sussex village. As New Year approaches, can he work out whodunit before the house-party ends

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers

A favourite Golden Age read of mine and very apt for Armistice Day.

The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club begins on that most atmospheric of dates in Britain, the eleventh of November, Armistice Day. The Great War casts a long shadow over the London setting, characters and much of the plot. The opening scene takes place on Armistice night when members are gathering at the Bellona Club in Piccadilly.

A dinner is being given by Colonel  Marchbanks for the friends of his son killed in action, among them is Lord Peter Wimsey. As Wimsey chats at the bar to his chum, George Fentiman, it becomes apparent that George’s elderly grandfather, a fixture at the club, has died quietly in his armchair. We learn that his estranged sister also died that day in London. A fortune is at stake, dependant on which one of them died first.

The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club was published in 1928. The Great War had been over for a decade, yet some of the characters are irrevocably scarred by their experiences. George Fentiman has ‘nervous troubles,’ a euphemism for shell-shock, as well as having been gassed. Another pal is known as ‘Tin-tummy’ Challoner since the Somme, the club doctor was an army surgeon.

The Bellona’s secretary has only one sound arm and Sayers’ devotees will know how much Wimsey suffers from nightmares about his war. (Ngaio Marsh’s Chief Inspector Alleyn also had a ‘nervous breakdown’ after the Great War). Wimsey also suffers torments when he catches a murderer, thus sending someone to be hanged.

All this remembrance-day business gets on your nerves, don’t it? It’s my belief most of us would only be too pleased to chuck these community hysterics if the beastly newspapers didn’t run it for all it’s worth.

An interesting comment made by Wimsey, as it was very likely an attitude Sayers heard at the time.

The novel gives a fascinating snapshot of the Twenties. Like so many men returned from the War, George Fentiman finds it difficult to get work in a changing society.

No wonder a man can’t get a decent job these days, with these hard-mouthed, cigarette-smoking females all over the place, pretending they’re geniuses and business women and all the rest of it.

The modern girl hasn’t a scrap of decent feeling or sentiment about her. Money – money and notoriety – that’s all she’s after. That’s what we fought the War for – and that’s what we’ve come back to!

Presumably a wry in-joke as Sayers was a working woman herself. She also shows us the artists of the Chelsea set with their Bohemian life-style and society ladies’ trendy fads about health, medical cures and diet.

It’s often said of Sayers’ plots, ‘when you know how, you know who.’ Her means of murder is always of great significance to the plot. You feel she enjoyed working out her devious solutions. Despite the sombre atmosphere of Remembrance and London in November, there are moments of humour in this novel and vividly believable characters.

The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club is a delightful classic crime puzzle and a great insight into society after the First World War.

The Hodder edition includes an interesting, short forward by Simon Brett.

The 1973 BBC drama of the novel is a very good adaptation by Anthony Steven, making only minor changes as scriptwriters must. Ian Carmichael, Derek Newark and Mark Eden gave wonderful ‘straight off the page’ performances as Lord Peter, Bunter and Inspector Charles Parker.

Dartmoor and the Dangerous Game

Dangerous Game Cover1

Dangerous Game is my personal tribute to Dartmoor – one of the few massive areas of wild country in southern England. It’s a place I know particularly well. I first walked there when I was seven years old. I have spent decades exploring Dartmoor and have long campaigned to keep it wild and free.

For nine years, very active years, I was chief executive of the Dartmoor Preservation Association – a voluntary group founded in 1883 to protect Dartmoor from many threats. During that time we had our share of victories and defeats. But Dartmoor is as you see it today because of the often militant stance taken by previous DPA campaigners.

More recently I have been lending my support to the Dartmoor Access Group, which is fighting harsh new byelaws and campaigning to protect the traditional liberties of people wanting to walk freely and wild camp on the Moor.

I wanted to write a Dartmoor novel which was topographically accurate.  Nearly all the places mentioned in this novel are real and you can seek them out on foot. The Dart Gorge is as magnificent as I’ve suggested, Wistman’s Wood as mysterious, the great heights of the northern moorland as wild. You can walk to Oke Tor, the setting of the book’s climax. Only a few houses are invented, as are all the characters.

The Duchy Hotel (now the Old Duchy Hotel) in Princetown, which features in the book, has been transformed into an information centre for the Dartmoor National Park Authority. Upstairs is the office of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, where I worked for those nine campaigning years.

Dartmoor Prison is still in use, though the footpath which used to pass near the French and American War Cemeteries – and which features in the book – no longer exists. It was closed in the 1970s. I objected to its loss, but lost the battle. A pity I always think. A pity too that there is very limited public access for anyone wishing to visit the war cemeteries.

I remain, like several of the characters in my book, a very committed Dartmoor Preservationist. The Moor needs more active campaigners!

“Sean Miller – a rogue of the first water; a former Army sniper, he seems unable to stay out of a fight.”

Sean Miller’s on his way back to fight in Spain when he’s diverted to Devon. To undertake a mission for renegade members of the German Secret Service, trying to stop the Nazis plunging the world into war. A secret agent lies dead in a moorland river and the one man who can keep the peace is an assassin’s target. As the hunter becomes the hunted in an epic chase, Miller encounters his greatest enemy in a dangerous game of death across the lonely hills of Dartmoor.

A fast-paced action thriller by the author of Balmoral Kill and the William Quest adventures.

John Bainbridge is the author of over thirty books, including novels, thrillers and historical fiction, as well as non-fiction and topographical books about Britain. He has also written widely for newspapers and magazines and broadcast on radio and television. John read literature and history at the University of East Anglia. He campaigned for nine years as chief executive of the Dartmoor Preservation Association – one of Britain’s oldest environmental campaigning groups. He spends his spare time walking in the countryside. Publisher’s Details:

Dangerous Game is available in paperback (ISBN 9781699543771) at £8.99 and as a Kindle e-Book.

John Bainbridge has two blogs:

www.johnbainbridgewriter.wordpress.com and


Follow John on Twitter @stravaigerjohn

Here’s the link if you want to order a copy: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dangerous-Game-Miller-Adventure-Thriller-ebook/dp/B07ZMH61HV

Balmoral Kill – Get A Free Copy This Week

Yes, if you have a Kindle, or a Kindle App on your tablet or smartphone, you can get a FREE copy of my novel Balmoral Kill from Wednesday until Saturday. I’ve never done a giveaway on this title before, so grab your copy while it’s FREE.

And the Dartmoor set sequel Dangerous Game is available if you want to continue following the adventures of my renegade hero Sean Miller.

As a hillwalker who also writes novels, I always like to root my plots and characters in a real landscape whenever that is possible. I might alter it, fictionalise it, or just change the odd feature – but I like to start with a reality. And at some point in my fiction I like to use an actual place I know, walk around it and imagine my characters playing out their adventures upon it.

I always knew, right from the beginning, that my Victorian thriller The Shadow of William Quest would come to a dramatic conclusion on Holkham Beach in Norfolk. And I knew that the final duel between my hero and villain in Balmoral Kill would have to be in some remote spot in the Cairngorms, though within easy reach of the royal residence of Balmoral Castle.

But I wasn’t sure where.

Balmoral Castle (c) 2015 John Bainbridge

In all my Scottish stravaiging I had never been to Loch Muick (pronounced sort of without the u), though I had read about it in my numerous Scottish books and looked at it on the map. It seemed an ideal location for the conclusion of a thriller.

So the summer when I was writing the book, when we were staying in Ballater, we walked up to take a look, circling the loch and examining the wild mountains and tumbling rivers round about. Plotting a gunfight (even a fictional one) takes some care. I wanted it to be as probable and realistic as possible. This is, after all, a book about experienced assassins. I wanted the line of sight of every rifle to be exact.

We also had to check out the hills around. Both my hero and villain are great walkers and “walk-in” to places where they expect to see some action

Glas-Allt-Shiel House (c) John Bainbridge 2015

And a beautiful wild place Loch Muick is. It was a favourite picnicking place of Queen Victoria, who used to linger for days on end at the lonely house of Glas-Allt-Shiel, in mourning for her beloved Prince Albert. Today’s royal family picnic there even now. The house is as I describe it in the book, as is the surrounding scenery. Believe me, I checked out those sightlines. Every shot described in the book could be taken in reality. Even now when I think of that loch and the Corrie Chash above it, I think of my characters being there. Sometimes they are all very real to me.

We also revisited Balmoral Castle (actually they only let you into the ballroom!), strolled through its grounds and examined the countryside round about. I was able to work out the exact routes taken by all of the characters who found themselves on the shores of Loch Muick on a late summer day in 1937.

Loch Muick looking up towards where Balmoral Kill comes to its conclusion. (c) John Bainbridge 2015

Other areas of Scotland feature in the book too. I partly fictionalised the places I used in the Scottish Borders, though those scenes are based on the many walks I’ve done around Peebles, the Broughton Heights and Manorwater. In one flashback scene in the Highlands I have a character journey from Taynuilt and out on to the mighty twin peaks of Ben Cruachan, and then into the glens beyond, to kill a man in Glen Noe. Some years ago I did a lot of walking in that area and had considerable pleasure in reliving my journeys as I penned those scenes.

The book begins in London and journeys into the East End. I’ve walked the streets and alleys of Whitechapel, Stepney and Limehouse by day and night over the years. Balmoral Kill is set in 1937, so there has been a great deal of change in nearly eighty years. The East End was very badly bombed in the War and thoughtless planners have destroyed a lot more. But enough remains to give you the picture. Once more, I could take you in the steps of my characters through every inch of the places mentioned.

Very often going to these locations inspires changes to the writing. Balmoral Kill was half-written by the time we explored Loch Muick. The real-life topography of the place inspired me to make several changes to the novel’s conclusion.

Since writing Balmoral Kill I’ve written a sequel – Dangerous Game, set almost entirely on Dartmoor.

As a walker as well as a writer I find going on research trips is the best way to conjure up locations with the written word.

Click on the link to take a look at Balmoral Kill. FREE on Kindle Wednesday until Saturday…https://www.amazon.co.uk/Balmoral-Kill-Sean-Miller-Adventure-ebook/dp/B00Q8I7LGO/ref=pd_sbs_1/257-5255041-5649508?pd_rd_w=K6Pwy&pf_rd_p=e0d2ff13-9dd4-4da7-83fa-1b78154f9d73&pf_rd_r=R6TGYSMM0G96BK3RB0GP&pd_rd_r=b40bc0cf-daaa-4ab1-85c6-cf2a6ae956d6&pd_rd_wg=8DHPq&pd_rd_i=B00Q8I7LGO&psc=1