David R Ewens

Murder and double-cross in Black Lion country.

5th February 2013Amazon →Waterstones →

When Frank Sterling sets up on his own account as a private detective, his first client, the enigmatic Gloria Etchingham, asks him to investigate a curious line of text and numbers among her disappeared husband’s papers. The mystery takes him on a journey to Ypres and the Flanders battlefields of the Great War. A series of further clues, and the race to solve them, lead to murder and kidnapping against a backdrop of political extremism and personal betrayal. Is Keith Etchingham alive or dead? Who are the men pursuing Sterling ? What is the real reason for his involvement? In finding all the answers, Sterling has to confront his own flaws as well as the dangers the case brings.


Author’s Commentary

I wrote this debut novel intending it to be a fast-paced, exciting adventure story, but without jet- setting or what might be regarded as exotic locations. Kent and West Flanders, both areas I know well, were perfect for what I intended.

The plot
Ostensibly, the plot was shaped by events deep in the past – in WWI – but in fact in the end there was no historical connection. Instead, the clues the central character, PI Frank Sterling, had to follow were mainly in locations to do with WWI but related to events, people and business based entirely in the present. He and his helpers therefore found these clues in a military cemetery; near the execution post at the town hall in Poperinghe in Flanders; at the Scottish Memorial just outside Ypres; and at St George’s Military Church in the centre of the town, as well as back in Kent. The writing and the plot were shaped by the process of solving the clues and all the other events associated with them, and that made developing the book relatively straightforward.

In the end, what was motivating Sterling’s opponents was not some dark secret from the past but money and its disappearance. Even with the twists and turns introduced in the final chapters, this was still the case.

Frank Sterling, the main character, was not easy to write. Originally I adopted the first person singular as the narrative point of view, but this made the character have too many of my characteristics. He received help from a number of sources – his friends Becky and Mike, publicans and ex-secret agents, and Angela, the town librarian. They do some things (mainly rescue and research) that he is not able to do himself. Other characters – Christina from the hotel, De Groot the bicycle shop owner and other Flemish people – assist him in Ypres.

He is charmed and duped by an ‘East Kent femme fatale’, Gloria Etchingham, and betrayed by the local café owner, Jack Cook. The principal ‘villain’ is a leader in a shadowy European far right organisation, and there are a large number of other supporting actors.

There will be scope to develop some of the characters in future books, but it is probably fair to say that although they have their moments, the book is more plot- than character-driven.

Themes and Research
Although the book was mainly an adventure story, it did enable me to explore and use themes. One was the First World War and the Flanders battlefields, which I know about as a result of both my History degree and visits to Ypres and Flanders. It made the research for the early clues straightforward.

Another theme was neo-fascism. In connection with this I read various books about far right activities and was struck by their banality, and I used one of the characters, who turned out to be an ex-neo-fascist financial official, to pour scorn on such ordinariness, which took the form of an annual rally between Ypres and Diksmuide. Mind you, having said that, the activities of many organisations, from mainstream political parties to historical reconstruction societies, are equally banal, and I know this from personal experience.

As interesting as the neo-fascism was what I discovered about the ubiquitous Flemish flag, a black lion on a yellow background. If the lion has red claws and red tongue, then it is the official flag of Dutch-speaking Flanders. However, the lion without the red claws and tongue is generally speaking adopted by people and groups, mainly on the right, who aspire to a Flanders independent from Belgium and Wallonia. I was able to use this key difference in the plot and to use one of the Flemish characters, De Groot, to explain the subtleties of the position to Frank Sterling.

A more light-hearted theme, and perhaps a slight obsession of my own (all right, I admit it), was De Groot’s preoccupation with some cyclists’ rejection of mudguards, which, as a cyclist and cycle shop owner, he could not understand. I find that the humour and banter deriving from such themes helps develop characters and their relationships with each other.

Compared to my second novel, Under the Radar, The Flanders Case is less complex in its approach and arguably more of a ‘page turner’. Readers who have read both are divided – some prefer the first and some the second.

I would be happy to correspond with anyone who has queries about the novel and its themes and wants to explore further.