Bleakness and beauty. Two elements vital to crime fiction. Sheffield does bleakness well. Walk a few miles in the footsteps of Angel, the former prostitute whose rage drives the plot of Angel Of Death, and you’ll see what I mean. Enter the city from the north east, as she does, and you pass through the industrial sprawl of Attercliffe. Much of the steel industry the city is famous for is gone, a victim of Thatcherite policies that dumped an entire generation on the dole scrapheap. What remains, though, has a kind of faded grandeur. The soot-blackened hulks of factories strung out like a dirty necklace along the River Don and the Tinsley Canal still thrum with defiant purpose. Crucibles of heat and sweat. Hard places for hard men, overlooked by narrow streets of terraced houses and the wider, drabber spaces of council estates.
As you near the city centre, the concrete rampart of Park Hill looms into view. A thousand flats stacked around and on top of each other like cardboard boxes. A monument to the brutality of fifties and sixties architecture and the failed idealism of creating streets in the sky. The estate was seen as revolutionary at the time it was built. But by the ’80s the dream had descended into a nightmare of social isolation, drugs and muggings, earning the estate the blackly humorous nickname from some locals of ‘San-Quentin’. Not so long ago there was talk of it being demolished. But many saw beauty in its ugliness, fighting to save and restore it.
From Park Hill the city spreads out before you like spokes of a wheel, sometimes bathed in sun, most usually shadowed by leaden clouds. A single glance can take in the glass roof of the Peace Gardens, the spire of the cathedral, the waters of the Don, the green splashes of parks, the red of Bramall Lane, the blue of Hillsborough. And beyond it all, like an encircling, protecting hand, the hills of the Peak District, a great place to take a romantic walk with your loved one...or to murder them and bury their body without being seen.
Stubborn, uncompromising industry that refuses to lie down and die; brooding, weathered tower blocks that endure and are reborn; lonely moors and melancholy crags – it’s a landscape that holds a mirror up to the flawed heroes of my novels. A setting whose bleakness and beauty (much in the way Oslo does for Jo Nesbo or Stockholm for Stieg Larsson) provide the perfect raw materials for a writer seeking to explore the darker side of human nature. By happy coincidence – although the Sheffield tourist board might not agree – it’s also the place I call home.
Ben Cheetham's new thriller, Angel of Death is available from 8 May 2014.