What drew you to the crime genre?
From the very beginning, in Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, the detective story has offered writers a kind of narrative laboratory – a compelling structure on which to build. The momentum of clues and deductions drives a relentless plot, leaving the writer free to play with any number of themes or ideas. It becomes a puzzle whose rules are accepted by writer and reader. Think of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, GK Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, or the literary games of Jorge Luis Borges – they all play with the genre. I was attracted to this idea of the game between writer and reader.
So how did you choose Victorian London as your setting for the Newsome/Williamson books?
You know, the possibilities of the genre are endless. It’s remained popular for almost 200 years and throws up new forms all the time. But it struck me that modernity can detract from the elemental pleasures of detection. DNA, GPS, mobile phones, PCs and databases – the modern investigator has so many aids. I wanted to get right back to the beginning and look at the first detectives whose only advantage was their brain. What makes it even more interesting is that we can’t help but read these stories through a modern sensibility. A blood pool is found on a street, but there’s no way of knowing if it’s animal or human . . .
Would you say you’re doing something different in the genre?
Any writer would like to think so, although there are many other authors looking at Victorian London. If there’s anything different or innovative about my books, it’s my decision to avoid a single detective protagonist or the classic detective/sidekick combo. I use an ensemble cast of six key characters who compete against each other to find the solution. This way, we get a glimpse of different investigative techniques while enjoying the tensions between the group. There’s a whole stew of history between them and they tend to take each case personally. My hope is that the reader ends up rooting for all of them.
The language of your books is quite distinctive. Readers might have to go to the dictionary a few times . . .
Part of the immersion in a story is a certain degree of unfamiliarity. If you were dropped into the 1840s, there would be words and concepts that would seem initially alien. That’s why I use a few obsolete words, why I use some contemporary spellings and why I ‘censor’ expletives or blasphemies. This was the reality of Victorian prose and I hope it brings the period to life. Also, I’m a reader who likes to be occasionally surprised by language. In an age of texts and tweets, we’re in danger of losing the rich vocabulary of English. An unknown word, to me, is a gem in the text. It adds colour and texture, whether or not I look it up.
Are there any particular themes you like to work with?
Each book is different and I’m led by my research. The Incendiary’s Trail takes an oblique look at notions of observation and identity in an age before photography, when a man was whoever he said he was. The Vice Society looks at the morality and taboos around sex and death. The city’s dark side is also the dark side of every person in it. In The Thieves’ Labyrinth, I’m interested in what lies beneath, both physically and metaphorically. We go under the river, under the city and under the skins of the key characters. Ultimately, I try to strike a balance between narrative pace and depth of texture. There’s no reason why crime writing shouldn’t have literary elements.
It’s been said that your books are very dark and gothic. Do you plan them that way?
I’m really just reflecting the period. It was a hard life for the working population and the physical city was a pretty grim place. At the same time, I think all crime writing has a duty to uncover the darkness of transgression – that car-crash compulsion to turn away and also stare. Shock and repulsion go hand in hand with fascination. Then again, I have never thought of my books as particularly gothic. Perhaps the darkness is my own. On the other hand, there’s also humour in the characters. Inspector Newsome is famously sarcastic, and the rivalry between the investigators creates a few laughs.
Perhaps you’re thinking now of that scene where the detectives ‘joust’ in The Vice Society?
Yes, they’re all having a showdown somewhere and there’s a sudden knock at the door. They get very competitive analysing the sound of the knock, the time of day etc, in order to deduce who might be visiting. By the time they answer the door, whoever it was has got tired of waiting and gone home.
Do you have a favourite character?
I suppose I identify most with the ex-police detective George Williamson, but every one of the major characters is a facet of my personality. I enjoy writing all of them. Some of the minor characters are also a lot of fun – something that Dickens played with to great effect. There’s a feral child called Roger and a spy called Eusebius Bean . . .
You mention Dickens. Is he a big influence on your work? I wouldn’t say so. I’m happy if I capture the darker passages of Oliver Twist, but I’d say Edgar Allan Poe is a bigger influence. He takes you into a world of the mind that blurs boundaries between truth and fantasy. My version of Victorian London is something akin to that – a familiar place, but also a world of the imagination.
What do you read?
I barely have time to read. I work full time and writing a novel takes about a year if I work on it for two hours a night, five nights a week. That said, I admire James Ellroy’s prose and plotting; I’ve long been a fan of Kurt Vonnegut’s skewed take on life; I revere Elmore Leonard’s spare dialogue; I love Umberto Eco’s language and literary games; I’m intrigued by the literary ego of Henry Miller; and I’m in awe of the imaginations of Kafka and Poe… but I’m not sure the work of any of these writers influences my writing discernably. What I wanted to produce was something more akin to the Ian Fleming novels I read as a teenager – books that took me to another place and kept me up all night wishing I was a character in them.
How and where do you write?
I stopped writing by hand years ago (too laborious) and so the books are done on a laptop in two drafts: the first just to get the story down and the second to polish it. As a copywriter, I’ve learned not to be too pernickety, constantly fussing over text. There’s usually no time for such things at work. So I write it, then check it, then let it go. It’s not going to get better.
How would you describe your ‘style’?
I have absolutely no idea. Like any writer, I hope that what I write creates an atmosphere, that the prose has rhythm, that the words are well chosen, that there is pace and a clear narrative flow. The writers I admire make me trust them. When I hear their voice, I’m willing to follow the story wherever they take it. It’s for other people to decide style. I try my best to explain the scenes in my mind.
Do you read your reviews, good and bad, and do they make a difference to you?
I think that a writer knows their own strengths and weaknesses. Everything else is opinion.
If you weren't a writer what would you do?
I’d say ‘professional mountaineer’ if I wasn’t afraid of heights. So I’ll go for the life of a carpenter. I like the idea of having something solid to show for my work.
What was the first book you remember falling in love with?
Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. It was the first book I read after finishing my degree and suddenly I’d found a writer who, like me, was earnestly, desperately, wildly trying to find himself as a writer. There’s no story in his book, but a lifetime of passion.
What book are you reading right now?
Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais. Like Tristram Shandy or the adventures of Don Quixote, it’s a work of astounding imaginative scope. I love the language, the humour, the crudeness and the encyclopaedic references to classical literature. It’s also a book that has influenced some of my favourite writers, including Henry Miller and Umberto Eco.
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