Murder is rampant in Early Victorian London. Detective Inspector Newsome of the new Detective Force decides to recruit a recently-apprehended master criminal to help bring the culprits to justice. A polymath with a mysterious past, the man is no eager volunteer. And when the ghastly murder of conjoined twins galvanizes the city, Newsome blackmails his prisoner - Noah Dyson, as he calls himself - into working with the Force's finest: Sergeant George Williamson. Unknown to the policemen, the criminal genius behind the murder shares a dark past with their new associate. It is not justice that is on Dyson's mind, but retribution. As Williamson and Dyson together close the net, the murder-rate soars and the streets of London begin to burn.
What were the origins of The Incendiary’s Trail?
The story goes back to 2004 when I was at Sussex University writing a thesis on the development of detective fiction. It was there that I got very interested in the beginnings of the genre and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. A year or so after that, I was doing a lot of reading about Victorian London just for interest and I was struck by what a fantastic setting it was for a detective story that went right back to the origins – back before Sherlock Holmes and everything that followed. I decided to marry what I had learned about Poe to the fascinating city I was reading about and see what happened.
When exactly is the story set?
I set it in the decade Poe wrote The Murders in the Rue Morgue: the 1840s. It was a very specific period of history: the beginning of Victoria’s long reign and a time when London had one foot in modernity and the other almost in the middle ages. There were areas of the city that hadn’t changed for hundreds of years – places and buildings that had survived the Great Fire of 1666. It was a city of great contrasts, of unbelievable poverty and violence, but also of great scientific development and wealth. Photography hadn’t yet been invented and so it was a world we know only through paintings and sketches: a largely unknown and unknowable world that we see principally through words. And words, as we know, have an ambiguity that the photograph does not.
It seems to be exhaustively researched. Did you spend long doing that?
A sense of realism is important. I limited myself to primary sources: books, articles and periodicals written at that time. What I like about those sources is their unreliability and ambiguity – I would read three different eye-witness accounts of an incident and receive three different versions of the facts. What was the truth? We’ll never know. All three are equally legitimate. What I describe is a London, my London – not necessarily the London. Dickens’ city is not the same as Poe’s, though the dates might have been the same; they both created the city in their writing.
Are any of the events real?
Not that I’m aware of. I’d like to think, though, that any of them could have happened. As I read through contemporary newspapers, I came across numerous stories so amazing that I wouldn’t have dared to use them. Nobody would have believed them. It’s a classic case of true things being literally unbelievable. If anything, the things I write about have been toned done.
Say something about the main characters
Sergeant Williamson was one of the first detectives. He didn’t have any tools to help him: no DNA or fingerprints or databases. It was all about thinking and deduction. He’s not superhuman and doesn’t have Sherlock Holmes’ amazing (and slightly incredible) abilities. He does everything by the book and has a strong sense of morality. He is also reputed to be the best detective on the Force. Inspector Newsome is Williamson’s boss. He’s quite a different story – willing to break the rules to get to the solution of the crime, and working entirely to his own agenda. He’s a sarcastic sort, but shouldn’t be underestimated either by the villains or his colleagues. Nor should he be entirely trusted. Noah Dyson is something of a mystery. In a city where everyone has a place and a role, he seems to belong nowhere… and everywhere. He is proof that a man with sharp wits and some learning can be anything he wants to be in early Victorian London. He’s a man of the world when the world was London itself. Benjamin is Noah’s friend, though he is often mistaken for a servant. He, too, is a great curiosity: a man who doesn’t speak, but who sees everything. He’s immensely strong, but restrained in his power. Like the city itself, he’s largely unknowable except by those who have the means to access the darkest alleys. Then there’s the storyteller himself. He tells us that he’s an occasional journalist and sometime story-writer. We glimpse him only occasionally through the narrative, and if he seems to hide, it may well be that he has something to conceal. He tells us he’s prone to lies, but is he lying when he says that…?
Where was the book written?
I wrote the whole thing in an attic room in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. It’s almost comically stereotypical, but some nights it was so cold that I sat writing while wearing woollen fingerless gloves knitted by my grandmother. The town library was extremely helpful getting books for me from the British Library.
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