I’ve been lucky enough to catch Jonathan Goodwin’s one-person shows Murder by Gaslight and Ghost Stories for Christmas. Soon, I’m off to see his show The Singular Exploits of Sherlock Holmes. In Murder by Gaslight, he brought William Palmer (one of Alfred Swaine Taylor’s least favourite murderers) to terrifying, arrogant life, then in the second act transformed into the meak Dr Crippen. It was an incredible performance. So I’m really pleased to bring you an interview with Jonathan to find out more about his work.
Welcome to my blog, Jonathan!
Jonathan Goodwin as Sherlock Holmes
Don’t Go Into The Cellar! puts on shows at all sorts of interesting venues across the country – from The Coffin Works in Birmingham to Kentwell Hall in Suffolk and all sorts of places in between. In fact, Kentwell Hall was where some of Vincent Price’s Witchfinder General was filmed. So which of the venues you’ve performed at has been your favourite?
Well, I have played in so many spaces down the years. Theatre and studio spaces, of course, as well as stately homes, and even caverns and a steam-ship. One of my favourites so far has to be Highgate Cemetery, where the company staged The Singular Exploits of Sherlock Holmes. I’d wanted to visit the Cemetery since childhood, when I first read about the Highgate Vampire. Another has been the Reform Club in Pall Mall, where we performed Holmes.
National Trust’s Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton is another favourite. The audiences there are always receptive to our shows, and the staff and volunteers are lovely.
Meet crime authors from across the country at Shrewsbury Waterstone’s on Sunday 15th April from 2pm to 3.30pm. The branch is expanding its Crime Section, so to celebrate they have joined forces with the Crime Writers’ Association to bring you this Meet the Author speed-dating event. There’ll be fiction and true crime, an opportunity to talk to authors – and, of course, buy books.
Come and say hello! I will be in attendance with the shade of Alfred Swaine Taylor, whose most famous case – that of William Palmer, The Rugeley Poisoner – started with a poisoning in a Shrewsbury hostelry.
Find Shrewsbury Waterstone’s at 18-19 High Street, Shrewsbury, Shropshire, SY1 1SJ.
It might seem odd to think that Alfred Swaine Taylor, who died in 1880, could have anything to do with Anthony Berkeley’s 1929 novel The Poisoned Chocolates Case – but he does.
I had already found references to Taylor’s books in some of Dorothy L Sayers’ work, so it wasn’t a surprise to find Taylor popping up once again in Berkeley’s novel as they’re both Golden Age authors who were acquainted with each other. In fact, before Taylor’s name was even mentioned in the book, my own knowledge of Taylor and poisons was piqued when the symptoms brought on by the poisoned chocolates was mentioned.
I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that the poison used in the novel is nitrobenzene – it’s mentioned quite early on. And the title of the book does somewhat giveaway the fact that poison might be involved somewhere.
I first heard of nitrobenzene in researching Fatal Evidence – when the chemical compound was first discovered, Taylor sounded the alarm. It had many purposes but was often used as a flavouring and as a scent because it mimics bitter almonds. Now, bitter almonds contains the same active ingredient as Prussic acid, and if you eat vast numbers of apple pips, or the soft centre of pips from fruit such as cherries and peaches, you’ll be consuming poison. Nitrobenzene was a synthetic variant, but it was still dangerous.
As I read on, congratulating myself for already knowing rather a lot about nitrobenzene thanks to Taylor, who should be mentioned but Taylor himself? Or least, Taylor’s Medical Jurisprudence? The same book which Sayers refers to in her work.
I am very much behind the curve as it was only the other evening that I finally got round to watching Baby Driver. It shouldn’t have taken me so long because 1: Edgar Wright directed it, and I love his other films – Hot Fuzz especially. 2. I have both hearing loss and tinnitus and the film refers to both.
Having read Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s novel I Remember You (Ég man þig) and seen the film adaptation, I found myself thinking about the theme of isolation.
A group of three adults head from Reykjavík to a remote outcrop of the Westfjords where they plan to do up an abandoned house and set it up as a B&B. The house is one of a few scattered buildings in all that remains of the abandoned village of Heysteri. Although not an island, it can only be reached by boat as there’s no roads over the mountain. In summer, it’s busy with visitors who want to climb or walk the hills and mountains that surround the area, but come winter and you are entirely cut off and alone.
In Ísafjörður, a boat ride away, lives a psychiatrist whose son has disappeared. His marriage collapsed in the face of their family tragedy, and he endures emotional isolation. He’s started to see what is either an apparition or a hallucination of his missing son. And a local woman, who was obsessed with the boy’s disappearance, has hanged herself in a church – which, it just so happens, had been moved from Heysteri and rebuilt.
Sigurðardóttir usually writes crime fiction, but even her “straight” crime fiction contains supernatural elements, be they a character’s fascination with seventeenth-century witchcraft, or the legend of babies who can still be heard crying on the rocks where they were left to die of exposure. There’s lots to learn by osmosis about Icelandic history, culture and traditions in her work.
Blossom in Canongate kirkyard
I originally wrote this on Thursday last week.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine in America tried to call me via Facebook. I wasn’t sure why, but when she said in Messenger that she had “shitty news” to tell me, I dashed outside at once to call her. She’d been ill for a long time, so it was pretty clear to me what her “shitty news” might be.
“You look really worried!” Vivian said, as my unfortunate fizzog appeared on the screen.
“Oh, I’ve got a resting sad face, I’m afraid. I think it’s the shape of my eyebrows.”
She gave a raucous, filthy chuckle and declared, “I’ve got a resting bitch face!”
Then she told me that she had been given six months to live.
A guest blog for Wivenhoe’s History about a sailor who drowned in the River Colne in 1850. But all was not as it seemed.
(A shorter version of this text was published in Fortean Times a couple of years ago).
Me, a few months later in the Summer of 1988, as Captain Cook in the Brownies’ carnival float. It was basically a dinghy on a trailer with me sat in it, dressed more as a pirate than as Captain Cook.
Today is the thirtieth anniversary of what became known as The Great Storm, which ripped its way across the south-east of England on the night of 15th and 16th October 1987.
I was living in Wivenhoe in north-east Essex at the time, on the banks of a river not far from the coast. I remember the storm waking me up as I slept in my “captain’s bed” – that legendary piece of 1980s furniture which elevated children above the ground to give storage to their heaps of detritus below.
I heard the wind blowing around the house. But it wasn’t the usual sort of high wind that I was used to and barely noticed. It roared like a Fury; outside, I could hear the trees struggle against it, and our strong, brick house creak with its force.
My dad appeared at some point, to see if I was alright. My parents were concerned as there were trees outside my window, but I was awake by then – I doubt anyone could have slept – and somewhat frightened. But I didn’t leave my bed. I couldn’t run to my parents as there was a huge old cherry tree outside their bedroom window, which could have fallen just as easily as the trees outside my window.
The wind continued to howl, but at six o’clock that dark October morning, the wind picked up and roared as I’ve never heard it since. The sound was more of a scream than a roar, and I didn’t just hear it but felt it, a sort of sucking in my ears, which must have been caused by a sudden pressure-change in the air. We always referred to it afterwards as “The Six O’Clock Blast” – I don’t know if we coined that within our family or if it was on the news.
Reading a Taylor family headstone in the churchyard of Northfleet, Kent
Having travelled to Rugeley and to Edinburgh in pursuit of Alfred Swaine Taylor for my book Fatal Evidence, it was time to go to London and Kent. He was born in Northfleet, Kent, on the banks of the River Thames in 1806, and eventually moved to London, where he stayed for the rest of his life (trips back and forth to inquests and trials across England notwithstanding).
A puir wee sleekit ghoastie at Canongate kirkyard
I’d wanted to go on holiday to Edinburgh for ages, and was rather pleased that I could combine it with the writing of my book, Fatal Evidence. But what does the biography of a Kent-born English forensic scientist who lived most of his life in London have to do with Edinburgh, you ask?
Well… the story of forensic science in Britain starts in Edinburgh. Although medicine and science had been used to crack crime in Britain before, there was no formal teaching of ‘medical jurisprudence’ (the intersection of medicine and the law) in this country; the British had to look to the Continent. It was at the University of Edinburgh in 1789 that the first lectures in Britain had been given on the subject. Andrew Duncan, the first lecturer in the subject, had an uphill struggle to see his specialism recognised, despite his urging of its importance:
…to every medical practioner, who is liable to be called upon to illustrate any question comprehended under it before a court of justice.
The first professor of medical jurisprudence at Edinburgh was Duncan’s son. It was only an elective course, rather than compulsory, and medical students just weren’t that interested.
In 1822, Dr Robert Christison, a 25-year-old Edinburgh native, took the chair and became professor of medical jurisprudence. His uncle helped him to the position but, despite such outrageous nepotism, Christison was actually very good at the subject. His background in both medicine and chemistry made him an ideal candidate – as did Alfred Swaine Taylor’s same background when a chair of medical jurisprudence came up at Guy’s Hospital in London.
Christison in 1856. at the trial of William Palmer.