Category: Books

Isolation in Iceland: thoughts on I Remember You

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.

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A trip to London

Reading the headstone of Taylor's parents in Northfleet, Kent

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).

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A trip to Rugeley

An artist’s rendering of William Palmer, from the Illustrated Times

One of Alfred Swaine Taylor‘s most famous cases was that of William Palmer, The Rugeley Poisoner. As I live in the West Midlands, Rugeley isn’t all that far from me, so I decided to pay the town a visit.

I felt rather awkward, because poor old Rugeley probably doesn’t want to be remembered for Palmer and his ‘orrible crimes. In 1856, as Palmer stood trial and the newspapers bulged with reports about him, journalists1)It’s thought that novelist Wilkie Collins was amongst them. were dispatched to the unassuming market town to write lurid pieces about the locality. The Illustrated Times helpfully published a special supplement, full of Rugeley scenes – some of which you will see in this very blog. Members of the public visited just to see the place they’d read so much about. The local vicar had so many people trudge to his churchyard to see where John Parsons Cook, one of Palmer’s victims, was buried that he paid for a gravestone, bearing moralising quotations from Scripture: Enter not into the path of the wicked.

As the town hall where the inquests took place has been rebuilt, the first place connected with Palmer that we arrived at was the Talbot pub. This was where Cook was poisoned, and where he died.2)I realise that some people don’t think Cook was murdered, but I am not of that opinion. We couldn’t go in as the pub – last called The Shrew – has closed down. However, directly opposite was Palmer’s house. Not that you can see very much it of these days – in Palmer’s time it had a front garden, but eventually the front was extended out to touch the road, and it’s been divided into two shops. You can get round the back though, and that view hasn’t changed all that much.

I walked back and forth between the pub and the shops a couple of times, to get a feel for Palmer’s own journeys, back and forth between his house and the man he killed. It’s not a vast distance at all, being only the width of the road. I paused, and looked up at the window of the room where Cook died. After writing Poison Panic, where poisoning victims died in cottages that are either long gone or can no longer be identified, it felt very strange to be able to almost come to the exact spot where the crime had taken place.

My partner, who takes many of the photos in my books, photographed the streetscene, and it’s interesting to compare Rugeley in 2016 with Rugeley in 1856. It’s not quite as busy as it was, and I somehow doubt the Union flag bunting is there to celebrate the spot where a famous British murder took place. At least, I hope not!

An engraving showing a bustling mid-19th century street scene.

Rugeley, 1856. The Talbot is on the left, and Palmer’s house is on the right, behind the railings.

A modern street scene.

The same scene in 2016, with the closed down Shrew pub on the left, and the two shops (a weightloss salon and a pet shop) on the right adapted from Palmer’s house.

The back of Palmer’s house, 1856.

The back of Palmer’s house, 2016.

Our next stop was the church of St Augustine, where John Parsons Cook is buried. A terrible sensation that I was intruding had haunted me since I got off the train, but once I saw that the information board outside the church actually tells visitors where to find Cook’s grave in the churchyard, I felt slightly less ghoulish for my interest.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. It’s thought that novelist Wilkie Collins was amongst them.
2. I realise that some people don’t think Cook was murdered, but I am not of that opinion.

When “used” is “new”

A woodcut of a Victorian man in a chair reading.

My second book was published on Monday. The copies arrived with my publisher on the Friday before.

So imagine my surprise when, only a couple of days later, two third-party sellers on Amazon were selling copies “used – as new.”

This is physically impossible. There are no used copies, because readers and reviewers are still receiving their copies of the newly published books. So where are these “used” copies coming from?

This happened, too, with my first book, Poison Panic, which was published last year. Confused, I had contacted the sellers, and without replying to me, they changed their listings to “new”. At the time, I talked to my writing friends about it – the self-published authors I know find it particularly odd: “I haven’t even had my copies yet – where are they getting them from?!”

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Who was R O Gilmore?

The frontispiece of the book showing the book's title, an engraving of showing the pub where John Parsons Cook died, and a stamp in the top right-hand corner which says R O Gilmore.

Ward and Lock’s “Illustrated and Unabridged edition of The Times report of the trial of William Palmer…”

Among the many adventures I had writing Alfred Swaine Taylor‘s biography, I decided to track down the previous owner of a book.

I work at a well-stocked library, and was able to borrow or consult most of the books I needed for my research. But I knew of two books on William Palmer which we don’t have, both of which were opportunistically cranked out by Ward and Lock just after the trial.

Their Illustrated Life and Career of William Palmer of Rugeley uses mainly old engravings which must have served time in many other books; only one of them isn’t a stock image, but is the portrait of William Palmer at the races which appeared in the Illustrated Times newspaper. The tale of Palmer is told in near-novelistic style.

Their other book, the frontispiece of which you can see above, contains transcripts of the trial at the Old Bailey, taken verbatim, and apparently nicked wholesale from The Times. It’s full of images which appeared in the Illustrated Times – which, despite the name, isn’t connected with The Times newspaper.

I managed to buy both books online, and most of the engravings in Fatal Evidence‘s plates section are from the Illustrated and Unabridged Edition. It’s a wonderful piece of history to have on my bookshelf, but I wondered, when I saw the neat owner’s stamp on the frontispiece, who was R O Gilmore?

A stamp in faux Gothic lettering, saying R O Gilmore.

The name inside the book

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Live Fatal Evidence Twitter Q and A

If Victorians did Twitter.

If Victorians did Twitter.

Fatal Evidence, my biography of leading 19th century forensic scientist Alfred Swaine Taylor, is published on Sunday 30th July. Join me between 12pm and 2pm BST on that day for a live Twitter questions and answers session. Use the hashtag #fatalevidence

If you don’t use Twitter, then worry not, you can ask a question on my Facebook too.

If anyone asks something that requires a long answer that Twitter won’t cope with, I’ll reply on here and link to it. I reserve the right not to answer all questions asked – I’m not about to suggest the best ways to bump someone off!

I look forward to speaking to you!

Bird image from The Graphics Fairy.

Ask Augustus

It’s not long now until my second book is published. Fatal Evidence is the first book-length biography of 19th-century forensic scientist Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor, MD, FRS. Readers of my first book, Poison Panic, may recognise his name, as will anyone who knows anything about Victorian crime.

Augustus, the professor’s assistant (well, ok, me in Victorian drag) will be filming a questions and answers session. It will go on YouTube, and any questions I don’t have time to answer in the video will be answered on this here website.

May I invite questions from all of you out there – who was Professor Taylor, why write a book about him, how can one identify Prussic acid in a dead person, and just what’s a chap to do when he finds a partial skeleton in a carpet bag? That sort of thing.

Don’t be shy. But don’t ask me What’s the best poison to kill someone with? Even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you.

Please email your questions to contact@helenbarrell.co.uk by Friday 16th June. (Let me know what name you’d like me to use. First name only, full name, your cat’s name, or random made-up name.)

CWA conference – Edinburgh, April 2017

A view of Waterloo Place in Edinburgh's New Town, showing the stunning Georgian architecture.

This was where I stayed. Shame I didn’t have either of my 19th C costumes with me, quite frankly.

I need very little excuse to go to Edinburgh. I love it. I love it because it’s got loads of old stuff, it reminds me a bit of Granada (the old town with a castle on the hill, the new bits cascading away beside), and it is stuffed full of history, much of it involving coffins. And it’s quite a cheerful place, too.

Graves and a castle at Old Calton cemetery, beneath a blue sky

My hotel was almost opposite Old Calton cemetery.

I had never been to a Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) conference before. In fact, I’d never been to weekend-long writers’ conference before, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I needn’t have worried, however, as everyone was really friendly.

I met up with Sarah Ward, who I’ve met before as she’s convener for the Midlands Chapter of the CWA, and is also great fun. I met for the first time the extremely affable Vanessa Robertson, an Edinburgh-based bookseller and author; and authors Leigh Russell, Kate Ellis and Paul Gitsham. And lots of other people too!

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Historian? Author? Writer?

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One day, Rebecca Rideal wrote a history book, intended for the general, non-academic reader. You know the type – the sort of person who is interested in history, wants to know about the world they live in and what shaped it, but doesn’t want, isn’t interested in, perhaps hasn’t had the sort of education where they can handle, a dry academic monograph. We should be glad – after all, back in January, we were told that ‘Popular history writing remains a male preserve.’ Good ol’ Rebecca, doing her bit to redress the gender imbalance!

Rideal was interviewed in The Guardian, and The Guardian pulled out some exciting-sounding quotes, because, well, it’s a newspaper, and that’s what they do. Especially now that online newspapers are obsessed with lacing their bylines with as much clickbait as possible. ‘The time of the grand histories is coming to an end,’ Rideal declared. It’s a headline that makes people sit up and take notice, and sit up and take notice, they most certainly did! The Guardian is no doubt raking in much advertising from Rideal’s interview, but unfortunately for Rideal…. well…. Some people on Twitter got upset.1)It’ll be a cold day in Hell when I’m able to say 5 minutes have gone past without some people on Twitter not being upset about something, but there we are.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. It’ll be a cold day in Hell when I’m able to say 5 minutes have gone past without some people on Twitter not being upset about something, but there we are.