Category: Writing

A trip to Edinburgh

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.

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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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Real-life ecclesiastical sleuths: Reverend Cancellor & The Eastbourne Manslaughter

Rev J H Cancellor, c1890-1. Sourced with thanks from Clare McMurtrie, one of his descendants.

At depth of night, this thought on home had shone;
‘Our distant child draws safe his sleeping breath.’
E’en then the cherish’d boy, th’ expected son,
Was dying through two hours – beaten to death.

Reverend John Henry Cancellor was born in London in about 1834. His father, another John Henry Cancellor, was a Master of the Court of Common Pleas, and his grandfather had been a stockbroker. The family moved in monied circles.

Life was not plain-sailing, however. In 1856, Rev. Cancellor’s bankrupted uncle, Ellis Cancellor, tried to commit suicide by throwing himself into the Serpentine. And Rev. Cancellor’s youngest sibling, Reginald Channell Cancellor, “a particularly kind and affectionate boy, and very much attached to his father,” had what we would now call learning difficulties.

Rev. Cancellor was ten years older than his brother, so when, in late 1859, fifteen-year-old Reginald’s schooling became a problem, the older brother could step in with advice. Rev. Cancellor had been ordained as a deacon in 1857; as a respectable gentleman and a reverend, he decided to make use of his connections to help his parents school his brother.

He received a recommendation for Thomas Hopley’s school in Eastbourne. Hopley had grand ideas on educational reform; he had studied the education of industrial workers, and had written books on the subject. If anyone could manage Reginald, a boy who was seen as stubborn and lazy, who “would not readily do what he was told,” then surely it would be Hopley. And so Reginald was sent to Eastbourne.

Hopley didn’t like to use discipline on his pupils, unless it was deemed absolutely necessary. And with Reginald, it seemed that Hopley reached the end of his tether. When Reginald came home for the Christmas holidays, his father complained that too much violence had been used on him, but he did think that Reginald’s demeanour had improved.

In April, a letter arrived at the Cancellors’ home from Hopley, saying that Reginald had become obstinate again – and that he recommended the use of “extreme punishment” to force a permanent change in the boy. Hopley didn’t have a cane because ordinarily he didn’t like to use violence, so when Reginald’s father approved Hopley’s idea, the schoolteacher had to improvise.

With a walking stick and a skipping rope.

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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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Real-life ecclesiastical sleuths: Reverend Wilkins & The Tragedy at Wix

A vicar is seated in a pew with a plain-clothes detective in a brown raincoat standing beside him. They are in a church and light pours in through a window behind them.

A vicar and a detective, Rev Sidney Chambers and DI Geordie Keating, from ITV’s Grantchester

Ecclesiastical sleuths are not unknown to crime fiction and drama – there’s Father Dowling, there’s G K Chesterton’s Father Brown, and James Runcie’s Reverend Sidney Chambers.

But what about in real life? A priest has a pastoral duty to their flock, and who better than a priest to try to grasp the effects of good and evil. Members of the clergy inevitably find themselves on the cusp of crime. Whilst they might have to counsel family affected by violence, do they ever join forces with the police and help to solve mysteries?

In my research of nineteenth-century crime I’ve found two clergymen who found themselves drawn into investigations. In part 1, you’ll meet Reverend Wilkins from Wix in Essex, who suspected that one of his parishioners had met his death “by unfair means”. And in part 2, read about Reverend John Henry Cancellor, who found himself investigating the suspicious death of his own brother.

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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.)

A writer wrote a thing

A typewriter surrounded by bottles of alcohol and sweetie wrappers.

A still from the video of “Slash Fic” by The Ritas.

It’s hard to know sometimes (often, perhaps) if online articles are sincere or if they’ve been skewed for clickbait.

That’s what I thought when I saw Stephen Hunter’s article for the Daily Beast, “If You Want to Write a Book, Write Every Day or Quit Now”1)Please google it, I don’t wish to link to it. (which I read in my mind to the tune of Manic Street Preachers’ “If You Tolerate This, Then Your Children Will Be Next”). He’s a Pulitzer-prize winning writer, ffs! (Not that I’ve ever heard of him, but that’s by the by2)He sure as hell won’t have heard of me.). He’s a WRITER. He’s an AUTHOR! He sits atop a column, and when he wants to feel superior (which going from his article, appears to be fairly often), he will gaze down on the lowly would-be scribblers below.

Write every day, he says. Or just don’t bother.

Now – there’s plenty enough wrong with such a statement. Yes, I take the point that writing regularly, like playing an instrument, is how you’ll hone your craft. But every day? Some people can’t write everyday – life gets in the way. A full-time job, studying, family, going outside the house sometimes (and changing out of pyjamas). Sometimes health gets in the way, sometimes you have days when you just can’t write.

This happens to me. I’ll think, I must spend this evening writing, and I won’t. I’ll fiddle about, never quite finding the word I need that will start me off. But then, the next evening, I will write. And words will come out of me in such torrents that I’m writing with my notepad by the hob as I cook the dinner. My words are garlanded with mashed potato.

That’s just how I am. I don’t feel guilty about it, I don’t read Mr Pulitzer-prize’s article and think Holy crap, there must be something fundamentally wrong with me! I’m not really a writer at all! I am now thoroughly discouraged and must give up at once. But it concerns me that some people may well feel that and throw down their pencils. Forever.

Sod that, and sod his article.

And especially sod his dreadful attitude towards other authors.

Writers I know on Twitter have rightly been pointing out that this “write everyday or give up” business is a load of claptrap. But what particularly grates – for me – is his sneery view of other writers.

In order to publish [my novel], it has to be better than [those of other people starting to write a novel on the same day as he does]. So, forgive me—I pretty much hate them.

And:

I will beat them all, however, and I will do it on one strength they lack, the poor, good-looking devils.

I will finish and they will not.

I read this with my jaw banging against my desk. Every writer I’ve ever met has been gracious and encouraging and kind to other writers. Even if Hunter’s comments are meant in a half-joshing manner (I’m not too sure though), I take great objection to his envy and Schadenfreude.

My own experience of meeting other authors has been almost entirely positive. The only other people on Earth who understand what writing is like are other writers. We stick together. We commiserate rejections, we celebrate triumphs. We are a community.

When I first met up with authors, I was actually terrified. I thought they’d all be haughty, that they had discovered a magic formula which they would cling to at all costs. Their haughtiness kept that magic a secret, an invisible wall around the border of Being A Writer.

But those were not the people I encountered: perhaps because I had not encountered Stephen Hunter.

There are two things, then:

  1. There is no magic formula. Do whatever works for you. Don’t be put off writing because your words don’t spurt forth in the same way as another’s do. If the words end up being written, and they’re good words, then… who cares how it got there? Took the motorway, or the scenic route? Hopped on a train? Walked in stout shoes? Puffed through the skies in a hot air balloon? Great. You got there in the end.
  2. Find the nice writers who will support and encourage you. We exist, they exist, I promise you.

 

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Please google it, I don’t wish to link to it.
2. He sure as hell won’t have heard of me.

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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Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2017

Me in a top hat, trying to look like a Victorian professor, in front of a large sepia print photo of a street scene

I’ve been rather busy over the last couple of months, zipping off to the Essex Book Festival for the Criminally Good Afternoon Tea, zooming off to the NEC for Who Do You Think You Are? Live, and then getting drunk in Edinburgh at the Crime Writers’ Association conference.

I was at Who Do You Think You Are? Live on two days. The first, I was dressed as Helen Barrell, the librarian who writes books about Victorian crime. I signed copies of Poison Panic at Pen & Sword’s stall, bought some acid-free storage equipment (that excited me quite a bit, because I am a massive nerd), and went my rounds of the stalls. Thanks to the good people of Peterborough & District Family History Society, I discovered two new ancestors – the parents of my 4 x gt-grandmother Susan Jones. I never thought I’d get anywhere with her background, assuming that anyone called Jones would present insurmountable problems. But no – her surname was actually quite unusual in Peterborough at the time, and I was delighted to find out that Susan, who was born in about 1813, was the daughter of a farrier in the Scots Greys! Did he go to Waterloo, I wonder, and did he shoe Ensign Ewart’s horse? I helped out at the “Ask an Expert” stall – I’ve always loved pointing people in the right direction to find out more about their family tree.

“They’ve found another body? Fetch my test-tubes and don’t spare the horses!”

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