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!”
In the 1950s, my grandad was a Special Constable, working the streets of Southend-on-Sea. He told me that he’d often be approached (perhaps “set upon” is more accurate) by gangs of drunken women, and when he came home from his shift, my grandma would be furious at the lipstick he was covered in. Drunks are one thing, of course – poisoners quite something else, and that was my subject for the Essex Book Festival’s Criminally Good Afternoon Tea at Southend’s Park Inn Palace Hotel.
The tea was part of the Golden Age of Crime Weekend, so you could stay in the elegant Park Inn Palace, overlooking the longest pleasure pier in the world and, amongst many things, you could enjoy a talk by Sophia Hannah on Poirot, there was Simon Brett, Frances Fyfield, and Jill Paton Walsh discussing Dorothy Sayers, you could pit your wits against other Golden Age of Crime boffins at the quiz night, and new crime writers (Fiona Cummins, Aga Lesiewicz, David Young) were talking about their books. And there was also… me.
The River Colne at Wivenhoe. 19th century.
You will go to the devil, die when you will, you will go to a rare place when you die.
I’ve always written fiction, so being commissioned to write non-fiction has been quite… surprising. But in a good way.
The trouble is that all the research that went into Poison Panic and Fatal Evidence stoked my fiction-writing brain-muscles. For the whole time that I’ve been writing those books, stories and characters began to take shape. It’s a bit like watching a candyfloss machine – the sugar spins round the stick, and what was air and granules becomes a novel.
Initially, it was a short story based on suspected poisoner Mary May. There was going to be a detective sent up from Scotland Yard, there was going to be a plucky governess, there was a to-do with some bottles, and there was a blacksmith…. And I wrote a tense dinner scene, and had no time to write more. So I carried on with my non-fiction and started work on the biography of Victorian forensic scientist Alfred Swaine Taylor. And Taylor decided to nose his way into my fiction. He wanted to be in a novel. He demanded it. I told him this was churlish behaviour, considering R. Austin Freeman had already based his detective Dr Thorndyke on him. But Taylor wouldn’t leave me be, so I let him wander about at will. But all he did was stalk back and forth past a flimsy theatre set of a north Essex village; a flint-covered church and a timber-framed pub. He didn’t look very pleased. I wasn’t either.
But it was a documentary about Scottish crime writer William McIlvanney, father of “Tartan Noir”, which helped me see the light. The setting for his gritty tales were the shipyards on the Clyde. And there was a shipyard and a dock where I grew up. In fact, if it wasn’t for that shipyard, I wouldn’t exist: some of my family only moved to Wivenhoe, a village on the River Colne in Essex, to work on the shipyard.
I’m not enough of a daftie to claim that the Colne and the Clyde are interchangeable, but that idea of the crime novel and the river, the shipyard and the dock was the moment that the vague, floating idea was forced into sharp focus.
The annual Birmingham Literature Festival is run by Writing West Midlands, offering a programme of events about the written word – talks with writers, and workshops. This year, I attended something a bit different – a talk by screen-curator, Walter Iuzzolino, the real person behind Channel 4’s Walter Presents.
First of all, yes, Walter is a real person. Perhaps I am so jaded by the fakery of modern life that I thought, cynically, that he didn’t actually exist, and was just a marketing construct to put a human face and personality on Channel 4’s world drama picks. There he is in the trailer, a bespectacled, whippet-like figure, watching lots of DVDs – he’s watched 1,000s of hours of telly, to pick only the best for Walter Presents. But how can he watch all that telly and retain a physique like that? And yet, it slowly dawned on me that Walter is a real person – so when I found out he was talking at the BLF, I wanted to know more.
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.
Helen went to Waterstones
Today, I went to Waterstones in Birmingham and saw Poison Panic on the shelf. It was my book! In a book shop! Not only does my book exist, but… it was on a bookshelf! In a shop! So I paused by it, and posed in an awkward fashion, with Tom Hardy’s naked torso just out of shot above my head, Ian Brady leering into the side of the picture, and PD James (gawd bless ‘er) just lurking beneath.
My book. Hurrah! There were more copies on the other shelf. Thanks to the combined forces of coincidence, my surname, and the alphabet, Poison Panic sits next to a book on the Hell’s Angels, written by the bloke who gave Lee Marvin the stripey T-shirt he wore in The Wild One. So I’ve been told.
Appropriately, perhaps, another poisoner can be found beside my Essex ladies – Carol Baxter’s The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable, on Tawell, the “Kwaker”, accused of murdering his mistress with prussic acid. He was caught when the police chased him down using the telegraph, after Tawell had escaped by train. There wasn’t a letter Q on it, hence they spelt Quaker “Kwaker”. You’ll meet him in Fatal Evidence – although Professor Taylor wasn’t an expert witness at the trial, one of his books was. Had there been Waterstone’s in the 1800s, I’m sure Taylor would have stood by his tomes on the shelves too, and asked someone to do a quick sketch as cameras weren’t too quick back then.
And so that’s what I did on Saturday.
I wasn’t sure about having a book launch party. Was organising it going to be a lot of faff when I wanted to crack on with book #2? But in the end, I thought… why not have a little bash. There could be some wine, perhaps a cake, and maybe a few chums if they felt like turning up after work.
If Victorians did Twitter.
My book Poison Panic is published on Thursday 30th June. Join me between 12pm and 2pm for a live Twitter questions and answers session. Use the hashtag #poisonpanic
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 look forward to speaking to you!
Bird image from The Graphics Fairy.
One of the reasons why Alfred Swaine Taylor is an interesting person to write about is that, when he wasn’t rummaging through jars of human innards looking for poison, he had an artistic side and experimented with photography. When Fox Talbot revealed his sciagraphs (‘drawings of shadows’) – which were generally referred to as ‘photogenic drawings’ – at the end of January 1839, Taylor was fascinated and began his own experiments at once. When he couldn’t get Fox Talbot’s recommended silver compound to yield results, he came up with his own characteristic way round it – he used ammonio-nitrate of silver, ‘a compound which has been used for many years as a test for arsenic.' He didn’t patent his process – he seems to have had a low opinion of those who did – and not long afterwards, he enthusiastically embraced what we now recognise as photography, using a camera (or ‘camera obscura’ as they were then known).
Examples of Taylor’s photography survive in two albums which are in private hands, and I have been unable to contact the owners, so I won’t be able to use them in my book. Fox Talbot’s are held at the Science Musuem, but I wondered, given how clear Taylor’s instructions were, whether I could make my own photogenic drawings. The problem was, where would I lay my hands on the ingredients to make my own solution of ammonio-nitrate of silver? And hopefully, without ending up on some sort of alert list?
As luck would have it, an opportunity arose to make a cyanotype. I didn’t realise you could buy kits to make these, but I was able to make one at a workshop. Somewhat ironically, given that Taylor’s photogenic drawings used a compound which was used for identifying the presence of a poison, the cyanotype process actually uses a poison – cyanide. I was very excited to come up close and personal to Lady Cyd. It uses two compounds – ammonium iron(III) citrate and potassium ferricyanide, and was discovered by Sir John Herschel in 1842. So if it seems similar to the photogenic drawing, then it is – same process, different chemical. I think this is as close as I’ll get to the technique Taylor used.
I was in Liverpool this weekend, visiting my old university chum Jen, and the annual River Festival was on. A celebration of culture and watery activities was going on across Liverpool’s iconic waterfront, and the Open Eye Gallery was hosting a “sun photograph” workshop. It was run by Rachel Brewster of Little Vintage Photography, who just so happens to be related to Sir David Brewster. He was a Scottish scientist who took a great interest in Fox Talbot’s work, corresponding with him over the development of calotypes (making photographs on paper, an alternative method to the Daguerrotype); he also invented the kaleidoscope.
Arsenic, arson, Bulwer-Lytton….
Apart from the obvious difference between fiction and non-fiction – one’s pretend and the other isn’t (more or less) – a non-fiction text should have an index. Indices are awesome, a handy way to zip around a book without having to wade through the entire tome, but have you ever stopped to wonder what compiling an index involves?
This is something I have been wondering since I started work on Poison Panic, for the simple reason that my book would need an index. Gulp.