Fearful and Wonderful – in Bury St Edmunds

Earlier in October, an auction was held at Lacy Scott & Knight auctioneers in Bury St Edmunds. A descendant of Alfred Swaine Taylor’s passed away at the end of last year and in the attics and cupboards of their home was found Taylor’s papers, diaries, books, letters, photographs, salt prints, and even Taylor’s microscope. In the introduction to Fatal Evidence, I said that no letters and diaries of Taylor’s had survived – little did I know they were in a house in Suffolk! It’s a shame I didn’t have these materials to hand when I wrote the book, but I would’ve struggled to fit it all in – and my book was used by the auctioneers to work their way through the amazing hoard.

I wrote a preface for the auction catalogue, which you can read online, and I gave a talk on Taylor a couple of days before the auction. It was great meeting another packed room of people who wanted to hear about Taylor, and it really nice to be able to do that standing beside a huge portrait of him, while his microscope was in a glass cabinet right next to me.

I was allowed to have a look at the lots before the auction, and photographed a lot of the letters which were in the auction. You might see my transcriptions online at some point – I’m currently working through the letters between Taylor and his wife Caroline just before they got married. They’re a lovely mixture of adorable (“I cannot tell you with what pleasure I saw the postman with his scarlet jacket, come into our gate, because I flattered myself he was the Bearer of a letter from you.”), cheeky (“I find he is one of those who talk less in company than when tete a tete or as it would be with him nez a nez.”) and practical (“I have seen Mr Horne the person who altered what is to be your wardrobe, & asked him what would be the expense of some bookshelves.”).

So here’s some photos of my talk, some of the auction’s lots, and me wandering about Bury St Edmund’s. Many thanks to everyone at LSK, and to Alex at Moyse’s Hall. And to everyone who came along to the talk.

(Click on a photo to see it – click again to see a big version!)

The Back Doors to Death – at Highgate Cemetery

I was so pleased to be asked to give a talk on Alfred Swaine Taylor and nineteenth-century forensic science at the legendary Highgate Cemetery. It’s where he and his wife Caroline were buried – as well as people Taylor knew. Faraday, who he corresponded with about photography, and even Thomas Hopley, the headmaster who killed Taylor’s nephew.

The chapel is a gorgeous venue, and the audience were great! I’m pleased to say too that the guides who were at the talk were really excited about Taylor and if you go on a tour of the western side of the cemetery, you may well get to see where Taylor and his wife were buried.

The Back Doors to Death: Alfred Swaine Taylor talk at Highgate Cemetery – Thursday 20th September

Alfred Swaine Taylor, one of the most famous forensic scientists of his day, was laid to rest at Highgate Cemetery in north London in 1880.

At my talk, find out more about Taylor – his well-known and obscure cases, and his sidelines in photography and geology. Discover his impact on crime fiction and find out why Golden Age detective fiction author Dorothy L Sayers called his books “The Back Doors to Death.”

Tickets are on sale now at just £8 each (£6 for Highgate Cemetery volunteers).  Doors 7pm. Thursday 20th September 2018.

The Guardian’s Best summer books 2018, as picked by writers

I had absolutely no idea at first that Fatal Evidence appeared in the Guardian’s Best summer books, as picked by writers. I noticed I had a new follower on Twitter, had quick glance on their timeline and saw my name plus a link to the Guardian. Thinking I was either 1. dreaming or 2. misreading something crucial, I followed the link and discovered I wasn’t imagining it after all – there’s Jess Kidd, author of Himself and The Hoarder, recommending my book!

Screencap from the online article. The text on the screencap reads: Jess Kidd. I am rollicking through Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin, which is one of the funniest, most twisted and freshest things I’ve read in a long time. It follows the fortunes of Mona, who cleans houses and falls for a man she calls Mr Disgusting. Beagin combines deep compassion and irreverent humour to create characters with nasty, wonderful, human flaws. Helen Barrell’s Fatal Evidence, Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor and the Dawn of Forensic Science is an engrossing read. It follows the career of Taylor, a remarkable scientist who gave evidence at the trial of William Palmer, “The Rugeley Poisoner”, pioneered the study of forensic medicine and let Charles Dickens nose around his laboratory. Barrell explores Taylor’s (occassionally bizarre) cases, his public and private persona and his wide-ranging interests, which included geology and photography. Her description of the ways in which forensic experiments evolved is as fascinating as the courtroom dramas they accompanied.

At the risk of this turning into a nauseating #humblebrag, this was such a surprise, and it was a real treat to see Fatal Evidence in a national newspaper. Writing for an independent publisher, national newspapers seem like an impenetrable citadel. And it’s really lovely that another writer appreciated my work.

So thank you, Jess, and thank you, the Guardian.

And bravo all the other authors who got a mention too! My to read pile is now tottering in dangerous fashion.

Interview: Jonathan Goodwin from Don’t Go Into The Cellar! Theatre Company

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, in smoking jacket.
Jonathan Goodwin as Sherlock Holmes

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Meet crime authors at Shrewsbury Waterstone’s

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..

Alfred Swaine Taylor and The Poisoned Chocolates Case

Wonderful pulp cover of The Poisoned Chocolates Case, showing a woman in 1950s evening wear reaching for a chocolate.

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.

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“A hum in the drum”: Baby Driver, tinnitus, hearing loss and me

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.((I realise Hot Fuzz isn’t the trendy choice and all the cool kids love Shaun of the Dead, but perhaps I’ve spent far too much time in small English towns not to love Hot Fuzz. And I can’t start enumerating everything I love about it otherwise this would be an extremely long footnote. Suffice to say, that moment when Timothy Dalton slips over on the toy Somerfield delivery van in the model village….)) 2. I have both hearing loss and tinnitus and the film refers to both.

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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 tree of pink blossom sheds its petals over the lawn and the mellow stone headstones in the sun.
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.

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