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.
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 was excited about BBC1’s gritty historical drama Taboo. After all, it was created by Steven Knight (the man behind Peaky Blinders, which I love), Tom Hardy and Hardy’s dad. Knight wrote it, as fans of Peaky Blinders will immediately spot – the troubled amoral “hero”, everything leading up to a nail-biting and very satisfying final episode. And I really loved the character Lorna Bow – an actress and young widow.
But I have to say that watching the series, I spent half the time entertained (sometimes when I should have been and sometimes when the concept’s daftness overwhelmed me – the Tom Hardy Grunt Counter springs to mind), and half the time feeling rather irritated.
I can’t help it. I know my history, and… well…. Shall we say that I identified a couple of historical errors, which, as someone who knows about these things, I really feel I need to point out.((There were other things I found rather… strange, but other people have written about those aspects. Such as, does Tom Hardy look convincingly like someone who is part white British and part First Nations?))
Television series Endeavour tells the adventures of young Inspector Morse, when he was mere Detective Constable Morse. I was late coming to this programme, but I have become completely addicted to it. Perhaps it’s the slightly grubby vision of the 1960s that fascinates. Perhaps it’s the puzzling plots. Perhaps it’s the portrayal of young Morse by Shaun Evans, who manages to include John Thaw mannerisms in his characterisation without looking as if it’s an impression.
There’s lots to love about it but one episode caught my attention particularly – “Nocturne”, in the second series.
Set in 1966 during the World Cup, there are flashbacks to 1866, when several children of a tea magnate, their nurse and governess, were murdered. Everyone thinks the murderer was the surviving daughter, who was, apparently, disturbed, and ended her days in an institution.
My interest was immediately piqued – nineteenth-century crime! – and when I heard the music, which was played on the piano and on the world’s creepiest music box, and was woven through the background music, I recognised it at once.
The piece of music is Chopin’s Nocturne no.1. It’s a beautiful piece for piano but it is intensely creepy and unnerving. It’s in B flat minor, which goes to some way to explaining it, plus the way that it keeps reaching for resolution and takes a surprising direction keeps the listener on the alert. This seems to be something to do with “picardie thirds” but that’s another story. It’s often peddled as a relaxing number – but I find it’s quite the opposite. It’s calm, but discordant, which makes it terrifying.
It was for this reason that last year, without having seen that episode of Endeavour, I used exactly the same Chopin piece for the Poison Panic book trailer.
So I’m not the only person to hear that nocturne and think of Victorian murder.
It’s not long now until my second book is published. Fatal Evidenceis 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 [email protected] 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.)
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”((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 by((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.
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:
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.
Find the nice writers who will support and encourage you. We exist, they exist, I promise you.
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.
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!
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.
There’s a wealth of family history societies, genealogy companies, and DNA-testing businesses hoping to catch your eye, and there lots of talks and workshops and goodness knows what else for you to sample.
If you’re planning to seek out some help with the trickier corners of your family tree, make sure you bring print-outs or even original documents.
I’ll be there on two days.
Friday 7th April
2.20pm – 3pm: I will be giving two “Ask an Expert” sessions. My areas are old handwriting, wills and (no surprises here) Essex!
(And when not doing that I’ll be buying archival storage materials and checking out the CDs that the family history societies have to offer)
Saturday 8th April
11.15am-12pm: my workshop session Turn your family tree surprises into a book will be taking place in Theatre 2. I’ll be talking about resources you can use to enrich your research, and the many way there are to share your writing.
12pm-2.30pm: I’ll be at the Pen & Sword stall (number 290), where you can ask questions about my talk, and… well… let’s just say there’s books available to buy. Lots of them.
3pm-4pm: I’ll be giving three “Ask an Expert” sessions.
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,((Somewhat ironically, I was at his crime-writing masterclass at Birmingham Literature Festival last year!)) 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.