I always wanted to write a tough-guy, first person detective story in the style of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammet but it’s a very American form and I never felt confident that I could carry off the setting. Somehow Scotland never seemed quite to fit my vision as a setting for this sort of story. Other people, such as Ian Rankine, have managed it but I never could make it work for me; too close to home for the way I write, I suppose. It was one of those ideas I put on the back-burner while I went my merry way writing sword and sorcery and science fiction. I always figured I would come back to it someday. To be honest, I thought I would eventually do a detective story set in a city like Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar but things turned out a bit differently.
I can remember exactly when the idea of using a Victorian setting for a noir novel came to me. I was reading an extract from Henry Mayhew’s awesome London Labour and the London Poor. Mayhew was a Victorian journalist who compiled a massive series of articles about the population of London in the 1850s. He recorded their speech in short hand and his work the closest thing we’ll get to hearing the actual voices of the people of the time telling their own stories in their own words.
There was a scene describing a night market. It was a compelling picture of the street life of a long gone era and, bizarrely enough, I realised I was familiar with it. I recognised the things being talked about; the shoddy trestle tables, the way people moved and talked, the shadowy illumination, the desperation. Here was a man describing a place 150 years gone and yet it resonated with me, matched something in my own experience. It did not take me too long to work out what that was. I was reminded of time I had spent in the poorer parts of Bangkok. It came to me that I could describe viscerally and emotionally the slums and red-light districts of Victorian London using my response to things I had seen travelling in Asia and Africa.
I’ve always been fascinated by the Victorian period. Charles Dickens is one of my favourite novelists, possibly my favourite, and Oliver Twist is probably my favourite novel. There’s something to those shadowy courtyards and twisted alleys, those desperate, seedy characters which has always drawn my imagination. Reading Mayhew I began to see a way of setting my own stories there. This was after all, a lawless time, when even ordinary citizens in Britain owned their own firearms and made their own bullets.
I studied the Victorian period as a student and I’ve read a lot of stuff about the eighteenth and nineteenth century underworld since as a form of research for my fantasy novels. The times are odd and alien as the Middle Ages but because of the rise of printing enormously better documented. I’ve always enjoyed reading blood and thunder melodramas like Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard that date from the period too. I actually own autobiographies of Bow Street Runners and some of the confidence men of the age, and I’ve come back again and again to books like Kellow Chesney’s The Victorian Underworld, with its haunting reproductions of Gustav Dore’s black and white illustrations from the period. (Actually, they are from somewhat later, being originally illustrations for Blanchard Jerrold’s London: A Pilgrimage, which dates from 1869 but they catch the feel of the time as it exists in my imagination!) Here was a chance to put all that reading to good use.
I picked 1841 for the book because it was the beginning of a crucial period in early Victorian history. It was near the start of Victoria’s reign and many of the things we now think of as distinctly Victorian were just exploding onto the scene and transforming the world before people’s eyes: the railways, industrialisation, urbanisation. It was a period of turbulence and uncertainty and economic depression, of Chartism and unrest. Here was a chance for me to look at some of the cruel underpinnings of the modern world.
I knew I was going to write the book in the first person. I knew it was going to be a down these mean streets a man must go sort of book. I needed a hero. In came Jack Brodie, Calvinist sinner, former Bow Street Runner, ex-bare knuckle boxer, a man with his own share of dark secrets and guilt.
One of the little known facts of the period is that it was a crime to seek to recover stolen goods from criminals. It was called compounding and it was illegal because men like the infamously corrupt thief-taker Jonathan Wild had built empires of crime on having minions steal goods so they could sell them back to their owners. That law was still on the books in 1841 and it makes Brodie a man who exists on the shady side of the law since his business is the recovery of stolen goods. (In this he echoes one of my favourite tough guy detectives, John D MacDonald’s Travis McGee.)
So there was the basic plot that sets Brodie down the mean streets and alleys. It was not enough though. He needed to uncover dark secrets and encounter violent men. Enter Billy Tucker a psychopathic criminal returned from New South Wales specifically to take revenge on Brodie whom he blames for the death of his brother. So begins a game of cat and mouse through the alleys and courtyards and rookeries, as two very dangerous men are set on a collision course that ends in death.
The Inquiry Agent will be available for free on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk until Midnight Pacific Time on December 23rd, after that it will cost $3.99/£2.99. In case you are wondering why I am releasing the book for free, it’s because I am testing some of the features of Amazon’s new Select program and that will be the subject for another post, once I have the results of the experiment back in.