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Devoured by D E Meredith. Why a Book Can be Judged by its Cover.

November 11, 2012

Devoured book cover

It was the hat that first caught my eye. A top hat, set against a wonderfully textured orange-red background, on the cover of the book propped up on the table display of my local bookshop. It was so vivid I could see it as soon as I walked through the door. Moving closer the eccentrically arranged word ‘Devoured’ made me pick it up. I was rewarded with an irresistibly tactile experience between the paper of the book cover and that hat. The built in book mark put the finishing touches to a publication that had the appearance of a class act. My initial decision to download the cheaper e-book went out of the window and this type of presentation is probably why physical books are not yet dead.

Having made my purchase, I hoped this had not been just clever window dressing. Within a few pages, the image of one of Professor Hatton’s silhouettes being devoured, made me realise I was in for quite a ride. Certainly by the end of the book it became clear that the Victorian CSI double act of Hatton and Roumande was not going to end there.

A Victorian print of an orangutan attacking a native.

A Victorian print of an orangutan attacking a native.

When and why did you first decide to write ‘Devoured’?

I started writing five years ago, almost by accident. I read a book called The Malay Archipelago written by the Naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace. The diary describes his adventures through the jungles of Borneo during the 1850s. It’s an amazing window into the mind and times of one of the world’s greatest naturalists. I learnt what it meant to be a specimen collector in the Victorian Age, as he travelled into the remotest corners of the earth looking for birds, butterflies and beasts. His story was so inspiring with its tales of ape hunts, Birds of Paradise and malarial visions, it lit my imagination. So I felt compelled to write a story. I found myself tapping at a key board, producing what was to be the first draft of DEVOURED in a matter of months. One thing simply led to another.

Discovering Russel Wallace’s world led me to think about nineteenth century attitudes to science which then led me to thinking about pathology and the dawn of forensics. This chain of disparate thoughts all happened in a very short time and somehow I’d found I’d created the beginnings of my forensic ‘detectives’, Professor Adolphus Hatton and his morgue assistant, the doughty, Monsieur Albert Roumande.

Tell me about the process from conception to final publishing.

I wrote the first draft very fast in about eight weeks, but then had to do a number of rewrites, taking about six months in total until my agent was happy to pitch it. It got turned down in the UK initially for being overly complex and ‘not commercial enough’ (although we came very close to a deal) but then it sold with a pre-empt to Random House in Germany, quickly followed by a two book deal with St Martin’s in the US (who are famous for their crime novels).

I worked with my editor in America to get the story right. I didn’t even know what genre I was writing in initially, but St Martin’s are the biggest publishers of crime and were clear about the direction I needed to go in.
The two books were already published in America, when my UK publishers, Allison & Busby, bought the series from St Martin’s and launched it here, in the UK, at the end of August, with a whole new look. So it’s taken me about five years to get to the place I wanted to be – published in the UK. It’s been a long journey but an exciting and fruitful one.

You are not the first person to write a novel set in the Victorian era. How did you prevent your book looking like all the other historical novels on the market?

It never occurred to me to think about the ‘market.’ I never even dreamed I’d get a publishing deal, never mind readers. In the past, I’d read all the great nineteenth century writers, like Dickens, Trollope, Mrs Gaskell, George Elliot and fin de siècle writers like Conrad and James. I’ve actually read very little historical fiction as such. I tend to read fairly eclectic stuff, but I’m innately drawn to crime as a genre, because it gives me a platform to explore themes of justice and death, right and wrong, good and evil.

The theme of my books – the birth of forensics – is a unique ‘sell’ I’m told, but that’s just a stroke of luck. I write within the conventions of the murder mysteries, which has its own parameters – a body, a reveal, a detective (who can be a professional detective or an old lady like Miss Marple), a chase, the tying up of loose ends and so forth. But for me, I find these conventions liberating rather than a hindrance to uniqueness.

Can you explain what was going on historically at this moment in time, to give the reader some context?

DEVOURED’s set just before the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859). The mid-Victorian period was a time of huge economic change and massive social upheaval but there was also a thirst for knowledge, innovation and daring.

London was the largest city on earth, whilst Britain’s sprawling Empire was dominating the world. Railways were criss-crossing the country, literacy rates were rising, the middle classes were burgeoning and bringing with them new ideas about politics, governance and morality. The Christian Church was in crisis. Meanwhile, Marx was writing Das Kapital in the British Museum. The mid-Victorian period was a time of great energy and dynamism on all fronts.

Meanwhile, life for the poor remained nasty, brutal and short, with thousands living hand to mouth in dreadful slums, which in London were known as the ‘rookeries’. There were dog fights, bare knuckle fighting, laudanum addiction and high levels of child mortality. The average life span for a woman living in London was just thirty two. There were killer diseases stalking the streets which the Victorian medical profession were struggling to cope with never mind cure – small pox, scarlet fever, syphilis and cholera. It was a city of electric energy but juxtaposed with much misery and death.

Hand skeleton

Hand skeleton

What research did you have to do for this book?

Over the last few years, I’ve immersed myself in the Victorian world, like Alice down a rabbit hole.

I’ve read a huge number of books about the period covering every facet of life and also my specialist areas of pathology and forensics. I’ve just read a book about Morbid Curiosities, which shows how anatomists preserved bodies and pickled organs. I’ve spent hours walking round the part of London which features in my novels, such as Smithfield, Holborn, The Borough, Highgate and St Giles in the Field.

London is still a very Victorian city and it’s not hard to find inspiration. There are the buildings, the warehouses and arches, the bollards on the pavements, the Thames, pubs, the railway lines, the Underground, the architecture. All a writer has to do is look around them to get a sense of what it must have been like 150 years ago.

I go to museums like the Natural History Museum, The Science Museum, The Welcome Institute and the Hunterian Museum – all excellent sources for the history of medical science.

As with many historical novels there is blend of fact and fiction. How did you go about deciding what fact should be left in and where the fiction should take over?

Put too much in and you slow the pace down; not enough detail and you don’t create the world so it’s a balance. The setting, detail, historical themes and background of my books are very solidly researched. Historical accuracy is vital if you are to create an authentic, believable world, but at the same time, the story mustn’t be burdened by a writer’s erudition to the point of boring the reader. Flights of imagination are key and knowing when to ‘kill your darlings’ is an important part of writing, but I find the historical setting encourages this, rather than limits it.

The great noir crime writer, Walter Mosely says of historical fiction, ‘write the story first and do the research later’ and I think there is a lesson in here for those of writing stories with historical backdrops – story first, in other words.

Arm skeleton

Arm skeleton

At one point a character is told to bag the evidence. What state were forensics in at this time?

Forensic science was in its absolute infancy. In the 1850s, Scotland Yard hadn’t a clue and policemen would trample over a crime scene, destroying crucial forensics evidence. This is a fantastic source of frustration for Hatton and Roumande, but conflict is a key component to any novel so having this tension between my *detectives* and Scotland Yard, works well for the story.

As far as pathology was concerned, Victorian scientists’ understanding about how the body worked – how it decomposed, how it changed after death – was on the march. A huge array of scientific advances was being made in the key fields of chemistry, physics and mathematics. For example, in 1836, the British chemist, John Marsh discovered a new way of detecting minute traces of arsenic in human tissue (known as the Marsh Test, which is still in use today), whilst the mercury thermometer was used, for the first time, on dead soldiers, by Dr John Davy to try and determine time of death. Dry plate photography was invented by 1854 and quickly adopted by a number of prisons to categorise and study the so-called criminal classes. In Germany, the manufacturing of powerful new microscopes by companies like Zeiss led to a far better understanding of molecular structures.

With careful observation, scientific knowledge and technical know-how, a cadaver could become its own ‘silent witness.’ This tantalising moment of discovery, is where my novel, DEVOURED begins.

How could you be sure you were using authentic dialogue? Were there times when you had to adapt the dialogue to for the modern ear to make it read more easily?

I don’t set out to write an *authentic* Nineteenth Century voice, by which I mean I didn’t set out to recreate the voice, rhythm or tone of nineteenth century writers. I set out to write a story and through that process of writing I discovered a voice for my protagonists which ‘feels’ right. But their voices and mine are set within the confines of a nineteenth Century fictional imagination, otherwise it wouldn’t feel authentic. I try to eliminate any anachronisms of course, but I am more interested in dynamic writing and the emotional ‘truth’ of a character than anything else. I want my characters to express fear, conflict, despair, love and hate through dialogue which is dynamic, rich and compelling. I have an innate sense of what’s right. It’s a matter of creative judgement. I love peppering my prose with Victorian words to add colour and texture. Words like ‘flim flam’ (frothy nonsense) and ‘On the Ran Tan!’ (drunk),‘dolly mop’, (prostitute), ‘Molly boy ‘ (rent boy) and ‘toke’ (bread), for example. These words are full of energy, so I use them, when I can.s

Often when writing about events in the past, it has to be remembered that their view of the world was not only different scientifically but also psychologically and morally. Did you feel the need to make adjustments for a modern audience or provide explanations to make them realise the different perceptions?

People are not fundamentally different from one century to the next, in my opinion, but their context is. People love, laugh, hate, have ambitions, jealousies, envies, are thwarted, frustrated and so on. So creating an emotional context for each character, their inner conflicts, desires and so forth is very important in a novel, so the reader can understand what’s happening and why. Also, if you explain the context of a character’s world well enough – the pressures, the prejudices, the demands of the day, ways of living and working and so on – then the reader can understand how a character might respond to a particular moment, because they already understand their world.

There are times when the book feels very visceral. Is this some of your life experience coming through, or just a fact that this is something that may have happened?

The book is gory in parts but this is counterbalanced, I hope, by the more gentle moments interweaving the story that I tell from Borneo, which is all about forests, butterflies and beasts. However, Hatton and Roumande work in a nineteenth Century morgue. A cutting room in the 1850s was a place full of blood, gristle and horrible smells. Hatton and Roumande are not afraid to roll up their sleeves, cut up bodies and get spattered in blood. They are fascinated by decomposition and the nature of death, so this is maybe where ‘visceral’ comes in.

That said, my imagination has been influenced by having worked in war zones for the Red Cross. My head is full of weird images. I’ve seen death, pain and heroics up close, as well as misery and of course, broken bodies and gore. If you have extreme moments in life, as a writer, you’re bound to draw on them. It’s part of the process of writing – delving into your imagination and using memory to unleash it.

There are surprises that come up during the book. How do you avoid making scenarios needed to drive the plot from feeling contrived?

Murder mysteries like any genre fiction have conventions and the writer is working within those conventions. Readers expect certain things. They expect a chase, a reveal, twists and turns, detection, murders, mystery, a puzzle and tension, so they keep turning the pages.

The more a writer writes, the better the writer learns their craft. As a writer grows in experience, plots and sub plots can be more deftly handled. This only comes from hard work, application and the process of re-writing and editing. Adapting the old adage, work is 99% perspiration verses 1% inspiration. So hard work, passion, learning the craft, constantly striving to be better, not being complacent, are the things which help writers make their novels be better in the end and preventing their work from feeling in any way, forced or contrived.

The book has a very contemporary feel, giving the reader the impression that what is going on could equally happen today. Was this deliberate?

Thank you for saying so.

The starting point for all my books is a theme which interests me as a twenty-first century person. I’m not interested in re-creating a book which is about the past as such and has no relevance today, like some organ pickled in aspic. I’m interested in weaving a compelling story and within the context of the novel, exploring issues which interest me – justice, death, class, vanity, longing, desire, ambition – but in the case of ‘The Hatton and Roumande Mysteries’, set in a nineteenth century context.

As I write, I feel a strong connection with the story and the people I create, so maybe that’s why it feels relevant. One reviewer in the US wrote, that as she read my work, she felt it was a case of ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same,’ in relation to attitudes shown by my characters to bigotry and prejudice (big themes in THE DEVIL’S RIBBON). I was delighted with that.

Cover of the Devil's Ribbon

What is your next project?

The second in the series, THE DEVIL’S RIBBON comes out in February. THE DEVIL’S RIBBON is about the Irish in London, ten years after the famine and the early Republican movement. There’s a missing chef, a cholera outbreak, more bodies, a terrorist plot and Hatton falls in love with a very alluring woman, whose husband has been murdered by Fenians.

I’m also writing my third book in the series – THE BUTCHER OF SMITHFIELD – which looks at early brain surgery, mind doctoring and the politics of running London in the 1860s. I’m learning a huge amount about the anatomy of the brain and also – because of The Butcher bit – the meat trade. The book touches on a very dark moment in Victorian history which is little known and has taken a great deal of research. Meanwhile, I’m loving developing the characters, who spin their complex web around Hatton and Roumande. They include a butcher, a journalist, a Mind Doctor, a nurse and a ‘pure’ (human faeces) collector, called Mister Gribble, so far. I’m hoping to get my first draft nailed over the next few months before the real work of the second, third, fourth etc edits begin!

D E Meredith

D E Meredith

From → Crime/Mystery

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