I knew at the start of the Pyke series that I wanted to write about the famine in Ireland. To do otherwise, to ignore it, when apparently committed to peering through the dark looking-glass at mid-nineteenth century British and Irish life, seemed like an abdication of responsibility. But I didn’t have any idea how such a task might be possible. How readily could the crime novel, which typically concerns itself with individual acts of murder and transgression, speak about the circumstances which led to hunger, destitution and death on such a vast scale? How far might be the idea of crime itself – the breaking of state-sanctioned laws – be unsettled by the state’s complicity in perpetuating, if not directly causing, the misery of so many? And then there was the issue of what to do with my hero, or anti-hero, Pyke, a detective whose unusual methods and dubious morality usually produce answers to the questions his investigations pose. How could such a figure, an Englishman no less, turn up in Ireland in 1847 and end up succeeding despite himself and the odds stacked against him? The very notion seemed to stink of bad faith.
From the beginning of Bloody Winter, therefore, I had made a decision not to bring Pyke to Ireland or if I did, then to have him play the most marginal of roles. And what more marginal role is there but to be a corpse? For this is the situation that Bloody Winter poses throughout: that the dead body which turns up on a Tipperary estate may be that of my erstwhile detective. And for the young, inexperienced constable who is told to turn a blind eye to the murder, the enquiry can only lead to heartache and failure: his personal failure, aided by official intransigence and the interference of vested interests, mirroring the devastation he sees all around him. But having made these decisions, I needed a reason for Pyke to travel to Ireland in the first place and then I read about the migration of famine-hit Irish men and women in the other direction: to find work in the ironworks of South Wales’s original boom town, Merthyr Tydfil. And Merthyr, a forerunner of Dashiell Hammett’s Personville, a town literally and metaphorically dirtied up by mining and riven by petty criminality and industrial unrest, seemed just the kind of place where Pyke would feel perfectly at home. So it is a kidnapping the first takes Pyke to Merthyr: the son of a wealthy industrialist. But Pyke soon finds out that all is not as it seems and as his suspicions settle on the town’s rich and poor alike, the novel asks what links the events in Ireland and Wales and whether the same system of free trade that has emptied Ireland of its harvest and its people is in fact be responsible for the bloodbath that greets Pyke in Merthyr. And as the young Irish constable quickly discovers; in the face of so much power, and so much needless death, what can one man realistically be expected to do?
Bloody Winter is published by Orion/Weidenfeld