I always wanted to be a writer. I think most of us start early, scribbling stories at school. Yet despite my early ambition, for a long time during my teens and twenties writing was something other people did, not me. Instead, I read a lot – Dickens, Collins, Conan Doyle, Poe. It seems now as though I was in training for where I eventually ended up – in mid Victorian London writing crime fiction.
The main inspiration came in my late-twenties, when I was working on a PhD in the social history of medicine. Reading and writing history was fascinating, rewarding and enjoyable, but for me something was still missing. The subjects I read about – doctors who experimented on themselves, patients imperilled by all manner of alarming interventions, surgeries performed without anaesthetic, the overwhelming dirt, disease and squalor that prevailed – all these were too interesting, too extraordinary and compelling to be left to the objective scrutiny of history.
Medicine focuses upon the point where life and death meet, where good health becomes bad, and where what cures, might also kill. It is about people – even as much as it is about physic and procedures – and people in extremis; it is about life and death, about fear, madness, sex, ambition … Even social change – sanitary reform, theories of disease causation, our understanding of what it means to be a man or a woman – these things are defined by science and medicine. All might be brought to life, and rendered three dimensional, by fiction.
Crime fiction seemed the obvious choice – most of us like nothing better than trying to solve a mystery as the facts emerge. As for the question, ‘what place might prove to be a crucible for ambition, jealousy and murder?’ the answer was clear: a hospital, as old and dilapidated as the medical practices employed within it. I wanted a female protagonist, but how might this be possible in such a rigid and patriarchal world? Enter Jem Flockhart, cross-dressing apothecary.
The mystery itself, and the terrible deeds that surround it, are hidden within the pages of Beloved Poison. The book is the first of Jem Flockhart’s adventures. I’m hoping she has many more, as the history of medicine is replete with the macabre, the spectacular and the grotesque. It addresses everything that makes us human, as well as providing the means to finish us off!
E.S. Thomson’s Beloved Poison is published by Constable