Re-creating the past in my first detective novel The Poisonous Seed has been both a challenge and a real pleasure. Writers of history have to be a little bit in love with a place and a time even if, for practical reasons (just think dentistry and go from there) they might prefer not to live there.
I am fascinated by the Victorians and spend much of my time with them – learning about their daily lives, trying to understand how they thought, and getting the feel for their conversation.
Bayswater in 1880 was the ideal place to locate my mystery story. Although it is a part of London with easy access both to the fashionable West End and rural Middlesex, it has at the same time the feel of a small town with its own clubs, societies, businesses, personalities and newspapers, where gossip was rife and everyone wanted to know everyone else’s secrets. The area is also predominantly middle class. I didn’t want to write about the very wealthy and leisured or the criminal underworld; the part of Victorian society that interested me was the shopkeepers, clerks, artisans, professional people and servants who go about their daily work and try with varying degrees of success to be ‘respectable.’ The inhabitants of my Victorian Bayswater are not merely characters but part of a community, giving a rich picture of life where events and people and the expectations of society interact in a complex way. With the flowering of photography the 1880s are more accessible and more tangibly real than any other previous era.
Frances Doughty may be a Victorian girl but she has challenges that might sound very familiar to a modern woman, a business to run, a home to manage and an ailing parent to care for. On top of all this of course, she has a murder to solve!
The first book in a planned series sows seeds which will not flower dramatically for some time, while apparently minor characters will come and take centre stage later on. As the series develops we will see many sides of Victorian life and one might start to think that as with the fictional Midsomer, everything seems to happen in Bayswater!
It starts with a chemists shop and here I unashamedly drew on my own experiences, when as a teenage school leaver I became an apprentice dispenser in what I now realise was a wonderful old shop, still with its original wooden fittings, the drawers labelled in Latin. It wasn’t just the shop that was old – my training was rooted firmly in the nineteenth century and I was expected to make pills, mixtures, powders and ointments by hand.
The second book which is out in April is The Daughters of Gentlemen where Frances investigates mysterious events in a girls’ school, and the entirely fictional Bayswater Women’s Suffrage Society goes valiantly on the march.
The Poisonous Seed is published by the History Press