I had been writing crime/police non-fiction books for many years when I decided it was time to try a crime novel. But I wasn’t sure I had sufficient imagination so I decided to base the book around a real-life event: the Regent’s Park canal boat explosion of 1874. This gave me a ready-made mystery. What caused the explosion and whodunit? Then I added my own mystery by inserting another body – that of a young woman – alongside those of the unfortunate boatmen who had died in the explosion. Who was she? What was she doing there? Who killed her?
Choosing a historic not only saved me the burden of researching ever-changing modern police procedure and, since I had already written about them, I knew that some Scotland Yard detectives were the bi-lingual offspring of London’s immigrants, (Foreign languages were deemed useful for dealing with European police particularly when handling extradition cases.) Hence, my Detective Sergeant Ernest Best is half Italian – and also charismatic, handsome, and just a little bit flash.
My familiarity with the Victorian period deluded me into thinking that not too much further research would be required. But the devil was in the detail. For example: ‘Best lit a cigarette.’ Yes, but what kind of cigarette? What did he light it with? What did he keep his ciggies in . . .
And, of course, there was all the stuff about the canal. Fortunately, I live in Islington through which the Regent’s Canal passes and which is home to the London Canal Museum. Even more fortunately not only had a Household Words journalist kindly done the same trip up the canaI on one of the basic working boats similar to that on which I was to send the unfortunate Best (he’s a bit fussy about personal hygiene) but I had just returned from a week’s canal holiday – a competition prize courtesy of the Met Police newspaper, The Job.
The real life characters were also a bit of a gift. The poverty-stricken, illiterate, boatmen contrasted nicely with the well-to-do St John’s Wood residents whose houses had been damaged by the explosion. The latter included poisons expert, Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor, and Lawrence Alma Tadema, the celebrated painter of lightly-clad Greek and Roman maidens cavorting in ancient marble pools.
Having written radio plays dialogue did not prove much of a problem but plotting did, despite the cushion of the real background story. I found it impossible to plan ahead with chapter digests, maps, and graphs indicating clues and dramatic peaks. In the end, I just winged it, starting with sufficient material to get me going followed every now and then by panicky brainstorming sessions.
What did surprise me, once Dead Image was published and the series progressed, was how involved readers become with the fictional characters. It wasn’t only a gay friend who ‘really fancied’ Detective Sergeant Best. The leading female character evoked much more mixed reactions such as, ‘When is he going to get together with Helen?’ and ‘He’s not going to marry that awful woman is he?’
DEAD IMAGE is published by The Mystery Press, fiction imprint of The History Press..