It might seem odd that a Victorian detective thriller should have been conceived just before the Millennium in a dusty provincial town about 70km west of Shanghai, but I suppose that’s how it began.
Books were difficult to get and I owned only two: the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville’s masterful Moby Dick. I read them over and over again during that year in China – so often that they became a part of my deeper consciousness. It was then, perhaps, that a darker, weirder, more complicated world began its embryonic growth in my mind.
Fast forward a few years. I was an unemployed copywriter spending a lot of time in the local library and getting gradually more interested in Victorian London. Here was a place where everyday events seemed simultaneously familiar and yet so unreal as to be something from the mind of Poe. The more I read, the more I recognised that inner world I’d inhabited years before.
I immersed myself in old newspapers, mildewed leather-bound books and long-forgotten tales of the very earliest detectives – those who tracked the criminals of London before fingerprints, DNA and photography made such things easier. Here was a breed of men whose only weapon against their enemy was a sharper mind and a higher purpose.
As for the criminals, they inhabited parts of London that were still essentially medieval in their squalor, immorality and godlessness. These were men who would murder for a handkerchief and toss their victims in the river without a thought – men for whom violence was as natural as breathing and drinking.
I fell in love with this world. It was a place where anything could happen, and usually did. Even as I dreamed up more and more fantastical plotlines, I found them printed in the newspapers of the time as fact. Here was the world I’d briefly lost but been seeking since: a place whose city limits were those only of the imagination.
The books I love have always been those that take me to a different realm, either physical or psychological. I love stories I can lose myself in, trusting that the writer will find me and deliver me, breathless but exhilarated, at the end. I hope I have achieved that in The Incendiary’s Trail.
The Incendiary’s Trail is published in July by Pan Macmillan