I’ve never set out to write a series character and yet here I am, with The Bedlam Detective in print and a third Sebastian Becker novel on the way. Becker crept up on me, I suppose. I had a plan, but this wasn’t it.
It began as long ago as 1987, when mega-editor Gardner Dozois contacted me to solicit a story for a Jack the Ripper centenary anthology that he and Susan Casper were putting together for the following year. Before that, my only interest in gaslight-era fiction had been as a reader. And though I was intrigued by the idea of the collection, I’d little interest in writing about the Ripper per se.
So the story I submitted (Old, Red Shoes) was a modern-day tale set in contemporary Whitechapel, featuring the Ripper-era locales as they exist now. But the period research got its hooks into me, and within the year I was embarked on a monster project that I called Victorian Gothic.
I’d no idea what it would turn into, or whether it would sell, or even in what form it would finally emerge. It was a way to pull together some lifelong interests and obsessions with some family memories and a strand of my theatrical education that I’d never really drawn upon. My starting point was with Tom Sayers, real-life prizefighter, fictional pulp hero, central player in the tragic romance that would become The Kingdom of Bones. He needed a nemesis, a counterpoint, a Player on the Other Side. And so Becker, a Philadelphia Pinkerton man who’d left his British police career under a cloud, came into being only to exceed his literary purpose and achieve a fully-rounded character of his own.
Work on Victorian Gothic took place between other things. I was probably delaying the day when I’d have to call it finished and let it go. Before setting down a single word of the book I sold the screen rights, twice, and used the money to finance yet more travel and research. It was Bill Schafer of Subterranean Press who finally convinced me to buckle down and write the thing. I imagined it would appear as one of Bill’s gorgeously-produced limited editions, a couple of thousand signed copies for the cognoscenti, and that would be that. When my agent called to report on the progress of the auction (there was an auction?) I had to revise my thinking.
When the pressure came on for a second novel, there stood Sebastian Becker. In the writing he’d become Kingdom’s viewpoint character, its anchor, sharing the spotlight with Sayers, first as his Javert and then as a partner in his mission. Let me explain what made him such a gift at this point.
There are two kinds of characters that carry novel series. They’re devised or they’re grown, and those are quite different beasts. The devised character is like a track car, stripped of all unnecessary parts in order to run and run. The art in the creation of such a series hero is assemble just enough well-chosen characteristics to give the illusion of a character without the encumbrances of personal development. As readers, we’re complicit in this. We accept Mike Hammer’s life of brutal solitude without questioning from where, exactly, comes this infinite supply of Old Friends who show up needing his help.
I can’t do those. But in Becker I had a protagonist that I didn’t have to devise, positioned to continue, with the history and personal circumstances of a fully-developed character. I had a big new tale that I wanted to tell, and he dovetailed into it perfectly. At the end of The Kingdom of Bones we leave him at Southampton dock, newly-returned with his small extended family to seek sympathetic treatment for his ‘difficult’ son; in The Bedlam Detective we pick him up a few months later, working cases for the Lord Chancellor’s Visitor in Lunacy in a job secured through his son’s doctors. His challenge now is to unravel the story of Sir Owain Lancaster, a wealthy industrialist who swears that a series of deaths on his estate is the work of monsters first seen on a disastrous Amazonian expedition.
Some reviewers have suggested that the Becker books contain supernatural elements. They don’t – they’re about pure human psychology and our perception of wonder – but that’s a discussion for some other time.
"Vividly set in England and America during the booming industrial era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this stylish thriller conjures a perfect demon to symbolize the age and its appetites" (New York Times) The Kingdom of Bones Ebury Press ISBN 978 0 091950 13 2
"That rare beast, a literary page-turner" (Kirkus Reviews 100 Best Books of 2012) The Bedlam Detective Ebury Press, ISBN 97 8 0 091950 12 5