On Victorian London, forensics and writing inspiration: a conversation with D.E. Meredith, author of The Devil’s Ribbon

D.E Meredith

D.E Meredith

Today I am lucky enough to have a guest on my blog – the author D. E. Meredith writer of the historical crime series, The Hatton and Roumande Mysteries featuring the first forensic scientist, Professor Adolphus Hatton, and his trusty French morgue assistant, Albert Roumande.

D.E Meredith studied English at Cambridge, worked in advertising during the late 80s but soon found that world unsatisfying and embarked on a dramatic change of career working as a campaigner for conservation causes, ultimately working in the press office at the British Red Cross. She has witnessed history first hand – Afghanistan just before it fell to the Taliban and Rwanda as it was devastated by the terrible genocide in 1994 for example. Working in a field where injustice was rife and violence part of everyday life inspired her she says, to bring those themes into her crime novels and indeed they run as threads through both The Devil’s Ribbon and the first in the series, Devoured.

Here she talks of Victorian forensic science, inspiration and writing discipline, something I am more than a little short of. So thanks to D.E. Meredith for taking time out to talk to me!

I have read other interviews with you that suggest you have almost become a writer by  accident! The inspiration behind Hatton and Roumande is fascinating. Would you mind telling us again how you felt the urge to tell their story?

I read a travel diary by the great Nineteenth Century naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, called “The Malay Archipelago.” Russel Wallace was Darwin’s alter ego and came up with similar ideas on evolution at the same time as his more famous contemporary but history has not given Wallace the credit he surely deserves. The travelogue was full of amazing detail about taxidermy, specimen collecting, orangutan hunting and life as a Victorian scientist. Fantastic and inspiring stuff and I was sure there was a novel in it. It just so happened that I’d finished a contract for Greenpeace and was between clients, I had builders in the house so it was hard to work anyway and so I simply started to mess about on the computer, thinking why the hell not? I knew if I was ever going to write a book, it would be a murder mystery. I devoured them as a child – no pun intended – especially PD James and Agatha Christie so that’s what I started to write. As the Victorians were at the cutting edge of so much new scientific thinking, forensics seemed an obvious ingredient to add into the mix. And I guess, that’s how I created Professor Adolphus Hatton and his Chief Diener, Monsieur Albert Roumande of St Bart’s

devil's ribbonwb (1)Here I must admit to being a little squeamish…. Some of the episodes in both Devoured and The Devil’s Ribbon are very gory. How easy do you find it to imagine such scenes?

I love writing anatomy scenes. I do a lot of research to try and get them right. Not only in anatomical  terms but also to describe the bodies as a Victorian surgeon would have viewed them. I’ve seen a number of surgical operations when I worked for the Red Cross and was in and out of field hospitals, seeing the impact of war and in particular, land mines on people so I am not shocked by blood and guts. I treated myself to a copy of Grey’s Anatomy. This was the bible for surgeons in the Nineteenth Century and contains exquisite line drawings.   I often flick through my copy not just to check the inner workings of an organ  but also to wallow in the intricacies and beauty of the human body which never fails to astound me. Added to which,   it’s important we see the world through Hatton and Roumande’s eyes. Decomposition and cadavers are hardly an avoidable theme when the books you write concern a pathologist working in a morgue in Victorian England. Dissection and cutting up corpses  is Hatton’s and Roumande’s business. I see no reason to sugar-coat my descriptions. The violence I describe isn’t  gratuitous or titillating though it is macabre. I am very aware I’m writing in a period which gave us the Gothic tradition and the beginnings of the horror genre and  so it feels right that my own writing is imbued with those of sort of blood soaked drama.

The dark and seamy side of Victorian London has become a popular backdrop for new detective fiction.  I think you bring something quite new, and raw, to the environment your characters work in. Scotland Yard detectives are hard to like in your books, for example. Was it difficult to find an original ‘angle’ on Victorian crime?

I didn’t plan to be an author or do much pre-thinking about how I wanted my books to be. I  didn’t look at the genre before I started writing , so I wasn’t looking for any kind of angle and maybe for a new writer that’s liberating. I just set sail, free as the wind and followed the story. It’s only after I had my first book published and reviewers started comparing it to Michael Cox’s work in particular,  that I realised there was a whole plethora of other writers  out there doing “Victorian crime.”   I try not to read it. I don’t want other people’s work influencing mine though I do try and read contemporary thrillers to try understand the issue of pace. The only book I had in my mind when I wrote Devoured was The American Boy by Andrew Taylor , who I now follow on twitter (I love all of his books) but not because I wanted to emulate what he was doing. Taylor is a master of re-creating an authentic voice – in the case of The American Boy – a regency voice and I knew if I couldn’t do it as seamlessly as Taylor, then I didn’t want to do it at all.  I think the raw quality which others have spoken about comes, not just from the subject matter, but from my prose which tends towards the gritty.  Life was hard back then. I think of the Victorian Age as being like  Slumdog Millionaire only with top hats. It was tough and visceral on the mean streets of London. As for the police being corrupt? It went with the job. Many policemen in the 1800s often wore two hats. They worked for the Met but they also did a bit of private work for those who could afford to hire them. Corruption was rife,  so I’ve based my idea of the police force  on what I think was happening at the time.

I thoroughly enjoy your detailed plots and the way in which Hatton and Roumande’s are not only challenged by criminals but by the police. How do you keep track of the clues to ensure your reader is kept guessing to the end?

I love plotting but I do find it a challenge because for all the planning in the world, once you start writing, novels take on a life of their own and it can be hard to keep control. My plots are very intricate and complex, multi-layered with elaborate structures  but that’s how the world is, isn’t it? The world isn’t lateral and neither is the imagination – well,  mine, isn’t. I like to set lots of plates spinning but I don’t want to confuse readers or undermine the pacing. This is all part of the craft of novel writing, something a writer has to learn to do through trial and error. But I think if I can combine tangential scenes and blind alleyways with an overall story which is homogenous, then I’ll deliver something that’s rich and satisfying for the reader. I’m highly organised in life but much more freefall when I write. I  don’t like plans. I do them in advance, on a couple of sheets of paper but  then I nearly always chuck them away when I start to get into the meat of the novel. I feel over planning kills creativity.  I like the fear factor. I feel like I’m standing on the edge of a cliff edge when I begin a new chapter. Of course, I think about the characters in advance – who they are, what they look like, how they feel, how they relate to others and so forth.   As to the layering which is so crucial if you’re trying to create  a puzzle, adding or rearranging clues and red herrings can be honed (added in or cut back)  during  the process of  rewriting. The first draft is never the last draft.

I can sense that Hatton and Roumande are the natural predecessors of Sherlock Holmes. Did Mr Holmes’s perspicacity inspire you to go back into the history of his forensic techniques?

Not self consciously although I did get the idea of the tattoo on lady Bessingham’s finger in Devoured from the Holmes story but I can’t remember which one. I wrote it first and then thought – hang on a minute I’ve seen this before so I googled it, found it and decided, hell, it works,  so I’m going to use it  anyway. I hadn’t read much Sherlock Holmes but like everyone else, Holmes is just part of my psyche from a misspent youth in the suburbs  watching too much telly – old B&W films, the brilliant series with Jeremy Brett in the 80s.  And now, of course, I watch the fabulous Cumberbatch version with  my kids. My youngest son is a  big fans of the books, so I’ve got more into Conan Doyle in terms of the actual writing recently. I’ve even been to see Conan Doyle’s  house in Surrey as part of the campaign to save it from the evil hands of developers.  It was rather moving and I felt like I  was walking in the shadow of Doyle. He had an incredible imagination. Hound of the Baskervilles has to  be one of the greatest and spookiest detective stories, ever.  As for my characters, they have some similarities to Watson and Holmes in that they’re a pair working in Victorian London (although Holmes was fin de siècle) but Roumande is more than Hatton’s equal and in terms of intellectual insight. I split perspicacity between the two of them and often it’s their knowledge of the human heart which helps crack the case in the end, not just their knowledge of forensics.

220px-Old-microscopesFrom your research, what do you think (other than DNA) has been the key breakthrough in the field of forensic science and why?

Without a doubt, the invention of the microscope.  All the early microscopists saw quite distorted images due to the low quality of the glass and imperfect shape of their lenses. Little was done to improve the microscope until the middle of the 19th Century  when great strides were made and quality instruments like today’s microscope emerged. Companies in Germany like Zeiss and an American company founded by Charles Spencer began producing instruments which allowed Victorian scientists to see the world in its wonderful minute detail. Both the Zeiss and the Spencer feature as “stars” in my novels. Studying blood samples, smears  of glistening semen, hairs, human skin  or other traces left behind on a cadaver, or at crime scene, would never have been possible without an effective  microscope.

Many people, myself included, can find it hard to find the ideal place to write. Where do you find it easiest to get the word count going in the right direction? Do you write in silence or can you shut out all the background noise, or listen to music?

I wish I could listen to music but for me it has to be silence. I wrote three novels in a tiny corner of the bedroom but I have recently moved house (two weeks ago) and now have an office and so it’s bliss. I’ve already doubled my output because the house is bigger so firstly, the kids can’t track me down quite so easily asking “What is there to eat?” and secondly, I can’t hear the relentless drone of Sky Sport pummeling through the walls, because we’ve put the telly in the basement – along with  my rugby mad teenage boys and their mates. Routine is vital for writers. You have to invent your own structures. Nobody’s going to do it for you. We all have distractions. I’m a mum and I have to juggle all sorts of stuff but I religiously go for a run or a bike ride after my kids have been waved off to school – “Adios amigos!” –  and park my butt on a seat in front of my laptop by 10.00am with a coffee LATEST. I don’t do anything else till the kids get home at three-ish. I don’t meet friends, I don’t have coffee or do lunch. I block the internet out increasingly using the download “Freedom” if I seem to lack focus (hello twitter!) and find that I can do 4 hours good work (ie: actual writing) and then the rest of the day is spent doing general PR, writing features, posts etc  or my favourite bit, the research – there’s a huge amount of research in my books and it all takes time. Writing requires discipline and it doesn’t require you to be a social butterfly. In fact, it demands withdrawal.

Can you tell us a little more about your future writing plans?  Is there another Hatton and Roumande planned for the near future? And will you ever write contemporary fiction?

I am currently writing the next Hatton and Roumande  book called The Butcher of Smithfield (working title) which is  set in 1863, so five years on from The Devil’s Ribbon. It’s been a really interesting challenge picking up the characters and their lives from where I left them. I’m having great fun – though it’s demanding. You’re creating something out of nothing. I spent a long time  researching the Jewish community living in London in the 1860s and the German community which was huge and centred around Whitechapel and Dalston. I’ve also been looking at mind doctoring, early attempts at brain surgery and the beginnings  of neurology along with colonial exploits in Africa and The Crimean War – quite a lot of material but the story is working really well and it’s all coming together. Huzza!

I wrote initial drafts for a contemporary novel set in Rwanda against backdrop of genocide but have put it in a pending tray till later. I found it difficult to write because the material was too  close to the bone but I am more experienced  writer now, and fully intend to go back to this book and deliver a contemporary thriller based on some of my own personal experiences during my time as an aid worker. The material is too good to ignore.  But for the time being I am fully immersed in my Victorian world and will be there for some time, I suspect. And I adore it.

I’ve done a little bit of flash fiction and I really enjoyed it. I don’t have time at the moment to pursue it but for budding writers out there, it’s a really interesting challenge. To tell a story in less than 500 words, means every word counts. This is a good thing to remember even when you are working across say, 100k words which is the usual length of my novels.

In a recent interview I asked author Lynn Shepherd (Tom All Alone’s, A Treacherous Likeness) who she thought should play the part of her detective, Charles Maddox, if we were to be allowed to enjoy the books adapted for television or on the big screen. She sees Tom Hiddleston in the role and has him in her head as she writes.  Who can you see as Hatton? Roumande?

Ed Norton

Adolphus Hatton has to be played by Ed Norton just as he appeared  in The Painted Veil. He’s fabulously repressed, quintessentially English, uptight, work obsessed, wiry but sexy as he appears in that film and if we can’t get him,  then James McAvoy would be good. Roumande MUST be played by the uber gorgeous Javier Bardem because he’s the right “look” (big, dark and burly) and all my mates will pay me good money to meet him if he accepts the part which I’m sure is only a matter of time. I’m ever hopeful. And clearly,  completely delusional.javier_bardem

The Devil’s Ribbon is the second book in the acclaimed Hatton & Roumande series, by D E Meredith and is out now in hardback, publishing by Allison & Busby priced £19.99. The first book Devoured is also out now in paperback, price £7.99.
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One Response to On Victorian London, forensics and writing inspiration: a conversation with D.E. Meredith, author of The Devil’s Ribbon

  1. Pingback: D.E. Meredith blogs at No More Wriggling Out of Writing | D. E. Meredith

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