One of my favourite reads of 2012 was Tom All Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd. The grim realities of Victorian Britain were brought to life for a 21st century audience and the fictional worlds of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins (often considered to be the ‘fathers’ of the modern detective novel) were re-imagined and developed to take us into much darker regions of the Victorian psyche.
Lynn Shepherd writes literary crime fiction with the emphasis on the ‘literary’ and as we prepare to meet detective Charles Maddox again, in her new novel A Treacherous Likeness I am delighted to say Lynn agreed to take the time to answer a few questions for No Wriggling.
1. We first met the private detective Charles Maddox in Tom All Alone’s and on my second reading of that book the complexities of his character and his relationships really struck me. Did you have a clear idea of him before you started writing, or does he develop as you plot and write the stories?
I think my mental picture of him has definitely got richer and deeper the more I’ve written about him. In a strange way I’ve got to know him in the same way as I would if he was a real person, in that he came to me first in terms of what we can see from the outside – his intelligence, his stubbornness, his courage, but also his reserve and his privacy. The more I’ve written about him the more I’ve explored him from the inside, finding the causes of that reserve, and the secrets of his past. I certainly didn’t have all that written down and ready to go when I began Tom-All-Alone’s.
2. A Treacherous Likeness is a fictional explanation of some of those mysteries that still surround Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary, who led lives tangled with many other great thinkers and writers of the early 19th century. Why did you choose them as the subject of the novel?
I’ve been fascinated by the Shelleys for years, but it was reading Richard Holmes’ wonderful biography of Shelley, The Pursuit, that really brought it home to me that I could turn their lives into a novel. And after that I read Miranda Seymour’s life of Mary, and the letters and journals that still survive, some of which have been tantalisingly censored by having pages ripped out, whether by the Shelleys themselves, or much later, by their meddling daughter-in-law, Jane. It’s such fantastically rich and dark material. In fact I suspect many of my readers will be surprised how much of A Treacherous Likeness is based on fact, not fiction.
3. As you know I am intrigued and inspired by another famous Romantic poet, John Keats. I know how ‘picky’ I am if someone tries to fictionalise his life. How much research have you had to do to ensure you can maintain a fast paced, believable plot and still satisfy the adoring Shelley reader?
As you might know, I have a PhD in literature and I was lucky enough to lecture at Oxford as well, so there is a bit of the academic in me, and I decided right at the beginning that if I was going to do this at all, I was going to do it properly. I certainly wanted to be as faithful as possible to the facts. I hate it when dramatisations or fictionalisations take short cuts with history, or change or exclude characters or events just to suit their own plots (the recent TV series The Tudors was a terrible example). I was determined not to do that, but it did make my task all the more difficult. It was much easier working with a work of classic fiction, as I did in Murder at Mansfield Park and Tom-All-Alone’s, because there I could pick and choose from the source material, keeping what I wanted, and rejecting what I didn’t. With the Shelleys’ lives I couldn’t do that, so yes, it was a huge challenge to find an approach to the plot that would keep the tension but also remain true to the facts as far as we know them. Having a flashback structure was the main way I did that, but technically it’s certainly the hardest thing I’ve done.
4. Tom All Alone’s and A Treacherous Likeness are full of darkness, terror and deceit and your descriptions of Victorian London are chilling. Have you always been intrigued by the Gothic?
Funnily enough I’ve only started to think of my books in terms of the Gothic quite recently. I definitely didn’t make a conscious intention to write in that genre, or position my books there. But having said that, I have read a lot of the original Gothic novels, such as Mrs Radcliffe’s The Italian, or Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, so perhaps they have been simmering in my head all these years and are now seeping out! I do love trying to create an unsettling atmosphere, especially one of uncertainty and foreboding, and plot-wise I think we’re all hard-wired to want to unearth secrets and solve mysteries, so that’s a pleasure I definitely want my reader to have. It’s what keeps me turning the pages when I read a good book myself.
5. As an author you are clearly there in the text, commenting on the story and comparing responses to those of a 21st century audience. I found it original and refreshing, marking the story out from other titles set in Victorian England, but isn’t that a risky and difficult device to maintain?
I chose to take that authorial stance when I was writing Tom-All-Alone’s, partly as an echo and homage to Dickens, who does the same in Bleak House, and partly because I was inspired by John Fowles’ French Lieutenant’s Woman, which is one of my favourite books and one of the first, if not the first neo-Victorian novel. I love the way Fowles brings a contemporary perspective to bear on his story, and by doing the same in Tom-All-Alone’s I was able to give the reader information and insight in what I hope is an elegant way. It can be risky I suppose, and some readers like it more than others, but it does solve one of the enormous bear-traps of writing historical fiction, which is how to ensure your reader has vital background knowledge without stagey those toe-curling conversations in which one character gives a handy resumé to the other. Personally, I love the viewpoint I take, and it proved even more useful in A Treacherous Likeness, because there were so many more facts I needed to give my reader about the Shelleys, which I couldn’t assume they would already know. I dramatised as much as I could but there were some things – like events in Shelley’s childhood – that I could only convey by talking to the reader directly. I’m taking the same perspective in the book I’m writing now – in fact I don’t think I could now write about Charles Maddox in any other way!
6. Clearly signalled as it was at the end of Tom All Alone’s, was A Treacherous Likeness planned even before you had written the first book?
I’d had the Shelleys in mind for a long time, but I’d been struggling to find a way to turn their story into a workable plot, real life being much messier (and longer) than fiction. Then my agent sold the first draft of Tom-All-Alone’s to Random House in the US, and my editor over there asked to see what I might do for a follow-up. As luck would have it (and it really was amazingly fortunate timing) I had solved my persistent plot conundrum only that very week, so I was able to show her a proper synopsis of the Shelley book. And after that it was an obvious next step to weave a ‘teaser’ about the Shelleys into the final pages of Tom-All-Alone’s.
7. Are you already planning more in the Charles Maddox series? When can his growing band of fans expect the next episode and will it be set in the world of another famous, 19th century figure?
Yes I am! I’m about halfway through the first draft of a fourth book, again featuring both of the Maddoxes. I’m keeping the subject-matter a secret for the time being, but what I can say is that I’m not using biographical material for this one. But other than that, you will have to wait and see!
8. If Charles Maddox were to be televised, who would you imagine might play the part successfully?
I know exactly who it should be! Tom Hiddleston. In fact I have him in my mind’s eye all the time I’m writing. He looks exactly as I imagine Charles. And David Warner for old Maddox. I remember him playing Kurt Wallander’s father in the BBC series, and he gave a very moving portrayal of someone struggling with the early stages of dementia, just as Maddox is. I think he would be perfect. And he has such a wonderful speaking voice too – that slightly more formal delivery which exactly characterises the way old Maddox speaks.
My thanks to Lynn for such a wonderful interview. A Treacherous Likeness is published by Corsair on February 7th. Lynn’s website is www.lynn-shepherd.com, and her Twitter ID is @lynn_shepherd.