The story behind The Jump by Doug Johnstone

The Forth Road Bridge and its neighbouring rail bridge have always loomed large in my life. I grew up in Arbroath on the northeast coast of Scotland, and I now live in Edinburgh. I still have family in Dundee, so I travel up and down the coast quite a bit, always over the bridges, and it’s always a mesmerizing experience.

I don’t know if you’ve ever walked across a suspension bridge, but it’s terrifying. What you don’t really realise until you’re on it, is that it shakes like buggery. That’s what suspension means, it’s suspended from central supports, and each car or van or truck that rumbles over makes the concrete under your feet thrum. The other thing that always occurs to me when walking over it is just how much bottle it would take to jump off. I know that sounds warped, but it’s true. Imagine having the nerve to look down at that grey-brown swell of the Firth of Forth and managing to let go of the railing and just fall.

These are some of the ideas that kick around in my mind whenever I set eyes on the bridges. One day I was driving across it and imagined what I would do if I saw someone about to jump off. The pedestrian area is separated from the road, so even if I stopped my car, I wouldn’t be able to get across to the person. But what if I was walking and spotted someone about to jump. What then? And what if you talked them down, what then?

That’s when the crime writer’s brain really kicks into gear. The constant ‘what ifs’, the relentless desire to make things worse for your central characters, to throw everything you can at them and see how they cope.

So that’s exactly what I do in The Jump with my protagonist Ellie. She’s still grieving for her dead son who committed suicide off the bridge six months before the book opens. But in the opening few chapters she experiences just what I imagined – while walking across the bridge she sees another teenage boy about to jump.

From there, it’s a slippery slope. The Jump is not really a whodunit, but that’s fine by me. Whodunnits are only one of a million ways to keep the reader’s attention. Many of my favourite books are ones where you know who has committed the crimes right at the start, but you read on because you’re compelled to find out how things are going to pan out for the poor saps going being put through the mill by fate.

Hopefully that’s how readers will feel with Ellie and The Jump. Ellie is probably the most sympathetic central character I’ve written in all of my novels, but I deliberately make her do some pretty terrible things, and I hope that the reader is willing and able to go to those dark places with her. Fingers crossed.

The Jump by Doug Johnstone is out on 6th August (Faber & Faber, £12.99)


Doug Johnstone
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Story Behind the Book : Volume 5 - Essays on Writing & Editing Fiction

"Story Behind the Book: Volume 5" collects over 40 essays about writing and editing fiction by some of the finest contemporary authors. 

These essays reveal vibrant and tumultuous relationship between the author and its work, and candidly explore the process of putting the story together.

Includes the following essays:

  • Story behind "The Language of Dying" by Sarah Pinborough    
  • Story behind "The Age of Ice" by J.M. Sidorova    
  • Story behind "Invent10n" by Rod Rees    
  • Story behind "A Guide for the Perplexed" by Dara Horn    
  • Story behind "Unfashioned Creatures" by Lesley McDowell    
  • Story behind "The Heat of the Sun" by David Rain    
  • Story behind "Autodrome" by Kim Lakin Smith    
  • Story behind "Cemetery Girl" by Charlaine Harris    
  • Story behind "The Cold Nowhere" by Brian Freeman    
  • Story behind "Nocturnes and Other Nocturnes" by Claude Lalumiere    
  • Story behind "The Bookman's Tale" by Charlie Lovett    
  • Story behind "The Emperor of All Things" by Paul Witcover    
  • Story behind "The Office of Mercy" by Ariel Djanikian    
  • Story behind "Bedlam" by Christopher Brookmyre    
  • Story behind "Wolves" by Simon Ings    
  • Story behind "Arcanum" by Simon Morden    
  • Story behind "The Return" by Michael Gruber    
  • Story behind "The Everness series" by Ian McDonald    
  • Story behind "The Silence" by J. Sydney Jones    
  • Story behind "Delia's Shadow" by Jaime Lee Moyer    
  • Story behind "Ghosts" by Paul Kane    
  • Story behind "Monsters in the Heart" by Stephen Volk    
  • Story behind "Autumn" by David Moody    
  • Story behind "Nightlife" by Matthew Quinn Martin    
  • Story behind "The Winter Witch" by Paula Brackston    
  • Story behind "The Magus of Hay" by Phil Rickman    
  • Story behind "The Secrets of Life and Death" by Rebecca Alexander    
  • Story behind "Queen of Nowhere" by Jaine Fenn    
  • Story behind "Last to Rise" by Francis Knight    
  • Story behind "The Incrementalists" by Steven Brust and Skyler White    
  • Story behind "Scarlet Tides" by David Hair    
  • Story behind "Apollo Quartet 3 - Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above" by Ian Sales    
  • Story behind "Hive Monkey" by Gareth L. Powell    
  • Story behind "The Never War - The Suicide Exhibition" by Justin Richards    
  • Story behind "A Dance in Blood Velvet" by Freda Warrington    
  • Story behind "Dying Is My Business" by Nicholas Kaufmann    
  • Story behind "The Rainbow Man" by P.B. Kane
  • Story behind "Moon's Artifice" by Tom Lloyd
  • Story behind "Orcs: Bad Blood" by Stan Nicholls
  • Story behind "Monsters of the Earth" by David Drake
  • Story behind "To the Fifth Power" by Shirin Dubbin
  • Story behind "Only Superhuman" by Christopher L Bennett
  • Story behind "The Choir Boats" by Daniel Rabuzzi

All proceeds will be donated to Epilepsy Action
Edited by: Kristijan Meic, Ivana Steiner.

222 pages
5.06" x 7.81" (12.852 x 19.837 cm)
Black & White on White paper


Order your copy of Story Behind the Book: Volume 5 here:

The story behind Waterborne Exile by Susan Murray

As I embarked on Waterborne Exile I found myself in a situation I’d never been in before – I had a contract, a publisher waiting to receive the manuscript and a date by which to deliver it. I’d written a manuscript of publishable standard before, so I knew in theory I should be able to do it again. But I’d never, ever written a sequel before. What if The Waterborne Blade had been a complete fluke? My self-doubt ran rings round me for several days before I got a grip and worked out where I might start. I decided to limit myself to including only elements that had been referred to in the first book. I wanted to explore some of the established characters further, in particular to find out how much the nameless priestess was a product of her circumstances and how she might shape her own fate when beginning from a position of disadvantage. I’d left another character with a cliffhanger ending, so I had to resolve that in a plausible way, while some of the other characters would need to deal with the consequences of events in the first book. Recognisable shapes began to emerge from the brainfog and I was able to start putting words onto the page.

Just to add spice the the process, we had put our house on the market and I had to break off drafting every few days to prepare the house for viewers and show them round. This meant taking down the messy noticeboard – where I’d pinned a printout of the mindmap, a few pictures, the sketch map and synopses – and tucking it away out of sight so no one else could read my notes. It probably wouldn’t have mattered if anyone had turned up the corner of the post-it note with ‘REDSHIRT!’ scribbled across it and seen a character described as ‘One of the good guys’ underneath it. It probably wouldn’t have mattered at all, but still I did this every few days – I dismantled my work area and tidied the desk and then put all the creative, messy stuff back afterwards, because I might need to refer to it. Progress felt painfully slow with this book – I had been used to drafting 2,000 words or more in a session in the carefree days before publishing contracts and agents and expectations – but now I was lucky if I generated a thousand words a day. It was winter, so I took to working in the lightest part of the house to see if that would help boost output as I tackled some dark themes, but progress continued to be hard-won.

I had to set Waterborne Exile aside at Christmas as editorial notes arrived for The Waterborne Blade and I resumed work at the end of January more or less at the same time as our intended house purchase was complicated out of existence by what we refer to in our household as the Chicken Shed of Doom. After a month away from the manuscript I needed to reread it before getting back to work and it was an immense relief to discover it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d imagined. Fast forward a couple of months, and the relief was greater still when my editor accepted the finished piece. Now I’m embarking on what I hope will be the third and final book in the series. After all, I’ve completed a publishable book before, and a publishable sequel, so it must be time to find out just how hard it is to wind up an epic fantasy trilogy with that elusive third book…


Susan Murray
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The story behind Kitty Peck and the Child of Ill-Fortune by Kate Griffin

As a child I thought it was wildly romantic that my mother’s family lived in Limehouse at the back end of the 19th century. They were proper Victorians, I thought, just like the ones off the telly!

I’d like to be able to say that a precocious appreciation of a Moroccan-bound, boxed set of the collected works of Dickens was the inspiration for my books set in the London of the 1880s, but I have to admit that it was probably the box balanced on a G-Plan cabinet in the corner of our orange and brown living room.

I blame the weather: it seemed to rain a lot during the late 1970s. During the summer holidays, as I basked in the flickering glow of the cathode ray tube while the garden turned to a swamp and moss grew on the Space Hopper, my idea of how my antecedents must have lived was formed, largely, by watching TV for hours on end.

In days of yore – that’s back in the day - the BBC stopped broadcasting after lunch, but over on ITV a selection of black and white period films filled the gap between Mavis Nicholson and Magpie. I watched them all, over and over again, a televisual diet of mild jingoism, casual racism, alarming sexism and eye-popping violence. All before teatime.

From my extensive viewing, it seemed to me that Victorian London was a city of swirling fogs, galloping horses, gas-lit alleys and cloaked criminal masterminds. It was a beautifully dressed, lavishly mounted and compulsively watchable stage where sweet-faced, angel-voiced ingénues met grisly fates at the hands of unspeakable, but nicely dressed, villains.

In short, it was a wonderfully theatrical, completely artificial world where right always triumphed and the shadow of the hangman’s noose dangled satisfyingly over the closing credits to show that the wicked got their just deserts.

I had a particular fondness for anything produced by Gainsborough Studios and starring James Mason – Fanny by Gaslight was particular favourite. In addition, Basil Rathbone’s monochrome Hollywood incarnation of the great detective, Sherlock Holmes, was a regular post-lunch pleasure. When my father relented to pressure and rented a new TV, the multi-coloured, if not multi-cultural, London of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, brought thrillingly to the screen by Christopher Lee, cemented a newly vibrant and decadent image of Limehouse and the East End into my mind that was difficult to shift.

My mum came from a large, close-knit family and nearly every Sunday there was a raucous gathering of the clan. When I looked at my grandmother - a small and sturdily pragmatic woman only ever glimpsed out of her floral housecoat at weddings, christenings and funerals – I found myself thinking about her childhood. Born in 1898 and raised in St Anne Street, smack in the heart of Limehouse, I wondered if her early life had ever resembled the world I’d seen on screen – the glorious, gaudy confection of cobbled streets, rumbling hackney carriages, music halls, opium dens and fan tan gambling parlours?

The answer is a guarded yes, and, of course, no.

I often wish I’d asked nan (that’s we all called her) more about her own childhood – her real childhood, I mean, not the one I imagined. I never got the chance during all those Sunday lunches. There was something about the jut of her chin as she doggedly boiled those cabbages into a sludge of submission that suggested memory lane was the very last place she wanted to visit.

I’ve noticed that many people who have reached a mid point in life become interested in the history of their families. It’s especially true, I think, of those who are childless, perhaps because they know they are a sort of end point in a line. I don’t have children and I certainly recognise that impulse in myself.

When my mum died a decade ago, another link with the past was broken. I bitterly regretted that hadn’t asked her more about her own childhood and the stories passed down to her. It was a catalyst and I started to talk to much older cousins who are the current guardians of the family ‘archive’. In fact, I sought them out determined not to allow my personal history to slip even further from my grasp. Luckily they were happy to share their knowledge and research.

Any romantic illusions I ever harboured about my Limehouse roots were firmly dispelled when I was given a photograph of the residents of St Anne Street taken in about 1909. My youthful grandmother is there along with assorted siblings and my great grandmother. The smiling faces and bold postures presented to the camera cannot hide the fact that these people were poor.

Over to the right of the image the faded face of my great-grandmother is sad-eyed and exhausted. It’s not surprising she looks defeated. Even though she was probably in her mid-40s when the photograph was taken, her life had been almost unbearably hard. Widowed with several children to support she had to find a way to feed them and keep them together under a single roof.

In the closing days of Queen Victoria’s reign, my tiny great grandmother (women aren’t tall in my family, I’m only 4ft 10ins and she was even smaller!) queued at the docks for casual shift work every morning alongside men who were twice her size and half her age. No wonder she looks like a shadowy wraith in that photograph; she was literally wearing away.

More prompting revealed atmospheric family tales that echoed my fantasy: visits to the music halls to see favourites Marie Lloyd, Vesta Tilley, Albert Chevalier and Little Titch; the Chinese men with the pigtails who lived three houses down; my grandmother and her two sisters lying awake in a shared bed frightened by the eerie sound of the wind whistling through the ropes of the tall-masted ships moored on the Thames.

Nothing, however, could hide the fact that the Limehouse of my childhood imagination bore about as much resemblance to the streets where my family actually lived as a dish of lobster Thermidor to a mug of jellied eels.

I began the first book in the Kitty Peck series in 2013 as my entry to the Faber and Faber / Stylist Magazine crime fiction competition. Although I’d worked as a journalist for years and latterly in PR, I’d never written fiction before and I wanted to test myself. The only rule was that entries should feature ‘a strong female protagonist’.

I was certain I knew what the judges, who included Ruth Rendell, would be looking for – a woman in a tough contemporary setting, someone juggling an impossible life with a demanding job, probably in the police force. Something a little bit edgy, dark with a hint of Scandi maybe?

I sat down, opened my lap tap and stared at the screen.

Two hours later I had written a scene set in Limehouse towards the end of the 19th century. To be honest I was astounded, but I recognised the richly inventive cockney speech patterns of my mum’s family, the aching poverty, the squalor of the cobbled streets and the stench of human waste tumbling through those foggy passages. I also the recognised the heightened reality, melodrama, glamour and romance of those films that riveted me to the sofa through those rainy afternoons in the 1970s.

Kitty Peck’s world is my homage to my family and the almost Proustian power of the B-movie.


Kate Griffin
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REVIEW : When the Moon Is Low by Nadia Hashimi

 

These days I am seeing immigrants everywhere. Those poor souls that were forced to leave their homes for fleeting chance at a better chance of better life in Europe. It soul shattering seeing so many hopeless young people and knowing that their dreams probably won't come true. Nadia Hashimi's powerful and evocative "When the Moon Is Low" explores this theme in the only possible way. With compassion and understanding. It is one of those rare book that has the tendency to go straight for the heart of the reader, never to release its firm grip until the final full stop. Not dissimilar to her debut, "The Pearl That Broke Its Shell", "When the Moon Is Low" is often hard to read and yet, behind all of the agony and sadness, it is a celebration of the strength of the human spirit told through the prism of some of the most harrowing experiences imaginable.

"When the Moon Is Low" charts Taliban rise to power through the eyes of an ordinary people. Before their country is thrown in the chaos of war, Mahmoud, a civil engineer working for the Ministry of Water and Electricity and his beloved wife Fereiba, a schoolteacher, lived a comfortable and slightly boring middle-class life in Kabul. It all changes when one day suddenly authorities come for Mahmoud. Ultimately, he is murdered by the fundamentalist regime, and Fereiba is forced to flee the city, together with her three children. In an act of desperation, she is forced to undertake a perilous journey from Iran to Europe, all in hope of reaching her sister's family which lives in England. Her voyage there is marked by profound desperation to stay together and to survive. In all of the despicable evil, there are occasional glimpses of kindness which give everyone hope and strength to continue, even as the odds are increasingly stacked against them. Once she arrives in Greece using false documents, bribed and sheer determination, Fereiba's troubles are only just beginning as her son Saleem is separated from her and she's forced to make an impossible decision. She has to continue going forward and leave him behind, if she wants to have a slightest chance of saving her other children and herself.

Hashimi masterfully builds her story by using two contrasting realities - one before the Taliban and one after they came and ruined everything. "When the Moon Is Low" is a heart-wrenchingly sad tale that will leave you breathless and will often reduce you to tears. More importantly, it will definitely change the way you look at all the immigrants arriving on European shores on daily basis. Perhaps you will even manage to gain a deeper understanding of their desperation and their need for better life, and give them a chance. "When the Moon Is Low" is an important and a topical book, especially in these times where media is so quick to judge everything and immigrant-phobia is hitting an all-time high. I can't recommend it enough.


Review copy provided by HarperCollins
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REVIEW : Steeple by Jon Wallace

 

"Barricade" by Jon Wallace was one of those reasons why it is always worth to give new authors a chance, even at a time when your favourite author has just published a veritable door-stopper that you are just gasping to read. To put it bluntly, Jon Wallace's debut was a proper statement of intent. An opening that promised a lengthy career filled with equally exciting rides. Needless to say, I was rather excited about “Steeple”, a next installment in the series which promised more adventures with Kenstibec set in the dystopian madcap version of Britain that Wallace built around him.

For those who have missed "Barricade" (shame on you!), the main protagonist of the series is a slightly psychotic individual named Kenstibec. He's a member of the Ficials - a genetically engineered human who after failing to fulfill his true purpose works as a taxi driver driving around his enemies. Understandably, he's often a cynical and bitter character blessed with a wicked sense of humour. In "Steeple" Kenstibec is dealing with consequences of his actions and is dead set to save his own life after the tech that kept him alive is finally starting to fail. To do that, he must climb a towering hulk looming over London which, if the legend holds true, contains a mysterious treasure. A thousand storey tower is called Steeple, and Ken undertakes this desperate quest together with it associates Fate and Bridget. It's a mission filled with peril and quite unlike anything else he has encountered so far. His journey is filled with claustrophobic crawlspaces and dangerous impossible creatures such as another murderous Ficial and an occasional cannibal. Similarly to "Barricade", "Steeple" revolves around a journey. However, this time around, the story itself is rather more self-contained which is ultimately a good thing because it provides plenty of opportunity for character development and introspection without any need to sacrifice the action packet sequences.



"Steeple" is just like its predecessor an absolutely furious affair. It finished way too fast and too early for my liking but that is really not a serious complaint because "Steeple" is in almost everything superior to "Barricade". For starters, Wallace's Britain is finally showing its true colour. It is a strange place that only a twisted mind could think off. There is a hidden, new found depth in the overall setting and evident hints of a bigger picture that will probably reveal itself in the future. Even Ken's dark sense of humour comes with a fresh nuance to it so he's becoming more likable even as he's becoming more sinister.

To conclude, as was the case with "Barricade", the biggest problem with "Steeple" is the wait that you have to endure once you're done with it. Next one, please?


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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The story behind In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward

Like most debut authors, when I came to write my first crime novel I drew on an experience from my past. It’s often a small incident, something that remains perpetually unexplained, that provides the impetus to finally start the book you’d always wanted to write.

Walking to school one day in 1982, I was asked by a woman driving past to post a letter for her. She then tried to force me into her car. I was a fairly hefty schoolgirl and streetwise. There was no way I was getting into a strangers vehicle. But the incident stayed with me for years. I never told anyone because I was ashamed and embarrassed But I always wondered, probably morbidly, what would have happened if I had got into the car. "In Bitter Chill" opens with two schoolgirls encountering the same incident but taking up the offer of a lift. I thought it more likely that two girls would get into a stranger’s car and I also made the children younger than I had been, eight years old rather than twelve. I think at that age you still have a trust of adults that disappears when you reach adolescence.

In my novel, later that day one of the girls, Rachel, is found alive but is unable to remember anything of her kidnapping. The other girl, Sophie, remains missing which has a devastating impact on the local community. I grew up in a small town where there was one high school, a small shopping precinct and one doctor’s surgery. You couldn’t walk down the road without encountering someone you knew. A child’s kidnapping could devastate a small town such as this and I wanted to portray how a community could draw in on itself after such a catastrophe.

My protagonist, Rachel, is the child who was found alive in the 1970s and has grown up and become a genealogist. I find family history fascinating and am particularly interested in the matrilineal line and stories which pass down from mother to daughter. It’s a part of genealogy that can be overlooked because the names of women, if they marry, change each generation. The emphasis on the female line also allowed me to explore another preoccupation of mine. I’m convinced that women can be very good keepers of secrets. "In Bitter Chill" suggests that Rachel has inadvertently chosen a profession that holds the key to why she and Sophie were kidnapped.

But I also chose genealogy as a profession for Rachel because I love the idea of a private detective unpicking the clues of a mystery. But they’re hopelessly unrealistic: most of us have never encountered a PI in real life. However, there are a number of professions that have, at their heart, the skills of an investigator. I think that a genealogist is one such career and Rachel has all the talents that can help unravel what happened to her in the past.

"In Bitter Chill" is set in the Derbyshire landscape. I wanted to reflect the severity of the winters where I live but I didn’t want the setting to be a bolt-on to the narrative. Rather, I like to think the story couldn’t be set anywhere else. The idea of a frozen landscape also reflects the bleakness of how a mother might feel if her child remains forever missing. Landscape and story are inextricably linked. But Derbyshire doesn’t remain cold all year round. In my next book, we move onto spring and the challenges that this season brings. A warmer climate but, perhaps, more fragile.


Sarah Ward
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REVIEW : Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

 

The only possible way to approach "Go Set a Watchman", an impossible book that completely unexpectedly saw the light of day a week ago, is to learn something of its strange history. Despite depicting events that happen decades after Harper Lee's landmark, and until now, the only published novel "To Kill a Mockingbird", "Go Set a Watchman" was actually written before the former. It originally remained unpublished mainly due to the efforts of Tay Hohoff, an editor at JB Lippincott, who recognized what was really at the heart of the novel and asked Lee to rewrite the book before the publication. Lee went away and came back with "To Kill a Mockingbird", a very different book to its predecessor. From that point, "Go Set a Watchman" was instantly forgotten, its manuscript was lost and the rest is part of the literary history. That is, until now. The circumstances surrounding the discovery of a long-lost manuscript for "Go Set a Watchman" are still shrouded in mystery and provide a fertile ground for conspiracy theorists. They occasionally read like an implausible story concocted by Dan Brown and yet, I am holding a copy in my hand and the fact simply beggars belief. Apparently, the manuscript was accidentally found in a Lee's safe by her lawyer Tonja Carter. To make things even stranger, Carter stumbled upon the very same papers years ago but ignored them, thinking they were just another early draft of Mockingbird. Recent reports mention the existence of another, partially finished manuscript of unknown origin so we might still be in for a surprise or two.

Things become even more surreal when you actually start reading "Go Set a Watchman" and try to compare it to "To Kill a Mockingbird". The transformation from one to another is simply unfeasible. While former is told in third person and depicts Atticus Finch as old and racist, as you probably know, the later changes the entire focus of the story and gives him an unforgettable voice - a voice capable of changing the entire society for better. It is especially bizarre reading how all across the board the story flows together with its successor. It almost like its publication was planned. More surprisingly, it is staggering how strongly it resonates with the current racially charged events in the USA. The disillusionment of its characters stands in stark contrast to the hope of "To Kill a Mockingbird".

I have read on more than occasion that the publication of "Go Set a Watchman" takes away a bit of the shine from the wonder and the phenomena that "To Kill a Mockingbird" had as a single published work by Harper Lee but that is clearly rubbish. Lee never pretended to be a one-book woman. There exists at least another few of her manuscripts that were never published because she simply wasn't satisfied with any of them, and basically didn't want the furore that came with fame and publicity. This pressure was the main reason she became a recluse and she has been escaping its grasp for ages. There's "The Long Goodbye" and a factual book about an Alabama serial murderer to mention two. As such, "Go Set a Watchman" an important historical literary document. It is definitely not a book that has the ability to surpass "To Kill a Mockingbird" and at worst it is a curiosity that gives an unique glimpse into the creative process of one of the most important and secretive literary authors of our times. At best, it is simply wonderful. As the publisher rightly says, it exists to bring fuller and richer understanding of its author and her beloved characters.


Review copy provided by HarperCollins
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The story behind Friends in High Places by Caro Peacock

Emperor Napoleon’s nephew invades France on a Thames steamer.
Cross dressing woman opera singer runs spy network.
Liberty Lane investigates murder.

Of these, only the third is completely untrue. Liberty Lane is my early Victorian investigator, and fictional. But Prince Louis Napoleon really did attempt a coup in France in 1840, hiring a steamer in London and landing at Boulogne with fifty armed supporters and a tame eagle (or possibly a vulture) on board. The attempt failed and he was imprisoned, though he did go on to become president, then emperor, of France eight years later, but that’s another story. As for the operatic spy, she was real too, a friend and quite probably lover of the prince. Her name was Madam Gordon, and she was born Eleonore Brault, daughter of an officer in Emperor Napoleon’s army. She was tall, beautiful, a good swordswoman, ruthless in the prince’s interests and according to one biographical source was his secret agent in both London and Paris. I’ve added some episodes to her life for the purposes of this book, but none beyond her talents and interests.

Writing historical crime novels is, for me, a balancing act between real events and fiction. My main character, Liberty Lane, is a young lady from a politically radical background who finds herself alone, with a living to earn, and discovers a talent for investigation. I tend to alternate the books between cases where she is involved in real historial events – like the aftermath of Prince Louis’ failed coup – and more domestic ones. For both,when I start thinking about a book I’m usually aware of the year and the month when the action will take place – sometimes not much more than that - and often start by looking at newspapers of the period. Partly that may be professional habit because I was a journalist before I wrote books. Of course many nineteenth century newspapers are now available on line, but I like to find libraries where they keep the papers themselves. Turning the pages of a newspaper that somebody would have read at breakfast in the time you’re writing about gives a real sense of immediacy. I had a dim memory of Prince Louis’ invasion attempt from history lessons a long time ago, but looking at it again, it seemed such a wonderful mixture of courage, bungling and sheer farce that I knew I wanted Liberty to be involved somehow. The problem was that she couldn’t be part of the attempt itself because at the time Louis was taking to his steamer, she was working on a case in Gloucestershire (in The Path of the Wicked). But the repercussions went on for some time, so I invented two refugees who’d escaped arrest after the attempt at Boulogne and got back to London. One takes refuge with an aristocratic friend of Liberty’s, who is naturally annoyed to find him hanging by the neck from her loft. That aristocratic friend, Lady Blessington, is another real character with a past so colourful it would have been hard to invent. And Benjamin Disraeli, at this time still only an ambitious MP, makes an appearance as he does in most of my Liberty Lane books.

One of the things that became clear as I was writing is that London in the 1840s had resemblances to the London of today. It was a lively time in Europe, with revolutions threatening all over the place, and London had become a refuge for exiles, plotters and malcontents of all kinds. This naturally led to a dense network of spies, with the various interests keeping watch on each other and a still fairly new Metropolitan Police force doing its best to keep up. As Madam Gordon says: ‘It would be a positive insult not to be spied on by two or three of them at least.’

My rule is, when writing about real historical characters, not to have them behave worse in my fiction than they did in real life. In Friends in High Places that still gives me quite a lot of latitude.

Website: www.caropeacock.co.uk
Twitter: @CaroPeacock


Caro Peacock
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The story behind Code Grey by Clea Simon

In “Code Grey,” the ninth Dulcie Schwartz mystery, my heroine, Dulcie, is back once again in the library. It’s spring break, but she’s so close to finishing her doctoral dissertation that she can taste it. With her boyfriend and all her buddies out of town for the week, Dulcie figures she can focus on work: the research and writing that will, she hopes, get her the PhD in Gothic literature she’s been woring toward for more than five years.

It’s not like she’s going to be lonely. In addition to her cat Esmé (aka the Principessa Esmeralda), she can also count on the support and companionship of Mr Grey – the ghost of her late, great cat who returns from time to time to advice and comfort her. Only, on her way to the library, Dulcie runs into a disheveled former scholar. And when he ends up in the hospital and accused of stealing a rare book, Dulcie – and Mr Grey – are honorbound to speak out.

The Dulcie Schwartz series, with its ongoing involvement in both cats and academia with a touch of paranormal, might seem like an unlikely matchup. But the series, which started with “Shades of Grey,” was prompted by a real-life incident, one which I’ve never been able to explain.

Like Dulcie, I think of myself as supremely rational. No, I’m not a graduate student (as she is), but like her, I’m an inveterate bookworm. Also, like her, I’ve settled in my university town and love the research resources that I can delve into to enrich my personal and fictional literary lives. And like Dulcie, I spent most of my single years in the company of one very special cat, Cyrus.

My Cyrus – the model for the series’ Mr Grey – was a grey long-hair, with a face more Siamese than Persian, and an uncanny ability to suss out my moods. He would be playful when I needed amusing, quietly comforting when I needed nothing more than someone purring at my side. And when I was trying to work out a problem – in my fledgling love life or career – he would fix me with his cool green eyes as if he were both trying very hard to understand me and also to communicate. He would have had very wise things to say, I’m quite sure, if he could have just bridged that species communications gap.

He lived to the ripe old age of 16, and after he was gone, I missed him terribly. But life went on – and I tried to incorporate that sense of calm wisdom. Not that I was very good at it, and one day, as I was rushing off to a job interview, for which I was already late, I was sure I saw him. He was a very particular-looking cat, so distinguished, and there he was, sitting on the stoop of a house not far from me. It was him. It had to be him – but I was late, and the adult choice was to keep going, although I was curious what he had to say to me. After the interview, I went back and searched for him – or for any cat who might faintly resemble him. I never found him, and I became convinced that Cyrus had appeared to tell me something, if only I had the wit to know what. I do not remember if I got that job.

What I did get was a driving desire to write a story in which a young woman sees her late, beloved pet one more time. And that he does speak to her, warning her that something terrible has happened….

That’s been the driving theme behind the Dulcie Schwartz series: books and cats and a good mystery. Not too bloody – we wouldn’t want to scare the cats – but with some good puzzles to keep us reading. Ideally, with a warm cat right near by.

Clea Simon writes the Pru Marlowe pet noir and Dulcie Schwartz feline mysteries. She can be found at www.cleasimon.com and on Twitter @Clea_Simon.


Clea Simon
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