Historical fiction is really my thing – really, really my thing – so I was thrilled to be asked to take part in a blog tour for M. J Carter’s latest Blake and Avery mystery, The Devil’s Feast. By happy coincidence, I was treated for my last birthday to a fantastic reading spa at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights (I have the best friend EVER) and The Strangler Vine, the first Blake and Avery novel, was one of the recommendations that I ended up buying. Having read that, I can’t wait to get stuck into The Devil’s Feast, but for today, Miranda has written a piece for us about her transition from historian to historical fiction writer.
I am so not a natural storyteller. I started out writing non-fiction, I am an historian by training and passion, and in the biographies and histories I wrote I never had to worry about what was going to happen next.
Then, about fifteen years ago, I had an idea for a Victorian detective, a world-weary working-class guy, brilliantly clever—much cleverer than his superiors, a lone sceptic seeing through the cant and injustice of Victorian England, but forced to kowtow to those above him because he has to earn a living. I knew just where I wanted to put him, in London in the 1840s, the first decade of Victoria’s reign, an amazing city full of surprises, in a time of tumultuous change, amazing inventions, and terrible poverty. A vision had popped into my head of my protagonist going to visit a witness named Charlie Marks in seedy lodgings in Dean Street in Soho. The conversation starts and gradually we realise that this witness, with his huge beard, constantly complaining about the boils on his bottom, is none other than Karl Marx himself. I’d recently read Francis Wheen’s biography of Marx and it had painted a portrait of a raffish, often irresponsible character, who suffered dreadfully from boils on his bum.
Marx only arrived in London in 1849, and so far in my books my protagonist Jeremiah Blake (as he ended up being named) and his sidekick William Avery have only got to 1842 so they’ve a way to go yet, but this first idea started me off thinking about how I could mix real historical figures with my fictional characters, and that all sorts of very surprising people ended up in London during this period, and one could have a lot of fun with that.
Where had all this come from? My incessant history reading, of course. Anyway, the idea sloshed around in my head for years. I had a character and a set-up. But I was worried I wouldn’t be able to do plot. I’d never been a natural at making stuff up, how would I manage now? The key proved, of course, to be my old mainstay, my history reading and research.
I’m never happier than when I’m researching —basically being paid (a bit) to read books and find out about things, and I’ve always been good at gathering a lot of information very quickly. I’d say that historical research kick-starts every plot idea and bump I have.
The idea for my first book came to me when I was reading about colonial India and the Thugs, the bandit gangs who befriended, then strangled, unwitting travellers on the roads of India. I read about the British officer who succeeded in crushing them, and the fact that now there is a fierce debate among historians about whether the Thugs ever really existed, or were a convenient British fabrication. Ah! I had the plot of my first thriller: The Strangler Vine. My second, The Printer’s Coffin, came out of a book I came upon by chance at the London Library about the democracy- and freedom-of-speech campaigners and revolutionaries of the 1820s, who all ended up either selling pornography, and blackmailing in London’s red-light district in the 1840s or publishing gossip mags that blackmailed their subjects.
The third, my new book, The Devil’s Feast, came out of two things. Firstly, reading about Alexis Soyer, the first great celebrity chef, who cooked at the Reform club in the 1840s. His kitchens were so cutting edge and amazing, that people paid to take the tour, and the papers called him ‘the Napoleon of food.’ Secondly, the fact that the 1840s were the beginning of the Victorian ‘fashion’ for poisoning—there were 98 murder trials involving poison over the decade, all of them gleefully covered by the press.
No, I’m not what you’d call a natural storyteller. But when I’m stuck these days I know where to go, back to my history books.
Huge thanks to Miranda for that – The Devils’s Feast is published on 27th October by Penguin.
The Devil’s Feast
London, 1842. There has been a mysterious and horrible death at the Reform, London’s newest and grandest gentleman’s club. A death the club is desperate to hush up.
Captain William Avery is persuaded to investigate, and soon discovers a web of rivalries and hatreds, both personal and political, simmering behind the club’s handsome façade – and in particular concerning its resident genius, Alexis Soyer, ‘the Napoleon of food’, a chef whose culinary brilliance is matched only by his talent for self-publicity.
But Avery is distracted. Where is his mentor and partner-in-crime Jeremiah Blake? And what if this first death was only a dress rehearsal for something far more sinister?
The blog tour for The Devil’s Feast continues this week, details below, so please do check out some more of the fantastic content Miranda has written…