London, June 1914. A young man is mauled to death at London Zoo after deliberately climbing into the bear pit. Shortly afterwards, another young man leaps to his death from the notorious Suicide Bridge. Two seemingly unconnected deaths – and yet there are similarities.
Following a third attempted suicide, Detective Inspector Silas Quinn knows he must uncover the link between the three men if he is to discover what caused them to take their own lives. The one tangible piece of evidence is a card found in each of the victims’ possession, depicting a crudely-drawn red hand. What does it signify? To find the answers, Quinn must revisit his own dark past. But can he keep his sanity in the process …?
Good morning one and all! I’m very happy today to be taking part in a blog tour for R. N. Morris’ latest Silas Quinn novel, The Red Hand of Fury. Roger has been kind enough to answer a few questions about his historical crime novel.
Writing historical fiction and not spoiling the narrative flow by cramming in every note of your research is definitely a skill – how do you balance historical fact within your writing, or is it just a Dark Art??
I’m not sure it’s a Dark Art, but it is something I’m consciously trying to achieve. I think there are two sides to historical research. The first is to give the writer the confidence to actually start writing the story. What you’re trying to do is absorb as much as you can about the period so that you build up a feel for what it must have been like to be alive at that time. I read general histories, biographies, diaries, memoirs, newspapers from the archives, as well as novels of the period, written at the time. I allowed three months for this and during that time I didn’t attempt any writing at all. I was just taking things in. I read on a Kindle so I was highlighting things that caught my eye. Then I put that all to one side and started writing. Very rarely will I go back and check something – or think I have to work in a particularly fascinating detail that I picked up. Now it’s all about the story. But then what happens is as you write the story you come up against specific things that you need to know about. So this is the second side of the research, because you’re looking for something very specific, chasing some descriptive detail down or some fact that is important to your story. For me it’s always about the story, that has to come first. Along the way there are fascinating snippets that I’m just not able to include. That’s just the way it is.
There is a focus on mental health in the novel – how did you go about researching mental health ‘care’ in the early 20th Century?
I began by reading a history of the Colney Hatch Asylum where much of the story is set. I also read accounts of patients’ experiences in other asylums in England at the same period, but also I read as much as I could about the history of psychiatric care. One book in particular, “Madness in Civilization: The Cultural History of Insanity” by Andrew Scull, was extremely helpful. For me it’s also important to build up a visual idea of the setting, so the photographs in these books and online were often as useful as the texts. It was also interesting to visit the Colney Hatch hospital site as it is today. It has been converted into a block of luxury flats – it even counts a number of pop stars among its residents. I’m not sure I could live in such a building, however tastefully refurbished it was.
Did you find anything that really shocked you in the treatment of mental health patients in this period?
Lots! Things like deliberately inducing insulin comas in patients (who were not diabetic) as a method of calming them down and controlling them. Perhaps the most bizarre thing I discovered was that an American psychiatrist called Cotton believed that all mental illnesses had a single physiological cause – a germ of madness, if you like. This germ spread through the bloodstream and poisoned the brain. The ‘cure’ was to surgically remove the source of the infection, which he initially believed to be the teeth and tonsils. But when this didn’t really work he whipped out stomachs, spleens, cervixes and colons. He claimed this cured up to 85 per cent of the mad. It’s hard to believe now, but his theories were taken seriously and he had his followers around the world, including England. I don’t want to give too much away but Cotton was the medical director of New Jersey State Hospital at Trenton from 1907 to 1930, so he was active during the period of the book. Not to give too much away, I speculate that some of the doctors at Colney Hatch might have heard of his theories.
What inspired you to set the Silas Quinn books in the early 20th Century?
I was really interested in writing something set just before the outbreak of the First World War, because for me that event seems to be a turning point in history. Nothing was the same ever again. All the horrors of the twentieth century are just around the corner, so that we tend to think of the eve of the war as an age of innocence almost. In a way, the events of the novel serve as a dramatic foreshadowing of what is to come. The war unleashed catastrophic slaughter on an industrial scale, death, destruction, horrific injuries, psychological trauma – it’s almost as if the world went mad. I wanted to juxtapose that with an exploration of individual madness and a series of bizarre and violent crimes that are on a more human scale. The beginning of the twentieth century is an amazing time too, with so much happening in every sphere of activity: politics, art, society, literature, music. You pretty much have the birth of the film industry, mass entertainment, mass communication, consumerism, urban living, alienation… It’s a very fertile field for a historical novelist, especially one specialising in historical crime fiction.
Will Silas Quinn return??
Yes! I’m working on the next book right now. It’s due to be published in 2019. And by the way, there are other books in the series available. The last time I looked the first book, Summon Up The Blood, was 99p or $1.33 on Kindle. Amazon change their prices so that may have gone up by the time you read this, but hopefully it should still be reasonably priced. Apologies for the blatant sales pitch!
Many thanks Roger for taking the time to answer my questions!
My full review of The Red Hand of Fury will follow outside of the tour, but it was definitely my cup of tea! The tour is still ongoing, so please do check out some of the fab blogs below for more exclusive content and reviews.