Today I'm excited to share an interview with historical crime author D.E. Meredith, creator of the Hatton and Roumande mysteries.
What first motivated you to start crime writing?
It wasn’t so much motivated to write as a complete weird out of body experience to be honest. I had NO motivate to write. I was between contracts for Greenpeace. I had a month or so down time and just start tapping at my computer after reading a book by a C19th naturalist in a very stream of conscious way never expecting it to be anything, never mind a story and somehow – the book just started to happen. I wrote a page, then another page and so it went on until I suddenly found I had 100k and then I landed an agent and then it sort of meant that that was what I was suddenly doing. Not working for Greenpeace but crafting stories. Writing is a very organic process, I think. Though I am now much more structured and sit down every day to write between the same hours and stick to a 5 day a week, weekends off approach. In other words, I try to approach it like a job.
Why did you decide that Victorian London would be the best setting for your novels?
I got really interested in the development of C19th natural science (the cutting up of animals) and wondered if forensics ( including the cutting up of victims to help solve crimes) had got going in this period. To my surprise, I discovered that many tests still used today – the Marsh Test for detecting arsenic in body tissue, for example and finger printing were discovered as early as the 1840s and 1850s. Increased knowledge in chemistry, improved photographic techniques and most importantly, better clarity of lenses and the invention of new powerful microscopes, taken together all meant the Victorians very much paved the way for the forensic work across the board. And there’s the obvious influence in my novels with Sherlock Holmes and Dickens, of course. All those gas lit, foggy alleys in the bad lands of Victorian London – what’s not to love?
Did you visit any interesting locations to feature in the stories?
Sadly I didn’t manage to get to Borneo to research Devoured (I wish) but I did go on a tour of Highgate Cemetery which features in The Devils Ribbon and it was an amazing experience – well worth the visit. Smithfield features in both of my books as Professor Hatton lives and works there, so I have spent a lot of time stomping around that bit of town. Every road, every Victorian building in the city is an inspiration. London is C19th time machine – the underground, the embankment, Covent Garden, so many gin places and amazing pubs, Smithfield meat market, Fleur de Lys in Spitalfields, the Houses of Parliament, Waterloo Station – the Victorians built so much and miraculously, it’s all still there.
There is a high level of detail in your stories, especially with the forensics. How did you go about researching for your books?
I read as many books as I could lay my hands on early forensic science (much of it quite obscure) and spent quite a bit of time at The Welcome Trust, the Science Museum and also The Hunterian Museum, home of John Hunter’s surgical collection from the C18th and onwards which is an amazing archive of medical, especially surgical history. I also used the internet for very specific information and immersed myself in general books on the Victorians. Knowing about forensics wasn’t enough. I had to get the minute detail bang on so I left no stone unturned, to (fact checking stuff to death – excuse the pun – after the initial two or three drafts were completed). Research is an ongoing process when you’re writing a series. It’s vital to create an authentic world as you can – something the reader can truly believe - when you are writing historical fiction.
Is there a particular area of forensics that you are interested in?
Pathology. Without question. The Victorians paved the way for modern medicine, pain relief, cures for so many diseases, as well as the science of forensics. We owe them so much. The Devils Ribbon opens with an exploration of what they knew about cholera in the 1850s. There was still the widely held belief that this killer disease was carried in bad air they called “miasma” but great men like John Snow and William Farrah – two extraordinary Victorian men – discovered it was caused by hand to mouth infection from dirty water. And thus avoidable. And eventually, curable.
Devoured tells of the science scene in Victorian London; specimen-collecting, the emergence of forensics and other fledgling discoveries. Was there any real-life inspiration that helped shape that side of the story?
I picked up a travelogue called The Malay Archipelago by the great C19th natural scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace and felt an immediate and visceral connection with a man who had led are far more exotic lifestyle than any of us could ever imagined. This was a time went travel meant travel. In the 1860s it took months to reach the remote jungles of Borneo. There was no suez canal or Ryan air – thank God. But Alfred Russel Wallace was the brilliant, self educated man who rolled up his sleeves and got on with the job. He was fearless, travelling to some of the most exotic and far flung places on earth. He made his living by cataloguing, trapping and selling exotic flora and fauna to send home to rich Victorian clients, feeding the craze for exotic species which had gone crazy by the mid C19th. Many of his finds – vast collections hummingbirds, beetles, butterflies – can be seen at the Natural History Museum today. Alfred Russel Wallace was a man obsessed by the wonders of the world and was a more prolific collector of flora and fauna than even Darwin. And his studying of the exotic inspired his contribution to the theory of evolution. It also inspired the letter section in Devoured.
Are the characters of Hatton &Roumande based on real people?
I wish they were but they are totally made up. But they feel real to me now – like old friends, in fact.
The Devil’s Ribbon has links to Ireland and politics? What made you choose that subject theme for the second Hatton &Roumande mystery?
My mother is Irish and I’ve always been fascinated by that side of my family history. I needed a story idea for the next in my Hatton and Roumande series which is set in the 1850s. So I thought about the Irish famine (at the end of the 1840s) and as part of my research, I read a book called, The Great Hunger by Cecil Woodham-Smith and the material was so shocking, the history of the famine so heart-rending, and the political landscape so enthralling (the birth of the IRA), the story pretty much wrote itself.
Has your background – campaigning for conservation and your time overseas with the British Red Cross – influenced your writing?
My work allowed me to travel even further afield to some of the remotest spots on earth – the jungles of Cambodia, the mist tipped mountains of Rwanda and Burundi, Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush. I was mesmerised by the markets of Phnom Penh, Chicken Street with its bright blue lumps of lapis lazuli and Persian carpets in Kabul, the basket weaving and batiks in the Congo, lumps of amber in Siberia as well of course, by the weird and wonderful landscapes and cultures of all these places. So it wasn’t really a surprise, that a book by a great explorer inspired my initial entrée into writing. That and a sense of justice. I have always had a career in campaigning and writing wrongs. Leading the Red Cross landmines campaign, being witness to the Rwandan genocide, working for organisations who were fighting governments and companies to stop wrecking the planet. Whilst I don’t write didactic novels, or eco thrillers, it’s true that I do explore similar themes in my book. The natural world in Devoured. Whilst famine in Ireland was considered to be an attempt at genocide by the English against the Irish by some historians. This is a matter of opinion but it was certain a systematic failure of political will. And something I found a fascinating theme to explore.
Which crime writers do you enjoy reading yourself? Or do you prefer a different genre of book for your own personal reading?
I love crime and grew up on a diet of PD James and Agatha Christie. These days most of the crime I enjoy, however is TV stuff – the adaptions of Vera, Shetland, plus the darker stuff like The Bridge and The Killing, of course. I’m currently loving Unforgotten on ITV and was a big fan of the French TV series Spiral plus countless others – Fargo, Fortitude, Luther. If it’s crime, I’ll watch it but I steer clear of crime set in my own period, as I spend all day with my head in that world. On the book front, I’ve recently read Crooker Letter Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin recently. Set in the Deep South and beautifully crafted and written, I can’t recommend strongly enough. I’m currently reading Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter another elegy on grief and also loved the meta novel HHHH, by Laurent Binet, a novel about writing a novel but also about the attempted assassination of Reinhard Heydrich who worked for Himmler in Prague, 1942 which was breathtakingly good and staggeringly original.
Have you ever thought about writing any other books aside from the Hatton &Roumande mysteries?
Funny you should ask that because I’m writing one at the moment set in Rwanda which is a crime novel set against the backdrop of the genocide in 1994 and its but nothing like I’ve attempted before.
You’ve hinted on social media that a third book is in the works. Can you tell us a bit about it and when can we expect it out?
Not sure when it will be out but I’ve done the first draft and its awaiting a bit of an edit!
Thank you very much again for your time and I eagerly anticipate your next book!
The pleasure was all mine and thanks so much for letting me chat with you on your blog.
For information about D.E. Meredith and her books you can visit her website here.
For information about D.E. Meredith and her books you can visit her website here.