Sunday, 23 September 2018

Writing the Crime Scenes: Location as Inspiration by Karen Lee Street

Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru — a mystery involving old enemies, lost soul-mates, ornithomancy, and the legendary jewel of Peru— is set primarily in early 1844 in the city of Philadelphia, with some brief forays to the Chachapoya mountains in Peru. But it all began in Hackney.

I made my home in that part of London for fourteen years, living in a building that overlooked London Fields and what was once an immense plant nursery renowned throughout Europe. I was surprised to discover that my urban neighbourhood had been a tourist destination in the early nineteenth century due to its enviable collection of exotic flora and the fact that it boasted the largest hothouse in the world. The more I researched the Hackney Botanic Nursery Garden, the more I felt it might be an interesting location for a crime story, and that notion was a key inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru.

Some of the facts that led to the fiction are these: the Hackney Botanic Nursery Garden was originally founded by Johann Busch, a German immigrant who settled in Hackney in the mid-eighteenth century. He rented land on Mare Street and supplied unusual plant specimens to private botanical gardens in Europe. Busch also grew plants from 'Bartram's boxes', collections of seeds put together by John Bartram who had a famous nursery in Philadelphia, now a 45-acre National Historic Landmark called Bartram's Gardens.

When Johann Busch went to Russia to be Imperial Head Gardener to Catherine the Great in 1771, this connection continued, but through Busch's friend and fellow German émigré Joachim Conrad Loddiges (1738–1826), who took over the business. Joachim Loddiges's son George (1786–1846) developed the nursery further with a tropical rainforest display, a palm house, and hothouse collections of orchids, ferns, and other exotic plants that fascinated Victorians, thus making it a popular destination for tourists. George Loddiges also employed plant collectors to bring back unusual flora and fauna from South America, particularly specimens for his ornithological collection, part of which is now housed in the Natural History Museum in London.

One explorer Loddiges hired was Andrew Mathews (1801—1841) who called himself "a traveling collector of natural objects". I discovered that Mathews also gathered seeds and plants for Bartram's Nursery in Philadelphia, but couldn't find out much more about him except that he married a Peruvian woman, they had a son, and Andrew Mathews died at the age of forty in the Chachapoya mountains of Peru, no cause of death given. Was it through accident? Disease? Foul play? The idea for a murder tale began to ferment…

It wasn't only Andrew Mathews who had a connection with the borough of Hackney and the city of Philadelphia. Edgar Allan Poe lived in Stoke Newington from 1815 to 1820 during his boyhood, and he resided at various addresses in Philadelphia between 1838 and 1844, where he wrote some of his most famous tales. I wondered if Poe had visited the impressive Hackney Gardens as a child or had gone to see the Bartram Gardens in Philadelphia whilst living there—and if these locations might be incorporated into my ideas for a Poe & Dupin mystery trilogy. Given George Loddiges's immense collection of avian specimens and that Poe's most famous poem was inspired by Charles Dickens's pet raven Grip, birds seemed to be a subject worth exploring when concocting a plot.

And so, I returned to Hackney and created a character named after George Loddiges's daughter Helena (1818 - 1871), making her a skilled taxidermist, practitioner of ornithomancy, and an amateur ornithologist who had written a book on the subject. I reasoned that if Poe were hired by Helena Loddiges to edit the book (as he was hired to edit The Conchologist's First Book (1839)), the fee would not only provide the typically impoverished Poe with the means to travel to London in book I: Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster, but would also suggest plot points for book II.

Hackney, Philadelphia, and the Chachapoya mountains are scenes of fictional crimes investigated in Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru and are three places that have more connections in truth than one might initially imagine. The hothouses of the Loddiges plant nursery are long gone, but the Loddiges family vault is located in the gardens of the Church of St John-at-Hackney. Poe is buried in Baltimore, but his former home in the Spring Garden section of Philadelphia is a museum one can visit and Charles Dickens's pet raven Grip (which Dickens had stuffed by a taxidermist after his death) is entombed in a glass box on display in the Philadelphia Free Library. Andrew Mathews died in the Chachapoyas, but how and precisely where is lost to history… as is the mysterious jewel of Peru.

Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru by Karen Lee Street is published by Point Blank, paperback £8.99.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

The Stranger Diaries with Elly Griffiths

We are delighted to welcome Elly Griffiths back to Cambridge. The 2016 winner of the CWA Dagger in the Library will speak on her new standalone gothic thriller, The Stranger Diaries.

Clare Cassidy is no stranger to murder. As a literature teacher specialising in the Gothic writer RM Holland, she teaches a short course on it every year. Then Clare's life and work collide tragically when one of her colleagues is found dead, a line from an RM Holland story by her body. The investigating police detective is convinced the writer's works somehow hold the key to the case. Not knowing who to trust, Clare confides her darkest suspicions and fears about the case to her journal. Then one day she notices some other writing in the diary. Writing that isn't hers...

Elly Griffiths is also the author of the bestselling Dr Ruth Galloway novels. The series has won the CWA Dagger in the Library, and has been shortlisted three times for the Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. Her Stephens and Mephisto series is based in 1950s Brighton. Don't miss this opportunity to hear from her in the intimate setting of Heffers bookshop!

Ticket information can be found here.

Friday, 21 September 2018

McIlvanney Prize Winner 2018

We're pleased to announce the Bloody Scotland McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the Year 2018 winner to be Liam McIlvanney's The Quaker!

The judges of the McIlvanney Prize this year were Craig Sisterson, Alison Flood, and comedian, Susan Calman who said of the winner:

The Quaker was, for me, the stand out book from the longlist. It’s one of those novels that as soon as I finished it, I looked forward to reading it again. Not only did I love the evocative recreation of Glasgow but the characters created were refreshing and surprising.  It was such a pleasure to read.

In 2016 the prize was renamed in memory of Liam's father, William McIIvanney, the much loved Godfather of Tartan Noir.

Our warmest congratulations to Liam.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

What do you Write by Sara Gran

People ask me what I write. I have to say something, so I tell people I write detective fiction. This means very little. Detective fiction is most fiction; it covers everything from Genesis (who killed Abel?) to CRIME & PUNISHMENT (go Detective Porfiry!) to that fat paperback you picked up at the airport. But it still means something: genre is a joyous and beautiful set of rules, boundaries, formulas, and tropes. Everyone knows a murder mystery will be solved. Everyone knows the prime suspect didn't do it. A private eye with a bottle of whiskey in his hand is an image that has become a symbol: it tells a story to people. We know this man and we know his history: tough, bitter, hard-drinking, solves cases, easy prey for a certain type of woman. In this way, genre can be seen as a kind of language, and we can think of the tropes of genre as words. If you put a whiskey-drinking PI on a page with a woman in a tight red dress, you know what you're reading, and it's something like noir.

The joy in writing genre fiction is in the privilege of using this language. Once we see a scary little girl in a white dress and long hair, we all pretty much know where this story is going, and it ain't toward a happy ending. Imagine if every time you wanted to use the word "chair" you had to, instead, explain what a chair was and what it did. Genre gives us a series of building blocks to build a story without having to start from scratch every time.

If we use these building blocks exactly as they've been used before, we might end up with something smart and cool and fun, but we probably won't make anyone think twice if we give them exactly what they expect. Sometimes that's a good thing. Sometimes we need a fucking break. Sometimes we need to enter a story and know it's going to play by the rules and take us exactly where we expect -- maybe because the rest of life never seems to play by the rules, and we can never know what to expect at all.  

But the other joy in writing genre fiction is taking those boundaries and formulas and tropes and fucking them all up. Language is so wonderful when we use it as expected. Maybe it's even more wonderful when we use it in unexpected ways. For example, put together the word "chair" with something you haven't seen before. Maybe "apple." Now you've got something to think about. What's an apple chair? Or is it a chair apple? Or is it a chair with an apple on top? Hey now, what if it's an apple with a tiny chair on top? And a mouse lives there? See, here we are, already thinking and creating and making something new.

The Infinite Blacktop by Sara Gran (published by Faber & Faber)

Driven off the desert road and left for dead, Claire DeWitt knows that it is someone from her past trying to kill her, she just doesn't know who. Making a break for it from the cops who arrive on the scene, she sets off in search of the truth, or whatever version of it she can find. But perhaps the biggest mystery of all lies deeper than that, somewhere out there on the ever rolling highway of life. Set between modern day Las Vegas and LA, The Infinite Blacktop sees Claire at her lowest point yet, wounded and disorientated, but just about hanging on. Too smart for her own good, too damaged to play by the rules, too crazy for most - have you got what it takes to follow the self-appointed 'best detective in the world'?

More information about the author and her books can be found on her website.