Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Unravelling The Devil's Ribbon

Our guest blogger is D E Meredith whose latest book The Devil’s Ribbon is published on 25 October 2011 in the US. It is the second book in the Hatton and Roumande series. She has had a wide variety of jobs including working for the Red Cross, WWF, Helped the Aged, Greenpeace as well as being involved in the landmine campaign.

A trail of beribboned murders. A ticking bomb. A city about to explode.

July, 1858: London swelters under the oppressive heat of the hottest summer on record, and trouble is brewing. Forensic scientist Professor Adolphus Hatton and his trusty assistant, Albert Roumande, have a morgue full of cholera victims. The dead are all Irish, the poorest of London’s poor. They came in their thousands ten years ago, forced into the London slums by the terrible famine. Now they live segregated from the rest of Victorian society, a race apart in this heaving city who are at once everywhere and nowhere. But they are a close knit people, and deeply politicised. From the docks in Limehouse to the taverns of St Giles, Fenian groups are talking of violence and of liberation.

When a series of violent murders threatens to cause tensions to boil over, Scotland Yard calls on Hatton and Roumande to help investigate. The seemingly unconnected victims, who hail from all strata of society, are linked by the same macabre calling card: a bright Fenian green ribbon placed strategically about their corpses. While Hatton’s search for clues leads him into the spell of a blindingly beautiful woman, a widow of one of the slain, rumblings of a bombing campaign led by an agitator priest and his gang of would-be terrorists build throughout the slums. As the orchestra of veiled motives, divided loyalties, and violent retribution reaches a crescendo, Hatton’s skills are tested to the limit. With Roumande, he must race across London to an island with a shipwreck and a secret on a nail-biting race against time in this gripping, elegantly executed Victorian mystery in the tradition of The Dante Club and The Somnambulist.

What inspired you to write, The Devil’s Ribbon?

The Devil’s Ribbon is the second in ‘The Hatton and Roumande Mysteries’ for St Martin’s Press. So where did I get the idea to set it around the Irish in Victorian London? Firstly, my mother’s Irish and I was brought up pure London Irish i.e.: Roman Catholic, mass every Sunday, confession once a month, every holiday available spent on my Gran farm in County Cavan. As a child I definitely felt more Irish than English at times, and so when I started sniffing around for ideas for Professor Hatton’s second mystery, the London Irish community of the 1850s was an obvious theme for me to explore. I thought about what it must have been like for all those desperately poor Irish living in London at that time, who had left their country because of the famine.

And as I started mulling on this, I chatted to my Dad (a South Londoner, born and bred) who’s own mother, I discovered had bound books not only for the British Museum but for Cecil Woodham-Smith who wrote the definitive history book on the Irish famine of the 1930s, The Great Hunger”. Literary lay lines, or what? I just knew it was a sign, and that this was the right theme for me to look at. My dad told me that as a small boy, he’d gone to Cecil Woodham-Smith’s enormous South Ken house with the newly bound books. My Nan who was an impressive working-class woman and a single parent to boot, ran a book binding company from the basement of her house over-looking Tooting Common, which makes a guest appearance in The Devil’s Ribbon. From the moment I made these personal connections, I was hooked and read everything I could on the famine and the early beginnings of the Fenian movement.

After that it was easy. I already knew a lot about Irish Nationalism (my Irish family lived right on the border which used to be gun running territory and a Sinn Fein stronghold) and the mid Victorian period is such a rich one anyway, in terms of the social detail. London at that time was full of radicals, turbulent politics and new ways of thinking. All I really needed were characters who were imbued with the emotions and politics of the famine, and I was off.

In the second book in the series, I wanted readers to learn more about Professor Hatton’s background, his likes and dislikes, his past romances, why he became a pathologist and also more fully examine his close friendship with Albert Roumande. I wanted look again at the new, cutting edge methods of forensic science available in the 1850s – such as they were – and move my trusty aficionados one huge step on, from where I left them in my debut, Devoured (Oct 2010) so there’s a great deal of emphasis on finger printing which – to a greater and lesser extent – is used to solve the crime. Or should I say crimes?

How Do I Write?:

Haruki Murakami says it brilliantly in his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. That writing novels is very closely linked to the same impulses and challenges of long distant running and I just happen to do both. Writers are very like runners. Writing requires more than just a good idea and the ability to string a sentence together. You really need to be committed and disciplined. To hit 100k and then start all over again (and again, and again in my case), requires stamina. You also need to develop a rhino hide very quickly, as writers all have their sob stories of rejection. Not everyone’s going to love your book, I’ve learned and guess what? some are going to hate it! But I do listen to what my readers say and try to give them more of what they want. I’m not writing for myself, I want to entertain, keep my readers coming back for more and anyway, I owe it to Hatton and Roumande.

In terms of a writer’s MO, I tend to get the first draft done very fast and then rewrite a million times till I get to the place I need to be. You have to really believe in the story, or you’d never get to that finish line. I also would never make to any sort of finishing line at all, without input from my agents at Tibor Jones, and my brilliant Editors at St Martin’s – Peter Wolverton and Anne Bensson. I’m definitely a team player and although writing is a lonely old game, having good people around you who love your work is one of the big buzzes of writing. I get a lot of encouragement and direction and boy, oh boy,do I need it, sometimes.

I’m very rigorous about writing, no matter what. In the morning, for example, I go for a run which takes me past an old Victorian “spill over” graveyard near a church called St Mary’s in Twickenham near on the Thames and it’s a constant source of inspiration. In the early Nineteenth Century, graveyards were overflowing and the stink from putrefying corpses so dreadful that heaps of bodies had to be moved to newly consecrated ground. Many of the gravestones are in a state of disrepair and sadly unmarked – pauper’s graves – but there is a large, impressive tomb along a winding path where a little baby was buried with his father in 1864. The baby was only six weeks old when he died and was called Adolphus Hatton. This is where I got the idea for my protagonist’s name and the hero of my books has become very real to me. I go and visit the grave a good deal. It’s become a bit of a talisman when I’m trying to get to the end of something. Sure, Adolphus can be annoying at times, and a bit of a prig, distracted by his work but like so many of my real-life friends he’s complex and above all, honorable.I certainly feel I’m discovering new things about him with each book I write. In The Devil’s Ribbon, Hatton falls in love. There’s no better way than to test the mettle of your hero, then by introducing him to an alluring woman. Poor Professor Hatton!

Likewise with his doughty French assistant – who if you read my books, you will know is barely an “assistant”, at all – Monsieur Albert Roumande. Albert Roumande is such a joy to write. Of all my characters, he’s the one I would turn to in times of trouble. He’s an ace shot, full of passion and is prepared to risk his own life for others. He loves his wife, his family, and counters balances Hatton’s priggishness with all sorts of antics and slap stick humour but he’s not always so gung ho. He likes a bit of joke, sure, but he has a troubled side and sometimes is little melancholy, which I touch upon in The Devil’s Ribbon and I hope we will see more of, as the series progresses. Hatton and Roumande share two key things, I suppose which is what the books revolve around. Two hard working men who love their work, respect each other and who have a very clear, innate moral compass, which will be tested again and again.

Why the Victorians?

Well, I think firstly, because they still feel so close, just in reach and yet, they are not so. I live in Victorian House, my garden used to be a Victorian orchard and I walk in their footsteps, breath the same air, peer at the outside world through the very same windows.

And when you start to delve into the history about the period, there really is something amazingly energetic and enterprising about the Victorians. And I love that. Plus, I suppose my passion for the great Victorian writers and their wild, gothic imaginations – Dickens, Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, Mrs Gaskell, George Elliot, and the Brontes. London must have been an extraordinary city to visit in the 1800’s. The Victorian period oozed civic achievement on a monumental scale - Gladstone and Disraeli, Bazlegette and Faraday. And there were so many extraordinary thinkers, whose ideas still resonate today make the whole period so exciting to research– Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Ruskin, John Stewart Mill, and Harriet Martineau.

But set against this, there were still public hangings, dog fights, cock fights, an agonising loss of faith amongst the middle classes, rampant pornography, child labour, increasing crime rates, a burgeoning police force to stamp it out and of course, the first proper breakthroughs in the development forensic pathology or as the Victorians called it, Medical Jurisprudence.

In many people’s eyes, these new methods were deemed un-Christian and held in a mixture of both contempt and suspicion by the ordinary members of the public. However, for a small, but growing number of admirers from medical and law enforcement circles, the possibilities of the forensics were just beginning to be understood. Many CSI style techniques that we now take for granted - such as finger-printing, trace samples, time of death, toxicology reports, serology, analysing blood stains – were deemed experimental but, at the same time, extremely enticing. And this is the exact point, where the Hatton and Roumande Mysteries begin. With a new detective on the scene, the flamboyant Inspector Jeremiah Grey, these untested methods are pushed to the very limit of what was known in the 1850s. He’s a man with a corrupt ambition and he wants the case concluded any which way and how. He’s a larger than life character (with some quite serious problems of his own) and adds a lot of humour to the book, which I hope my readers will enjoy.

Oh and one last word. The cover for the The Devil’s Ribbon, I hope you agree is amazing. What a startling image and I am so lucky it on my book! I would just like to give credit where it’s due and say a big thank you to David Baldeosingh Rotstein and Tom Hallman at Minotaur Books, St Martin’s Press. Writing novels starts as one person and an idea, but the end product is the work of a lot of talented people, and I don’t mean the author.

For more on "The Hatton and Roumande Mysteries" and D.E. Meredith go to her website at www.demeredith.com.

Hardcover, 304 pages

more details... ISBN 0312557698 (ISBN13: 9780312557690)

The Devil's Ribbon

Hatton and Roumande Mystery #2

1 comment:

Harvey Burgess said...

I like your comment that:

"You have to really believe in the story, or you’d never get to that finish line."

I find I can relate to it. I am currently in the marketing stage of my first novel, Kiss Her Goodbye, working on getting it into more book stores. Any advice for a novice like me? (I say novice, though I've been writing my whole career - this is just my first foray into fiction!)

Good luck with the U.S. publishing! I am based in North Carolina, so I will keep an eye out.