In the fifth of a series of conversations, author William Ryan talks to author Lloyd Shepherd.
Lloyd Shepherd is the author of two acclaimed historical crime thrillers set in Regency London. The first, The English Monster, was shortlisted for the Authors' Club Best First Novel award and for the Historical Writers Association/Goldsboro Crown for Debut Historical Fiction. The second, The Poisoned Island, was published in March 2012, and Christopher Fowler in the Financial Times had this to say about it: "Shepherd adroitly blurs fact and fiction with a hint of the fantastic, creating his own superior blend of historical crime fiction”. Shepherd was educated at Sevenoaks School and Peterhouse, University of Cambridge. He formerly worked as a journalist and digital media producer. He lives in South London with his family.
William Ryan was educated at Trinity College, Dublin and the University of St Andrews and worked as a lawyer before taking up writing full-time. His first novel, The Holy Thief, was shortlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, The Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, The CWA John Creasy New Blood Dagger and a Barry Award. His second novel The Bloody Meadow was shortlisted for the Ireland AM Irish Crime Novel of the Year. His latest novel, The Twelfth Department, was published in May 2012. William lives in London with his wife and son.
WR: Your novels are set in 1810s London, at the dawn of organised criminal detection, and feature the redoubtable John Harriott, magistrate of the Thames River Police, and his incisive assistant Charles Horton. It is a fascinating period, which you bring to life with real flair - and they are as intriguing and alluring a pair of protagonists as any reader could want. So which came first? The characters or the setting?
LS: The setting, but in an odd way. I was driving back from East Anglia years and years ago, and I took a left when I should have taken a right, and I ended up in Wapping. I had never been to Wapping before, and it immediately struck me as one of the oddest places in London. This was in the late 1980s, when development of the Docklands had only just got going, and Wapping was a combination of abandoned cobbled streets, pubs that looked like they could have played a role in The Long Good Friday, and ugly modern development. However, most of all, it was empty. There were no people. It was almost spooky. The main characteristic of the place was absence, and digging around a bit later on I knew what that absence was: the docks. They had been filled in, but they are everywhere: walls, meandering roads, odd little channels of water, huge chunks of ironware, empty warehouses. It was the most haunted place I'd ever been to in England: haunted by its past and its present.
The story came later. I first read about the Ratcliffe Highway murders in Alan Moore's graphic novel From Hell. They resonated with me, and I looked for PD James' account of the murders, The Maul and the Pear Tree. And my obsession grew from there. These were the archetypal modern murders, the prototype for our notion of serial killing, and they happened seventy years before Jack the Ripper danced with his knife through Whitechapel. And like the Ripper case, they gain a power from being apparently unsolved, though a murderer was identified, probably wrongly. Moreover, it all happened in Wapping.
The characters came last (I know one is not supposed to say that, but there you are). John Harriott, the magistrate, is a particularly vivid figure in James' account, not least because he was a very vivid person in reality. In addition, he wrote an autobiography, which is always helpful. Therefore, his character and history are drawn from fact. Charles Horton, his waterman-constable, is little more than a fragment. He received a reward for his work on the Ratcliffe Highway case, and I discovered his name in the River Police logbook, but that's it. Everything else about him is invented by me. When I submitted the book, I thought Harriott was the most sharply drawn, but most people - including my agent and the book's editors - responded more strongly to Horton. I don't know what to make of that!
I am interested to hear your answer to your own question. I was struck when reading The Holy Thief by two things: what a brilliant creation Korolev, your investigator, is; and how rich your description of the Soviet Union is, and how surprising, because I had a picture in my head of what 1930s Moscow was like, and it turns out to be wrong. And why 1936, particularly? Such an interesting time, such an interesting choice!
WR: A bit like you, I stumbled upon a fascinating time and place - and one thing led to another. The starting point was reading Isaac Babel's brilliant Red Cavalry stories, just as the Soviet Union was collapsing in on itself. I wanted to find out more about him but not even the year of his death was certain until the KGB archives were opened a few years later. All the same, I began to collect any references to him I could find in memoirs and histories, with the half-idea of writing something about him. Nothing came of it directly, but I had the good fortune to begin my research just as a lot of new information began to become available and my interested broadened. I began to wonder about the dilemmas ordinary people must have faced in a society where individuality was frowned upon - particularly in 1936, at the height of the Great Terror. Korolev didn't come fully formed and is still, even in the third novel, an enigma in some ways - even to himself - but that's partially because to survive at that time you had to suppress doubts and concerns about the regime even from yourself - and believe in things which seemed impossible. I think some readers expect completely transparent characters - but I think an interesting character is often a little opaque. And the opaqueness is what creates the interest. I think that is what is so attractive about Horton, as it happens - the fact he has so many conflicting and dark aspects to his personality.
In your second novel, The Poisoned Island, we get to see more of him - and his relationship with Harriott seems to shift as well. Is he perhaps stepping away from Harriott's shadow now?
LS: I think Horton's relationship with Harriott does shift, and there are good practical reasons for this. Harriott was an old man during the time I'm writing about, and there is the maudlin matter of his imminent death to deal with in a few years time (if I'm still writing them then). That is actually a really weird thing to have to deal with, knowing that one of your characters is chained to a timescale over which you have no control. It's one of the things I like about writing things set in the past and sticking to the past's given timeframe; it forces you to be creative, but it also supplies a structure on which you can hang things. Also, Harriott represents the 'past' of British policing - the time when magistrates essentially relied on hearsay and witnesses and rewards to prosecute crimes, and did little which we might recognise as ‘investigating.’ In the world of my books, Horton is the future - someone who relies on a chain of evidence, who understands motive and opportunity. Harriott is not of that world, though he recognises it is coming and encourages Horton in it. It is emblematic of the period - that transition from the rural to the industrial, from Island Britain to the British Empire, from superstition to science.
However, I'm really interested in what you say about Korolev being an enigma 'even to himself'. Is he an enigma to you? Are you uncovering him as you go along? Because I really get that with Horton. I did not write a 'bible' for him, or much of a back-story. I supply it as it's needed, and it makes him come more and more alive to me. I completely agree that opaque is interesting - but is there sometimes a danger that we are enjoying ourselves at the expense of a reader's understanding? I do worry about that, a bit.
WR: I suspect it wasn’t unusual for ordinary Russians to hide elements of their character so as to appear loyal to the Party – in fact, I’d imagine it was almost universal. Korolev, given the tricky positions he finds himself in, needs to believe that a Soviet paradise on earth is just around the corner, even if all the evidence is to the contrary. I think part of the reason his character is interesting is that deliberate self-delusion. At least I hope it is - I’m always surprised what readers see and don’t see in my novels. However, I think that is because reading and writing are two halves of a conversation – and every reader reads a slightly different version of each book, depending on what they put into it. If you asked ten readers to describe Horton, you would probably get ten different answers – but that’s good, isn’t it? Readers do not want every single detail laid out for them, mainly because it slows down the story - or, in your case, stories. In both The English Monster and The Poisoned Island, you have two parallel plots running through the novel, which complement each other in interesting ways before they come together at the end. Was it difficult to make them work so well together? And is there a particular reason you choose to tell write the novels that way?
LS: I think that's very well put - novels are so huge that any author's particular intention is bound to be accompanied by dozens of unintended consequences, and readers can pick up on those as they so choose. The other thing that always surprises me is how like Marmite some books can be - how the thing that one reader loves is the one thing , which wrecked the book for another reader.
On the matter of parallel plots - I do not think this was necessarily deliberate; the stories just came out that way. In my first book, The English Monster, I was particularly interested in how England's history had stained its character. In that book, the particular history was slavery, and the way his involvement in slavery coarsens Billy Ablass is a not-particularly-subtle metaphor for the way it coarsened England. So a parallel past story is a good way of doing that. And when both stories - the parallel and the contemporary - take place in the past, I think that adds an interesting effect. When I'm reading an historical novel, I'm always comparing the then with the now - the whole thing is in effect a parallel story. It's why I think Hilary Mantel's novels are so masterful; they describe the past vividly, but seem to have a very modern sensibility, as if in commentary on the past. How aware are you of the modern circumstances of Russia, when you are writing about the Soviet Union?
Is this hard to do? I don't think it's easier or harder than anything else involved in writing a book. I do think it puts strains on the reader, keeping track with these parallel tracks, but I think it creates a unique rhythm as the two stories come together, which I can't help but love.
WR: I think the endings, in both your novels, worked very well – and I liked the way the two strands in each story offered different perspectives on the underlying themes. The Ablass story in The English Monster had a grim inevitability to it – it was never going to end well for him, was it?
Slavery was one of the themes in The English Monster and in The Poisoned Island; you look at some of the less positive aspects of the initial contacts between Europeans and the rest of the world. Given London was always a city at the heart of Britain’s colonial past – when you spoke earlier about Wapping being hunted by its past, I wondered if that’s what you meant. I mean – if you’re setting an historical novel in London, that past is very much present today – and relevant. Do you feel you might also have a different perspective on things from the writing and researching of the novels?
LS: I certainly think England's memory is faulty. It's more like England's dreaming, to quote Jon Savage and Johnny Rotten. I got particularly exercised during the general outpouring of warm feelings which accompanied the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007, when I was in the early stages of planning The English Monster. We were inundated with a stream of books, TV shows, and even films which celebrated the Abolition Act, but which somehow glossed over the centuries of appalling behaviour, which preceded it. They also concatenated 'abolishing the slave trade' with 'abolishing slavery', even though existing slaves were not emancipated until many years later. For me, slavery is the quintessential British hypocrisy, the point where making money trumps human dignity. Moreover, I hardly have to point a recent example of finance trumping humanity, do I?
So yes, historical novels have something to tell us about the present. However, I think they also give us the opportunity to project human behaviour onto a different canvas; they are very analogous to fantasy novels, in lots of ways. I think a historical setting allows a novelist to discuss issues - such as slavery and human dignity - at a warped angle to the modern day, and that creates good opportunities for fiction. I was struck, for instance, by the notions of capitalism and greed, which you introduced into The Holy Thief; those notions would have to be treated differently in a contemporary novel, and wouldn't resonate in quite the same way.
However, there continues to be this strange snobbery about historical fiction. Even after Hilary Mantel's amazing success, I still have people asking me 'when are you going to write something contemporary?’ As if I have been cheapening myself somehow. I find that very odd, don't you?
WR: That faulty memory is one of the reasons the past is so interesting for writers, I think. Every country has a tendency to view their past in a flattering light and it has to be tempting for writers to explore the reality - and why having that rose-tinted view of, say, a colonial past, may explain aspects of a country's present that would otherwise be inexplicable. And it can also remind us why a country that, say, compared capitalism to gangsterism - might have a problem with criminality when it decided capitalism wasn't so bad after all.
However, I think you are right about historical novels being a medium for discussing human behaviour in a different context. One of the reasons I don't have much desire to write a contemporary novel is because the world we live in is so safe relatively, at least in the part I live in, and the day-to-day problems we're faced in are so insignificant in historical terms. That does not mean I do not think the modern world is not faced with terrifying problems - it is. Climate change, the way the internet has transformed the world we live in, not always (in fact not really at all) for the better and the surprising way in which the very rich have managed to soak up percentages of wealth not seen in a very long time, along with much of the power that goes with it. But they're difficult issues to address in fictional form. The fact us the stakes are just that much higher in historical fiction, by the nature of the periods we write in - and the moral choices our characters face are a great deal more charged. We live in cosseted times in comparison but I think readers want to explore the issues we raise and why historical fiction is becoming more popular. I mean, you have just been shortlisted for The Author's Club Best First Novel Award, which has to be a good sign - and obviously, the wonderful Hilary Mantel is going from strength to strength.
That point about contemporary novels though still intrigues me. I know you used to be a journalist and I think that is a medium that deal with the contemporary very effectively, but perhaps in a circular way. Do you think your move to writing fiction set in the past might have been a reaction to that?
LS: I do not think journalism deals with the 'present' at all well, actually - particularly current journalism. That 'first draft of history' idea always seems to me to be misplaced. Modern journalism is either incredibly partisan - be it in the Daily Mail or the Guardian - or constipatingly 'balanced', as with the BBC. In addition, balance brings its own distortions - witness the current success of UKIP, which is at least partly down to the BBC's desire to be even-handed and give Nigel Farage a platform. It's all a bit odd.
I really understand your point about the present day being 'safe' - I think it's a really useful thing to discuss. Of course, it's not particularly safe in lots of places (is modern Russia safer than Stalinist Russia? Discuss!) - but certainly in the West it is increasingly non-violent and prosperous, financial crashes notwithstanding. Therefore, there has been a trend in fiction to the internal - to dramatisation of feelings, relationships, emotions, even insanity. There has also been a trend to fictionalise a more violent world. Add up all the deaths in a year's worth of crime novels, and the streets would be empty. Moreover, you are right, the past does bring its own landscape of violence, threat, terror - the stuff of narrative fiction. And, of course, there's a healthy and growing market for fantasy fiction - for an escape away from this dully safe world into one containing dragons.
However, I do still feel a kind of obligation to at least think about addressing the present day, at some point and in some way. I feel like I have escaped into the past, a bit, and it is fine and I am having a lovely time there. But shouldn't we also seek to create fiction about the present day? Does it always have to be symbolic, refracted through the lens of the past? I do not know. I'm still working on that one, a bit. A live example, for you: Putin seems to be in the business of resurrecting Stalin's reputation, somewhat. As someone who writes about life under Stalin, doesn't that tempt you into the Now?
WR: I do not think Stalin's resurrection is at all surprising - to be honest. He is so tied up with The Great Patriotic War, as World War 2 is known in Russia, that memories of him are always going to be complex. Yes - he was a heartless leader - but he was also the leader who led them to victory over a genocidal invader. It's also true that the Soviet Union was a superpower under Stalin and that it's arguably been in decline ever since - and as we know from our conversation, people can often look back at their history and see what they want to see. If Putin were to rehabilitate Stalin, he would be pushing at an open door with a surprisingly large proportion of Russian people.
That having been said, this conversation has made me think again about writing in the present day - there are some issues that fiction is very well placed to address. All I need to do now is to come up with a story...
So, one last question - what's next?
LS: What's next? Well, there is another Charles Horton story in the works, this time dealing with madness, witches and transportation. It is a bit different to the first two in ways, which I hope are interesting. What I have discovered while researching the history of madhouses is how, once again, the Regency period is in this strange interim between two worlds. There was a growing awareness of the Mind as an organ, which could become injured or ill, but there was scant idea of how to treat it. Mesmerism came along at the end of the 18th century and, from this distance, looks perversely like magic, but was in fact a precursor to two things we now take for granted: the relationship between psychiatrist and patient; and the reality of hypnotism.
After that, there is a contemporary story I'm working on which may or may not come to anything, but I do want to try and write something that isn't historical. I am enjoying it. When you have been living in the past, the present can seem suddenly strange and interesting. I am pretty sure there'll be more Horton stories, if people remain interested in them. There is at least one more I want to tell, linking in to the 200th anniversary of Waterloo in 2015.
And you? Will Korolev go on and on? Or are there other bodies in the transept?
WR: Madness, witches and transportation (whether by mind or sea) sounds like a great basis for a book to me. In fact, in an ideal world, I would like you to have it ready by Friday evening please (I am in need of a cracking read for the weekend). As for me, there is another Korolev novel coming to a bookshop near you fairly soon - and after that another, stand-alone novel, also historical but not really a crime novel. I'm slowly spreading my wings - perhaps.
Anyway, it has been great talking to you - and best of luck with The Authors Club First Novel Award...
More information about Lloyd Shepherd can be found at www.lloydshepherd.com and for William Ryan can be found at www.william-ryan.com