Thursday, 22 February 2018

Mixing History, Fiction and Crime

I had planned set the third instalment of my George ‘Zulu’ Hart series in South Africa. This changed when my editor suggested a switch from imperial adventure to crime. What better location for that, I thought, than London. I just needed a good reason for a decorated war hero like George Hart VC to return to the UK. He might, for example, have been asked to protect a member of the British royal family who was in some type of danger. But had such a person really existed and what was the threat?

A quick search gave me the answers: the most troublesome royal of the 1880s was not Bertie, the womanising Prince of Wales, but his eldest son Prince Albert Victor Christian Edward, known to his family and friends as Eddy. An extremely handsome young man with an inordinately long neck (hence his nickname ‘Collars and cuffs’), Eddy was also a poor scholar with a short attention span. To toughen him up, Eddy was sent on a round the world trip with his younger brother George before going up to Cambridge and eventually joining the 10th Hussars. As a young officer he was suspected of harbouring dark secrets that included a liking for young men of ‘questionable morals’, gay brothels and the dubious pleasures of the slums of London’s Whitechapel.

He was implicated, for example, in the Cleveland Street Scandal of 1889: the revelation that teenage telegraph boys were working as male prostitutes at a private members’ club at 19 Cleveland Street in Fitzrovia, with patrons said to include Lord Arthur Somerset, the Prince of Wales’s Master of Horse, and Prince Eddy himself. With this as the historical background, it seemed entirely plausible to me that George would be given the task of shadowing Eddy and keeping him out of trouble.

But I needed more jeopardy, and I found it in the revelation that the most serious threat to VIPs in 1880s London was from Irish Republican terrorists known as Fenians, the Victorian forerunners to the IRA.  It was to deal with this threat that the Special Irish Branch of the Metropolitan Police (later just the Special Branch) had been formed in 1883. But for most of that decade the danger of bombings and assassinations in London was very real: in 1884, during the height of the mainland bombing campaign, Old Scotland Yard itself was targeted. So why not Eddy? And if Eddy really was at risk from the Fenians, it made sense that an additional role for George would be de facto bodyguard.

I now had two plot strands in place. But how could I weave them together? Again, history provided the answer. A combination of Eddy’s probable homosexuality, habit of visiting Whitechapel and untimely death in 1891, has caused some recent writers to suspect he was Jack the Ripper, the perpetrator of the brutal series of prostitute murders that rocked the East End in 1888.  Eddy first entered the frame in ‘Jack the Ripper – A Solution?’, an article by eminent physician Dr T. E. A. Stowell that appeared in the Criminologist in 1970. Stowell’s theory is that Eddy contracted syphilis on his world cruise and it was during the periodic fits of madness brought on by this illness that he killed his victims.

The theory has been repeated and embellished by various writers, and is not without some foundation. As newly discovered letters reveal (Daily Mail, 26 February 2016), Eddy was receiving treatment in 1885 and 1886 (and possibly later) for a venereal disease like gonorrhoea that he probably caught from a prostitute.

This gave me my third, and most important, plot strand: the gradual emergence of evidence that seems to link the Prince to the Whitechapel Murders. But could Eddy, George asks himself, really be Jack the Ripper? There is only one way for him to find out: and that is to join forces with an East End-born CID detective, Jack Fletcher, and a beautiful young prostitute (who, it will transpire, has links to the Fenians), in an attempt to trap the killer and, hopefully, exonerate the Prince.

Does he succeed? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

The Prince and the Whitechapel Murders (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99) by Saul David is published on 22 February 2018. See more of Saul at and on Twitter: @sauldavid66 

1 comment:

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