1. As a historical mystery writer, what kind of research goes into writing a novel that takes place during the Industrial Revolution?
All kinds. I looked at things written or published around 1856maps, books, diaries, periodicals. And I visited as many old houses, churches, forts, and warehouses as I could. In Death in the Age of Steam, I used some of these buildings under their own name (like the Bonsecours Market in Montreal), some as guides to architectural style. There're two kinds of research I particularly enjoyed. First, studying old photographs, some of them stereoscopic for a real 3-D time-travel experience. And then using my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary to check the date various words were first used, so that I could tell my tale of mystery and romance in language that, while clear to the modern reader, was not too modern to suit mid-Victorian Canada.
2. And specifically as a first time novelist, can you tell us a bit about the process of writing your first book?
It was a long process. In part on account of the research required, but not altogether. Before I was a novelist, I wrote short stories. I was attracted to the chance to tell a more complex tale with deeper characterizationto create a whole absorbing world. It was an exciting plunge to take. But I had a lot to learn, and it took a certain amount of rewriting to get it right.
3. Being that you pen fiction, it seems as though you should have quite a bit of leeway with settings and details. How important do you think it is for authors of fiction to get the historical details accurate?
Well, nothing’s forbidden, but beware readers’ expectations. You could, for instance, score a hit with a frank fantasy in which Mozart plays at the court of Queen Victoriaeven though he died 28 years before she was born. On the other hand, be prepared for readers to feel cheated if you win their trust with scrupulous accuracy concerning some historical details, then stealthily rearrange others to suit your convenience. My own approach is to gather as many pertinent facts as possible and to change nothing for the sake of “a better story.” I actually find that the surprising, inconvenient truth makes a better story than does a conventional fabrication. Here’s an example. A late discovery I made about who in 1856 was competent to give evidence in a criminal trial forced me into a major rewrite, and the novel is the better for it. Death in the Age of Steam became less a story set in a particular time and more a story of that time. More original, more exciting, more informative.
4. Literary sleuths these days are often forensic scientists, while crime scene investigation (CSI) shows enjoy an unprecedented vogue on television. How much of a role was science able to play in solving the murder mysteries of 1856?
For starters, forget DNA. Forget blood typing. Science couldn’t even distinguish human from animal blood. Progressive minds thought there might be something to fingerprints, but there was no way of classifying them yet. On the other hand, photography was being used to identify corpses. There were tests to determine whether someone had died of suffocation and tests for poisons such as arsenic. Bullets could be traced to the mould they were cast from if not to the gun they were fired from. Human anatomy was pretty well understood, and in Death in the Age of Steam we see a forensic scientist measuring bones as a guide to height and gender. Footprints were studied and cast in plaster. Soil and handwriting were analyzed. So the scientific investigation of crime, while primitive by today’s standards, was by no means unknown.
5. To what extent are the characters we encounter in Death in the Age of Steam shaped by or typical of their Victorian milieu?
I’m not sure human nature changes much over any time period as brief as a couple of hundred years, but I suspect different eras do bring out and reinforce certain human traits while inhibiting others. My protagonist Isaac Harris is sexually shy, but tenacious and self-reliant. All these characteristics could and do exist in 21st century men, but are particularly encouraged by Harris’s Victorian milieu. The way in which he focuses on finding the missing woman Theresa may seem exaggerated until we recall those romantic Victorian explorers who obsessed on finding the north pole or the source of the Nile.
6. Now that Death in the Age of Steam has received critical acclaim, do you think you will continue to write within the genre of historical mysteries? What can your fans expect next?
My next book is a historical mystery, but with a Roaring Twenties rather than a Victorian setting. After thatwell, it’s a little too soon to tell. The one thing I can promise is that I’ll never write a book I don’t have my heart in.
7. Describe the perfect murder weapon.
As a reader, I like murder weapons that resonate (perhaps ironically) with the time and place, the motive, the characters involved. The means of death can be as subtle and ingenious as the substitution of letters by which Hamlet has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern put to death or as blatant and shocking as the tommy guns of St. Valentine’s Day 1929. The perfect murder weapon, in short, is not necessarily an undetectable weapon. It’s the tool that fits the tale.
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