The Only True Description is “The Thing Itself”
I read about the two Brighton Trunk Murders of 1934 when I first moved to Brighton, Sussex in the 1990s. I decided then that I wanted to write about the one that remained unsolved. Unsolved because the victim’s head and arms had never been recovered, her identity never established, so her killer never found.
At the time I was writing my Nick Madrid comic crime series and there weren’t many laughs in this story. It wasn’t until 2006 that I finally started proper research on what began as a single novel but mushroomed into a trilogy. Given that there was a parallel contemporary story about “the Milldean Massacre”, a fictional police armed operation gone hideously wrong, and given that I had a number of convoluted twists in mind, one novel just wasn’t enough.
I decided that for City of Dreadful Night, the definitely non-comic first of the trilogy, I would tell the story of the investigation of the unsolved Trunk murder entirely from the point of view of researchers today using police files and a secret diary written in the thirties.
The only time the novel got near to being inside the head of the murderer in 1934 was in a brief epilogue.
I left it there for the second novel, The Last King of Brighton (still short on laughs), except for some extra Trunk Murder shading from a 1960s perspective. The focus in Last King was on the making of a gangster during that swinging decade and on putting the Milldean Massacre in a wider context.
The opening of The Thing Itself, the final (still gag free) part of the trilogy, is, word for word, the Epilogue of City. But now it’s just the beginning of the Trunk Murderer’s story told from his and one other person’s point of view. The story goes from the Western Front in the Great War back to Brighton (where on still days the big guns can be heard blasting away back across the Channel) through into the Thirties (and the rise of Oswald Mosley’s fascist blackshirts) and on into the Second World War.
There are accounts to be settled by the criminals in the contemporary story and just enough grit among the forces of good to ensure the bills are paid in full.
By the final page all questions have been answered, including a couple nobody might have thought to ask, and there’s a final twist that …well, it would be a terrible spoiler to say.
Mike Stotter, the esteemed editor of this magazine, hates the title The Thing Itself. I kind of understand. It wasn’t my first choice. All through the writing of the trilogythis book was always God’s Lonely Man. But the requirements of commercial publishing in the US required a title change.
The Thing Itself is a slightly odd title, I admit, but I do like it. It refers to the notion that nothing can really be described – in particular the horrors that people in the novel experience – except by the thing itself. And that works for me.
The trilogy is now complete but some of these characters live on. My publisher has commissioned me to write two more Brighton-based novels with at least some of my Brighton characters. In fact, I’ve just delivered the first of them (technically, Book Four in the Brighton series), entitled The Devil’s Moon, for publication this winter. They live on - as does Brighton, my Gomorrah-on-sea, now and forever.
Published by Severn House, Hardback £19.99 26 April 2012
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