In 1990 I wrote a crime novel called SAY IT WITH POISON. It featured a pair of detectives: Meredith Mitchell, a consular officer currently back home, and a Chief Inspector Alan Markby. The series is set around a fictional Cotswold town I called Bamford. (Over the years so many people have confided to me that they know real identity of ‘Bamford’; and each time they have named a different town.)
My agent, Carole Blake, took the book to Headline publishers, then still a fairly new company, located in a quaint, cramped but delightful building in Great Titchfield Street. Headline wanted to build up their crime fiction list. They bought my book and published it in 1991. I could not have imagined then, and I don’t suppose anyone else did, that I would still be writing crime novels for Headline twenty-five years later. A lot has happened in that time. I have had the privilege of working with three distinguished editors: Anne Williams, Marion Donaldson and, currently, Clare Foss. Headline has grown and moved its location, first to the Euston Road and is now, under the Hachette umbrella, to a splendid block on the Victorian Embankment.
As I climbed that narrow staircase in Great Titchfield St, I realised that my writing career would require more than one book! I needed to write a series, a daunting prospect. Eventually, the Mitchell and Markby series, as it came to be known, grew to fifteen books. The characters developed and the relationship between them became closer. This growing closeness seized readers’ imaginations, many taking a personal interest. ‘I don’t believe she loves him!’ declared one audience member emotionally, after a talk.
Ironically, at the outset I had not intended them to work as a pair. In that first book I had set out with the intention of making Meredith Mitchell an amateur sleuth working alone. But I soon found a needed a professional detective presence and introduced Alan Markby into the storyline – and he stayed.
But by book fifteen, I was facing a dilemma. To change their relationship in any way would also change the basis on which they worked. But if I failed to move them on, they risked becoming static figures endlessly appearing the same form, like reflections in a hall of mirrors. The time had come to call a halt. Headline was understanding. I had already begun a new series, featuring Fran Varady, which was alternating with the original series. Later I would develop two more series.
Saying goodbye to Mitchell and Markby was difficult. Readers protested and asked for more (they still do.) For me, the protagonists had become so real and their company so much a part of my working life that I sensed them, skulking in the background muttering, as I wrote about other characters. Perhaps one day, they’ll re-appear in some form.
Following Mitchell and Markby and the Fran Varady books, I have created two more series. These are the Campbell and Carter series and the Inspector Ben Ross Victorian series. The first of these is partly a spin-off from the last of the Mitchell and Markby stories, THAT WAY MURDER LIES, because Jess Carter is introduced in that book.
The Victorian series came about because I wanted to do something unlike the other books. This meant going back to a time when everything was different. I chose to set the books in the 1860’s when Scotland Yard’s criminal investigation was up and running. I plunged into the Victorian world of crime and it has been an exhilarating experience. It was a vibrant, colourful world of extremes when the prospect of the hangman’s noose concentrated the mind powerfully. (Readers of the so-called novels of the Golden Age of crime fiction should remember that capital punishment was still in force when those novels were written; and it is a mistake to call them ‘cosy’.)
Not all the Ben and Lizzie Ross novels are set exclusively in London. The Metropolitan Police had quickly gained such a reputation for success in criminal investigation that its help was often requested by provincial police forces, themselves with limited resources. In A MORTAL CURIOSITY, Ross is sent to the New Forest, an alien world for him. Lizzie (not yet his wife) is already there at the scene of the crime. Ben and Lizzie don’t marry until book three, A BETTER QUALITY OF MURDER. Contemporary mores wouldn’t allow them to spend so much time together unless married, and there was also the problem of Lizzie’s job. In the first two books she is a lady’s companion, something she doesn’t enjoy.
A new Ben and Lizzie Ross book will appear shortly, the 6th in this series, and will be called THE DEAD WOMAN OF DEPTFORD. Researching mid-Victorian Deptford with its bustling streets, busy docks, sinister alleys and drinking dens, cheek by jowl with elegant townhouses built a generation or so earlier for wealthy sea-captains and merchants, not only proved fascinating but a reminder of how much has been lost. Almost none of this now remains in modern Deptford but there are tantalizing traces.
As writers we invite readers into another world, a mix of fact and fiction. What better way to do it than in a series of linked stories giving time and space to explore.
Published 30 June, 2016 Headline Hardback £19.99
Photo copyright: Christopher Hulme
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