1934. A woman’s naked torso, minus head, arms and legs, found in a trunk in the left luggage office of Brighton railway station. Method of death unknown, identity never established, murderer never found.
There was another trunk murder in the same year. This one solved. The two Trunk Murders were unconnected except by time and method of disposing of the body. In the second, Tony Mancini was charged with murdering his mistress, a prostitute called Violette Kay, whose corpse he’d kept in a trunk for six weeks beside his bed. Bizarrely, neither his landlord nor landlady had a sense of smell. His barrister, later ennobled as Lord Birkett, got him off but Mancini confessed to a newspaper in the early 1960s that he had killed her.
City of Dreadful Night came out of three things. As writer-in-residence at the new Jubilee Library in Brighton I was casting around for a story of old Brighton I could do something with in this most modern of buildings. In the local history unit there was a big file devoted to the Brighton Trunk Murders of 1934. Then I read a biography of Graham Greene in which the biographer claimed that the author, busily researching Brighton Rock in the town in the early1930s, might have been the Brighton Trunk Murderer.
The third thing was that I’d met Paul Whitehouse, the Chief Constable of Sussex, several times at dinners and dos when I first moved to Sussex in the 1990s. (I moonlighted as a company wife back then.) In 1998 he resigned after the Home Secretary had written to his Police Authority suggesting they sack him because he defended officers who had been involved in an operation which saw an alleged drug dealer shot dead in a flat in Hastings. That always stayed with me.
I came up with a plot that involved a disgraced contemporary Chief Constable (inspired by but not based in any way on Paul Whitehouse or what happened to him) and the discovery of files in Brighton’s Royal Pavilion relating to the unsolved Brighton Trunk Murder. I then had to figure out a way to make past and present collide.
I was looking for a title for ages. With my comic Nick Madrid series it was easy to come up with jokey titles but everything I came up with for this definitely non-comic novel sounded portentous or corny. Then on a bookstall underneath the bridge outside the NFT on London’s South Bank I saw an aged second-hand copy of a miserable Victorian poem called City of Dreadful Night. I bought it as I loved the title and the cover and thought I might like the long poem. (I didn’t – pretty much unreadable). Then, having havered for yet more of an age about whether it too was portentous, I nicked the title – which, incidentally, Rudyard Kipling had also used for a short story.
(Just a couple of days ago Jim Williams, a terrific crime-writer I met by chance on a boat – long story – told me that when Lloyd George shamefully stacked the House of Lords with chums way back London was dubbed City of Dreadful Knights. Now that’s a Nick Madrid title! )
City of Dreadful Night was a tough write both for technical and personal reasons. (Alarmingly, given the synopsis above, it’s my most personal novel.) Getting events damned near 80 years apart to collide was a challenge. And there was so much I wanted to say about my characters and the story that it became clear I couldn’t leave it at one. So I decided on a trilogy, focusing in the second and third on two iconic Brighton features: the West Pier and the Royal Pavilion, that weird Indo-Chinese confection.
The second book is done – titled The Last King of Brighton – to be published in February 2011. The third, God’s Lonely Man, is 90% complete and to be published August 2011. They can each be read on their own – they stand-alone happily enough - but I’ve tilted the basic story in City in two different directions in its sequels. In theory, there could be a fourth and a fifth and on-and-on but there will be a kind of closure at the end of the third. As there are partial closures at the end of each novel.
It’s a curious way to work. Andrew Taylor has said (as have many others) that writing a series is easier than stand-alones because you know the characters. A future Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime or Bristol Crimefest panel (I don’t get invited to Harrogate) could usefully explore writing the trilogy or quartet or, in Laura Wilson’s case, the quintet. Those fall somewhere between the open-end of the long-term series and the one-off.
I haven’t mentioned the characters in City of Dreadful Night yet. I wanted an ensemble cast and went a bit over the top. Aside from disgraced ex-chief constable Bob Watts (I wanted to call him Robert Peel but my agent thought that would be a bit too jokey), there is DS Sarah Gilchrist (don’t mess with her)and radio journalist Kate Simpson, who is investigating the Brighton Trunk Murder.
Kate is the daughter of William Simpson, the government spin doctor who is, supposedly, Bob Watts’s best friend. But Bob’s true friend is Jimmy Tingley, ex-SAS man who lives in the shadows. You wouldn’t look twice at him in the street but if you were a villain that would be your mistake.
Plus John Hathaway, Brighton’s crime kingpin, who has a cameo in City but takes centre-stage in the second novel, Last King of Brighton.
That’s the main contemporary cast. Then there’s Donald Watts, Bob’s father, aka Victor Tempest, elderly best-selling thriller writer. He is a presence in all three books and knows far more than he should about the Brighton Trunk Murder, corruption in the police in the sixties and – well – just about everything…
As the idea of a trilogy took root I knew I wanted to explore crime in Brighton, the most complex of towns (“all fur coat and no knickers” according to one commentator) from the First World War through to the present day. A modest little project but I wasn’t intending a dry “and then and then”. I wanted to root it in families – and not just the crime families who rule for generations.
I know somewhere that came from my father and my mother both dying in the course of my writing this trilogy. But the fathers in the book are pretty horrible and there isn’t any autobiography in that. My dad would clip me round the ear at the very thought it might apply to him. Well, threaten to. With a grin.
As City progressed I was writing its sequel, Last King, pretty much in parallel. I then saw the third would be a twist on some of what had gone before, pulling a bit of the rug from under a reader’s feet, though she or he should still be left standing. So I ditched the Royal Pavilion idea to focus on that rug.
Well, not ditched – do I look mad? (Er, that was a rhetorical question.) That, my friends, is going to be attached to a magnificent stand-alone I’ve got wholly separate plans for.
So, City of Dreadful Night’s moody cover is looking at me from beside my laptop as I write this. 70,000 words of the final book in the trilogy are sitting in a file on my laptop. I’m on the final lap of that third book, God’s Lonely Man - about the rug. I keep checking back with City because, in many ways, God’s Lonely Man is more of a sequel to it than is the Last King, the second novel.
City of Dreadful Night officially comes out on 13 September but you can already get it in good – and some not-so-good – bookshops.
And so it begins…
Published 26/08/2010 Publisher Severn House Publishers Ltd Hbk £19.99 RRP