The Uncorked Thoughts of Lawless & the Devil of Euston Square
Sensation: the mysteries at our own doors
Uncorked Thoughts has asked me for thoughts on genre:
- did I consciously choose to write a neo-Victorian text?
- why did this genre pique my interest?
“You’re writing in a genre. Everyone’s writing in a genre. Get over it.”
I fell among the Victorians like I once fell among thieves in a seedy Mediterranean seaside town: that is, it didn’t exactly sneak up on me; more it charmed me while my mind was on other things, invited me home, got me tipsy, took my possessions, then mugged me by a dark crossroads in the gathering dusk. You know what I mean?
The seed for my book was seeing the plaque at Baker Street tube station, delcaring this the first underground train in the world. What was here before? Were people unhoused? Who built it? Who died in the building of it? How catastrophic the thundering belching engines must have seemed. The date – 10 Jan 1863 – is what threw me amongst the Victorians.
The fertile ground where my book grew was São Paulo, Brazil. The police were less trustworthy than gang members; money ruled; poverty neighboured on opulence. Money talked; the river stank. And Wilkie Collins’ injuction came back to me, that we are most fascinated by the mysteries that lie at our own doors. The story began to grow, fertilised by past reading: Fitzgerald, Conrad, Dickens, Collins, RL Stevenson; and modern revolutionary tales by Auster, Palahniuk and Iain Banks.
“I didn’t know I’d written a crime novel. I just thought I’d written a novel — with a policeman as the main character.”
The mysteries that lie at our own doors. The careless rich. Victorian London became for me an image of today’s global village: we can moan endlessly about slow bandwith and poor reception while the people who toil day and night to grow our coffee and sew our shoes are struggling to feed their children. But no matter, we somehow tell ourselves. After all, they’re so very far away, and nobody really important is disadvantaged. Supply and demand, labour and capital.
I rented a room there from an Anglo-Brazilian landlady fallen on hard times and forced to take itinerant lodgers like me. She was so poor, she only had an occasional maid (black, from the north of Brazil), who sometimes brought along her teenage daughter to help. One day the maid didn’t show, but her daughter did. My landlady told me she’d been run over: killed. Oh, I said, how can I say I’m sorry to her daughter? My landlady looked puzzled: Don’t worry, she said, these people don’t really feel these things.
The shock of that story is not that she was some kind of monster. The shock is that she was a normal middle class person, and many wouldn’t be surprised by what she said — just as nobody would have been surprised by it in the London of Dickens.
Genre: get over it
As for writing a crime novel…I really didn’t notice that I had. Indeed, I shared the snobbery (in the English-speaking literary world), that crime novels and series novels are somehow not serious. But as I learn more about the history of the novel, I think this is rubbish. What matters is whether it’s good. I wrote as good a book as I could write, allowing to bloom there all my anger about our modern times, woven on a trellis of historical delights: the underground being built (1863), Bazalgette’s sewers, London’s forgotten hydraulic network, exhibitions, courtesans, criminological mania, extraordinary slang, political scandals, banking crimes.
“The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question 'How can we eat?' the second by the question 'Why do we eat?' and the third by the question 'Where shall we have lunch?”
All novels are genre novels. (Even literary novels are a genre, or sometimes a genre waiting to be named.) And many great ones are crime novels: Candide, Great Expectations, Crime and Punishment, Therese Raquin, Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde, The Trial, The Great Gatsby.
Historical tales also have a long pedigree: viz the Iliad, Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies, Walter Scott… So I got over myself.
Indeed aren’t all novels mysteries? What’s going to happen? How? Why?
“Extravagant and thoroughly enjoyable,” wrote Allan Massie in The Scotsman.
Working with the ReAuthoring project and Portsmouth Writers’ Hub, William often wields a ukulele while performing; he has read on the radio, and at events from the Edinburgh Festival to Portsmouth’s Square Tower, from Canterbury Cathedral to the poop deck of Light Ship LV21, and from Eton College to High Down Prison.