When DE Meredith wrote her first novel, Devoured, she offered it to various UK publishers. Set in Victorian London, it introduced us to the earliest CSIs in the form of her sleuths Hatton and Roumande. Yet even though family history, British heritage and Victoriana have been so popular over the last decade or so, publishers on these shores turned their noses up to it. Luckily, Meredith’s book and its sequel The Devil’s Ribbon were snapped up in the US. Now, at last, Devoured has been published in the UK by Allison & Busby so we decided to ask the author about her works…
Devoured has just come out in the UK – tell us a little about the book and what crime fiction lovers will find inside?
Devoured introduces us to London’s first forensic experts – Professor Hatton of St Bart’s and his side kick, the doughty, morgue assistant Monsieur Albert Roumande. This is their first adventure together and it’s a complex case. Readers will be treated to a series of gory murders, an orang-utan hunt in Borneo, outlandish Victorian characters and, along the way, learn about early forensics. This is a novel with an intricate puzzle to solve, so as one reader has put it, ‘little grey cells at the ready.’
It’s interesting that it’s Victorian crime fiction, is set in England, and yet it was an American publisher that saw its potential ahead of British ones. What are your thoughts on that?
UK publishers initially said was that it wasn’t commercially viable and that the structure was too difficult. But then St Martin’s in the US sailed in and gave me a two book deal. Their view was that it was a smart novel but that I was trying to do too much. I re-wrote it and since then I’ve learnt to do what Stephen King calls ‘killing your darlings’ – the best lesson any writer can learn.
I’m not sure the markets are that different. I think people just want to read a cracking story, turn the pages and love the characters. Susie Dunlop of Allison & Busby in the UK read both books around Christmas time. She loved the whole concept and since then I’ve been astounded by how everyone at A&B has lavished such attention on my books.
What is it that excites you about the Victorian period as a setting for your crime novels?
Devoured’s set just before the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859. The Victorian period was a time of huge social upheaval but there was a thirst for knowledge, innovation and daring.
Dry plate photography, powerful microscopes and other scientific breakthroughs were setting the stage for the dawn of forensics. London was the greatest city on Earth and Britain’s sprawling Empire dominated the world. But life was also brutal with its dog fights, bare knuckle fighting, laudanum addiction and dreadful poverty. Just think Slum Dog Millionaire with top hats and you won’t be far away. What writer could resist such a dynamic setting for a crime novel? All those twisting passages and dark alley ways – and don’t forget the pea soupers!
London is full of fascinating museums, libraries and archives. What are some of your favourite resources when you research your stories and what interesting things have you uncovered along the way?
London is my inspiration and so much of the city is still resolutely, indisputably Victorian, especially the area around Smithfield, where my novels are set.
I’ve read a huge number of books including one which shows how anatomists preserved bodies and pickled organs. Anatomists were artists, as well as brilliant scientists. They took great personal risks to preserve cadavers so others could study what they termed ‘morbid curiosities’. Sometimes they were poisoned by the vapours they breathed, as they tried to preserve an eyeball or the nerves and arteries of a face. I recommend a trip to the Hunterian Museum to learn more – you won’t be disappointed.
Devoured has a sequel, The Devil’s Ribbon, which we reviewed for its US release. How does it follow on from the first book?
Devoured introduces us to forensic detectives, Hatton and Roumande. My two heroes cut up cadavers by the flicker of a tallow in the basement of St Bart’s – hidden away from public view. Their work’s considered to be unchristian; the work of the devil. They battle against the odds, against the clock and against the prejudices of society.
The Devil’s Ribbon, out in February 2013 in the UK, is a faster paced novel. There’s a lot more comedy from the exuberant but corrupt, Inspector Gray. The readers spend more time with Hatton and Roumande, as we learn more about their lives, their frailties and strengths.
And what’s happening with your current work in progress?
I’m busy working on the new Hatton and Roumande novel. It’s taken a huge amount of research and it’s not over yet. I just hope I can pull it off. It’s called The Butcher of Smithfield.
Finally, our competition winners last year invented characters that you were going to flesh out and incorporate into your next book. How’s it going with the vagrant sociopath Walter Gribble, or the Eurasian crime-fighter Vivian Fen aka Dark Lotus?
Walter Gribble will be fleshed out and featuring in The Butcher of Smithfield. He does something rather bad – or rather good – depending on how you view it. As for, Dark Lotus, I want to keep her back for the time when I tackle the Chinese in London and the Opium Wars which, I hope, will be in a future book. And when I do get round to writing about a black belt, arse-kicking Chinese babe in a crinoline, I’m sure Professor Hatton, will be putty in her hands.