Welcome back to the Fiction Reboot!
It was late. The snow was falling thick over Illinois in the heavy dark just before Christmas. I was staying in the apartment of my better half, an L-shaped box of a place and one of the less auspicious watering holes of our commuter marriage… Badly sealed windows barely kept out the gale, and I could hear it lashing the panes with vigor. My candles guttered. The lights flickered. In the burnt-wick smoke I swear even the shadows trembled… But I read on.
You see, I had the privilege of being an advance- or beta-reader for accomplished spinner of ghastly Victorian crime novels Alex Grecian. Having pleasantly devoured The Yard, I was settled into the horrors of a sequel: Black Country. It is rare, I think, that we encounter a sequel we like as well as the first fruits of an author’s oeuvre, but I was deeply impressed—and I’m not just whistling Dixie.
–And Dixie, interestingly enough, has some bearing on this story. What’s that, you ask? What could the American South have to do with the grim story of a coal town under threat, under snow, and nearly under ground? You must come and see for yourself, but I’ll warn you, it’s no picnic in warm sunshine that awaits you. It’s a serious thriller that will keep you on the edge of your second-hand sofa at 3 am in an Illinois snow storm. Death, disease, fear, superstition and lies–plus a bogeyman limerick that will haunt you for days: “raw head and bloody bones” (and out of the mouths of babes!)
I’ve asked Alex to return for a second time to the Reboot, and he has kindly obliged to regale us with the finer points of plotting, of character, and of grim reality that makes up the core of Black Country. Thank you, Alex, for joining us!
After leaving a career in advertising, working on accounts that included Harley-Davidson and The Great American Smokeout, Alex returned to his first love: writing fiction. He created the long-running and critically acclaimed graphic novel series Proof, which NPR named one of the best books of 2009. The series stars John “Proof” Prufock, a special-agent-sasquatch. One of the Proof storylines is set in the 1800′s and inspired Alex’s debut novel The Yard. It is the first in a projected series about the famous London Murder Squad. In the new novel, The Black Country, the Murder Squad returns–and we learn that the British Midlands are called “black country” for good reason.
When members of a prominent family disappear from a coal-mining village—and a human eyeball is discovered in a bird’s nest—the local constable sends for help from Scotland Yard’s new Murder Squad. Fresh off the grisly 1889 murders of The Yard, Inspector Walter Day and Sergeant Nevil Hammersmith respond, but they have no idea what they’re about to get into. The villagers have intense, intertwined histories. Everybody bears a secret. Superstitions abound. And the village itself is slowly sinking into the mines beneath it. The story sees the return of forensics pioneer Dr. Bernard Kingsley (probably my favorite character–which will surprise no one who knows me)–but will he and his colleagues be able to stop the rising darkness that threatens to engulf the town? We’ll see…
1. I confess, Alex, I grew up in a defunct mining town myself–and one of my own novels is set there. It’s a strange place of sink-holes and strip mines, soil too acidic to grow real trees and water too orange with disturbed sediment to drink. What encouraged you to choose this setting? And, particularly, what about the Midlands attracted you?
To be honest, I was first attracted by the name “Black Country.” It sounded ominous and I was already anxious to get my detectives away from London. I wanted to give Day and Hammersmith a chance to cement their relationship away from the rest of the Murder Squad. Cutting them off from their support structure and making them rely on each other for a whole book seemed like a good way to speed up the bonding process between them. When I started researching this area of England (again, entirely because of the name of the place) I read the diary of a Victorian-era Black Country woman. In it, she worried about the nearby houses that were sinking into the tunnels and she fretted about her children playing near the sinkholes. The setting just seemed tailor-made for my needs. And once I stumbled across the “Rawhead and Bloody Bones” rhyme, the novel really began to take shape for me.
2. I’m a historian at heart. One thing I love about your descriptions is the way they vividly capture the essence of this time period–and the picture you paint for us of the slow-sinking houses has the ring of authenticity. Could you speak to the research that goes into a novel like this one?
First of all, thank you.
The research was a little different for this book than it was for The Yard. I looked into various real-life Midlands villages, but quickly realized that I was going to have to make up my own village if I wanted the freedom to play around with the geography and destroy things without worrying about the actual history of a real place. I settled on a name for it and drew a map for Blackhampton. Then the research was essentially a matter of looking into the general flora and fauna of the area. And the speech patterns and superstitions. Superstition is a big theme in this book and I wanted to be as authentic as possible about its use.
3. I love Dr. Kingsley. I don’t want to give too much away about the story (no spoilers, I promise!), but there is so much about him that recalls certain other bold and ground-breaking doctors in this time of scientific discovery. What kind of influences go into the creation of this character? Can we expect to see more of him?
Oh, absolutely. At least, until the book in which he dies. He’s loosely based on the forensic pathologist Dr Bernard Spilsbury, but he pretty quickly became his own person as I wrote The Yard. He’s part of my Yard Trinity. Day’s sort of the decent guy at a crossroads, while Hammersmith represents emotion and action. And Kingsley represents intellect, logic. Something horrible happened to him. He lost his wife and was left to raise two daughters on his own, in a time when men didn’t really do that sort of thing. I think that speaks to a depth of character that makes him interesting to write.
4. “Evil” comes in many shapes and sizes–and you have once again woven a brilliant tapestry of inter-twined persons and events that encourage us to question the very definition. Again, in an attempt not to spoil the ending for my readers, I will ask only this: How do you conceive of the Murder Squad’s mission? Their ethos in an increasingly dark and disheveled world? What is the heart of their quest after “right”? (Certainly it seems quite different between the two detectives!)
Given what I knew was going to happen in the third Murder Squad novel, I needed Day and Hammersmith to be confronted by a crime that would shake them up and make them question their own moral decisions while also giving them the opportunity to begin relying on each other. I needed them to start wondering about things like evil and justice in ways outside the relatively simple scope of their job descriptions. The Black Country is about grey areas. It’s about responsibility. About how the choices you make (or don’t make) ripple outward and affect people you’ve never even met.
5. Much of my academic research of late has been into the concept of “moral insanity” and “partial insanity.” It was the Victorian concept that certain behaviors could call an otherwise “sane” person into question–but also that sometimes “insanity” can be quite difficult to spot. Did you encounter these terms (or others like them) at all during your work?
I’ve read a bit about moral insanity, but I’ve always been fascinated by modern-day sociopaths and how they function in society. I think there’s a very fine line between simple self-interest and sociopathic behavior. Crossing that line makes for fine drama. And exploring that concept in an era that has few ways of expressing it makes it more interesting for me, a road less traveled.
6. One of the key villains of this text comes to us from an intersecting storyline. I was intrigued by the way this character both is and is not central–the way in which he circles the text like a malignant satellite, with his hideous deformity, but more hideous personality. At times, he seemed almost as organically destructive as the forces of nature. What inspired this unusual character?
I’m an American who writes stories about people in England and I thought it might be fun to somehow include an American in this book. The character who eventually became Calvin Campbell was going to be an American, but then I began the research for the book and discovered that there were roughly fourteen thousand British volunteers who served in the American Civil War. That suggested a connection to my little village of Blackhampton and the story came together around him in unexpected ways. The only American left in the book became a villain, a sort of trigger for some of the violence that had to happen and a symbol of evil. That was unexpected.
7. The marks of industrialization are clearly evident in this story. Coming from the land of mountain-top removal, I certainly felt great sympathy for the way you never let the reader too readily damn the mining industry (which feeds and clothes the villagers), and yet keep its carnage before us. Would you say this is a cautionary tale?
There are two sides to everything and people have to eat. But it’s so interesting (and troubling) to see people focus on immediate needs and desires while they avoid dealing with long-term consequences. We’re apparently among the only animals that can envision cause and effect, can predict future events based on past events and the patterns we perceive. Too bad we don’t seem to have much use for that ability.
8. Can you speak more to the relationship between our detectives? It has the warmth and intimacy we come to expect from crime-fighting duos (and influenced by Doyle himself), but with some interesting additions and departures. I am particularly interested in Hammersmith’s development (and weaknesses)–and that he is the younger and less experienced of the pair.
Hammersmith is a simple guy. There isn’t a lot of room in his philosophy for grey areas. But he comes from a very different background than Day does. Hammersmith had a rough childhood and had to struggle to get where he is. So he’s very action-oriented. (On the other hand, he’s much better read than Day is.) But Day had an easier childhood and sort of stumbled into his position as a detective. I think he’s still a little dazed by it all. He’s more likely to listen to people and think about what they say to him. Detective work is a puzzle for him to solve, whereas Hammersmith sees it more as a chase to catch the villain. I like to think he might eventually settle down and learn from Day’s example. For the moment, though, they balance each other well.
9. There are so many fascinating scenes and characters; I find I’m spoiled for choice as to favorites. Do you have favorites? What–and why?
The young horse and the old horse. And the little bird. The animals in this book meant a lot to me, without actually doing much at all.
I started getting feedback about The Yard as I was writing The Black Country and was surprised to find out that Henry, the dancing man, was a favorite of many readers. I hadn’t originally intended to include him in Black Country, but as I thought about why he was so beloved I decided to bring him to the Midlands with Kingsley to see what he’d do there. I was surprised by how much he added to the story in small subtle ways. He’s growing on me.
10. The last question is perhaps a bit unfair–but we must ask! Will there be more? When? How long must the eager wait?
There will be more and I’m very glad you’re eager to read them. The plan is to have a new Murder Squad book come out every spring or summer. Right now, I’m writing the third Murder Squad book, called The Devil’s Workshop. I’m dealing with a lot of the loose ends I left dangling at the end of the first book, bringing back Day’s old mentor, whom we barely saw in The Yard, and answering some scary questions about the most famous serial killer in history.