London, 1842. Captain William Avery is persuaded to investigate a mysterious and horrible death at the Reform, London s newest and grandest gentleman s club a death the club is desperate to hush up. What he soon discovers is a web of rivalries and hatreds, both personal and political, simmering behind the club s handsome facade.
At the center is its resident genius, Alexis Soyer, the Napoleon of food, a chef whose culinary brilliance is matched only by his talent for self-publicity.
But Avery is distracted, for where is his mentor and partner in crime Jeremiah Blake? And what if this first death is only a dress rehearsal for something far more sinister?
- When and why did you first start writing historical crime novels? And how did you first come up with your detective duo Blake and Avery?
I started thinking about really doing it in about 2010/11. I’d written two massive non-fiction history tomes and taken 15 years to do it (and have two kids). I just wasn’t ready to dive back into another massive project where I had to check the facts for every half-sentence. I’d been brooding over an idea for a lone misanthropic, working-class detective in early Victorian England for years—the 1840s is a fascinating decade, full of change and turmoil (horses to railways, letter to telegraph), with lots of parallels with now. I wanted the pleasure of using my history and being able to just make things up.
So I had Blake. Avery emerged from structural need. I needed a voice to narrate the story. A younger clueless narrator worked well: he hides my ignorance and he tells as much of the story as he knows —the reader knows what he knows. But actually he really tripped from the pen as it were. He just came really easily, whereas my lovely Blake, so taciturn and tricky, was much harder.
- How did you come up with the idea behind The Devil’s Feast? Did you know who committed the crime from the start?
I’m probably a bit different from many crime writers in that often what takes my fancy first is a set-up or a setting rather than a specific crime. Maybe that’s a terrible admission, but I think one of the best and most interesting things about crime fiction is that it can contain so many things: domestic psychological thrillers, books that focus on unsettling brutal violence, characters with extraordinary back stories and also —the thing that before I started writing the things, I reckoned I could do—creating a fascinating world and showing how it works—and doesn’t. Think of Carl Hiaasen’s exotic and corrupt Miami, or Rebus’s dark, history-haunted Edinburgh, or C. J. Sansom’s terrifying totalitarian Tudor court.
My touch paper for this book was reading about this real-life genius French chef Alexis Soyer. He was the first real celebrity chef, half-Heston Blumenthal, half-Jamie Oliver, crazily flamboyant and a shameless and often hilarious self-publicist, while also being an amazing logistician and inventor— in fact he seems startling modern to me in many ways. He was crazily ambitious and dreadfully sycophantic to the aristocracy, but at a time of terrible famines and starvation among the British poor, he campaigned and worked incredibly hard to improve the diet of the poor. I thought, I have to write about this guy and also the two worlds he crossed: the rich decadent moneyed Victorian London, and those starving at the bottom. And I liked the idea of food as a weapon.
As for whodunit, I always start out with an idea – though it’s never properly worked out. I can’t seem to commit to an ending until I absolutely have to. I often write two drafts without actually writing the ending —out of sort of cowardice. It feels too hard, even though I know what’s supposed to happen. Then when I do finally force myself to write it, at the last minute, I think, oh it’s not quite right and then I have to go back and either tighten it all up, or—as happened with my previous book—actually decide on another murderer! (And that’s something I haven’t admitted to anyone before.)
- What is the hardest part of the writing historical crime fiction for you?
The plot. Plot doesn’t come naturally to me. It comes in annoying bits, sometimes I feel I have to pull it out of my head practically. An idea comes for a turn or a twist and then I’m pathetically grateful! The history is like my hammock, my safety net. I really feel perfectly comfortable in it —I feel I can conjure a past world, I know how to do it (maybe too much), but it remains that it is the background, and the set-up, and the plot has to be the foreground. Each time I start another book I think, Christ! How did I manage it last time?
- Are you a big reader? If so, what are you reading now? Are there any books that have inspired The Devil’s Feast?
I do read a lot, but when I’m writing I often feel I should be reading non-fiction stuff connected with the period to add to the layering of world and to help give me ideas to further the plot. So with The Devil’s Feast it was biographies of Soyer, 19th century cookbooks, and books about 19th century food. One of the best things I read was Bee Wilson’s book, Swindled, about the history of food scares and food adulteration—which is a long one, but was a really big issue in Victorian England, and also, of course, has lots of parallels now. Also I’m a great fan of Judith Flanders’ The Victorian City —full of fabulous, exotic, often ghastly, details. Just now I’m reading Dickens’ American Notes about his trip to America in 1842, for my next Blake and Avery—god, he is just the best journalist.
Over the summer I got to let my hair down a bit. I’d recommend Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent —another Victorian-set novel. Of thrillers I’m a great fan of Antonia Hodgson’s 18th century thrillers.
- What would be a typical working day for you? When and where do you write?
I work Monday to Friday. I get my kids up for school, they leave the house about 7.45, then I dog-basket for a bit, listen to radio while tidying the kitchen, washing-up, plumping up sofa-cushions. I find creating a bit of external order gets me ready for my desk. I have a small study above the kitchen, midway through the house, and so everyone always feels entitled too look in on the way up or down. I always mean to be at it earlier than I actually manage — hopefully 9 but often later. When I’m writing, I sit at my computer relentlessly basically all day, just bleeding brain cells and thinking it should be easier. My husband is always at me to take more breaks, to do it differently, but I can’t seem to.
I spend much too much time looking at sofas and shoes and twitter (I’m no good at Facebook), it’s all a distraction. I usually stop about 5 when my kids get home.
- Do you have any advice for other aspiring writers?
Oh blimey! Keep practising. Always aim first for clarity, work to make your meaning as clear as possible— it’s a good way of making sure you know what you’re trying to say too. Start plain, embroidery comes later, if it’s needed. Be brutal about cutting out the boring bits, and too many adjectives and adverbs. (I don’t always follow this advice.)