D.E. Meredith is the author of the Victorian crime series, The Hatton and Roumande Mysteries. Although she read English at Cambridge, writing wasn’t her first calling in life. With her passion for nature coming second only to her desire to see justice served, Meredith has devoted her considerable talents to environmental campaigning and the British Red Cross. Her work for the latter has taken her to some of the world’s most dangerous war zones, including Rwanda during the 1994 genocide and Afghanistan just before the Taliban took power.
Tell us a little about the Hatton and Roumande series so far.
Set in the 1850s, my forensic “detectives”, Professor Adolphus Hatton and his morgue assistant, the doughty, Monsieur Albert Roumande work in the gloomy basement of St Bart’s cutting up bodies to solve a series of bloody crimes committed on the mean streets of London. They sue the new voodoo science of forensics to shine a light on the trail of the murderer.
The series has been called CSI meets Victorian London. In DEVOURED we follow a trail of murders committed in the scientific community and seemingly linked in some way to some missing letters which have been despatched to a patron of science from the steaming jungles of Borneo and in THE DEVILS RIBBON, the story interlaces a terrorist plot, a bombing campaign in London, the emergence of the Fenian brotherhood and a series of gruesome murders committed amongst the Irish community living in London. There’s also a dash of romance, as a beautiful widow of an Irish MP steals Hatton’s head as well as his heart.
You’ve said that the reading ‘The Malay Archipelago’ by Alfred Russel Wallace provided the inspiration for ‘Devoured’. How so?
I had no intention of becoming a writer. I had builders in the house, was between contracts and for some reason picked up a little slim volume of a book – The Malay Archipelago by the great Nineteenth century natural scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace and it simply blew me away. With its tales of the jungles of Borneo, the trapping and cataloguing of birds of paradise, orang-utan hunts and theories on evolution, it set my imagination alight, so much so that instead of doing my serious work (I was due to start a new project for Greenpeace), I found myself tapping at a key board, producing what was to be the first draft of DEVOURED in a matter of months. And one thing simply led to another.
You have Irish roots, as our American friends are fond of saying. Was this the reason you choose the Fenian Brotherhood’s fight for Irish independence as the backdrop of The Devil’s Ribbon?
I was looking for the next story in the series and read The Great Hunger – a seminal book on the Irish famine and in an instant, I knew I’d found a theme I cared about, very deeply. That’s key for me – I have to connect with a story at some personal level or I don’t think it’s a story worth telling. I have Irish roots, as you say and I understand what it is to be oppressed and marginalised both because of my family history but also because I have worked extensively with refugees and in countries which are embattled either by civil war or some kind of terrible humanitarian disaster; where famine, disease and dogs eating dead corpses on the street were reality. This was Rwanda in 1996, and this was Ireland in 1847.
I felt a great deal of empathy and understanding for what the Irish people had to suffer at the hands of the English in the 1840s and that if we shifted on ten years and met people who were still burning with rage, this would make a fantastic story, especially if the mystery had to be cracked by an uptight, English scientist.
The best fiction is all about conflict and here was material which had it in spades. Plus of course, Irish history and my own memories of Ireland as a little girl on my Grandpa’s farm are so innately romantic – to me anyway. It wrote my first draft quickly, hated it, tore it up, started it again and continued in this vain until the real narrative emerged, until it felt absolutely real to me. It was hard to let The Devil’s Ribbon go.
On your Twitter profile, you describe yourself as being ‘knee-deep in corpses’ – which is, I suppose, to be expected given your novels are set in a morgue! What challenges have you encountered while researching the early development of forensics? Did you find the macabre side of this research difficult?
I have no qualms about researching gore. It doesn’t bother me. Somebody’s pain and anguish tears me up but not pictures in a book or objects in a museum. I have visited numerous field hospitals in war zones, where access to medical equipment is fairly rudimentary and I’ve seen plenty of dead bodies, so I’m well versed in medicine on the front line which is what I think C19th doctors had to face – their work being often experimental, dangerous and as we say now, really out there.
I’ve read a great deal of books on C19th anatomy, pathology and surgery – all of which I find riveting. I love morbid curiosities – death and the objectification of death is fascinating especially nowadays when we don’t like to talk about it – it’s so taboo this problem with death, but it wasn’t in Victorian days.
The Hunterian Museum and the Welcome Trust are fantastic sources for visual stimulus and the tiny detail I like to use in my book – the particular handle of a knife, the shape of a syphilitic tumour, the colour of a tincture and so forth – you can see all of this in London. Researching things specifically on forensics is much harder. There’s not a lot written on forensics pre-1900 so it’s a case of reading very widely on chemistry and so forth and piecing things together. Which is what my characters have to do.
Are you interested in Victorian era more generally? If so, what appeals to you about the period?
Of course, I love the period. It rocks. All those uptight gentlemen doctors puffing on penny smokes carrying out experiments on themselves. Blowing themselves up and accidently overdosing on laughing gas. All those women chucking laudanum down their lily white throats. I don’t buy the whole “little angel in the house” Victorian female stereotype, at all.
This was a society which was living on the edge. Death was staring you right in the face. It was full of sex mad, drug abusing, experimental nutters. And whether they were rich or poor, Victorian woman must have been as tough as old boots to survive such times. I’m not so keen on the fashions, however. I wouldn’t have fancied all those petticoats and whale bone corsets, especially in the height of summer. I’m a leggings and t shirt sort of woman but intellectually and emotionally this was a period of immense change – politically, philosophically, scientifically – which is very exciting to write about.
Have your past experiences, particularly your time with the British Red Cross, influenced your writing in any way?
No question. Although I’ve never seen my work as any kind of therapy, it’s true to say that by writing stories, you objectify your experiences. You explore images held in your memory bank but the very process of putting them down on paper maybe helps the writer make sense of them. Twisting them and re-casting them, using the tool of imagination, helps separate these experiences from yourself.
The writer can look at their experiences in a different context, observe them as if in a gallery or through a prism and perhaps even find a kind of truth. The writer provides a dramatic frame for the individual’s dreams, memories and experiences – in my case, death and being a witness to gross miscarriages of justice on a monumental scale.
In The Devil’s Ribbon, a character is compelled to kill in order to mete out justice. That rage for revenge is something that resonates with me having seen so much suffering. Until I started to write, I kept these feelings locked down in a dark recess in my mind. Now I draw on them and use them to make sense of my characters’ world. Justice and death. Good and evil. Love and hate. These are the elements which make up the world of Hatton and Roumande.
It is often said we can learn lessons from history. Given the recent events in the Middle East, and especially in Syria, what lessons would you like to see today’s politicians learn from the past?
I would like politicians to stop using immigration as a political football. Our entire history and culture is built on the backs, blood and sweat of hard working immigrants. I have been a trustee of Afghanaid, have worked for the Refugee Council and believe Britain should provide a sanctuary for victims of despotic regimes and human rights abuse, as our entire history is built on welcoming asylum seekers with open arms.
This is an aspect of British life we should be incredibly proud of, not dismantling. I find the present government’s attitude to immigration, intellectually lacking and morally shameful. How could they let UKIP seize the agenda like this? It’s pathetic.
I also think Michael Gove’s emphasis on cutting world history from the syllabus as so retrogressive it would be comical, if it wasn’t extremely dangerous. In an increasingly globalised world, understanding different cultures and religions and how we all interlace, like it or not, is paramount to our children’s future security and prosperity. As well, as fundamental to our common humanity.
Describe your typical working day for us.
I see my kids off to school/college at the crack of dawn, go for a run or hit the gym, then work from 9.30 till 4ish every day. I catch up on PR stuff and interviews (like this one!) at the weekend. Writing is like marathon running. You need to train, work hard, be self-disciplined and put the hours in. There are no short cuts.
What’s next for Hatton and Roumande?
I am currently writing the third in the series. It’s taken a while to get the story straight in my mind and to work on paper (my imagination is a labyrinth and its only tamed by rewrites) but it’s coming together, the theme of war has great resonance with me and as I rework it, I’m even having fun! We will learn a great deal more about Roumande, his past and what makes him tick, in Book 3. He’s stepped out of the morgue and into the frame – big time.
What do you like about events most?
Meeting readers. Hanging out and chatting with other writers and also the book sellers. I always learn something new. And I love Windsor, especially as my friend and fellow author Essie Fox lives there and we have lots in common. If I’m very lucky, Essie might bring along some of her famous cakes.
What makes your event special, unique, or controversial?
This is about the Victorians and their obsession with the exotica. It’s such a cool angle. How the Victorians viewed the world through the prism of their own, a world they dominated in so many ways – good and bad – as it expanded its massive Empire. The Irish were deemed more “foreign” than Indians by the Victorians and that’s just one of the angles I want to explore – why were they so scared and repulsed by the strange Celtic people across the pond and what did that result in?
I’m also fascinated by the Victorians obsession with the natural world – it’s something I definitely share with them – a love of strange, wild, exotic Nature. It’s what gave us evolutionary theory, after all which surely – along with splitting the atom – is the greatest scientific discovery by Man. Knowing where we came from and who we really are.
Thank you for the interview Denise, and look forward to seeing you at the festival
Find out all about Denise www.demeredith.com
Denise is a guest author at the Thames Valley History Festival
Denise will be taking part in the The English and The Exotic: GET TICKETS HERE:
Saturday 9th November 7.30pm, Baldwin Hall, Eton
Tickets are £7.50 (10% discount with advantage card) available now via the Thames Valley History festival Website. www.thamesvalleyhistoryfestival.org/events-13/
If you buy tickets to two different events you get a third event free.