- The Devil’s Due is fairly different from your two previous novels. Did you conceive it as a sequel or a standalone?
It is a standalone although it follows the first two chronologically. ART IN THE BLOOD takes place in 1888, UNQUIET SPIRITS in 1889. THE DEVIL’S DUE is one year later in 1890. While there are small points of connection, you can read them in any order, it will not ruin the story.
- It’s your first foray into featuring a serial killer. Does it involve a different writing job?
Once there is a serial killer in play, it changes certain things about the plotting and pacing. You can see that more deaths are on the way and it becomes both a race against time and a deepening of the horror.
- Where did you find inspiration? Have you done your research the same way you did for your previous novels?
The title was an inspiration, and came first. “The Devil’s Due” really has two meanings. One is the price the devil exacts for some kind of favour – what the devil is due in exchange for granting a wish, for immortality, power, or riches, as examples. But there is another meaning — “give the devil his due” means give the devil credit for his actions… attribute the evil to the correct place. Once a person has made a deal with the devil, a moral dilemma ensues. Even if the tradeoff is beneficial to someone – it’s still a deal made with evil, and a price will be exacted.
Regarding the research, yes, I am an avid researcher on all my books. For ART IN THE BLOOD, I actually walked the Paris streets where some of the action takes place, and visited a Victorian silk mill in Macclesfield which is still extant as a museum. For UNQUIET SPIRITS, I journeyed to the Highlands to discover a castle furnished in Victorian times on which I based the main location. I also went to the island of Islay, and toured the only whisky distillery which still uses all the Victorian equipment. The exciting climax scene was based on things I observed there. I also visited a Victorian medical museum with all kinds of human artifacts preserved in alcohol. For THE DEVIL’S DUE, this latest one, I walked through the mud and rubble of theThames foreshore at the Isle of Dogs along with a historian to get the detail of that place, and had to hurry back for the tide. I also spend a lot of time with historical maps. The research is prodigious. But it is also fun.
- Last time I interviewed you, you told me how much Victorian times were similar to our era to your eyes. Your last novel is daring in that it underlines those similarities on controversial subjects: migrant and racism, terrorism… Did you intentionally draw a parallel?
Yes, very intentionally. I had something to say about this. However, I never forget for a moment that I am writing escapist adventure fiction, and the primary goal of a book like THE DEVIL’S DUE is to entertain. However, it is important to me that the underpinnings, of the book give the reader a little more than a simple thrill ride. He or she can extract greater value if these thematic elements are noted. But… they don’t have to be, you can read it as escapist adventure and it works very well on that level alone. The other stuff is just there if you want it.
For example there’s a scene in which Holmes expounds on the theory of Social Darwinism, but it’s also a funny scene where he is struggling to fit into the usual sharp looking frock coats he wears in the city, and a comment on his slightly dandy-ish self-presentation. So there’s always something else going on when I deliver the philosophical goods. Otherwise it would feel like a lecture.
- What strikes the reader the most in your novel is the darkness with which you’re describing the Victorian society: muckracking journalism, incompetent or crooked police, ambivalent politicians… What brought you to write the story in this light?
Because of the way things are today. As an artist I cannot help but feel the world around me and react to it. It was no stretch to describe similar things happening in late Victorian times in London. There was exuberance, a vibrant cultural life,and it was an exciting time in science and technology. But there were also negative similarities – homelessness, the rise of yellow journalism, fear of terrorism, shifting international power structures, a sense of the Empire collapsing. And…people blame what they fear. At that time, anarchists from the Continent terrified Londoners by bringing their justifiably angry and sometimes violent ways with them. Of course then as now, the vast majority of immigrants to London were law abiding people – doctors, chefs, weavers, artists, restauranteurs, laborers, etc. But people overreact, generalize, and operate out of fear, a point the very non-political Holmes makes to Watson and one with which we are living today. Sadly.
- Is it why you developed the character of Mycroft? Is he the link between Sherlock Holmes and the grey areas of public business?
Mycroft in this novel is a direct extension of Mycroft in the original Conan Doyle stories. Although he appears briefly in the originals, he is a shadowy figure, and is referred to as almost being the British Government. It takes a complex Machiavellian mind to navigate politics at the national and international level. Should we trust him? We certainly want to.
- I sort of felt the influence of Mark Gatiss’ performance on the character, but not only. Which take on Mycroft inspired you?
I liked the undercurrent of menace in the Mark Gatiss version of Mycroft. The sense that he loves his brother, but is not adverse to placing Sherlock in harm’s way. As I recall there was a tiny touch of menace in the Private Life of Sherlock Holmes Mycroft as well. There is a precedent for this and it adds great story juice to have this slightly ambivalent relationship, one of the few things that might endanger the invincible Sherlock Holmes.
- We can identify real people in some of your characters, like Oscar Wilde for example. Is it a temptation for you to bring them together with Sherlock Holmes, as numerous pastiche authors did?
Yes, but not to excess — only if it’s interesting, and serves the plot. I didn’t really do this in the second book, UNQUIET SPIRITS. But here, in THE DEVIL’S DUE, Oliver Flynn is a thinly disguised Wilde. I had promised a gay character to a dear friend of mine, and I didn’t want to just stick a random gay character in for no good reason. So when I researched Wilde and found he did, in fact, have connections with the anarchists (though he was by NO means a proponent of violence) and then I got the idea of humorously placing the rather conventional John Watson into this milieu it seemed like a scene ripe for both comedy and suspense.
Similarly, in ART IN THE BLOOD, Toulouse Lautrec, an intuitive man, recognizes a fellow artist in Holmes, and the real life parallel of Dr. Watson with Henri Bourges, the medical doctor and best friend who lived with Lautrec and tried to keep him from his excesses (the artist eventually died of alcoholism) was too good to pass up. It sheds a light on the perils of the artistic temperament and on both men needing their friend.
You will note, however, that these “real life” characters are quite small in the scope of each book, and they serve both a story and a thematic purpose. So I don’t just “stick them in there”. There has to be a very good reason.
- Last time we talked, you told me you’d like that each of your novels reveals a part of Holmes personality. Without spoiling, can you tell us what character trait you explored this time around?
Holmes as created by Doyle is both a pragmatist, and an optimist. In a confusing world, he has a very clear sense of morality, and a sense of mission – but without dogma. He cannot fix things on the world stage, that is for his brother and others. But he can make a real difference. In this book we get the sense of Holmes as a man who knows his role in the world and plays it to the fullest.
- On a lighter note, it seems you can’t get rid of Jean Vidocq…. Are you fond of this character and do you intend to use him again?
Mais oui. I love him. He is Jean DuJardin of The Artist in my mind. But he will not be in the next book because they asked me to set it in 1887, before ART IN THE BLOOD. And because Watson meets Vidocq for the first time in 1888, he can’t meet him here.
- At the end of The Devil’s Due you’re announcing a 2020 release for your next novel. I suppose you’ve already started to work on it… Can you give us a little teaser?
Sure. Here’s the blurb:
THE THREE LOCKS
September, 1887. A heat wave melts London as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson are called to action on two cases. In the West End, a renowned Italian escape artist dies spectacularly onstage during a performance — immolated in a gleaming copper cauldron of his wife’s design. In Cambridge, the runaway daughter of a famous don is found drowned, her long blonde hair tangled in the Jesus lock on the River Cam. Back in London, a mysterious locksmith exacts an unusual price to open a small silver box sent to Watson. From the glow of London’s theatre district, to the buzzing Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge where physicists explore the edges of the new science of electricity, Holmes and Watson race between the two cities to solve the murders, encountering prevaricating prestidigitators, philandering physicists, and murderous mentalists, all the while unlocking secrets which may be best left undisclosed. And one, in particular, is very close to home.