Somewhere on the web I found a definition of the characters required for a gothic novel: the maiden, the hero, the villain, and an older, foolish woman. In my book The Ghost of Helen Addison, these would be, respectively: Helen Addison (and Eva Whitton), Leo Moran, the killer, and the hotelier Shona Minto.
I have myself identified other sub-elements to the gothic, some of which appear in my forthcoming Leo novel, The Shadow of the Black Earl (out September 2018). Sometimes there is a portrait of a deceased individual (used, for example, in the short story The Lost Stradivarius by J Meade Falkner, The Hound of The Baskervilles, and the movie The Innocents based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw), which is usually seen before or after the protagonist has seen the ghost of that individual. Also common are framing devices – stories within stories, often told through lost and found old manuscripts telling of some ancient evil. For example, the Hound of the Baskervilles features such a document, and James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is partly comprised of the presentation of a found document from the previous century. Other sub-elements I have identified are musical boxes, haunted attics, glimpsed figures at windows or on battlements, stormy weather, and physically deformed or curiously ugly characters. There are also thrawn (RL Stevenson used this wonderful Scots adjective in Thrawn Janet, a gothic short story), canny and disdainful or even hostile locals. The hero is usually a visitor, the innocent abroad or perhaps the noble idiot. The locals close off secrets to him, and he doesn’t understand rural ways and might unwittingly give offence.
Gothic is currently enjoying a renaissance in Scotland. For example, there is the excellent sequel to the most iconic of all Scottish Gothic novels, RL Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, entitled Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek. It was written by the talented Anthony O’Neill and brilliantly evokes the tone of the original. The grandfather of all Scottish Gothic, Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, is clearly an inspiration behind Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016.
The Ghost of Helen Addison is an accidental successor to Margaret Oliphant’s gothic tome The Wizard’s Son . It was spooky to realise how many similar elements there are within both books, despite my never having heard of it, let alone read it, prior to writing Helen Addison. First of all, both novels are set at a fictionalised version of Loch Awe (which she renamed Loch Houran, I renamed Loch Dhonn). Both of us were inspired by Kilchurn Castle at the top of Loch Awe, which became the keep on my island of Innisdubh, and the Castle of Kinloch Houran in Mrs Oliphant’s tale. In both books, a flawed protagonist (Leo Moran in my book, Walter Methven in Mrs Oliphant’s) arrives from outside, and by similar means, by train and then coach/taxi, and both books record the protagonist’s first impressions of the place. The protagonist then leaves only to return again. In both books there was the element of a wicked ancestor (in my book the thirteenth Baron Caradyne, in Mrs Oliphant’s the Warlock Lord of Erradeen), a magician who seeks to bring riches and/or power to his line. The gothic often encompasses religious themes, and in both books there is a female object of the hero’s romantic affection; Eva in my novel and Oona in Mrs Oliphant’s. Both women’s names were chosen consciously to evoke a religion theme: Eva evokes the Edenic theme of my book, whereby idyll of Loch Dhonn is shattered by terrible sin. Meanwhile Walter is redeemed by Oona Forrester; Una means lamb, evoking the Christ sacrifice of the Lamb of God.
Another novel which contributes to this revival of the Scottish Gothic is Jane Harris’ superb Gillespie and I , featuring the unreliable narrator Harriet Baxter, and set at the time when a neo-gothic Glasgow was under construction. Unreliable narrators are common in the Scottish Gothic, as are changes in the narrative voice, for example the story being told through different statements and letters, by people with different motivations or biases. These novels therefore reflect on the nature of truth, and ask whether objective truth can exist, and we often don’t know for certain what happened or why, or are left to project our own interpretations onto the text. I myself indulge in this by having two possible explanations for events in my Leo Moran novels: a supernatural one and an entirely ‘rational’ one.
This notion of projecting different interpretations on the same text brings me to the classic feature of the Scottish Gothic novel: it is marked by duality, tension or conflict between opposing ideas. This is the ‘Caledonian Antisyzygy’ coined by Professor George Gregory Smith and expounded in an essay by the poet Hugh MacDiarmid. In my experience, the Caledonian Antisyzygy can refer to many tensions or conflicts lurking within the Scottish nation or consciousness.
The duality can be expressed within character (most famously Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) or setting. Perhaps the structure of Confessions of a Justified Sinner reflects this too; the rational ‘editor’ and the superstitious Robert Wringham representing the rational and superstitious components in the Scottish consciousness. In The Ghost of Helen Addison, my detective Leo accepts a metaphysical explanation for events, while the policeman DI Lang, a typically pragmatic, logical, Lowland Scot, prefers the rational.
Confessions of a Justified Sinner demonstrated the influence of hard-line Calvinism on the ‘wild’, ‘romantic’ or ‘passionate’ Scottish psyche, but I’d contend that the most significant mover behind this Scottish dualism is the troubled relationship Scotland has with England. Professor David Punter of Bristol University, an expert on the genre, pinpoints the idée fixe of the gothic as a concern with history, especially the myths and fabrications upon which a nation is based. The Scottish Gothic is therefore haunted by Scotland past. In many ways, Scottish national identity was crystallised by opposition to England, and even though the Act of Union brought peace between the countries, there remains an uneasiness to this arrangement the Scottish mind.
The Scots are often referred to a Jekyll and Hyde people. It is a country influenced by the light of reason – quite literally Enlightened – which produced much of the philosophy, science and engineering that shaped the modern world. Conversely, the Scottish soul is also romantic, superstitious and subject to often self-destructive passions. This split could once have been considered roughly geographic; the gentler country of the south inhabited by the staid, better-educated, English-speaking (inasmuch as Scots is a dialect of English), Presbyterian population who typified the values of the Enlightenment, the Union and the Industrial Revolution. While the rugged, forested Highland country of the west and north was inhabited by the Gaels, the people of poetry and song and doomed causes and ancient honour codes and blood loyalties and uisge-beatha. I reckon the Highlands reflect a further dualism. It is an uncommonly beautiful realm, an inspiration to artists and a backdrop for tales of heroism, romance and adventure. When the sun shines on a Highland landscape it lifts the spirits. Yet in the winter’s dark, in the rain or beneath a scowling sky, the very same terrain can – often very quickly – take on a melancholy and even sinister aspect. Within such shadow it is not hard to comprehend why ours is a country rich in a darker romance, in tales of ghosts and witchcraft. Loch Awe – or in my case Loch Dhonn – typifies this alternation, and the novel takes place at the hinterland between winter and the beginning of spring. Therefore both versions of Scotland are present in the novel, the pretty and romantic/the dark and foreboding.
The journey north is another gothic trope, and the Ghost of Helen Addison begins with Leo travelling north by train from Glasgow to Loch Dhonn. Night journeys are common in the gothic, and Leo’s second trip northwards when he returns from his banishment is on a wild night. The Highland/Lowland divide is enshrined by these journeys as the protagonist moves from the urban, ordered, civilised cradles of Scottish Enlightenment (Glasgow in Helen Addison and Edinburgh in The Wizard’s Son) to the rural, backward, untamed and superstitious northern realm. I like setting my books (largely) within the countryside as I feel it is a timeless place, where getting by is still more trying and where business still proceeds according to seasonal rhythms. In a sense the country is therefore an anachronism, a trip back in time from the modern, hi-tech city of convenience and easy conveyance.
Gothic reflects a more general duality of human nature, usually expressed as an inner struggle between good and evil, with variations such as human versus animal, and civilization versus barbarism. The gothic allows for a conflicted, complex character such as Leo Moran. He is a conservative Catholic but has left-wing politics, a proud Scot but of Irish descent, a genteel, polite man but a heavy drinker, a socialist who lives in opulence and idleness, a kind-hearted and principled man but also a sharp-tongued and unforgiving person, a sociable and overtly confident man but also an individual who is emotionally wounded and who too often craves isolation.
When I sat down to write The Ghost of Helen Addison, my intention was simply to create a crime novel. However, after it was published I found it was often being described as ‘gothic’, and indeed I was recently invited to speak at three ‘gothic’ literary events, so I feel as though I inadvertently have a foot inside two literary camps. I think we all have a sense of what ‘gothic’ is, but I wanted to investigate more precise academic definitions of the term to measure the extent to which Helen Addison was a gothic novel.
I realised that there were several gothic literary influences on the book. Prior to writing it, I had read A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (which I have discussed in a previous blog), which belongs to the Southern Gothic sub-genre. Furthermore, its antihero IJ Reilly (who helped inspire my detective Leo Moran) yearns for a medieval ideal, which chimes with the way that the gothic novel evokes the medieval. I had also read the entire collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, again an influence on Leo, and apparently Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s little masterpieces are also considered to be gothic in terms of atmosphere, setting, suspense and dalliances with the supernatural (or rather with people’s fears of the supernatural, because of course Holmes is a man of the Enlightenment, of science and method). I had also read several collections of classic gothic ghost stories, by Sheridan Le Fanu, MR James and Rhoda Broughton. Setting is perhaps the most important element to the gothic, and the final influence I’d like to mention wasn’t literary, it was an actual location: Loch Awe in Argyll (see previous blog), which the Loch Dhonn of my book is based on. I first visited this place in the late autumn, a landscape brooding in the shortening days, summer’s greenery withered and brown beneath louring skies and looming mountains.
Anyway, so much for influences – what about definitions? The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of gothic is: ‘redolent of the Dark Ages; portentously gloomy or horrifying.’ The literary vogue was initiated in England in 1765 by Horace Walpole’s immensely successful Castle of Otranto (I haven’t read it, but an audience member at one of my gothic events informed me that it isn’t worth the effort!). The gothic novel incorporates a prevailing atmosphere of mystery, terror, horror, fear, death, and gloom. There are also romantic ingredients such as nature, individuality, high emotion, and (often unreturned) love. To relate this to The Ghost of Helen Addison, there is obviously a death – the murder of a young woman. As for horror, there is a ghost – as the title suggests; that of the victim’s restless spirit. While she is a benign ghost, the encounters between her and Leo are nonetheless chilling. There is an occult (also horror) element to crime, and there are suspenseful and frightening passages (terror, fear), some taking place at night. There is a romantic focus of Leo’s affections – the artist Eva Whitton – and it is an unreturned love.
The writer Lyn Pykett said gothic novels ‘share a preoccupation with the monstrous and supernatural, and make frequent use of dreams, visions, hallucinations, metamorphoses of various kinds.’ Well, my detective Leo Moran experiences visions which pertain to certain crimes, and which inform his investigations.
Gothic fiction is so named because its imaginative impulse was drawn from medieval buildings and ruins, which by the Renaissance were being described as being of gothic architecture (presumably because they by then considered it primitive, and used a barbarian pejorative). Gothic literature started at the same time as the revival in the appreciation of gothic architecture (mid-18th century, notably the highpoint of the Enlightenment and therefore perhaps a reaction against its raw materialist impulses) and indeed its replication in neo-gothic buildings. Many artists were soon longing for a lost past, for example the great polymath William Morris and the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, while certain High Anglican churchmen and theologians at Oxford pined for a pre-Reformation religion. Gothic novels commonly use settings such as castles or monasteries or ancient houses equipped with subterranean passages, dark battlements, hidden panels, and trapdoors. Often the wing of an old house is empty or closed off. The setting, especially a building, can itself be considered as an actual character, a sense of it being alive, as having its own personality and secrets. Examples would be the house in Conan Doyle’s Adventure of the Copper Beeches, Baskerville Hall in his Hound of the Baskervilles, Wuthering Heights in Emily Bronte’s classic, Satis House in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, and Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Incidentally, these novels suggest a broader definition of Gothic as a tone and style encompassing works that don’t necessarily have a mystery at their heart, or at least, the mystery is more a secret or an ancient malevolence than a crime. Often the buildings are old, dilapidated, decaying and might be set within gloomy, lifeless, fear-inducing landscapes. The gothic novel and indeed movie are now so embedded in our consciousness that this gloomy and frightening backdrop sets the scene for what the reader/audience comes to expect. The surrounding Highland landscape in The Ghost of Helen Addison is beautiful and grand but morose and at times oppressive in the winter gloom, which embodies the legends and foul deeds which abound in the locale.
Gothic settings can be inhabited by supernatural evil or a building might conceal secrets or be a refuge of a malevolent, frightening or threatening character. Examples are Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, the influence of du Maurier’s Rebecca at Manderley, the tyrannical Dr Grimesby Roylott who lives at Stoke Moran in Conan Doyle’s the Adventure of the Speckled Band, and, classically, Bram Stoker’s Dracula in his castle. In The Ghost of Helen Addison there is a strange person, The Grey Lady, who lives in a lonely old mansion, Fallasky House. She doesn’t socialise with the villagers and holds with the old faith. Her butler/lover Bosco is also a mysterious character. Initially, we only hear tell of him and his reputation as a peculiar fellow of immense physical strength. There is also the dastardly baron of Caradyne and his henchman Kemp, although they are less enigmatic as we meet them quickly and in full view during daylight. We never visit their house, although we do glimpse a creepy former Caradyne residence, Ardchreggan House, on the opposite bank of the loch. Further gothic settings in The Ghost of Helen Addison would be an eerie church, St Fillan’s, where a terrifying moonlit episode takes place. The island of Innisdubh is the main locus of evil in the book. It has a dark past. There are strange druid stones and it is suspected that human sacrifice took place here in ancient times. There is a ruined tower where a medieval tyrant the Green Lord was hanged and disembowelled. There are various graves, including that of the Green Lord and the thirteenth Baron of Caradyne. The latter incorporates weird occult symbolism –allegedly he did dire deeds in Edwardian times.
In my next gothic outpouring, I’m going to consider sub-elements of the genre, and also the Scottish Gothic.
Last week, I spoke at two Waterstones events celebrating the Gothic Novel to mark Hallowe’en, the first at Glasgow Argyle Street, the second at Edinburgh Princes Street. It was an honour sharing a platform with the superb Michael J Malone, who came up with the idea for the events, and Anthony O’Neill. I thoroughly enjoyed both authors’ recent works: Michael’s House of Spines (a creepy haunted house/psychological drama with echoes of Daphne du Maurier) and Anthony’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek (a sublime sequel to Stevenson’s classic). Thanks to Sharon (https://chapterinmylife.wordpress.com/) and Julie Myatt for their excellent hosting. I intend on writing a blog on the Gothic Novel, once I’ve done my next Gothic event. On Sunday October 29 I spoke at the Tarbert Book Festival. Following me was the fantastic Lisa Tuttle. It was a pleasure meeting her and all the organisers, and I look forward to getting stuck into Lisa’s latest, The Witch at Wayside Cross. Lisa and I have something in common: our penchant for the ‘occult detective’.
As for the near future, my pal and co-author Martin Greig of BackPage Media will be interviewing me about my book The Ghost of Helen Addison within the context of the ‘Scottish Gothic’ at the Arlington Baths, Arlington Street, Woodlands, Glasgow on Tuesday November 28. It starts at 630pm, with a 6pm tour of the interesting baths. It’s free, but places are limited so you need to register at Eventbrite, via:
Also, I’ll be in Waterstones Dunfermline at 7pm on Thursday November 30 with the acclaimed Neil Broadfoot. The theme of Book Week Scotland this year is ‘NOURISH’, so I will be considering Leo Moran the gourmand. There might even be a wine tasting!
Before all that, I’ll be interviewing the wonderful Alex Gray, Craig Robertson and Alexandra Sokoloff on Friday November 24. It’s part of ‘Cocktails, Canapes and Crime’, an evening to raise funds for KIND, a small charity which helps poor Scottish families with hampers over Christmas. Friday 24 November 2017, 7.00pm for 7.30pm. MacRoberts LLP, Capella, 60 York Street, Glasgow, G2 8JX. Tickets costing £25 can be booked by emailing Susan Fraser at email@example.com
I haven’t blogged for a wee while as I’ve been waylaid with promotional matters.
I did an Edinburgh Fringe event at Blackwell’s bookshop back in August, where I and four other authors gave 15-minute speeches/readings. It was brilliantly organised/presented by Ann Landmann and also featured the fantastic Willie Hershaw, Ever Dundas, Jane Tulloch and William McIntyre. I did a live radio interview with Oban FM on August 27. The interviewer Breege really liked The Ghost of Helen Addison and asked excellent questions. I did a whistle-stop tour of four Waterstones shops on September 5 (Perth, Dundee, St Andrews and Kirkcaldy) where the jam sponge cakes I had brought, with the book’s cover on the icing, went down a treat! The first two visits were to in-store book groups, and it was interesting hearing the views of people who wouldn’t necessarily read crime fiction. Angie Crawford of Waterstones did a skilful job of compering these discussions, and even managed to vary the questions between Perth and Dundee. Also in tow were Neil White of BackPage Media who did some recording for a follow-up Debut podcast episode, and Vikki Reilly from Birlinn who drove me around and kept me cheerful. It was a tiring but fun day. At Bloody Scotland on September 10 I did a podcast interview with Neil in the Curly Coo pub, and then at 4pm I got to address Chris Brookmyre’s audience at the grand Albert Halls. This was for my ‘Spotlight’ session in which new crime authors get to speak/do a quick reading for three minutes before a main event. You’d be surprised what you can cram into three minutes… at the rehearsal I hit 2:59:54 – not bad timing! Chris is a masterful and very funny public speaker and it was nice once I had done my nerve-wracking bit to just sit back and enjoy his talk. We then signed books afterwards in the festival shop. I saw several other impressive speakers over the weekend. Bloody Scotland is quite an experience, and I’m grateful to Chris, Gordon Brown and Lin Anderson and for their support on the day, and for folk like Bob McDevitt and Alex Gray for running such an amazing festival. Then I addressed the Dunoon Book festival on September 15 run by Dinah and Ann, which was a nice trip ‘doon the watter’. I’ve got further events coming up in Tarbert (Loch Fyne) and Dunfermline this autumn.
I’ve also been very busy getting the follow-up to The Ghost of Helen Addison ready for the publisher. After a long period of preparation and a year of quite intense work on it, it’s nearly set for submission, and although I’ve still got to go through an editorial process, I have to say I’m pleased with it. It’s called The Shadow of the Black Earl, and if you liked Helen Addison I’m confident you will enjoy it. It features some of the same characters – Leo Moran, obviously, but also Stephanie and Fordyce. In fact, most of the book takes place at Fordyce’s country seat ‘Biggnarbriggs Hall’ in Kirkcudbrightshire. In contrast to Helen Addison, it’s set during a long, hot, dry Scottish summer (yeah, I know – I’m stretching the readers’ credulity there!). It’s out 2018… here’s the blurb:
Devastated by a sudden bereavement, Leo Moran is invited to spend the summer at Biggnarbriggs Hall in southern Scotland, the stately residence of his friend Fordyce Greatorix. He is overjoyed when romance blossoms unexpectedly, but he finds himself haunted by visions after a local girl goes missing, an incident which has chilling echoes of a similar disappearance thirty years previously. As he investigates a host of curious and dubious characters, Leo finds that the very bedrock which surrounds Biggnarbriggs Hall is poisoned by an ancient malevolence that will have its terrible reckoning.
My younger sister Clare raved about and lent me her copy of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces in the summer of 2010. Reading it was one of several threads that came together that year, which together spawned Leo Moran and The Ghost of Helen Addison.
A Confederacy of Dunces is a true masterpiece of black comedy, a strange and unique novel set in New Orleans and starring the grotesque Ignatius B Reilly. There must be something about Louisiana that got into my blood when I visited there in 1997, because as I write this it occurs to me that perhaps the greatest two influences on the Leo Moran series are A Confederacy of Dunces and the beloved Dave Robicheaux crime fiction books by James Lee Burke, discussed in a previous blog. Dunces is one of those novels in which not a great deal actually happens, but the lack of plot simply does not matter to the reader, who is entirely caught up in the genius of the prose, and the funniness of the farcical events and colourful characters. I suppose I could compare it with my favourite film Withnail and I (also, I think, an influence on Leo Moran). If you were to explain to the uninitiated what happens within Withnail, it would take approximately sixteen seconds (SPOLIER ALERT: Two out-of-work actors seek oblivion in booze and drugs, then go to countryside for the weekend. They drink more, mistake a poacher for a psychopath, and one is nearly molested by the other one’s lascivious uncle. They come home, one gets a stage role, they part company).
On the subject of movies, Dunces has persistently failed to be translated onto the big screen, to the extent that the endeavour seems cursed. John Belushi was earmarked to play Reilly, but sadly died. Then option after option meant the script became strangled by ever-winding bonds of legal complexity. To the book’s aficionados the project is doomed anyway; such was Toole’s picturesque genius that no actor ever born could do his antihero Reilly justice. Inasmuch as books almost always outclass their movie versions, then a Confederacy of Dunces film would inevitably prove a faint Photostat of its mighty provenance.
The book's lack of coherent plot was the tragic downfall of its author. Robert Gottlieb, a senior guy at Simon & Schuster, championed the work during the mid-sixties, but Toole, fiercely loyal to his manuscript, refused to compromise on the demand that he add more storyline. As a result he was not signed up and the perfectionist Toole went into stasis; apparently only the world’s biggest publishing outfit would have passed muster for his creation. It would be churlish to offer a trite explanation as to why Toole took his own life in 1969; perhaps there were myriad reasons. But undoubtedly the failure of Dunces to get into print played a crucial part.
The next chapter is the stuff of bittersweet literary legend: how Toole’s indomitable mother Thelma’s sheer force of personality got the (unadulterated) manuscript into print by 1980; a year later her son had scooped a posthumous Pulitzer.
Anyway, while I feel slightly squeamish speaking about myself in the company of such greatness, I must confess that Toole’s ghastly, self-deluded, ultra-supercilious outsider Reilly must have had an influence on my guy Moran. I reckon I already had Leo – irascible, Catholic (like Ignatius) and pompous – formed, but Toole’s masterpiece probably drew him forth from the ether and sharpened his acidity. In the same way that James Lee Burke’s novels gave me the confidence to reach for a particular style of crime writing, so did Toole’s great work encourage me not to compromise on Moran’s larger-than-lifeness.
So, to my sister Clare I say ‘thank you’ for lending me the book back then, and ‘sorry’ for returning it rebound with duct tape! I’m usually very careful with other folk’s property, but at least it demonstrated that it had been well-thumbed!
In my last blog I spoke about my high regard for the crime writing of James Lee Burke, particularly the Louisiana-set series starring Dave Robicheaux. Burke is my hero, but there are plenty of other detective writers I enjoy and admire.
Burke’s novels often brush against the veil between this world and the next, but seldom more than obliquely; one is left wondering if the hero has indeed felt or witnessed something otherworldly. To my mind, the most overt example of this is when Robicheaux begins communicating with the phantom of an old Confederate general in ‘In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead’, but even then one is never wholly sure if the detective, who is under great emotional strain, is hallucinating.
John Connolly, an Irishman who I believe is based in the United States, is a terrific writer and the creator of the fine Charlie Parker series. He is also a fan of Burke. I first discovered Connolly after I had written several drafts of my crime debut ‘The Ghost of Helen Addison,’ and as well as enjoying the stories they also gave me great encouragement. This was because it was at a time when I was struggling to find a publisher, and although I felt proud of my book, I did harbour some doubts as to whether I had busted the confines of the genre beyond the tolerances of publishers. You see, booksellers tend to like things to fit in their neat little places. Although The Ghost Helen Addison is ostensibly crime fiction, as the title suggests it contains a not inconsiderable dose of the supernatural. Leo Moran is a psychic detective but that’s only part of the uncanny goings-on. Anyway, Connolly’s books gave me solace because they cross over to the supernatural even more regularly than I do. In fact, read a certain way Connolly’s hero is up against legions of demons who have assumed human form, making my Leo series positively orthodox crime writing in comparison. Due to its tone and style, I’d still classify Connolly’s work as crime fiction; but he skilfully and convincingly plunders the supernatural genre with regularity.
The podcast ‘Debut’ is the story behind the story of The Ghost of Helen Addison. That is to say that it traces my steps from my initial stirrings as a writer and then the initial inception of the book, right through my developing the novel, to getting it published and beyond. Anyway, Neil ‘Whitey’ White of BackPage media who produced the podcast and conducted most of the interviews, drew out a significant moment in my personal narrative. In 2003 I was visiting friends from my London days in Melbourne, and one of them kindly lent me her car in order that I could drive the Great Ocean Road, which straddles a section of the southern coastline of Australia. I stopped for the night in some town or village – I forget the name of the place – and having finished whatever book I had my nose in found myself with nothing to read (this being the days before Kindles). I remember entering a bookshop and being unable to find anything I wanted, and the young man who worked there expertly recommended James Lee Burke, the American crime writer. The book was Jolie Blon’s Bounce, then the latest in the Louisiana-set series starring Dave Robicheaux, and starring one of the most disturbing, get-under-your-skin baddies I have ever encountered in literature: one Legion Guidry. Up until then I hadn’t really been much of a crime fiction fan. My older brother John had adored Agatha Christie as a teenager, and I enjoyed a good few of his books back then (a box containing a sizeable chunk of her crime canon still sits in my mother’s attic). Apart from that, I only read the occasional crime novel. Discovering James Lee Burke changed all that, because I was blown away by his talent, and also by the fact that the genre could be so literary and elegant, and could be used to express such deep ideas. There were extraordinary characters, Cormac McCarthy-esque descriptions of the physical world, rugged moral landscapes and, most of all, existential explorations to the point that the narrative could brush against the supernatural. I have since read all of the Robicheaux novels and most of Burke’s other works, and because of him read a lot more crime than I otherwise would have. Most importantly, and although the idea wouldn’t germinate until seven years after that chance visit to that Aussie bookshop, there is no doubt in my mind that without having read Burke I would never have come up with Leo Moran or The Ghost of Helen Addison. I just wouldn’t have guessed at what you can aim for in crime fiction.
By the way, I should point out that Neil of Backpage is a fellow James Lee Burke apostle; he is an avid crime reader but I believe Burke is his hero. Neil, as sports-publishing business partner of my good pal (and co-author of the Road to Lisbon) Martin Greig, was one of the initial people to read (a first draft of) Helen Addison (then entitled The Killing of Helen Addison.) Neil really liked my efforts, and because we shared the same tastes his opinion meant a great deal to me. Also, back then I had barely met him, and therefore I knew he wasn’t speaking from a position of conscious or unconscious bias in my favour, so it was very encouraging to get his feedback, and all authors need a wee bit of a boost in their early stages. So thanks, Whitey.
The Ghost of Helen Addison is set within the fictional village of Loch Dhonn at the fictional loch of the same name.
Loch Dhonn stands in for Loch Awe in Argyll. I fictionalised it in order that I could move or change certain locations and geological features to fit with the narrative. In order to come up with replacement place names that had authenticity, I borrowed several from the Isle of Bute, where I spent many happy childhood holidays. I did the same with the second Leo Moran book, 'The Shadow of the Black Earl' which I have almost finished rewriting.
I first spent time at the northern reaches of Loch Awe in November 2010, when my cousin and her husband kindly lent me the lovely house they had just had built there. That was one of several coinciding instances that winter which combined as the inspiration for what became The Ghost of Helen Addison.
The Scots are often referred to a Jekyll and Hyde people (aka the ‘Caledonian Antisyzygy’ for all you clever clogs; try saying that after a few whiskies!). It is a country influenced by the light of reason – quite literally enlightened – which produced much of the philosophy, science and engineering that shaped the modern world. Conversely, the Scottish soul is also romantic, superstitious and subject to often self-destructive passions. This split could once have been considered roughly geographic; the gentler country of the south inhabited by the staid, better-educated, English-speaking (inasmuch as Scots is a dialect of English), Presbyterian population who typified the values of the Enlightenment, the Union and the Industrial Revolution. While the rugged, forested Highland country of the west and north was inhabited by the Gaels, the people of poetry and song and doomed causes and ancient honour codes and blood loyalties and uisge-beatha.
I reckon the Highlands reflect a further dualism. It is is an uncommonly beautiful realm, an inspiration to artists and a backdrop for tales of heroism, romance and adventure. When the sun shines on a Highland landscape it lifts the spirits. Yet in the winter’s dark, in the rain or beneath a scowling sky, the very same terrain can – often very quickly – take on a melancholy and even sinister aspect. Within such shadow it is not hard to comprehend why ours is a country rich in a darker romance, in tales of ghosts and witchcraft.
Loch Awe – or in my case Loch Dhonn – typifies this alternation, and the novel takes place at the hinterland between winter and the beginning of spring. Therefore both versions of Scotland are present in the novel, the pretty and romantic/the dark and foreboding. It would have seemed a missed opportunity for me not to have added a hefty dash of the supernatural into the brew!
I recently did a telephone interview with Westender Magazine and it got me thinking about the subject of setting in ‘The Ghost of Helen Addison’.
The interviewer, Lorraine, asked me about the significance of Glasgow’s West End in the book, and I realised that it was of critical importance to both its ambience but more significantly to its lead character, Leo Moran. Most of the action in the book takes place at the fictional Loch Dhonn, and I will write a separate blog post on that soon, but two significant sections are set in Glasgow.
The ambience of Glasgow’s West End has always affected me, ever since as a child when we would visit family there. It is a wonderfully grand place with its towering apartment buildings, mighty churches and bridges, leafy parks and riverbanks, and overgrown backstreets and rear lanes. It is such as well-preserved area that it matches the glorious anachronism that is Leo Moran; he could not exist anywhere else in the world. Moreover, there is real architectural beauty to the place, which chimes with Leo’s aesthetic sense. There is also a melancholy gloominess which characterises the West End, particularly in late autumn and winter, and this matches Leo’s oftentimes gloomy outlook.
Leo resides in Spring Gardens, a place of ‘august, soot-stained Victorian tenements’. While Loch Dhonn is a fictionalised version of Loch Awe (fictionalised in order to permit me to move certain geographical items around to suit the plot), Spring Gardens is in fact a real residential street in Glasgow, and I know precisely the flat in which Leo lives, surrounded by his antiques and treasures. However, it hasn’t been called Spring Gardens since Edwardian times (a prize of a Blue Riband biscuit for whoever can identify the street’s current name!) I spent ages trying to identify a suitable location for Leo’s abode. It had to be a magnificent, top-floor apartment with a good view over the West End, and notably it had to sit on a landing on its own.
Leo’s apartment was comfortable, secluded and filled with his beloved things. He loved his flat. It was his den, his inner sanctum, his own private Dalmatia. Whenever he closed that front door and turned the latch he was left in glorious solitude; no one could bother him or hurt him. He loved the fact that his rooms were located in an end attic of the tenement, which itself was on elevated ground, affording some of the best views of the River Kelvin and the West End, upon which he could gaze down unobserved.
Nothing real-life seemed to fit the bill for what I had in my mind’s eye. Eventually, I just decided to leave it as entirely fictional, but something about this dissatisfied me. Then, just before the deadline for my edited manuscript’s final submission to the publisher, I came up with the perfect real-life apartment. As chance would have it, it had recently been sold, and the floorplan was still available to view on the estate agent’s website. And it matched almost precisely the floorplan I had sketched out for Leo’s flat!
Incidentally, I spent several pages describing the ornate interior of Leo’s flat, but my editor Alison very sensibly culled my self-indulgence. Still, it was great fun writing that up at the time.
I’m very excited to reveal that a new podcast series about my journey to publication is to be released on June 20. My first crime novel ‘The Ghost of Helen Addison’ will be released by Polygon on July 6, and ‘Debut: A Crime Writer’s Journey from the Bedroom to the Bookshelf’ tells the story behind the story.
The series is produced by BackPage media, producers of the iTunes-topping podcast ‘The Big Interview with Graham Hunter’, and it explores what it takes to get an idea into mainstream publishing. It traces the steps from my initial ambition to become a writer, to how I conceived of my first crime novel, to how I developed it and eventually found a publisher.
Loch Awe in Argyll was the inspiration for the fictional Loch Dhonn where most of the book is set. Neil White and Martin Greig of BackPage visited me when I was holidaying there last November for the first interviews, and we were blessed with a day of splendid sunshine which revealed the snow-capped Highland scenery in all of its glory. Other highlights in the series include me in conversation with two of crimewriting’s biggest names, Val McDermid and Chris Brookmyre. I asked them about their experiences in getting published and becoming established writers, and shared my experiences with them and asked for their views and advice.
The series also explores how I left a business career at the age of 30 to pursue my ambitions as a writer; the influences and coincidences that inspired me; how I found a London agent after years of searching only to lose him in a matter of days; how one rejection note, among dozens of rejection notes, changed everything; and much more.
Debut is really beautifully put together and I think crime fans and book lovers in general will enjoy it. It’s a great balance of narrative, interviews, music and readings, and obviously I’m hopeful it will increase awareness of my book, which I am very proud of.
Neil, who produced Debut, said: “Charles’s is an epic journey which starts with a soul-searching road-trip across Australia and will culminate with the publication of his novel in July. We were captivated by his story and wanted to capture the highs and lows of trying to get published.
“Charles’s conversations with Val and Chris, in particular, are fascinating insights into how these two great writers went through their own unique challenges early in their careers. They both had great advice for Charles about what lies ahead.”
The first six episodes of Debut will be released on Tuesday, June 20. They will be available on iTunes and all other podcast feeds. I hope you enjoy it!
Debut will be released on iTunes and all audio platforms. www.debutpodcast.com for full details.