(Editor’s note: This 41st installment of The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series brings back into the spotlight British novelist R.N. “Roger” Morris, who has been interviewed on this page several times and has also contributed pieces to the blog. [Click here to find those posts.] Today, Morris supplies some background about his new historical mystery, The Mannequin House, which has already been released in Great Britain, and is scheduled for publication this spring in the United States.)
“Where do you get your ideas from?” is one of those questions that authors are supposed to get asked all the time. Actually, I can’t remember ever being asked it. That could mean one of two things. Either the source of my ideas is so obvious that the question is redundant. Or my ideas are such that people would rather not know where exactly they come from.
The Mannequin House (Creme de la Crime) is the second of my novels to feature the detective Silas Quinn, an inspector in the fictional “Special Crimes Department” of New Scotland Yard in 1914. Before starting my Silas Quinn series, I had written four
novels featuring Porfiry Petrovich, the investigating magistrate from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I suppose part of the motivation in creating Quinn was to show that I could write a book
around a character of my own. In constructing that character, I wanted to play
a little with some of the clichés of a fictional detective. So, yes, he is a
detective with a troubled past, and a dark side, as well as being a brilliantly
successful investigator. To some extent, I think he uses his police work as a
kind of therapy. It just so happens that what makes him feel good and whole is
giving in to an impulse to kill, or at least to shoot first and ask questions
later. It’s a trait that led one critic (Mike Ripley) to describe him as “a sort of Edwardian Dirty Harry.” I’m not sure how accurate that description is, but it’s one that amuses me.
I have enjoyed embracing, and perhaps subverting, the archetype; I hope
readers will enjoy the weird kinks that have emerged in Quinn.
The novel is set in 1914, before the outbreak of the First World War. All the horrors of the 20th century lie ahead, so it’s generally held to be an era
of innocence, I think. This is an idea I challenge. It’s the Golden Age
of detective fiction, but also a period when art movements such as dada and
surrealism were starting to come through. A crucial phase in the development of
psychoanalysis, too. And time of social upheaval, as well as political turmoil,
in Britain and in Europe, with the war brewing and trouble in Ireland. A period
of anxiety and stress, as I imagine it. All of which makes it an interesting
time in which to set a book or two.
If I try to trace my fascination with the period, I find myself drawn to
a painting called The Menaced Assassin, by René Magritte. Like a lot of teenage males of my generation, I was into surrealism, enough to possess a large art book on the movement. This was one of the paintings in the book. It depicted some bowler-hatted police officers lying in wait for the fictional master criminal Fantômas. I
loved the mood of the painting, and the idea of Fantômas, and when the Pierre Souvestre and Marcell Allain novels were released in English by Picador in the 1980s I got hold of a few and read them. I even had a go at writing my own Fantômas
novel, my first venture into literary fan-fiction, and in many ways an
apprentice piece for my Porfiry Petrovich series. I was struck by the fact that
Souvestre died in 1914, so the books they wrote together had a decided pre-war
feel. My own Fantômas novel was written with the retrospective knowledge of
what was to come, a sense of historical irony.
That Fantômas story of mine was never published, but I felt there was something in the dramatic potential of that specific period. Like most writers,
I parked the idea in the back of my brain and let it cook.
Some years later, I was asked to write a screenplay based on G.K.
Chesterton’s 1908 novel, The Man Who Was Thursday. Nothing came of the project (except for an unproduced screenplay sitting on my computer’s hard drive), but that strange, surreal book, together with the research I did around it, rekindled my interest in the period. With its themes of alienation and distrust, coupled with a dreamlike narrative, the book struck a chord with me and seemed strikingly modern.
So I had the idea of writing a series of crime novels set perpetually on
the eve of the Great War, in which a series of increasingly outlandish crimes--occurring within an improbably condensed time frame--would be investigated. The crimes in the books would presage the terrible destruction to come. Silas Quinn emerged from that strange idea as a suitably peculiar detective.
Crime fiction has always struck me as a sub-genre of surrealism, perhaps
because I came at it from a painting by Magritte. My new series takes me deeper
into that territory. For inspiration, I turned again to G.K. Chesterton, this
time immersing myself in his Father Brown stories, some of which are decidedly surreal (I’m thinking particularly of his story “The Secret Garden,” in which--SPOILER ALERT--a decapitated head from one body is found next to a headless corpse belonging to someone else). Inevitably. perhaps, I decided to incorporate a locked-room
mystery, with bizarre elements.
I was also attracted to the idea of setting each novel within a different, defined milieu, which is a standard trope of detective series. You take your detective and plunge him into a world that is alien to him, which he then
explores and reveals as he conducts his investigation. The first Quinn novel, Summon Up the Blood, dealt with the world of homosexual male prostitutes, or “renters.” This second novel is set in a fashionable department store.
The theme again feeds into my ideas about the surrealism of mystery and
detective fiction. I had this notion of a department store where almost
anything could be bought, where every desire could be satisfied in a
consumerist dream. While I was researching the story, I read Whiteley’s Folly, Linda Stratmann’s biography of William
Whiteley, the founder of Whiteley’s, a big department store in West London.
I already had an idea of a character who would be the founder of my own fictional department store, who would be a womanizer and a tyrant. When I discovered that the real William Whiteley shared those attributes, I became intrigued. The fact that Whiteley was shot and killed in his own store by a man claiming to be his illegitimate son clinched it for me. History was trying to tell me something. I knew this was the setting I had to use, this was the story I had to write. All I needed to do was throw in a monkey in a fez.
By a strange coincidence, there have recently been two period dramas on UK television, both with department store settings: The Paradise on BBC and Mr. Selfridge on ITV. So maybe there is something in the air at the moment that makes early department stores especially appealing. I have a theory that it is linked to the approach of the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1, the moment when the world lost its innocence forever. The promise of wish fulfillment and gratification that a place like The House of Blackley (the fictional department store in my novel) seems to hold out could never truly be believed in again. And yet it is a promise we can’t quite give up on, one we keep nostalgically returning to.