Tuesday, May 27, 2014

In the Shadow of the Ripper

Last week brought the much-publicized release of The Devil’s Workshop (Putnam), the third of Midwestern author Alex Grecian’s Murder Squad novels, all set in London, England, shortly after Jack the Ripper’s bloody reign of terror in 1888. The first installment, 2012’s The Yard, introduced us to Grecian’s principal cast: former country cop Walter Day, now an inspector with London’s Metropolitan Police Force (aka Scotland Yard); able but eccentric, trouble-attracting Constable (later Sergeant) Nevil Hammersmith; and Dr. Bernard Kingsley, a forward-thinking pathologist often aided by his daughter, Fiona. It was followed out of the gates by The Black Country (2013), in which Day and Hammersmith hie off to the British Midlands to investigate the disappearances of family members from a coal-mining village.

Now, in The Devil’s Workshop, Grecian circles back to the notorious Ripper case, delivering a dark-hued tale about Saucy Jack’s apparent resurrection. As I explain in my column for Kirkus Reviews, posted just this morning,
The story begins in 1890 with a railway “accident” that liberates several imprisoned murderers, one of whom goes on to discover a long-forgotten labyrinth of underground streets where Jack, far from dead, has instead been secreted away and tortured by vigilantes with lofty moral ideals. As Day and company pursue the fugitives, Jack--unpredictable, mesmerizing, alternately sympathetic and sadistic--engineers his return to the unsuspecting world of the living. It’s a comeback that could spell disaster for Day’s very pregnant wife, Claire.
Click here to read the entirety of that column, which focuses around my recent interview with Alex Grecian.

Although I was able to shoehorn 1,068 words of my exchange with the author into that Kirkus piece, our actual interview ran almost four times that long. Not being inclined to throw away valuable editorial material, and thinking that our whole discussion would be informative--especially to readers already familiar with Grecian’s work--I’ve decided to embed the balance of our talk below. Here we cover subjects ranging from Grecian’s advertising background and work on graphic novels to his fondness for Jacques Futrelle’s mysteries, the real-life inspirations for some of his Murder Squad characters, and his decision to expand the series into original e-books.

J. Kingston Pierce: Did you grow up among enthusiastic readers?

Alex Grecian: My father is a playwright and the first part of my childhood was spent surrounded by bookcases and literary clutter. Reading was always treated as an important part of life and I never questioned the value of books.

JKP: How early on did you entertain the notion of writing fiction?

AG: As far back as I can recall, I was writing short stories and bad poetry and little stapled-together comic books. I planned out an epic science-fiction story that I thought I’d write as a trilogy of novels. But it wasn’t until I was 12 years old that I actually started thinking of writing as a possible career for myself. Before that it was just something I did, a hobby.

JKP: Like a number of today’s crime novelists (including Philip Kerr and Ed Gorman), you have a background in advertising. Where did you work in that capacity and for how long, and what were your responsibilities in advertising?

AG: I was headhunted by a small agency (about 15 employees) to help brainstorm fresh campaign concepts for their clients. That was the best part of the job, but when I wasn’t in the conference room brainstorming I was initially doing illustrative work, storyboards and basic graphic design. From there I branched out into copywriting and then directing TV and radio spots. After about three years I left to be a stay-at-home parent for my son, and I decided to use the break to try to launch a career as a full-time fiction writer.

JKP: What convinced you to finally give up advertising?

AG: I’d always wanted to pursue fiction writing, but I knew it would be an uphill battle to actually make a living at it. It’s very hard to reach that point and I don’t multitask well, so my day jobs always got in the way. Worrying about my son’s future inspired me to stop letting other things get in the way of my dream. I want him to be happy and successful when he grows up and I didn’t feel like I was setting much of an example for him.

JKP: Prior to composing The Yard, you penned Proof, a graphic-novel series starring a Bigfoot special agent, John Prufrock. When and how did you land that gig? And what did writing graphic fiction teach you about composing classic-style novels such as The Yard?

AG: The first story I ever got paid to write was a graphic novel called Seven Sons [2006]. It was much easier to get a graphic novel published than it was to interest anyone in a prose novel. The artist on that book, Riley Rossmo, and I enjoyed working together and we decided to try our hand at creating something a bit more long-form, an open-ended series. I created Proof as a sasquatch who had been discovered by the Lewis and Clark expedition and raised by humans. For me, a creature that didn’t belong anywhere and had to constantly rethink his sense of identity seemed like rich fodder for lots of stories. Image Comics was publishing most of the graphic novels we enjoyed reading, the stuff that wasn’t just superheroes, so we sent the Proof concept to them and they loved it. Really, it was all pretty simple. Our first choice for publisher signed on and supported the book over the course of its four-year run. But writing it didn’t really have much to do with writing prose. The two media force you to flex different writing muscles. The format of a graphic-novel script is rigid and restrictive. You’re forced to be very disciplined and to pare a story down to its bare bones. Prose allows me much more freedom.

JKP: Is it true that one of your Proof works inspired The Yard?

AG: The fourth volume of Proof has the subtitle “Julia.” Since my character John Prufrock had been alive for 200 years, I decided to explore his past a bit. I’d always wanted to tell the true story of Julia Pastrana. She was a real person, a talented, vivacious woman [of the 19th century] who was completely covered with hair from head to foot. She was displayed as a carnival freak and ended up being cruelly used by her husband and promoter. I was able to fictionalize her story and fold it into the Proof series by having John Prufrock travel with her in Victorian-era England. There’s a character in “Julia” named Detective Inspector Augustus McKraken. I did a lot of research to try to make the investigative aspect of that character seem authentic and I eventually realized that I couldn’t do anything with most of that research. So I made plans for a spin-off series of graphic novels starring DI McKraken. My agent advised me to write it as a prose novel instead, so I removed the more bizarre, vaguely supernatural aspects of the concept, swapped out McKraken for [Walter] Day, and gave it a shot. It turned out to be very good advice.

(Left) Author Alex Grecian, photographed by Christy Grecian

JKP: Have you now given up on graphic novels, at least for the time being?

AG: Nope. I recently helped found a graphic-novel anthology called Bad Karma. I’m working on a second volume of that and I’m just about to announce a new series that I’m writing on my own. I have too many story and character ideas to ever be able to write them all in my lifetime. Some notions seem to me to be better suited for novels or short stories, and some seem like they’d work better in a visual medium. I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew, but if there’s time to do both, why not go for it?

JKP: I seem to remember reading someplace that you were a youthful devotee of Jacques Futrelle’s early 20th-century “The Thinking Machine” tales. Did that represent your initial discovery of mystery and crime fiction?

AG: The Thinking Machine may have been my first encounter with a fictional detective, but I’m honestly not sure. At roughly the same time I was also reading Sherlock Holmes stories and Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew books and Encyclopedia Brown collections. But Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen (who later inspired the first name of my Victorian-era detective in Proof) was different than all those other characters. He was even drier and more coldly logical than Holmes or Nero Wolfe. I had a somewhat tumultuous and unpleasant childhood, and reading about an adult who didn’t suffer from an abundance of emotions was comforting. I was also fascinated by the fact that Futrelle had gone down with the Titanic [in 1912]. That added to his mystique. I must have reread “The Problem of Cell 13” dozens of times while hiding out in my basement.

JKP: Is it still true that, despite setting your now three Murder Squad novels in England, you’ve never actually visited that country?

AG: I spent a month in London while I was writing The Black Country. It was invaluable to be able to soak up the flavor of the place. Even so, modern London isn’t Victorian London, so plenty of research is still called for. I plan to go back for a longer stretch of time as soon as I finish this next book.

JKP: The Yard opens in 1889, shortly after the Jack the Ripper slayings, at a time when the London citizenry had lost faith and trust in its police force, since the Ripper was never caught, or even publicly identified. How strong was that public antipathy toward the police?

AG: The public was really quite angry and distrustful. It’s that attitude that inspired me to write The Yard. It puts the police in such a strange position and it’s so much better to write about people under duress. But time heals most wounds and the police used their failures as inspiration to do better. Scotland Yard improved their game and instituted new procedures that fairly quickly, by the standards of bureaucratic evolution, turned them into the premier police force in the world.

JKP: Was there a real Murder Squad of the sort you write about in your novels? And is it known for breaking any famous cases?

AG: There’s still a Murder Squad, although they don’t call themselves that anymore. I think they refer to themselves as Major Investigation Teams now. They’re pretty good at what they do, so I’d imagine they’ve broken all sorts of cases in the last century. They’ve more than earned back the public’s trust and respect.

JKP: Am I correct in my understanding that your protagonist, Detective Inspector Walter Day, is loosely based on real-life Scotland Yard Inspector Walter Dew, who was largely responsible for nabbing alleged wife-slayer Hawley Harvey Crippen?

AG: That’s right. Walter Dew was the first internationally famous policeman. I changed his name to Walter Day for these novels because I didn’t want to be tied down to his actual history. (And it’s a good thing I did, since I’ve written horrible things about the poor guy.) But he was very much my inspiration for The Yard.

JKP: Day’s pathologist associate in your books, Dr. Bernard Kingsley, also has a historical counterpart, correct?

AG: Kingsley’s based on Dr. Bernard Spilsbury, who was by all accounts an amazing forensic detective. He put into practice most of the basic procedures that police forces all around the world still use today. But he was apparently a very sad person, very dry and humorless. He eventually committed suicide. That didn’t fit into my plans for him, so I changed his name (and some aspects of his personality), giving me more freedom to let the character forge his own destiny over the course of this series.

JKP: In The Yard, you did such a brilliant job of setting your characters and imagined crimes amid the exotic hurly-burly of Victorian London. But then, in its first sequel, The Black Country, you moved most of the story’s action to the relatively quieter British Midlands, and I thought it floundered a bit as a result. Why did you choose to shift your action outside of London so soon in the series?

AG: I wanted to challenge myself. I didn’t want to accidentally fall into using a formula. And I wanted to throw Day and Hammersmith together in a high-stress situation where they had to rely on each other. I wanted them to be in unfamiliar territory with nobody else to turn to. Their friendship and their sense of trust in each other had to be earned and the seeds for that trust had to be explicitly shown, rather than just talked about. I also wanted to try my hand at a Wicker Man sort of story, playing with the basic tropes of a traditional cozy. I didn’t realize that for many readers London had essentially become a character and an integral part of the books. I’m sorry it wasn’t your cup of tea, but I think I accomplished what I set out to do with The Black Country, and I think you may find you like it more when it’s eventually viewed as a part of the whole series.

JKP: What sorts of research sources have you employed in order to bring historical verisimilitude to your Murder Squad series?

AG: Lots of books, including Donald Rumbelow’s excellent book (I also took his Ripper tour in London and talked to him) and Jack the Ripper: Letters from Hell, by Stewart P. Evans and Keith Skinner. Many others. And I haunted Ripperologist message boards. Years ago I’d planned to write a more conventional Ripper book of my own, but Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell covered the bases I liked best in From Hell. So I abandoned that, but eventually came back to the idea and approached it from a completely different angle.

JKP: Among the real-life Ripper suspects, do you have a favorite?

AG: Nope. I suspected [Sir William] Gull for a long time. But, really, we’ll never know who the Ripper was. There won’t ever be new evidence that’s completely reliable. It’s meant to be a mystery. So, no, I don’t pay much attention to any of the theories about who really committed those murders.

JKP: Although your Day novels can be serious and pretty violent at times, you always manage to leaven them with humor--often involving Nevil Hammersmith’s antics. How important do you think humor is in crime and mystery fiction?

AG: Very. Without some humor, a crime story can become unrelentingly grim. One of the themes that always runs through my books is the suddenness and brutality of violence. I don’t believe that violence should be glossed over or celebrated. One violent act can end or ruin a promising life and it can come out of nowhere. But that’s a bit depressing and hard to absorb, so a little bit of whimsy or oddness can help bring the reader back to even ground and smooth out the pace.

JKP: I have to say that Claire Day, the inspector’s wife, seems like the character in these books who has the most trouble earning the readers’ attention. But maybe that’s because she isn’t involved directly in crime-solving. How do you see her role?

AG: Claire’s unjustly maligned, I think. She ended the first book pregnant and was barely squeezed into the second book. There was really no way to responsibly involve her in crime-solving, although I’m sure she would have preferred that. I was actually kind of offended by some of the early notices [for The Devil’s Workshop] that characterize Claire as whiny. She’s having a baby. There’s some discomfort involved. I don’t think she’s whiny at all; I think she’s honest and brave and she’s usually in a situation she doesn’t much like. But she forges ahead anyway. Just like my male characters.

JKP: I was interested in the fact that, between the publication of The Black Country and that of The Devil’s Workshop, you released The Blue Girl, a short story--packaged as an e-book--that focuses on another member of the Murder Squad, Constable Colin Pringle. What were your intentions with that story, and how does it help readers to better understand the larger world of Walter Day and company?

AG: I intended for Blue Girl to be a free e-book, to hopefully bring new readers into the Murder Squad series. I wanted to experiment with a first-person narrative and a more traditional detective story. I also missed writing Constable Pringle and wanted a way to build his character and give a different perspective on the workings of Scotland Yard than I do in the regular books. There will be more Pringle stories. I’ve almost finished a second one called The Scarlet Box.

JKP: Can you imagine having lived in London during the Victorian era? What would have been the pluses and minuses of such a life?

AG: I’m fond of taking showers and refrigerating leftover pizza, so I’m perfectly happy to live in the present. But it would be much easier to make a living and get away with murder in that era when there were no fingerprints on file, no DNA testing, no computers and cell phones. I don’t have a criminal bone in my body, but for many of my characters it’s a paradise.

JKP: Are you content right now to continue writing the Murder Squad novels, or do you have more extensive plans as an author?

AG: I’m going to keep writing the Murder Squad novels as long as Putnam wants to publish them and people want to read them. I would like to eventually begin releasing a second book each year, something non-Murder Squad related, but I have no plans to abandon Walter and Nevil anytime soon.

JKP: Do you read many other works in the crime/mystery/thriller field? If so, which authors or books have you particularly relished?

AG: Most of the books I read in my own field are older, classics of the genre. I’m more likely to re-read Patricia Highsmith than to discover someone new. But I do keep up with a few authors. Michael Connelly, Walter Mosley, George Pelecanos, Joe Lansdale, Lawrence Block, a handful of others. I used to snap up every new Elmore Leonard book as soon as they hit the bookstores. And I really kind of loved [J.K.] Rowling’s mystery novel last year. I’m most interested in authors who surprise me. I don’t just want to be shocked when the identity of the murderer is revealed. I want to spend time with characters I like and I want things pulled together in interesting ways by the end, not necessarily in a tidy happy bow.

JKP: Finally, if you could lay claim to having penned any book that does not already carry your byline, what would it be?

AG: Hmm. A wealth of titles just popped into my head. Books so good I wish I’d written them: The Road, The Quiet American, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Man in My Basement, The Accidental Tourist, Cat’s Cradle, To Kill a Mockingbird … But on second thought, if I’d written any of those books I wouldn’t be able to enjoy them. So, no. I’ll stick with claiming credit for my own books. Meanwhile, I’ll re-read the books I wish I’d written and simply be happy that they exist.

READ MORE:Alex Grecian: 5 Books Everyone Should Read Before They Die” (The Big Issue).

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