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Monday 3 May 2021

Radmila May talks with J C Briggs


J. C. Briggs taught English for many years in schools in Cheshire, Hong Kong and Lancashire.
She now writes historical mysteries featuring as her detective the great Victorian novelist, Charles Dickens. All the books are based on something which really happened in Dickens's life.
Her first book was The Murder of Patience Brooke which was published in 2014. 
There are now 8 books in the series.
Jean now lives in a cottage in Cumbria with her husband who is an artist.When she is not reading Dickens or writing Dickens, she gives talks about him and other Victorian novelists and enjoys her garden in the Yorkshire Dales.

Radmila: I see from your interview on the blog of the Crime Readers’ Association that, before you turned to writing crime novels, you taught English and Drama in various schools from Hong Kong to Lancashire and it was only when you retired to Sedbergh in Cumbria that you turned to full-length novels. Before then you wrote dramas for your pupils to perform which you describe as spoof murder mysteries. Can you tell us about some of these playlets?
A is for Arsenic; B is for Bludgeon; C is for Cyanide – my ABC murders which were just good fun parodies with ludicrously conventional characters: the plodding and hapless police with names like Inspector Gimlet of the Backyard; the scheming upper classes like Lady Candida Truelove, her son, Frank and daughter, Verity, all consummate liars; the dimwitted servants, including Deirdre O’Drab and the butler, Poker, and housekeeper, Mallet – some dreadful puns, there, and plots that creaked like unhinged doors. The students loved them – over-acting a speciality of the full house. Oh, and the one about the murder of a headmaster was very popular – bodies in the library and a corpse in the chapel.

Radmila: Had you also read crime fiction? And did you ever thinking of writing it? Any authors in particular? Had you ever tried your hand at writing anything criminal apart from plays for your pupils?
I did read crime fiction – starting with Agatha Christie, of course as you see above. I loved the novels of the Golden Age, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers so I think I was always going to write historical mystery. I always thought I’d like to try, but never had the time when I was teaching, except for the plays.

Radmila: Dickens, of course, as master-sleuth was an inspired choice. He’d already done it himself (Inspector Bucket, Mr Nadgett). Do you know of any other of his fictions in which he introduces a detective?
There’s a good story entitled Hunted Down in which an amateur detective, Meltham, an insurance actuary, becomes caught up in the catching of a murderer who has murdered one niece and has designs on a second. Dick Datchery appears in the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood, clearly investigating murder. As to Inspector Bucket, I’m inclined to think that we have the first husband and wife detective duo in crime fiction. Mrs Bucket is set to spy on the murderess by night and day, and is led to the discovery of the murder weapon, and it is Mrs Bucket who secures the incriminating ink and paper. ‘And there you are, my partner,’ observes Bucket watching his wife watching the suspect. Dickens says of her that she was ‘a lady of natural detective genius, which if it had been improved by professional exercise, might have done great things, but which paused at the level of a clever amateur.’

Radmila: I gather that you did substantial research into the articles he wrote for Household Words, his correspondence, and his attitude towards the terrible poverty and squalor in which so many people lived, the gross inadequacy of the institutions, such as the legal system, of the time, his campaigns against, for instance, capital punishment, particularly public executions, prison conditions, and so forth. Was there anything about his character that you learned from these researches? Were his friendships with other writers (which you do bring into your own novels) important for him? What about women writers? (He seems to have encouraged some, like Mrs Gaskell, to write for Household Words) However, what would you say about his attitude to women generally? It seems to me, after a quick flick through Google(!), to be somewhat conflicted – women should not be ill-treated but should know their place as being subordinate to men. But wasn’t that typical for the time?
The important thing about Dickens for his role as a detective was that he cared about the poor and about justice. I really could imagine him wanting to see justice done. He served on an inquest jury enquiring into the death of a maidservant’s newborn baby. She was accused of killing it, but Dickens pitied her. She had delivered the child herself – her mistress knew nothing, and if she had, the girl would have been dismissed. He listens to the evidence and has serious doubts so fights her corner against the very unsympathetic jury of ‘respectable’ male householders who are all too ready to convict. The verdict is ‘Found Dead’. She is indicted for concealing the birth. Dickens finds her a barrister and, though convicted, her sentence is lenient. Dickens had saved her life – she might have been hanged for murder. He supported a great many charitable causes, too – he was very active in the Sanitary Reform Committee, believing that to improve people morally, educationally, physically, they had to have clean air and fresh water first. The Bible could wait. His own early sufferings as a child working in the blacking factory meant that he knew what it was like to be a lonely child in that teeming city and that accounts for his sympathy with children, which is where the novel Death at Hungerford Stairs comes from. When a child goes missing, Dickens is determined to investigate, even though he has to return to Hungerford Stairs, a place to which he had not returned for twenty-five years, so painful were the memories.

What comes across from his letters is his vitality, his energy – the energy which allowed him to walk day and night. And his curiosity makes him a good detective, too. His novels show his understanding of human nature, in particular the character of the murderer. Our Mutual Friend reveals the inner workings of the tortured Bradley Headstone who has murder in his heart, and in John Jasper we see the double nature of the man, outwardly respectable, but seething inwardly with jealousy. In assisting Superintendent Jones, Dickens has much to offer in his observations about the murderer. He is very good on motive. In an article for The Examiner, he mentions murders committed in passion or rage, murders done for gain, but the most interesting to the novelist are those committed ‘for the removal of an object dangerous to the murder’s peace – murders done to sweep out of the way a dreaded or detested object’, and Dickens recognises the hatred that grows into murder. Dickens was a very good actor. He played Justice Shallow, wheezy shuffling old man in The Merry Wives of Windsor – he played him again in one of my murder cases – a chesty old codger looking for his dog. He plays more than one constable, a lawyer or two, a bereaved father – all very useful disguises when a suspect needs watching or someone needs finding.

Most of his friends were writers, journalists, artists, and he was full of praise and encouragement for his friends, including Wilkie Collins, whose first novel Basil Dickens published in Household Words. He had a more tricky relationship with Thackeray who was very conscious of Dickens’s success, and there were certainly quarrels, usually about some mutual friend. I think they were both prickly and a bit quick to take offence. However, their daughters were great friends, and it was Annie Thackeray who called Dickens ‘the brilliance in the room’.
Thackeray’s daughters named their cats after Dickens’s characters which might have galled Thackeray a bit. It was noted that at Thackeray’s funeral Dickens stood for a long time alone at the graveside, ‘a look of bereavement on his face’. There were things to regret, but after one particularly bitter row, they had been reconciled.

He admired Mrs Gaskell’s work, as you say, and was deeply affected by Mary Barton – her sympathy for the poor chimed with his. He published Mrs Gaskell’s Lizzie Leigh and Cranford in Household Words. He admired George Eliot’s work, too, and guessed from the first that she was a woman. There are plenty of women writers published in Household Words so he clearly regarded them as professional equals. Women liked him, and he had a good many women friends, especially those who took part in the amateur theatricals, and his letters show that he liked and respected them. Of course, the failure of his marriage and his cruel treatment of his wife, Catherine, are well documented, and it is difficult to reconcile his treatment of Catherine with his charm for other women. It’s complex, but then he was a complex man.

Radmila: How would you describe his characters? Comic for the sake being comic? Sentimental for the sake of being sentimental? Too over-the-top (eg Tulkinghorn?) Or do you think he has some deeper purpose? And how what sort of take does your Dickens have on the characters he encounters on his
investigations? I was very impressed by the way in which your fictional Dickens meets a whole variety of characters which you have created inspired by his characters and he is obviously going to adapt your characters for his own writing. (Is this what’s known in post-modern literary analysis – on which I do not pretend for a moment to be an expert! – as ‘intertextuality’? I found it really intriguing!)

I don’t think he was comic just for the sake of it, though there must be instances of that – when he couldn’t help himself. The world about him was very bleak. The poverty, ignorance and disease he found ‘enough to break the heart and hope of any man’, but the novels had to be, as he put it like ‘streaky bacon’ – layers of comedy and tragedy. Unremitting gloom is too much. He knew what he was doing as John Mullan’s new study The Artful Dickens so comprehensively demonstrates. Professor Mullan explores Dickens’s narrative art, his
uniqueness, his innovativeness, his ‘modern’ techniques. His detailed examination of the manuscripts shows a writer minutely concerned about the structure of a sentence, the placing of a word. Dickens’s view of the world was tragi-comic. His own character meant that he found comedy in the blackest of places – sometimes he wanted to laugh at a funeral. Not Thackeray’s, of course.

Comedy acts as a corrective to the sentiment, but Dickens, like his contemporaries, inclined to the sentimental – not entirely to the modern taste. And though Oscar Wilde found the death of Little Nell risible, it’s worth remembering that an eminent judge threw the book out of his carriage window – he was so distressed at the death. And those crowd of New Yorkers at the docks, crying out ‘Is Little Nell dead?’ Different times.

Dickens gives me all the clues about the characters he and Superintendent Jones meet. I can’t help being influenced by him, and it’s true that I sometimes imagine them meeting someone who seems to influence a character created in one of his novels. I suppose it is ‘intertextuality’ – something I taught very often, but it just seemed to come naturally. All that obsessive reading of Dickens! I think it’s an allowable leap of the imagination – I hope so. And Dickens met hundreds of people - some of the very odd ones must have found their way into his work.

Radmila: You also deal with at least one subject that I don’t think he ever did, at least in his fiction, and that was abortion (in The Quickening and the Dead). Some of your descriptions are quite harrowing.
He must have known about it, but there were matters that could not be discussed in novels that were meant for family reading. The question of ‘fallen women’  and prostitution was difficult enough; he and Mrs Gaskell deal with this, Mrs Gaskell in Ruth and Mary Barton and Dickens in Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, both writers trying to show how abused these women are, and of course, Dickens did what he could to help practically by establishing the home for fallen women with Miss Coutts, the banking heiress.

Radmila: Would you agree that setting and location are highly important in Dickens’s novels (fog in Bleak House, the Kent marshes in Great Expectations, the River Thames in Our Mutual Friend) and often introduced in the first chapter so as to create the atmosphere for the whole story? And of course, there is London itself, which as both setting and subject is inexhaustible.
Yes, the settings are wonderfully described by Dickens – Walter Bagehot called him our ‘special correspondent for posterity’. It is Dickens’s London we think of when we picture Victorian London. For the crime novelist, it is a gift – all those dark alleys, gas light, moonlight, the fog in which the murderer hides. One writer observed that London was ‘the very walking ground of his heart’. Dickens knows his London and he’ll go anywhere and that’s very convenient for me. G.K. Chesterton called him ‘a sort of poetical Sherlock Holmes’. There is a good deal of poetry in Dickens. His descriptive powers are marvellous. And Sherlock Holmes? Well, when I read that, I thought, oh, yes – enter Detective Dickens.

Radmila: And finally, on quite a different topic, as currently vice-chair of the Crime Writers’ Association, and with the popularity of crime fiction increasing exponentially, how do you see crime fiction developing in the future?
Crime fiction is such a rich and varied genre. You can be in Ancient Rome or twenty-first century Oslo or Oswestry, or, even in some distant future. The detective can be a medieval monk or nun, or a single mother, or residents of an old people’s home, but they all have something in common – the desire to see justice done. Crime fiction is about human nature so whether it is Victorian crime, a twenty-first century psychological thriller, domestic noir, a graphic novel, a novel told in emails, there’ll be room for it, and room for the rich and varied writers from all ethnicities and backgrounds, and room for all in the CWA which exists to promote all kinds of crime fiction.

That’s the exciting thing about crime fiction – there’s always something new to discover. Artificial Intelligence might be next – the robot detective, cleverer than the human criminals, but capable of human feeling and empathy like Clara in Radio 4’s new book at bedtime. Or the murderer will be a robot who will have to be smashed up – if they can catch it – him – her? Exterminate – oh, that’s been done. Murder on Mars, maybe?


Charles Dickens Investigations
The Murder of Patience Brooke (2014)
Death at Hungerford Stairs (2015)
Murder by Ghostlight (2016)
The Quickening and the Dead (2019)
At Midnight In Venice (2019)
The Redemption Murders (2020)
The Mystery of the Hawke Sapphires (2021)
The Chinese Puzzle (2021)
Murder by Magic (2020)

Radmila May was born in the U.S. but has lived in the U.K. since she was seven apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and still does occasional work for them including taking part in a substantial revision and updating of her late husband’s legal practitioners’ work on Criminal Evidence published late 2015. She has also contributed short stories with a distinctly criminal flavour to two of the Oxford Stories anthologies published by Oxpens Press – a third story is to be published shortly in another Oxford Stories anthology – and is now concentrating on her own writing.

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