What must James McCreet’s mum think of her son featuring on a panel at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival called ‘Vice Society’.
“She’s proud of my writing – whatever I write,” James smiles, sipping coffee in Harrogate’s Hotel du Vin. The Vice Society is also the name of one of James’s books – the second in his series set in the grim, murky depths of Victorian London – a time that pre-dates Sherlock Holmes. Its plot is propelled by poisoned prostitutes taking the reader into an underworld of labyrinthine squalor and corruption.
He will be joined on the Vice Society panel at The Swan Hotel this July by authors Adam Creed, Val McDermid and police officer Jackie Malton – the real life inspiration for Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennyson.
“I do wonder where the conversation will go,” James says.
Don’t we all. Talking about vice, sex and murder, James isn’t given a second glance by the waiter. Then again, Harrogate’s law-abiding folk are getting used to eaves-dropping on crime authors as over 70 of them annually make the pilgrimage to Europe’s most loved crime writing festival. And it is, after all, where Agatha Christie famously went AWOL. The genre has never been so popular, with every other TV series featuring a new detective.
Special guests this year include an American invasion: Denis Lehane, Linwood Barclay, Lee Child (okay, he’s semi-American), Tess Gerritson and David Baldacci. James is closer to home. He now lives in Leeds but wrote his first book while living in Harrogate (there are characters in his books named after the railway stations on the Leeds-York line).
He moved to the town for a job in copywriting, but a few weeks later the company went bust and the unexpectedly unemployed James found refuge in Harrogate library.
“I was in there almost every day and I started reading a lot of books about Victorian London. The number of narrative possibilities struck me immediately. It was a city and time contemporary enough to be recognisable but distant enough to be fantastical. London may have been of one of the biggest and modern cities of its time, but half a mile away from Park Lane it would be like stepping back to the Medieval Age among buildings had survived the Great Fire.”
His research into London was painstaking, but Harrogate was the perfect place to write. “It’s very sedate feeling, relaxed and calm. And it’s got a great library. I wrote them a letter of thanks when I was published. They got me books from a hundred years ago from the British Library – I did all my research from the library and even emailed my manuscript from the library to my publisher.”
James wanted to be a writer since the age of nine, despite his teachers telling him to consider accountancy when he first expressed his ambition.
“As a kid I would read four or five books a week, I was up all night reading. It’s like a parallel life, the fictional life of books. I’d buy 20p second-hand James Bond books and imagine my ten-year old self, sipping martinis on a balcony somewhere exotic.” He worries that world of books is at risk in a Twitter-age where attention spans could be at risk. “It would be a shame if children lost that fictional life. Growing up, I approached every situation with a fictional sensibility. Ian Fleming had that inner child – I read how he’d be on a mountain road with his wife, stuck behind a truck, and he’d start wondering out loud, what if the brakes failed on the truck…”
Despite the predominance of vice in James’s book title and the panel, his books aren’t in any way explicit. “My books are Victorian, so there’s no explicit sex; it’s all alluded to. That’s what makes it fun to write. There’s a scene in The Vice Society where the police commissioner opens a pornographic book and I describe what he sees without actually describing it: ‘. . . a tangle of limbs that would have been inappropriate even if the participants had been dressed’. It alludes to detail. As with much crime writing, it’s not only about describing a vicious murder – It’s the illusion, the threat, the unspoken that’s often the basis of the thrill.”
Researching the novel revealed a shocking period. “The level of poverty in the East End for example was abject; there were those who were so poor they couldn’t leave the house because they’d literally sold their clothes for gin. Some worked 18 hour days. The death rate during childbirth was huge, and suicide was so rife that it wasn’t reported unless it was particularly unusual. It was hopeless. One guy I read about was laughing and joking with his mates having a drink, then on this way home wrapped ship’s chains around his neck and jumped in The Thames. Life was futile for many. The Thames was awash with bodies.”
Rich territory for a crime author.
James spent his life in academia before the funding ran out for his PhD. His Masters thesis was on the development of the detective genre, but it took him twenty years to start writing fiction. After leaving academia, his love of classical antiquity took him to Greece for a few years, before teaching and living in Poland and China. It was the lack of books that brought him home. “I only had two books in China – Edgar Allen Poe’s stories and Moby Dick!” What’s more, he felt jaded with travelling. On a trip to Egypt he found himself in the backstreets and saw the grinding poverty, emaciated people inflicted with horrific skin diseases, a dead donkey in the middle of the street – misery. “They were looking at me with contempt. I was there with my camera on a guided tour. I was disgusted with myself for being there.”
He went on from travelling and teaching to work as a copywriter and commercial journalist in Harrogate. One job was writing the brochures for a stair lift manufacturer. “It taught me professionalism in writing. It doesn’t matter how banal the subject, you have to make it readable. Before, my writing was self-indulgent. That utilitarian approach made me a better writer; if you have only one sentence, you make the best of it.”
So why did it take so long to write fiction? “Fear mostly. You can’t just sit down and write a novel without planning and being able to hone your craft first; you have to put in the years. In my case, it was 20 years of scribbling and creative writing classes before I figured out what I was doing, finding my own voice or perhaps no longer being self-conscious about my own voice.”
Although a fan of Anthony Burgess and Martin Amis, he wanted to write a compelling story first and foremost. “Literary books are almost known for their lack of driving narrative. I love the prose of Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie for example but often find I don’t care what happens next. It must be possible to have both.”
He now writes a column, Under the Microscope, for Writing Magazine, where he picks apart the work of aspiring writers. “It can be brutal, but you have to take the criticism. There’s a certain amount of humiliation you have to go through as a beginner and a thick skin is needed, because you have to become your own harshest critic.”
James’ third book in the series, The Thieves’ Labyrinth, has just been released. He’s excited, if daunted by the Festival. “I still feel like a newcomer. I’m not big enough yet to present myself as a celebrity writer. For me, writing is sitting by myself in a room. There’s a monastic side to it.”
Although the story is the backbone, the language is also a strong element for James. Unlike thriller writers with their clipped, direct sentences, his Victorian language has a more poetic take – a style that emerged naturally out of his research.
“What I love about it is it brings back the richness of language. There’s that balance of writing a page turner and also the desire for the language to cause the reader to stop occasionally and say what a beautiful sentence.”
His influence is more Edgar Allen Poe than Conan Doyle.
When people think of Victorian crime fiction they tend to think of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle was very structured, very fantastical with his plots and solutions. But without Poe, there wouldn’t have been a Conan Doyle. One of the quotes I use at the beginning of my book is Conan Doyle’s: ‘If every man who receives a cheque for a story which owes its springs to Poe were to pay a tithe to a monument for the master, he would have a pyramid as big as that of Cheops.’”
Unlike the usual detective fiction with one hero or a detective and sidekick, James has a suite of characters at the centre of his books.
“All are a facet of me. Inspector Newsome’s impatience and sarcasm, Williamson’s self-doubt and introspection, Noah Dyson, who cuts through everything (rather than debate, he punches), and Benjamin is an escaped American slave whose owner cut out his tongue – he’s an observer, he sees everything but is robbed of his voice. I always had that sense at school of being an outsider, an observer.”
It’s clear James loves writing about the era.
“I can read a story in the Times from the 1830s, an amazing story, knowing no one has read it for 180 years. It could be about an accident, a heart attack, or murder, and I can go to London with my 1850 map and stand on that corner and be the only person in the city who knows a person died on that very spot. It’s an incredible buzz. The London we know and the London we couldn’t possibly know. There’s that echo, those ghosts are everywhere. That’s the pleasure of fact and fiction, that idea of what’s true, what isn’t, what you would prefer to be true.”
The Incendiary’s Trail, The Vice Society and The Thieves’ Labyrinth are all available and published by Macmillan. You can see James on The Vice Society panel at the Old Swan Hotel on Saturday July 21. Visit www.harrogate-festival.org.uk/crime for tickets and a full programme.