Mick Finlay talks to Historia for the second in our series of interviews with authors whose books have been shortlisted for HWA Crown Awards. Mick’s novel, Arrowood and the Thames Corpses, follows the investigations of William Arrowood and Norman Barnett, private inquiry agents in London who get the cases – and clients – that aren’t quite good enough for Sherlock Holmes. It was described by the Gold Crown Award judges as a “pacy, gothic, and compelling investigation through the seedy parts of the city”.
Congratulations on being shortlisted for the HWA Gold Crown Award! What does it mean to you?
I was totally shocked when I found out. The book was published during lockdown when everything was shut and so it never got into the bookshops. It really felt like this book might just be lost in all the trouble we were having, so it was particularly gratifying to see it shortlisted. It’s a huge honour – I can’t describe what it does to a writer’s fragile ego to get a vote of confidence like this.
This is your third Arrowood novel; what’s different about this one?
This book is set on the river, and the story involves Arrowood trying to unravel the secrets of a steamboat captain who has killed himself. It deals with some pretty big issues, issues that the Arrowood books haven’t dealt with before (I can’t say what they are as it would be a big spoiler – sorry!)
I knew when I was writing it that the book had some big scenes, both in terms of the set up and the emotional impact. It was quite strange, as the initial idea for each of them came to me very visually, as if I was seeing them on the screen, and I couldn’t wait to write them. A huge difference from previous books is what happens between Barnett and Ettie in this book. Again, I can’t say what it is!
What drew you to the grittier side of London’s history?
I tried to imagine what would strike me if I was suddenly transported to London in the 1890s, and it was the smells, the food and the illnesses and ailments. I was also determined not to write a book set among the wealthy, as I thought there were already plenty of books dealing with those parts of Victorian society. When I began reading the social history of the time, I found the lives of the poor particularly vivid. I think you can have a costume drama of rags just as well as you can of silks.
How hard was it to write the more violent scenes in your book?
I’m not a violent person, so it was difficult. It was important not to shirk that stuff, though, as London was quite a brutal place. There aren’t that many violent scenes, but I do try to make them pack a punch.
Historical research – is it a pleasure or a chore?
It’s one of the best parts of writing historical fiction. I love it. Every new Arrowood book explores a different aspect of Victorian society, so it’s a real treat delving into another round of research each time. There are always surprises – both delights and things that make me angry. For this book, among other things, I learnt a lot about the prison system and the Thameside pubs that specialized in brown shrimp and whitebait.
Did your research for Arrowood and the Thames Corpses turn up anything unexpected?
I had no idea how crowded the river was around London Bridge. People described it as like a dense forest of masts and riggings. I was also surprised at how Oscar Wilde behaved at his trial. Completely in character, of course, but his take-no-prisoner approach probably led to a harsher sentence.
What advice would you give someone setting out as a writer of historical fiction?
There’s a lot I could say, but here’s just one: imagine being in a particular place, with particular other people. Now imagine all the little details and make sure you have them historically correct (what each person is wearing, what they smell like, what they’re smoking, what equipment they need, what they ate for lunch, what their accommodation would have been like, how they travelled to that place etc).
You don’t need all those details in the book, but you need to be able to sprinkle some of them in here and there as almost inadvertent detail. The reader shouldn’t notice you doing it. This way you can make the reader feel the story is completely grounded in the time without lengthy scene-setting.
What do you think the historical novelist can add to the study of the past?
Hilary Mantel deals with this very nicely in her Reith lecture, which is worth listening to for this topic. I don’t feel I can make any grand claims here because, although I’ve read a lot of original sources, I’ve also absorbed other people’s historical research. All I can hope for is that people who are not already steeped in Victorian social history will have a richer sense of the time and the people after reading Arrowood books. I’m not sure I can claim anything more.
What are you working on now?
A current day novel set in an exclusive boarding school and a Westminster policy institute. It’s about narcissism.
And finally, just for fun, can you describe your book in five words?
Captain Moon killed himself. Why?
The fourth book in this series, Arrowood and The Meeting House Murders, was published on 8 July, 2021.
Our first 2021 Crown Awards shortlists interview was with Ellen Alpsten, who’s in the running for a Debut Crown Award.
See all the HWA Crown Awards shortlists for 2021.
The winning books in all three categories will be announced at 11am on 24 November.