Article published on October 3, 2011.
1929. A girl is strangled in a London alley, the mangled corpse of a peeping Tom is found in a railway tunnel and the juicy details of the latest trunk murder are updated hourly in fresh editions of the evening papers.
Into this insalubrious world steps Dora Strang, a doctor’s daughter with an unmaidenly passion for anatomy. Denied her own medical career, she moves into lodgings with a hilarious, insecticidal landlady and begins life as filing clerk to the country’s pre-eminent pathologist, Alfred Kemble.
Dora is thrilled by the grisly post-mortems and the headline-grabbing court cases and more fascinated still by the pathologist himself: an enigmatic war hero with bottle-green eyes and an air of sardonic glamour – the embodiment of all her girlish fantasies. But Dora’s job holds more than a few surprises, not least of which is finding herself frequently under the watchful gaze – and occasionally wandering hands – of the distinguished Dr Kemble. As things take a distinctly ghastly turn, both in one of the department’s major cases and in Dora’s own life, the newspaper reporters sharpen their pencils in morbid anticipation … But can the impressionable Miss Strang emerge unscathed?
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given (and do you follow it)?
To keep writing no matter how you are feeling and to write everything ‘as if you can see it before you on a brightly-lit stage’. The ‘brightly-lit stage’ thing struck a particular chord with me. Having been a dance and theatre critic for over 20 years I was used to describing and analysing what was taking place on stage, now all I had to do was apply the same mind-set to the stuff going on in my head (easier said than done).
Which authors do you find most inspiring as a writer?
I suppose I’m inspired by writers who can create a world whose imagined reality is so vividly realised that you can guess how the characters might speak or act in situations not shown in the novel you are currently reading. I love books that remind me that that is possible, books whose rooms I can smell.
Do you have an audience in mind when writing, or do you just write for yourself?
Obviously I want people to read what I write and I try very hard not to be boring or self-indulgent (both capital crimes, I reckon) but I can’t honestly say I have a reader in mind. As a rule I don’t think creative work is at its best when it is produced back-to-front. I become fascinated by a subject then do my best to make it fascinating (and entertaining) to other people.
Where do you write, and why?
I write in lots of different places. I have a very nice small study overlooking a very nice small garden but I tend, rather perversely, to do the actual writing somewhere else. In bed. Or on the sofa. I quite like writing on aeroplanes. I write longhand with a cheap fountain pen in A5 notebooks from Paperchase, then type it in, then email it to myself (paranoid? Not really. Laptops crash).
Tell us the book you most wish you had written.
I really don’t know if I can answer that one. Essentially I’d like to have written something with the sweep and depth and pace of War and Peace but with jokes and I can’t think of anything that quite covers that.
Comic writing is very underrated. People seem to assume that a serious treatment is automatically more valuable but comedy is very hard. I think I’d like to have written Nicholas Nickleby. I am a huge Dickens fan. When you’re young you dismiss many of the characters as stereotypes but the older you get, the more Mrs Mantalinis and Mrs Nicklebys you meet. I love the way almost every character has a completely distinctive voice. Much harder than it looks.
What made you want to write about the specific period when Ghastly Business is set?
The flower of a whole generation was sacrificed in the First World War but many other things were lost at the same time. The scale of the killing and the everyday brutality endured by the serving men changed everyone it touched. The coarsening of their sexual lives and the hideous loss of innocence suffered by the millions infected with venereal diseases only curable by prolonged and primitive chemotherapy undoubtedly changed the nature of 20th century sexuality.
Although I didn’t want to hitch a ride on the war itself, I was intrigued by its aftermath. My anti-hero (not the most sympathetic of men) has his world view warped by what he witnesses in the trenches. The life of Mrs Frith is altered forever by her husband’s death and his legacy. The heroine’s father pines for the gentle world of the not-so-distant past. Meanwhile my heroine, bored (as one probably would have been) by talk of a war she was almost too young to remember, is able to enjoy new freedoms won by women for whom war proved a golden opportunity.
Your turn of phrase is particularly powerful. Is this something that is formed through tireless editing, or does it come naturally to you?
How very kind of you to say so. I do a fair amount of editing but mostly to add or remove material and shuffle the order of events etc. I’m not a great hunter of the mot juste. If it doesn’t flow I tend to cut it and start again from scratch.
Despite the attitudes of the period, in Ghastly Business there appears to be a real no-holds-barred approach to gruesome details. Was there anything you came across during your research that crossed a line, or did you make a conscious effort not to to exclude anything?
Yes it is gruesome but almost every case in the book is based on a real one and even the Charm Bracelet case (which I invented) is a composite of various actual crimes. The Biscuit Tin case is based on the infamous Mahon murder and the evidence in the trial (37 boiled pieces of human flesh etc.) is taken almost verbatim from the newspaper reports and from the relevant ‘Great Trials’ volume (these also included full post-mortem reports). I didn’t want to leave anything out because I wanted to confront the public’s almost pornographic interest in the minutiae of violent death. We loved it then and we love it still. Real-life horror is immensely popular. I shall never forget someone telling me that by the miracle of modern retail analysis it was possible to establish that Sainsburys customers who bought Monster (about the Austrian who kept his daughter in a bunker) were most likely to buy a bottle of Baileys Irish Cream and a jumbo pack of sausage rolls at the same time. An afternoon’s entertainment sorted.
By using a fair amount of black humour and by showing most of the horror through the eyes of an ingenue I hoped to lighten the gloom slightly but I have to admit that a couple of my friends had to skip bits but it isn’t as if the clue isn’t in the title…
Mind you, one famous sex murder I came across in my research was alluded to as ‘injuries too revolting to describe’ and although I kept meaning to look up the law report I never quite got round to it… Given the hideous nature of the stuff that isn’t too revolting to describe it must have been quite some murder.
Mrs Frith is one of the strongest characters in the book. Is she, like Dr Kemble, based on an actual person, or is she entirely a product of your imagination?
I made her up although anyone who has ever had a mouse or a cockroach in the house will probably be in touch with their Inner Frith. Her culinary meanness came about purely and simply because of the thrifty recipe books of the period (Cold Meat and How to Disguise It etc.). I just asked myself who on earth would have a use for such a book then worked back from there. I did once meet an old lady who kept a separate set of china for her own use and another for her husband and I often wondered why on earth that might have been.
Kemble is loosely based on the career of a real pathologist and his more famous cases but I should stress that although the real-life pathologist was a chain-smoking workaholic who wore a gardenia he was not a sado-masochistic serial seducer of secretaries.
Your work has drawn comparisons with Stella Gibbons; is this something that you’d welcome?
Gosh yes. I’d give anything to have her ability to create a completely mad, completely believable, completely involving world with such devastating wit, such an extraordinarily light touch. Never been so flattered in my life.
Louise Levene is the author of A Vision of Loveliness, a BBC Book at Bedtime, published in May 2010, and in paperback in May 2011. She lives in London with her husband and two children.
Under A Monsoon Cloud: An Inspector Ghote Mystery, by H.R.F. Keating