One of the problems with having both a devotion to serial fiction and an inability to read poorly written books, regardless of how high concept, is a paucity of choices. Recently, however, I came across a series set in a time period I had, prior to this, very little interest in, Victorian England. With the exception of Sherlock Holmes and Elizabeth Peters (whose series is set largely in Egypt), it just wasn’t a world that captured my attention. I don’t care about Queen Victoria, don’t like tea and hope to live my whole life without having my chest hair ruffled by Romantic breezes while astride a white charger. Like most situations where a whole new world swims into my ken, however, it turns out Victorian England, London in particular, and the seedy side of that city in still more particular, had far more of interest than I expected.
Will Thomas‘s Barker and Llewelyn series stars an English detective and his Welsh partner. Comparisons with Holmes are inevitable, perhaps, but I’ll let you make them, with one exception. If I were a criminal, I’d be terrified that Holmes would catch up with me. Without Watson, however, I’d feel reasonably certain I could hand him his own ass. Barker, who grew up as an orphan on the streets in Foochow, where he learned Chinese martial arts, well, not so much.
The books are full of streetlife and nightlife, the Chinese, Jewish and Italian minorities opening up like flowers behind clear and compelling prose, the thieves’ cant and cops argot and prostitutes’ calls all blooming in the odd corners.
Of course, I’d like to tell you the fact that the main voice in the books is Welsh does not alone justify its existence. But we both know that’s not true. Cymru am byth!
How did you start writing?
I worked for five years on my first book, SOME DANGER INVOLVED. I had been a fan of the Victorian Era and Sherlock Holmes and wanted to incorporate the history I had been studying into a novel of my own.
What inspired you to write mysteries?
I’ve been a lifelong mystery fan, from Edgar Allan Poe to Robert B. Parker. There’s something satisfying about crime-solving that appeals to human nature. I consider my novels to be literary mysteries, because they often feature historic figures and include literary references from the time.
What led you to set your mysteries in Victorian England?
I find it a fascinating time period and London is a dynamic city. It was the height of an empire, which was already sowing its own destruction.
What led you to make one of your characters Welsh? Was it common sense, decency and self-respect? Clearly, we can agree that there are not nearly enough Welsh characters in literature, can we not?
I felt it was necessary for my character, Thomas Llewelyn, to be an outsider in London society, and to have strong opinions about how the country was being governed. He’s often seen in the East End, seeing the poorest of the poor and always on the periphery of the underworld. His basic common sense guides him through perilous adventures with the aid of his employer and mentor, Cyrus Barker. I have a Scottish and Welsh ancestry which I wanted to bring out in the novel.
What kind of reaction have you gotten to your books from British, who can be rather snotty about Americans writing – or even acting – in an English context.
Actually, all of the comments I’ve received have been most kind. Two of the books have been published in England.
So far, in addition to the dominant English culture in your series, the Jewish and Chinese communities figure strongly. Was this a function of historical research or is there something about the cultures that either appeals to you personally, allows you to accomplish something literately, or both?
The Jewish storyline in SOME DANGER INVOLVED came about as the result of research. The pogroms that occurred in eastern Europe inspired the book. These tragedies deserve not to be forgotten. As far as the Chinese elements, that happens to be something I am personally interested in. I study martial arts and weave that into each of the novels.
Which writers do you esteem, of both your progenitors and your contemporaries?
Hardy, Eliot and Dickens have had a strong influence on my writing, along with Arthur Conan Doyle, of course. I continue to read the classics and draw inspiration from them. There are many talented writers today whom I admire, including Matthew Pearl and Michael Chabon. I’m reading Matthew Pearl’s book THE LAST DICKENS right now.
What are the challenges in writing a book set in a culture and time not your own?
The amount of research is staggering, and involves everything from scouting the library and bookshops to exploring London on foot. Not everything can be found in books or on the internet. I happened upon St. John’s Priory in Clerkenwell by accident, the birthplace of the Crusades, which I hope to use in my next novel. Some things just aren’t in guide books.
How much research do you do for one of your books? Do you do extensive research before and then write, or is the research process with you all the way through the composition stage?
Both. There is always research going on until the final draft of the manuscript is complete. I often pick up interesting facts that I might not use in my current novel, but which could be saved for the next.
What books would you recommend for a fan who would like to learn more about the Victorian era? What about resources that are not books?
I’ve developed an extensive library on Victorian subjects, including books on maps, gentlemen’s clubs, histories of the Underworld, grand hotels and pubs of the period, and even “how to” books, like cooking or Victorian martial arts. I don’t have just one “go to” book. I’m always pulling from a variety of sources, even once having gotten hold of one of Spurgeon’s hymnals for a scene with Llewelyn and Barker through inter-library loan. I would recommend a reader ask their local librarian for materials available there on the Victorian Era. Museums are another excellent source of information on the period.
Are there any active plans afoot to make a movie or series from your series? Is this something to be desired or avoided? It reminds me of the sitcom | stand up discussion among comedians some years back.
No current plans, but I think it will make a great movie or series someday.
Tell me as much or as little about your life as you’d care to. For instance, where do you live? Where did you grow up? What did you do prior to writing professionally? What is your family like?
I was born in Pennsylvania, and currently live in Oklahoma with my wife and two daughters. I have a theater background and majored in English in college. After graduating, I became a librarian. I started writing rather late.
How do you write? That is, do you write on vellum with a quill? On a legal pad with a pencil? On the computer? Do you have a regular writing place, a study or café? What do you see when you look up from writing? And how do you compose? Do you outline the story or make it up as you go along? Do you know, when beginning a book, how it will end? What starts a book? A line, a situation, a crime?
I write longhand with pen and paper, generally with a pipe in my mouth. I actually prefer writing outdoors so that I can look up at the sky or the trees and really concentrate on what I’m doing. I always make an outline, which is occasionally revised before the first draft is complete. Usually, I begin a book with a mental image. Sometimes I even sketch an idea on paper before I begin to write. That’s how THE LIMEHOUSE TEXT began.
What’s next on your writing agenda? Can you tell us anything about what’s in store for Barker and Llewelyn?
I’m currently at work on the next novel and it involves a character seeking revenge upon Cyrus Barker.
Clearly a question about Holmes & Watson would be in order, but it seems rather obvious. OK, what about this: How weird is it that every depiction in film and TV of Watson is of an old dingbat when, in the books, he’s Holmes’s age and clearly the brawler, shooter and ladies man?
Yes, I agree! Watson has clearly been overlooked. He is Doyle’s doppelganger and the wizard behind the curtain.
If you would like to read another interview with a writer, see my conversation with Rebecca Pawel.