Catriona writes: what a timely title D.E. Ireland (aka Meg Mims and Sharon Pisacreta) chose for their guest-blog! I've just come back from Bloody Scotland (Scotland's first crime-writing festival, now in its third triumphant year) which started the day after the Scottish population voted to stay British after all.
So it's just the right time to be reminded that Arthur Conan Doyle - A Scot - set his stories in London and that Agatha Christie set many of hers down on the south coast of England - as far as you could get from Scotland and still be on the same land mass. We've got a proud shared tradition on this wee rock.
Meg and Sharon are adding to it from afar, with an ingenious and delicious new London-set mystery, the first in a series. So ingenious that I'll admit, when I heard what they were up to, I was seized with envy. "Curses!" I hissed, making fists, "why didn't I think of that?" Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle teaming up to fight crime! well, even if I had thought of it, I'd never have thought of the plot of book one. I'm now just glad they wrote it and delighted that I got to read it.
Please join me in a big Femmes Fatales welcome to D.E. Ireland:
Meg and Sharon write:
Why do Americans love mysteries set in Britain? It’s no doubt due to the Anglophile’s romanticized view of London, the unsolved murders by Jack the Ripper, the thick pea-soup fog, and the mysterious moors of the English countryside. And let’s not forget Britain’s colorful literary detectives like Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, Hamish Macbeth and the legendary Sherlock Holmes.
The American Edgar Allen Poe “birthed” the mystery genre in 1841 with The Murders in the Rue Morgue. However in 1868, English author Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone was the first detective novel to be set in an English country home; the story was filled with the incompetent constables, suspects, red herrings and twists we know and love today. Almost twenty years later, Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson to the reading public. Let’s delve into why Americans fell so hard for the most quintessential and famous English detective.
Readers ate up Conan Doyle’s serialized stories. One wonders if the anticipation of waiting for the next installment added to their popularity. As for Sherlock, he utilized acute powers of observation and deductive reasoning. He is certainly unlike many American literary detectives who are often portrayed as terse, hardboiled private eyes. Everything about Sherlock seemed exotic to American audiences. His eccentric habits – playing the violin at odd hours, shooting his pistol at the wall for practice, smoking his pipe while thinking through puzzles, injecting himself with his seven-percent solution, keeping tobacco in a Persian slipper, and unopened letters pinned to the mantel with a jackknife – all created a timeless image of a uniquely English detective.
When Conan Doyle died in 1930, he left several secrets about Sherlock unanswered. Readers still wonder that if Holmes survived Reichenbach Falls, why didn’t his arch-rival Moriarity survive as well? Did Holmes ever match wits again with ‘the woman’? After retiring to a small farm to keep bees, was Sherlock ever bored? Did he die peacefully in his sleep? Readers wishing to visit London’s Baker Street will not find The Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221, however, but at 239 – although the plaque boasts the famous address of 221B. Die hard Sherlockian fans can toast the celebrated pair of sleuths at the Criterion Bar in Piccadilly Circus and enjoy steak-and-kidney pie or roast beef with Yorkshire pudding at Simpsons-in-the-Strand near the Savoy. And they should check out Covent Garden Market, where the Christmas goose with the blue carbuncle was bred.
You can’t have a rip-roaring mystery set in Victorian or Edwardian London without one of those massive fogs known as a pea souper. Indeed one wonders if any director has ever made a film about Jack the Ripper without at least one scene showing a Whitechapel prostitute nervously looking about as a black-caped gentleman emerges out of the fog. A toxic product of London factories and the burning of coal fires, these pea soupers were basically thick smog often tinged with black, green, or yellow. Such fogs were fatal to anyone with breathing problems. Not surprisingly, pea soupers also became known as killer fogs and black fogs.
Of course, many other cities around the world also experienced fog due to their coal and factories. But the combination of burning coal with the mists that rose off the Thames resulted in a fog so thick that a Londoner could not see a foot in either direction. This is a natural phenomenon ready-made for a mystery story. A victim could hope to escape the killer in a thick fog. However, they might just as easily not see the deadly peril close at hand. And every mystery lover’s heart beats quicker if the character is pursued while Big Ben tolls in the distance. That, my friends, is old school mystery perfection.
Crime in Victorian London is forever linked with the most celebrated serial killer of all time: Jack the Ripper. As mentioned earlier, film directors love to pair the Ripper with a good old-fashioned London fog. Add a few gaslights and we are in familiar – and beloved – mystery territory. But according to contemporary accounts, there was no fog on the nights Jack murdered his victims. As for gaslights, the crimes occurred in the dangerous and desperate district of Whitechapel which could not afford to light most of its streets. That was why the Ripper – also known as the Whitechapel Killer – found it easy to remain hidden in the East End’s shadowy alleyways.
But writers know a good thing when they see one. The fog-bound streets of Victorian London remain a powerful landscape for any mystery story, especially when combined with gas-lit lamps, Big Ben, the frantic screams from a dark alley, and the urgent whistle of a policeman. Add a fiendish murderer who is never caught or identified, and a criminal legend is born. There have been many fictional American serial killers, yet only Hannibal Lector approaches the renown of Jack. Of course, the Ripper was all too real. And although there have been other serial killers who have eluded capture, the power of the Ripper story is enhanced by the iconic and dangerous streets of 19th century London.
Why are the moors such a draw to Americans? We have remote areas with rocky outcroppings, cliffs, mires and bogs, and Pennsylvania has heather-clad hills. But the desolate, mostly treeless English moors are also prone to fog. They evict a dark, dangerous, and yet romantic feeling to visitors. Murders have taken place on the moors as well. Between 1963 and 1965, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley killed five children and buried their bodies on Saddleworth Moor; one was never found. English authors have long taken advantage of such an isolated setting – Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights in West Yorkshire, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden in North Yorkshire, and Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles in southwest Devon’s Dartmoor.
Various superstitions and legends developed in the moors – and migrated to America as well – about ghosts and fairies, huge black hounds with flaming eyes, a headless horseman, and visits by the Devil. Such stories feed on both residents and visitors’ sense of helplessness against the harsh climate. Americans love reading about such legends. The Hound of the Baskervilles, a full novel, is top in popularity of all the Sherlock Holmes adventures. For more about what inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write it, click here.
As American Anglophiles, we have no idea if the British hold similar romantic views about our hardboiled detectives, sexy gun molls, urban crime stories, and mysteries set in the bayous and swamps of the American South. Of course, we also enjoy a thriller or private eye tale that takes place in Chicago, New York, L.A., or New Orleans. But like many American mystery fans, we can’t resist novels set in the London of Sherlock Holmes or the Ripper. Nor are we likely to turn away from a murderous tale that unfolds on the English moors. Murder is always a bloody business, but when the story is set in Britain, it also seems bloody marvelous.
D.E. Ireland is a team of award-winning authors, Meg Mims and Sharon Pisacreta. Long time friends, they decided to collaborate on this unique series based on George Bernard Shaw’s wonderfully witty play, Pygmalion. While they admit the lovely film My Fair Lady and its soundtrack proved to be inspiration, they are careful to stick to Shaw’s vision of the beloved characters from Eliza to Higgins to Pickering, Mrs. Pearce, Freddy Eynsford Hill and his family, while adding a slew of new characters they’ve dreamed up to flesh out their own version of events, post-Pygmalion.