Given the reading habits I formed as a child, it’s not too surprising I ended up writing historical mysteries, but I hadn’t really thought about the research required. Now I have an internet trail that includes purchasing cookbooks and books on poison, digging for mindfulness techniques and also whether the physical appearance of a murder victim could be mistaken for natural death. As I’ve been locked down with the same people for nearly a year, this could look dodgy. So far the police haven’t turned up. But I guess there’s still time.
I started this intending it to be about what influenced my writing of historical mysteries, but then it turned out that disappearing down a research rabbit hole unravelled a family mystery of my own and revealed a surprise.
When I was about seven, way before Horrible Histories were published, my father bought me a book called The Medieval Scene. Being a child, the best bits from my perspective were the gruesome details of trial by ordeal etc, but even the less gory elements encouraged my interest in history and I never really looked back.
A year or so later, we moved relatively near to the ruined 13th Century Carreg Cennen Castle which we regularly visited. It was thrilling to look down into what was left of the dungeons and wonder who’d once been down there, why, and whether they survived. When I found a time-slip book set in Carreg Cennen called The Gauntlet, I read it over and over, lapping up the historical detail and contrasting it with the modern boy’s normal life. (It was rather dated then and more so now, but still a terrific read.) Avidly reading Geoffrey Trease, Henry Treece and Rosemary Sutcliff – I discovered that novels – if often rather male-centric – were a great way to absorb history without it being a dull reiteration of dates. Then as I reached my teens, I found historical fiction written for girls and about girls, which dealt with social issues too: Geraldine Symons books The Workhouse Child and Miss Rivers and Miss Bridges, then the Flambards series by K.M. Peyton.
I didn’t just love historical books. Once, I’d loved the mysteries in the also dated Famous Five and Secret Seven so it was a natural progression to Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. Of course, to me in the late 20th Century, their books were not just detective stories, they were also historical fiction, mostly set in an era when my grandparents had been young, in a world almost as alien as another planet, where a lots of people appeared to have servants, few people had telephones, letters and trains arrived regularly and on time (except where the plot demanded otherwise), telegrams were normal but inside bathrooms and private cars weren’t (unless you were rich).
Research, as I’ve said before and to mix a metaphor, is a rabbit warren of byways. Checking background information for the sequel to The Wrong Sort to Die last Monday, I was trying (and failing) to find out the exact location of the first International Women’s Day march in Switzerland on 19th March 1911 (it’s not terribly important but if you know – please get in touch). As I was searching, I became side-tracked by a truly awful disaster in New York on 25th March 1911: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. As it’s the sort of thing which would have horrified my character Margaret, I wondered when it was first reported in Britain and started looking in the British Newspaper Archive. So far, the earliest reference I’ve found is in Sunday 26th March 1911’s Lloyds Weekly Paper.
Naturally I then wandered down other alleys in the archive. Deciding to take a break from my book, I remembered once seeing a clip about my great-grandfather when doing some family research. Due to killing a laptop with a cup of tea in the interim, I’d lost the link. Now I looked again and found a report of the inquest into his death. I knew that he’d died as a result of drinking what I’d been led to believe had been disinfectant. I now found it was some kind of lotion intended for external use made from aconite. I’m not sure which it would be worse to die from, or to witness someone dying from as my great-grandmother must have done. I can only hope that my grandfather and his five siblings were either at school or work when it happened. Whether my great-grandfather drunk it deliberately or thought it was something else was undetermined. He certainly called for help. But suicide while of unsound mind was the verdict returned. None of this was a shock, as I already knew much of it, but reading the newspaper article brought the situation to life – a man plagued with money worries in deep despair and with what would now be termed as depression and a widow left with six children, who lost her husband and home and had to rely on family, friends and presumably the older two children for their livelihood.
After this, I took one last turn in the research path (for this week at least), and went from sadness to surprise to delight.
Now that I knew where it was, I googled the place where my great-grandparents had lived and I found the last thing I’d expected: a website dedicated to early cinema and a page called Straight Out of Whetstone about a 1916 film which was partly shot in their very town. If you know what you’re looking for, you can even very briefly see their house.
It’s a shame I can’t show any of this to my father, but I could show my sister and children. And now I can not only see Whetstone as my grandfather would have seen it as a child, but I can also see half the film that was shot there. If you want thrills and spills (if rather slow ones) here is the link to what’s left of ‘The Man with the Glass Eye’.
It’s tragic that the film breaks off just as things are getting really exciting, so I’m now trying to find out what the rest of the story might have been…. Watch out rabbit hole – here I come.
Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Photograph 51997062 © Everett Collection Inc. | Dreamstime.com