Author Q&A: Alex Grecian

  • August 14, 2012

Alex Grecian is the author of the long-running and critically acclaimed graphic novel series Proof. The Yard is his first novel.

Victorian London is a dangerous and cruel city — a cesspool of crime. Countless bodies wash ashore on the banks of the Thames each week with their throats slit, and Saucy Jack has, spectacularly, eluded capture. Londoners have only contempt for their police protectors. Enter Sir Edward Bradford, the Commissioner of Police, who creates a special team of 12 detectives and calls them the Murder Squad.

Alex Grecian is the author of the long-running and critically acclaimed graphic novel series Proof. The Yard is his first novel.

As a reader, I’m always aware of the pace in a work of mystery, especially as the story begins. Is this purposeful?

My goal when I began writing The Yard was to create a modern thriller that happened to be set in Victorian London. To marry our current perceptions of that time and place with the expectations we tend to have when reading a present-day police procedural. I didn’t want to write the sort of stuffy historical fiction that bores me.

Then, no matter how the author may attempt to slow down the reader it’s a race to the end. How do you do this?

I didn’t try to slow the reader down at all. I really wanted my readers to have trouble putting the book down once they reached a certain point. The chapters become shorter, I jump around between characters at a faster pace, and I spend less time inside the characters’ heads. It’s all action once the ending comes into sight. I hope that people finish this book and feel satisfied, even worn out.

Please describe the way you have written The Yard. Is it like a puzzle, you get the lynchpin piece right and the rest all falls into place? Are there “eureka” moments for the author the way there are for the reader?

I think that if I know exactly what’s going to happen at every step of the way, the reader will also be able to anticipate what’s coming. If I can keep myself entertained as I write, I might have a better shot at entertaining the reader. So I jumped into The Yard with a handful of characters and let them dictate as much of the plot as I could. Understanding the characters helped me determine how they would react to the events of the book and that, in turn, would dictate what happened next. There’s a murder that happens at the halfway point of the book (roughly speaking) that I didn’t anticipate. I was sad when that character put himself in the situation that led to his death, but it was the sort of thing he’d do, so it sort of wrote itself, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious.

Which way do you think is easier to write a murder mystery; start with the murder or the murderer and work backwards? Create a bunch of characters and decide which one can most easily be bumped off? How do you prepare yourself to kill off a good character, one that you have taken pains to invent?

I’m not actually sure. I generally start with a handful of characters and an incident and a theme, and see where all of that takes me. I work hard to avoid a grand plan. That bores me and I’m too easily bored. The theme and characters carry me through the work more surely than the plot does. If a scene or chapter doesn’t support the theme I’m working with, it needs to be edited out. To me, that keeps a book unified much more than an outline does. Everything, whether it be the main plot or a subplot or a stray bit of navel-gazing by a main character, relates only if it’s revolving around the theme.

I know that I do invent the characters, but if I’ve done that well enough, the characters begin to seem like people I might know. And so, killing them is much harder than if I’d created them just for that purpose. I invented Inspector Christian Little so that I could kill him. That’s clear from the first sentence of the book. But when I started writing I didn’t know who else might die over the course of The Yard. That makes it suspenseful even for me. Nobody’s safe. Truly. And that makes me worried as I write the next book.

Why and how does a Midwesterner set his first novel in Victorian England?

I think Victorian England fascinates us all, Americans and Brits alike. We’re familiar enough with the tropes of the period that it’s not too alien, and yet many of the customs and fashions, even the language, seems quite foreign. The how of it is that I spent months and months (maybe years) reading everything I could find that was set in, or about, Victorian London.

Your graphic novel, Proof Book 4: Julia, is said to be the inspiration for The Yard. Julia Pastrana was a woman born with hypertrichosis who spent years traveling as the feature in a freak show owned by her husband. Please explain the connection.

When I was a little boy, I was often taken to the house of a friend of our family. He had a private library with a rolling spiral staircase and hundreds of old leather-bound books. One of those books was about circus performers and human abnormalities. Every time we visited that house, I would grab the circus book down off the shelf and spend hours curled up in a leather chair reading about circus folk and staring at the big glossy pictures.

I was particularly fascinated by Julia Pastrana’s life story. She was a kind, intelligent, talented woman, who spoke several languages, danced beautifully, and donated much of her income to charities. And she was completely covered with hair. Her husband had clearly married her in order to control her career and skim off her income. When she died in childbirth, he had her stuffed, along with the body of their stillborn son, and put on display. Julia’s sad story stayed with me for years and, when I grew up, I finally found a chance to write about her.

She lived in the Victorian era and the main character of my graphic novel series, John “Proof” Prufrock, had been alive for a very long time. So I told a story from his younger days and wove Julia’s true-life history into the fictional life of Proof. I had so much left-over material from my research on the era that I decided to create a new graphic novel series, a spin-off that was set in Victorian England and was focused on Scotland Yard. My agent persuaded me to create something from scratch based on that same material and to write it as prose.

And I’m very glad I listened to him.

“Saucy Jack” or Jack the Ripper is the most talked about serial killer ever. Was he the first, the most charismatic? Why after all these years is his still a household name?  Is it because he was never captured?

I think evading capture is among the biggest reasons he’s endured so long. The grisly details of his murders, the way he toyed with the police and the media, the lack of motivation (or, at least, our lack of understanding), all of it helped him ensure that people would be talking about him for a very long time.

It certainly seems macabre, but do you suppose every author who writes about murder and murderers wants to create a murderer as memorable as Jack the Ripper?

Absolutely. But we’re creating fictional murderers in a time that’s glutted with similar villains, so I don’t believe there’s any chance of duplicating the Ripper’s fame. And that’s fine with me. As much as I want to create compelling bad guys, I’m not necessarily happy with the idea of turning killers into celebrities.

That said, Thomas Harris has probably come closest with Hannibal Lecter and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to create a character as compelling as that.

In Victorian London, it seems as if it would have been easy to find an orphan, clean him up and give him a home. There would have been many street urchins or is this a myth that started with Dickens? Why does your character have to steal a child from a proper family?

Street urchins and orphans would have been hardened and self-reliant, and probably more difficult to catch than an innocent child playing in his front yard. The reason children are stolen from their homes in The Yard is because children were, in fact, stolen from their homes in astonishing numbers during that era. Just as a popular way of disposing of bodies was to leave them in steamer trunks about the city. I tried to use statistically significant crimes as much as possible in this book. Really, why make up something less shocking than the actual things that were happening?

Were any of the murders in your story based on true events?

No. Not specifically. Well, except for a couple of the crimes Day reads about in Inspector Little’s files. But I am basing a murder in the sequel on a very famous Scotland Yard case.

One of the doctors in the book makes the statement that there will always be one among us, a serial murderer; do you believe this is true?

Probably so. Unfortunately, that Pandora’s box has been opened and I don’t think we can shut it again. I imagine that’s a big part of our current fascination with those creatures. They’re a real possibility and they’re almost an alien form of life. But they look like us.

The doctor partly blames the fact that London is too crowded. Please put it in evolutionary terms — is murder a sort of strange population control to an unhinged mind? A fallout of too many people living on top of one another, someone has to go mad?

I’ve read studies that seem to indicate that any species will begin to turn on itself if conditions become too crowded. There does seem to be some sort of genetic population control that overrides other instincts in some of us. Frogs kill frogs, mice kill mice. Clearly, people kill people. I don’t understand it, but I’m fascinated and frightened by it.

How much do you have to understand about murder to create a good murderer? How did you research your interest?

I studied forensics and called hospitals, talked to some very helpful doctors and nurses, who asked that I not acknowledge them in the book.

When it comes time to write about a murderer, though, the question becomes, “What would have to be different about me to make me do this thing? How is this motivated?” I don’t like villains who are crazy because that becomes completely circular: he’s evil because he’s crazy and he’s crazy because he’s evil … . I can start with the notion that someone’s mentally unbalanced, but then there has to be a reason for him to tip over into evil. Otherwise, most mentally unbalanced people probably make a concerted effort to fit in and be productive members of society. There has to be a spark that sets them off.

Did you scare yourself, writing about depravity?

Yes. I generally enjoy writing about bad guys. There’s a little thrill involved and researching how to burglarize a high-security building, for instance, is a lot of fun. It’s sort of liberating to imagine being a thief (though I don’t think I’d be able to pull that career change off successfully). But murderers are a different species entirely and I don’t like to see people get hurt. I’m drawn to the idea, though, of the suddenness of violence. Violence isn’t pretty and I find myself returning again and again to the randomness and brutality of it all. It does scare me.

We don’t spend too much time in the murderer’s head, you only hint at his past. Why did you decide not to let the reader into the murderer’s mind?

I’m actually a big fan of ambiguity. I think if we get too cozy with the thoughts of a killer, he stops being scary. We need to be kept outside his head so that he’ll remain unpredictable. I think (I hope) there were enough hints dropped along the way that we can guess why the Bald Man tipped over the edge and began to act out his fantasies. But I’d rather the reader have to make those connections, instead of spelling it all out and taming that monster.

Did you know there was a “British Cupping Society”?  I suppose one of your doctors would have been a member and the other would have wanted the society outlawed. You have two doctors, the more modern-thinking doctor and the one who still practices cupping. Do you believe that, generally, they would have had no tolerance and very little understanding of each other?

I’m really not sure. Many of Kingsley’s attitudes in the book are actually my own. So his sensibilities are much more modern than they probably would have been had he lived in 1889 London. The thought of cupping makes my stomach turn and my knees quiver. There’s absolutely no logic behind that practice, there’s no medical reason for that. It’s shocking to me that people bought into it, so I’m not being remotely fair to Dr. Entwhistle and his perfectly normal desire to suck the blood out of his patients. I have the advantage of 120 years of hindsight.

We still seem to have such a fascination with vampires. Is wet cupping an early flirtation? A kind of bloodlust? What did the early practitioners do with the blood?

That’s a great (creepy, but great) question. I have no idea what they did with the blood, but now I’m going to have to find out and revisit the subject. Personally, I don’t think bloodlust has much to do with why we like vampires. Vampires are sex and immortality rolled into one fantasy creature. If you could become a vampire (and if vampires were real, it seems like it would be a piece of cake to become one), you could live forever. You’d never get cancer or have a heart attack. You’d never even sprain your ankle. You’d have to give up Italian food and that’s about it. They’re much more wish-fulfillment fantasies than they are monsters, really.

Mrs. Shaw was awfully forward with Inspector Hammersmith. Is she a woman who knows what she wants, or was it just necessity, the avoidance of starvation? Mrs. Day, the wife of Inspector Day, your lead detective, was also no shrinking violet. Your female characters are quite sturdy, even the prostitutes and the landlord who protects her turf.  Does this say something about you as their creator? If so, what does it say?

Mrs. Shaw surprised me a bit at the end of the book and I’m not sure she was entirely a sane person. She seemed to be entirely about self-preservation within the confines of her very restrictive society. I don’t think she’s a happy person, but she has many good qualities and I like to think that she’ll become happy despite herself, once her life stabilizes a bit.

If the female characters in this book say anything about me, I hope they’re saying the same things the male characters are saying. Unfortunately, since the focus of the book is on Scotland Yard and women were not allowed to join the police force, my female characters didn’t have as much time to shine as the men did. But within a limited amount of space, I did try to establish them as characters in their own right, not just as extensions of the men around them. There was certainly less opportunity for them in that time and place, and I continue to wrestle with ways to showcase those characters. I’m very fond of Fiona Kingsley and I think she’s young enough that she’ll be able to create more opportunities for herself in future books as her society loosens up a bit. She and Claire are both strong people and I’m anxious to team them up and give them their own causes and adventures.

This touches on a pet peeve of mine, so please forgive me if I go off on a bit of a tangent. It bothers me when male villains menace and/or kill female characters in order to motivate the good guys (who are men). Good male characters have to arrest or kill bad male characters and women are sort of innocent bystanders. In a lot of crime fiction, men cancel each other out and women aren’t really necessary either. It’s almost embarrassing. But I tried to turn that on its head a bit with the female serial killers in The Yard and the main villain who menaces policemen and children. That was very much a conscious choice and it’s something I plan to explore further.

Indoor plumbing, fingerprint technology, bans on bleeding and cupping were contemporaries? Maybe if you could go to the bathroom and wash yourself inside the house there’d be less need for being bled? Just joking.  Did they really all come about at the same time?

Roughly speaking, yes. Bathrooms were huge status symbols. You’d convert a big bedroom into a water closet, complete with furniture, and then throw a party to show it off. It must have been exciting to have that degree of convenience suddenly available to everyone.

Meanwhile, a Scottish missionary named Henry Faulds had started writing letters to Scotland Yard in 1886, trying to persuade them to adopt fingerprinting as a means of identifying criminals. They had not begun using it by 1889, but it seemed reasonable to me to think that someone as forward-thinking as Dr. Kingsley would have talked to Faulds and begun toying with the idea. Kingsley would have considered himself to be quite cutting-edge and so he would have been looking for new technology.

So it’s not necessarily historically accurate to have fingerprinting being used to catch criminals, but it was definitely possible.

You describe briefly the childhood occupation of one of your detectives. He is small enough to work in a particular segment of a mine. At first, this reader thought it was a metaphor for compartmentalization and the way in which a detective solves a case but this reader may also be overly dramatic. Please explain his actual job in the mine and why it was necessary.

Children were used in the smaller tunnels to man gates at specific intervals. Gas leaks, fires, and explosions were a real danger and closing off the tunnels would help contain any accidents. So those gates were opened just long enough to let the carts and ponies through with their loads of coal, and then immediately closed again. Putting a child to work there virtually guaranteed that he’d go years without ever seeing the sun.

I did intend that to be a metaphor for the blindness and isolation of being a policeman at that time, but I like your reading of it too and will now claim it as my secondary intention. I hope you won’t mind.

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