Posts Tagged ‘UK’

Ahistorical Fiction

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

Rivals in the City by Y S LeeHello, friends. Here we are: this week, in the UK and Australia, Walker Books publishes Rivals in the City. (The US/Canadian edition will come in February 2015 from Candlewick Press.) I am tremendously excited to see this fourth novel come into the world and meet its readers. I’m also rather wistful: it’s the last Mary Quinn mystery.

The part I’m saddest about? I’ll never again write dialogue between Mary and James. I absolutely adored writing them in and out of arguments. The part I’m happiest about? Leaving Mary poised to make her way in 1860s London, entirely on her own terms. To me, this feels like a triumph.

Like all good endings, this final pub date has made me think about Mary Quinn’s beginnings. One of the best questions I’ve ever been asked, as a writer, was a couple of years ago at Kingston WritersFest. It was from a high school student. While I can’t remember her precise words, it went something like this: “The premise for the Agency is clearly a fantasy. But you’ve chosen to write the novels as realist historical fiction. Why did you decide to blend the two?” Isn’t that a beautifully analytical question?

To mark the publication of Mary Quinn’s last adventure, here’s my answer, in the form of a short essay about what I call “ahistorical fiction”. (If you don’t want to read expository writing, I’ve posted the first chapter of Rivals in the City here, for you.) If you’re curious about the idea of ahistorical fiction, please read on. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Ahistorical Fiction

My title is neither a typo nor a lousy pun. I really meant “ahistorical fiction”, which I define as a subset of historical fiction that includes elements which stand apart from mainstream history. I’m not talking about fantasy (set in an imagined world that may or may not straddle our own) or speculative fiction (which includes fantastic, supernatural or futuristic worlds). Neither do I mean fiction that is broadly anachronistic (Napoleon with a smartphone!) or counter-historical (undermining the very idea of history). Today, I’m here to defend the use of ahistorical elements in otherwise realist historical fiction.

The obvious, reflexive objections are:
1. Doesn’t that undermine historical fiction as a genre?
2. Why bother with ahistorical fiction at all? Why not write something else?

My short answers:
1. No, it enriches it.
2. See answer no. 1.

Are you ready for my longer answers? In the afterword to Code Name: Verity, Elizabeth Wein explains some of her plot choices and acknowledges that her first priority is not perfect historical accuracy. Instead, she says, her goal is simply to tell a really good story. I like that justification; it’s at the core of my writerly impulse, too. And Wein makes it sound so clean and easy. But I think it skims over some of the tricky decisions and border-drawing that happens when writers carefully include ahistorical elements in their work.

When we use ahistorical elements, we’re being selective. We’re not haphazardly inventing conveniences to rescue a stalled plot or sprinkling in some cute embellishments. Instead, we’re trying to open up our understanding of historical relationships. For Wein, this is having an English girl pilot crash-land in Nazi-occupied France. For me, in the Mary Quinn mysteries, it’s the creation of a women’s detective agency in 1850s London. In both cases, the ahistorical element is technically possible (just about). For my detective agency, I’m leaning on two historical precedents: the beginning of progressive girls’ education in the mid-nineteenth century (Bedford College was founded in 1849) and the career of Aphra Behn, the eighteenth-century playwright and spy. (The Agency is also an affectionate homage to Miss Climpson’s “typing bureau” in Dorothy L Sayers’s Peter Wimsey novels.) These specific historical leaps allow writers a different way of asking the big question at the heart of historical fiction: what if?

When I began to write A Spy in the House, the first Mary Quinn novel, I wanted to focus on an orphan girl without any advantages of money, social status, or education. I quickly realized that such a novel would be a swift, bumpy descent from poverty to prostitution to prison and, almost inevitably, early death. (This last sentence basically gives away the plot of Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin, which I highly recommend. It’s a gorgeously excessive tragedy not the least bit diminished by its inescapable ending.) Yet I wanted to rescue my protagonist, not sentence her to death. I decided to play with ideas of power by giving my orphan, Mary, a quasi-realistic opportunity to make her own way in the world: a handful of allies, a good education, a job that was more than underpaid drudgery. She would carry with her the baggage of her childhood suffering, but she would have a second chance. It was my way of using fiction to right an ongoing injustice. It was also a way to, in David Copperfield’s words, make Mary the hero of her own story.

Ahistorical elements in historical fiction are a way of rearranging the furniture. They’re also a bit like social history’s quarrel with the great-man narrative of history: what about everybody else? What if we shift our focus away from what’s always been there, and ask a different question? The use of ahistorical elements is born of love and respect for history and historical fiction. As in any relationship, though, sometimes you bump up against its limits. Sometimes you crane your neck, trying to see what exists outside its bounds. Sometimes, a fresh idea knocks you breathless. And once you’ve considered it, it helps you to see your old love anew.

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Suddenly, it’s very real

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

Hello, friends. One of the strangest things about writing a book is knowing – or, more accurately, discovering – that it’s done. I mean finally, irrevocably, too-late-to-change-a-comma done. For me, this revelation usually foists itself upon me when I open an envelope from my lovely editor at Walker Books, Mara Bergman.

Rivals in the City (Walker Books ed)

It’s not that I’ve been unconscious throughout the editorial stages, of course. But editing is very much a process that clips along on someone else’s timeline. An email pings, a package of page proofs arrives; I look things up, I shuffle words. There’s usually a very tight deadline, which means that I’m working late into the night, and never have the chance to do the final read-through I really want to do. And then the whole thing vanishes again.

Eventually, however, my words come back to me and they’ve been transmogrified. They’re sandwiched between covers – in this case, one that’s embossed! There is my dedication, standing alone. There is the sharp, sawdust aroma of printer’s ink on paper. And so much work – thousands of hours, dozens of people – compressed into an object you can balance upon your palm.

It’s a gorgeous moment. It makes me gasp and feel proud and foolish and grateful and incredulous, every time. (It’s also a terrifying moment: there will be errata.) But more than anything, I am ready. I can’t wait for Rivals in the City to make its way into the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.

Three weeks, now.

 

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Rivals in the City: Chapter One

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Hello, friends. Can you believe that it’s only six weeks until the UK publication of Rivals in the City? I know, I know! I finished my final proofread last week and the typeset pages went to the printers on Thursday. (I have since found some corrections that I’d like to make – AUGH!) Ahem.

Anyway, to celebrate and to thank you for hanging on with such dauntless patience, I am thrilled to excerpt for you, right here, the first chapter of Rivals in the City. I hope you enjoy it!

Rivals in the City final cover

Chapter One

Saturday, 13 October, 1860
The streets of London

It was a miserable day for a walk: sleety, frigid, dark. Nevertheless, Mary Quinn and James Easton, Private Detectives, were out for a ramble about Bloomsbury, bundled against the penetrating drizzle, straining to distinguish people from lampposts in the dense fog that swamped the streets. Mary’s skirts were soaked to the knee and much heavier than when she’d first set out. Their boots were thick with mud.

Mary smiled up at James, squeezing his elbow a shade tighter. “Isn’t this delightful?”

He laughed. “Unalloyed bliss, apart from the rain, the wind, and the bitter cold. Can you still feel your fingertips?”

She wiggled them experimentally. “A little. Could you tilt the umbrella towards me, please? It’s dripping on my shoulder.” James complied and they paced on, past a sodden, shivering boy wielding a broomstick taller than he was. “Wait a moment, James.” But she needn’t have spoken. James was already turning back, pressing a coin into the crossing-sweeper’s unresisting palm. He murmured something and gave the child a gentle pat on the shoulder, urging him to movement.

Mary watched the boy stumble away, a slight figure swallowed by the dark smog. She shuddered. It was like a heavy-handed morality play, to which there could be only one conclusion.

James returned, offering his arm once more. “Where were we?”

“You were complaining about the weather. Not for the first time.” She smiled up at him again, teasing this time. “Are you quite certain you don’t want to come up to my flat for tea and toast and scandal?” As her future husband, James wanted their marriage to be respectable. It wasn’t for his sake, particularly, although she suspected he cared about reputation more than he would acknowledge. No, it was for Mary: in order to bury her past properly, and allow her a fresh start, they had agreed to behave with Utter Propriety. No matter how hypocritical and inconvenient the conventions of etiquette, it was worth observing them for a short while, for the social invisibility it would afford their marriage. These cold and uncomfortable walks about town were a perfect example of their new courtship, conducted by the rules: how else could an unmarried lady and gentleman hold a truly private conversation, unchaperoned and uninterrupted? James’s logic was inarguable. And yet, after twenty years of freedom, Mary desperately resented these superficial social restrictions. Was this the moment to propose her little escapade?

His reply wiped all thought of it from her mind. “I’d love to. Let’s just pop into the next church and get married, first.”

She puffed with amusement and saw her breath in the air. “Of course, you’ve a marriage license in your pocket.”

“Do you doubt it?”

“I’d no idea you were on such intimate terms with the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

“There are common licenses, you know. One can be obtained from any vicar.”

She halted and stared up into his dark eyes. They glinted with mockery, and something else, too: a challenge. Her mouth dried up. “A-are you – mocking me?”

“I’m asking you to declare yourself. We could be married within the hour, if you so chose.” His expression was neutral, his tone maddeningly even. He might have been offering her his seat on the omnibus.

She was suddenly at the edge of a precipice, fascinated and terrified in equal measure. Of course she wanted to marry James… someday. But now? Here? “I – I don’t know what to say,” she confessed, unable to meet his gaze.

“That is an answer in itself.” He sounded remarkably calm, but there was no missing the undercurrent of hurt in his voice.

She spun to face him fully, taking both his hands in hers. “I’m sorry, James. I love you, truly. And I want to marry you.”

“But not yet.”

“I’m just learning a whole new way of being. Can you picture yourself in my place?” Mary closed her eyes briefly, knowing that James certainly tried. He, of all people, was deeply sympathetic to the horrors of her childhood on the streets, her life as a juvenile housebreaker, her unexpected escape from the death sentence. She’d never been free to explain exactly how she’d been rescued by the Agency, but he knew enough. “After a childhood such as mine, I’m suddenly a woman of means. I can choose what to do with my days. I answer to nobody. Can you see why I might want a little more time for such selfish liberty? This is my first taste of true independence; the closest I’ll ever come to perfect freedom.” She paused. “It is selfish, I’ve no illusions that it’s anything else. But it’s a giddy, dizzying sort of freedom, and I want more time to explore it.”

After a few moments, he squeezed her fingers. “I think I do understand.” She felt limp with relief. “It’s too easy for me to forget. I answer only to George, and that’s as a business partner. There’s the usual fraternal bickering, I suppose, but I am very much my own man.”

She smiled. “That you are. And you’ve chosen a willful, stubborn, scandal-ridden disgrace of a fiancée.”

“Only the best, for me.”

“James.” Mary pulled him close. Too close, for perfect propriety. “Thank you.”

His finger glided against the curve of her cheek. “I can’t say, ‘my pleasure’.”

She smiled crookedly. “I do want to belong to you, one day. And to claim you as my own, as well.”

“I very much look forward to being claimed.” He glanced about furtively, then dipped his head to hers, kissing her briefly – all too briefly – on the lips. “Perhaps I’ll have your name tattooed on my arm, so there’s no doubt as to whom I belong,” he said, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow, and resuming their steady walking pace. “What would you say to your initials, in Gothic letters, surrounded by scrolls and hearts?”

“No need,” she said with a laugh. “Once you’re mine, I won’t permit you to forget it.”

They walked on in a daze, utterly distracted by each other, and by visions of their future. It wasn’t until they heard church bells ringing the hour – it was already eleven – that Mary returned to the present. “Ought we to talk business?” she suggested, with a slight sigh.

“Sadly, yes. What news of ailing Mr. Colfax?” It was the last – and, admittedly, only second – item on their list of current cases.

“I’m afraid it’s bad: I’ve traced the purchase of three substantial amounts of arsenic over the past year directly to his wife.”

James whistled. “I thought it was supposed to be difficult to buy arsenic, now. There was all that administrative reform after the Bradford tragedy.” Less than two years earlier, there had been an accidental mass poisoning in the north, when arsenic was mistakenly included in a batch of peppermint sweets.

“In theory, yes. But all one need do is tell the chemist what it’s wanted for – everybody in the world wants it to kill rats – and sign the ledger.”

“Did she sign in her own name each time?”

“For the first lot, yes, which makes me wonder if the idea only came to her after the fact. But for the second and third purchases, which are more recent, she took care to use a false name and address. I’m certain it’s her, though. Not only does the handwriting match, but the chemists – she used a different shop each time – remembered her and described her with accuracy.”

“What’s next?”

“We still don’t know exactly how she’s doing it,” said Mary. “She’s not suffering from any sort of digestive upset, and neither are the domestics. It must be in something he alone consumes. Dissolved in the whisky, maybe, or perhaps he’s the only one who likes sugar in his coffee?”

“I’ll ask him to consider what it might be,” said James. As the male partner, he was also the public face of their fledgling detective firm – a concession to convention that seldom failed to irk Mary, if she dwelt upon it. “And perhaps he ought to take a short holiday. It would be useful to confirm that he doesn’t suffer these digestive horrors when he’s on his own; only when dear Mrs. Colfax presides over the menu.”

Mary nodded. “In the meantime, I doubt Mrs. Colfax is a threat to anybody else. Only to that very heavily insured husband of hers.”

They plodded on, contemplating the faithlessness of modern love and marriage. Their client was a frail and rather elderly bridegroom of three years – a doting husband until, after too many sudden and agonizing gastric attacks, he had slowly begun to suspect the worst. Before their marriage, Mrs. Colfax had been a lively young widow, handsome and sociable and absolutely penniless. Their marriage was just the sort of thing Mary had been taught to eschew at the unconventional Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. The thing was, she thought, with just a little more patience, that fortune would pass legally to Mrs. Colfax. Yet she seemed reluctant to wait for it. Money had a way of spoiling people’s judgement.

Had it done the same to her? Mary thought half-guiltily of her own fortune, the gift of a grateful and generous Queen Victoria after Mary averted an attempt on her life. That lump of capital, while a tiny sum to the Queen, had changed her life entirely. It made her a woman of some means, a person with the power to shape her own life. It would also mark her as a potential target for small-time fortune-hunters, if word got out of her independence. Of course, when she married James, her money would become his property…

“What are you brooding about?” asked James. “You’re not planning to poison me with arsenic, are you?”

That raised a smile. “If anyone’s buying arsenic, it’s your precious housekeeper.”

James grinned. “I thought Mrs. V. had thawed towards you a bit.”

“A very little bit. You know, she might be the main impediment to our marriage.”

He shivered dramatically. “Absurd. The real impediment is that I’ll be a solid block of ice before you give me a definitive yes.”

“So much whinging!” said Mary, laughing again. “Are you really about to collapse from the cold? We could take a turn about the museum, now that our confidential business is concluded.”

“I wish we could,” said James, “but I’ve got to get back to the site. It’s payday for the men and I don’t like to be late. Next time, certainly. Or better yet, we’ll end in a coffee-house.”

They turned and walked briskly towards Mary’s small flat in Burton Crescent, picking their way carefully through the muck churned up by passing horses and carts. As he always did, James waited for her to extract her door key, then unlocked the front door and returned her key to her upturned palm.

This was the moment. She had to speak now. She tilted her face up to his and said, “I’ve a proposal to put to you.”

James batted his eyelashes and spoke in a quavering falsetto. “Darling, I thought you’d never ask.”

“You may regret saying that when you hear just what it is.”

“Is it so very dull?”

“Quite the reverse. Not to mention thoroughly unladylike and far from respectable.”

“We’ve waded through sewers, dangled from a bell-tower, and stumbled out of a burning building together. Can you top that?”

“Possibly.” Mary fumbled in her reticule and produced a torn half-sheet of paper. “I found this yesterday.”

“This” was a handbill for “Mr. Ching, a Chinese pugilist of noble extraction, closely related by blood to the Chinese Emperor”, who challenged “the sportsmen of England, Britannia’s athletes, all of Her Majesty’s skilled and subtlest fighters, to best him in an unarmed fight”, with the winner to receive a prize-purse of one pound. For the semi-literate, there was even an illustration of a determined-looking Chinese man, wearing loose robes and facing the reader in a fighting stance.

Curiosity lit James’s eyes. “‘Mr. Ching claims the superiority of Chinese hand-and-foot fighting’,” he read, “‘and promises ocular proof of such. Not only will Mr. Ching fight: he will take on all who present themselves.’ Are you planning to challenge the distinguished Mr. Ching, Mary?”

“Not as a combatant,” she admitted. “But I would dearly love to see him fight.”

James’s brows drew together in a frown. “The address is in Leicester Square. ‘Hazardous’ doesn’t begin to describe the place…”

“Hear me out,” she said, quickly. “The notice made me think of my father; after I saw it, I suddenly remembered being a child, watching him practice these very complicated chains of hand and foot movements. He claimed that when used at speed, they were more effective than most weapons. He promised to teach me, when I grew older.” She paused. “Then, of course, he disappeared.”

“I’ve heard of such a style of fighting,” allowed James. “But setting aside questions of safety and propriety for the time being, how will seeing this Mr. Ching affect you, do you think? Is it wise to revisit this sort of memory?”

“I’ve never claimed to be wise,” said Mary. “And I’ve no idea what the effect might be. Quite likely, it will be a crashing disappointment…”

“But you want to go. No. You intend to go.”

“Yes.” She drew a breath and looked up at James. “It’s tonight.”

His expression was scrupulously neutral. “The only women in the vicinity will be prostitutes. You’ll be in danger from the moment they see you.”

“I’ll go as a boy, of course.”

“The return of Mark Quinn?” He considered. “Still risky. You make rather a handsome lad.”

She hesitated. “Aren’t you going to scold me for doing something so inappropriate? We’ve been so thoroughly dull and forbearing for months now, and I’m jeopardizing all our hard work.”

“And what good would scolding you do?” His smile was crooked. “Besides, is that how you think of me, Mary? A stuffy killjoy, obsessed with what respectable people might think? A fusty old man who can’t quite understand how your mind works?” His mouth twisted. “Perhaps that’s why you don’t want to marry me.”

Mary was genuinely alarmed. “James, that’s not it at all. I know you want what’s best for me. For us. As for being a fusty old man… well. I’ve never once thought of you as either fusty or old.” She smiled up at him. “Believe me, I thoroughly appreciate your manliness.”

He permitted himself a small smile at that. Then, he lowered his voice. “Has it occurred to you that if we married now, you would be infinitely freer to do as you please?”

She blinked. “It hadn’t.” She paused, then spoke more slowly. “But now that I think of it, it’s only partially true. You can go to a boxing den at any time you please, on your own or with men friends. But if it was ever hinted that I’d gone, too, such a rumour could still threaten our social reputation as a married couple, or that of your family firm.”

He considered her words. “So it’s a larger problem we face. You will always want to exceed the limits of respectable feminine behaviour.”

She thought about it seriously. “Yes, I think I will. Sometimes, at least.” A pause. “And you? Will you always value propriety and a spotless reputation? Are those so dear to you?”

He was already shaking his head. “I respect those things for their utility. They make daily life smoother and easier, and I wanted your life – our life together – to be as free and pleasant as possible. But they are not paramount to me—” He was interrupted by the chiming of the nearby bells of the Church of St. Pancras. It was half-past eleven.

“You had better go pay your labourers.”

“Yes. But we need to finish this conversation, Mary.”

She nodded. “As for tonight. Will you come with me?”

“I suppose there’s no dissuading you.”

“No. I’ll go alone, if you prefer not to come.”

“Then how can I possibly refuse?”

She looked at him. “You ought to, really. You shouldn’t let me coerce you with threats of danger and scandal.”

“What if I just want to see you in breeches again?”

She smiled and raised an eyebrow.

“I’ll call for you at eight.”

“Better if I meet you at the corner of Russell Square, I think.”

“Right.” Normally, James took his leave by kissing her hand, murmuring some tender endearment. Today, however, he chucked her under the chin. “Cheerio, Mark.”

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Rivals in the City!

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

Hello, friends! My wish came true: this week, just in time for the holidays, I got permission to share with you the UK/World cover for Rivals in the City. The artwork is by David McDougall at Walker Books and I love it, I love it, I love it. I hope you do, too!

And here’s the back-cover description:

Convicted fraudster Henry Thorold is dying in prison, and the Agency asks Mary to take on one last case: to watch for the return of his estranged wife. Mrs Thorold is an accomplished criminal and will surely want to settle scores with Mary’s fiancé, James. With the additional complications of family and conflicting loyalties, the stakes for all involved are higher than ever.

This is the British edition and it’s scheduled to be published in June 2014. I am tremendously excited about this, and will update about the US/Canadian cover and pub date as soon as I can.

Happy December holidays, everyone! I hope you have splendid celebrations.

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Fermentation

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

I’ve been a very sloppy blogger recently, and for that I sincerely apologize. I didn’t mean to fall into an every-other-week pattern, and I realize it’s Thursday today. I have a specific plan to improve (I’ve blocked out a blogging session each Monday evening) and I hope my weekly post will become a joyful habit, rather than something I cringe to realize that I’ve missed once again.

But I’m here now to talk to you about fermentation! The jars below contain tomato seeds from some of the varieties we grew this summer. This is the first year we’ve tried saving tomato seeds, but our friends Crista and Mike assure us that it’s straightforward. Basically, we choose the ripest, most beautiful specimen possible, scoop out the goo (technical term) and seeds, and put them in a jar. We top it up with a little water – about half as much water as there was goo, by volume – cover it and let it sit. When a thin layer of greyish-white mould grows on top of the water, we drain off the liquid and rinse, rinse, rinse. Then we dry the tomato seeds on a plate on that same sunny window-sill.

Looks like a mad science experiment, don’t you think?

But it’s not just tomato seeds we’ve been fermenting around here. Firstly, I’ve begun work on the New Book and it’s scaring the pants off me, in a good way. (No, I haven’t begun writing horror. I can’t even read horror. I tried reading Andrew Pyper’s The Killing Circle this summer and had to stop, I was so terrified. And then I had nightmares.) But the New Book is completely different from what I’ve written before: new setting, new time period, first-person instead of third-person, two narrators instead of one… I’m not sure I can do it, and it’s freaking me out, but I adore the challenge.

Another thing that’s fermenting is a visit to Calgary in November, about which I’m so excited. On November 28th, I’ll be reading at two branches of the Calgary Public Library! I’ll post times and locations as soon as I know the details.

And finally, my lovely UK editor just sent me a draft cover for Walker Books’ edition of Rivals in the City. I’m not allowed to share it yet, because it’s still being discussed and refined. But I can tell you that it’s gorgeous…

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Fatberg!

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

Hello, friends! Did you hear about the “fatberg”? It was a 15-ton conglomeration of solid fat found in a London sewer. (This NPR blog post has a photo. If you’re the queasy type, don’t click; just take my word for it.) This thing was 15 tons of congealed fat mixed with disposable wipes. Sewage workers spent 3 weeks hacking it into chunks which were then taken away in “heavy-duty lorries”. They said, “If we hadn’t discovered it in time, raw sewage could have started spurting out of manholes across the whole of Kingston [in suburban London].” Workers are now busy repairing the damage done by the fatberg to the sewer.

You’ve probably noticed my fascination with sewers and the grotty details of urban life. And naturally, the first thing I thought when I heard this was, “Well. This would never have happened in Victorian London.” And it has nothing to do with population growth or advances in kitchen plumbing. Or the fact that baby wipes hadn’t yet been invented.

The first thing is that solid fat was an important resource in the nineteenth century. It was part of English cuisine (beef dripping or bacon fat spread on bread; lard in pastries; fats from all animals cooked into meals) and, if you were poor, an essential source of calories and nutrients. Fat also had commercial value: you could render it down and use it to make soap. If you had an excess of fat, you could sell it around the neighbourhood, or to the scrapman who came to your door. Indeed, fat was relatively expensive: there’s a traditional treat called lardycake, a sort of brioche made with lard and currants. It’s a festive food, associated with special occasions, and part of that is because of the extravagance of kneading sugar, dried fruit, and lard into a bread dough. But I digress. My point is that because of fat’s many uses and significant value, no one would deliberately pour it down the drain.

Even so, a small amount of fat must have found its way into the sewers (greasy dishwater, spills). We know this because in 1862, a journalist named John Hollingshead explored the sewers and and noticed “icicles” of fat clinging to the sewer roof. But remember! At this time, sewers drain straight back into the Thames. And this is where the mudlarks came in handy: poor Londoners, often children, who scavenged through rubbish on the riverbanks. They collected whatever refuse could possibly be recycled or re-used. Any clots of fat they spotted bobbing on the water would have been harvested and sold, too.

We had to wait until the early twenty-first century, and our prodigality with (and simultaneous terror of consuming) solid fats, and our domestic laziness in flushing everything down the toilet, before we could experience the Fatberg. Not really much of an advance, is it?

P. S. You probably don’t need to be told this now but please don’t pour cooking fat down the sink, especially the stuff from your festive turkey or your weekend bacon. Please don’t flush disposable wipes or maxi pads down the toilet. Don’t put hair in the toilet, either. All these things will only come back to get you in the monstrous form of the Fatberg.

P. P. S. Thanks to my friend Sean Burgess, who first alerted me to the Fatberg.

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A Spy in the House, redesigned!

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

Hello, friends! I just received an absolutely wonderful surprise in the mail. (If you’re thinking that authors often receive delightful surprises in the mail, you’re right. As if we need another reason to feel privileged…) It was a bulging, oversized sack containing a envelope full of this:

Yes, that image is massive. Can you tell I’m excited? Ideally, I’d like to be able to see it from the moon.

This is the redesigned cover that’s now on the UK and Australian editions of A Spy in the House. The full cover looks like this:

I love everything about this cover: colour, font, background image, the Mary Quinn logo that looks like a cameo, the rubbed and weathered effect around the corners… I have one front and centre in my study and every time I glance at it, I smile.

The old cover, the first UK cover, looked like this:

I still think this is a strong cover. The gloves glow, the fonts are well chosen, and I love the map of London in the background. It’s also a great homage to classic mystery design (think Agatha Christie), which often shows key plot elements in a kind of still-life.

But this one? This one is a stunner. I’m so glad that my UK publisher, Walker Books, redesigned it for this new printing. And I’m ecstatic to know that it’s now out there, in bookstores.

What do you think? Thoughts, impressions, preferences?

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Faster, Higher, Stronger

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

So, the Olympics. As cynical as we’ve become about doping, fiscal and political scandals in host cities, and the sheer pomp of the Games, the athletic performances themselves are truly stirring, skin-prickling stuff. And the Olympics hold a special kind of interest in my family because my uncle, Cheah Tong Kim, represented his country, Malaysia, in swimming at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Over the past few days, watching highlights from the London Games got me thinking back to the birth of the modern Olympics. I knew they were a late-Victorian inspiration that resulted in the 1896 Games in Athens. But, as it turns out, there’s a lot I didn’t know about the inspiration behind the modern Olympic Games.

Before the Victorian era, there was a modern attempt to recreate the Olympic Games: the L’Olympiade de la République, which was held for 3 years in revolutionary France (1789, remember?). It makes sense: egalitarianism, a chance to compete physically, rather than socially or economically – it was a perfect kind of celebratory contest for revolutionary times.

Then came a lapse of about 60 years, which also makes sense: Victorian intellectuals greatly admired classical literature and culture, and it’s logical that they wanted to emulate the famous athletic contests of the ancients. But the French Revolution scared the pants off Western European monarchies, so there had to be a lapse of a few generations between the L’Olympiade de la République and any safe imitation.

So it wasn’t until 1850 that an English surgeon called William Penny Brookes established an Olympic Games in Wenlock, Shropshire. According to wikipedia, his aim was the “moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock and especially of the working classes” (italics mine). That sort of paternalistic do-gooding couldn’t really be more Victorian.

There were other English Olympics: in Liverpool, for a few years in the 1860s. One at the Crystal Palace in London in 1860. But it was the Wenlock Olympics that really became a strong annual tradition. And in 1890, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the creator of the modern Olympic Games, visited Wenlock and was inspired to establish the International Olympic Committee. Extraordinary, isn’t it?

How do you like the sound of Wenlock 2050, on the two-hundredth anniversary of their first Olympic Games?

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My favourite things

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

Hello friends! This week, I thought I’d share with you some of my favourite things about the English countryside:

1. Randomly occurring sheep.

2. Winding lanes.

3. Dry-stone walls. One day, I'm going to learn how to build them. Seriously.

4. The intense green-ness of it all. William Blake was precise when he wrote about "this green and pleasant land".

What are your favourite things about the countryside?

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The Omnibus Edition

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

Hello, friends. We’re currently visiting family in Lancashire, England, and I have been lazy with the camera. That is, I’ve taken lots of photos of cousins and aunties and old friends, but not much that people outside the family would want to see. However, the other day we found ourselves at the Museum of Transport in Manchester.

I was expecting a bus or two, maybe a replica stagecoach, and some dioramas. Well. Was I ever mistaken. The museum is a former bus garage and it contains about seventy-five buses. Yes, they are very well parked, but still! Massive! The whole place reeks of diesel, there’s an open-topped fire engine that remained in service well into the 1960s, and most of the buses appear to be still running, since museum staff and volunteers take them out on a regular basis for shows and events.

And then I saw this:

It’s an omnibus from the 1890s. The plaque said it was drawn by 2 horses, or 3 up hills. (I love that. Can you picture them pulling over and harnessing a third horse before each hill?) Inside, it has 2 long bench seats running from front to back, and that precarious-looking staircase on the right leads to several rows of forward-facing seats on the open top. The ride must have been bumpy, as those are wooden wheels. And I’m fascinated by the advert for F. Robinson’s Light Bitter Ale. I tend to think of billboards as twentieth-century inventions, but this is a fantastic reminder that the nineteenth century was also a golden age of advertising.

What have you been up to, this week?

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