WAG: While the books you've written in your
Art History Mysteries series have been both suspenseful
and cheerfully amusing, An Instance of the Fingerpost
is cut from another cloth altogether in terms of
its scope and ambition. How much time do you devote
to researching and writing an Art History Mystery
installment, and how much did you spend on researching
and writing An Instance of the Fingerpost?
Fingerpost took quite a long time,
although I had a good knowledge of the period through
studying it as a student. Writing the book took
about three years, and typically I would write in
the morning and go to the library and do the research
in the afternoon. The art-mysteries vary; as they
are basically contemporary they need very much less
research but occasionally a historical detail will
take far longer to find out than it should—either
because it is elusive, or because I find it intriguing
and look into it for my own satisfaction. Writing
them always takes longer than I think they will.
Graham Greene distinguished between novels
and entertainments in describing his fictional works.
Would you describe your own work in the same way?
I suppose that is the way they
are beginning to come out. Many authors (especially
crime writers) have done the same, but the convention
tends to be to publish non-crime novels under a
different name—even Agatha Christie, I think,
tried her hand at love stories. Equally several
more "literary" authors have published
crime novels under a pseudonym as well.
A related question: Greene moved back and
forth freely between his self-described novels and
entertainments. Are you going to follow a similar
pattern and offer something of An Instance of
the Fingerpost's weight and ambition again in
the future, perhaps between two Art History Mysteries?
That's the plan at the moment;
I've just finished a crime novel and am in the middle
of a weightier historical novel. I had thought that
the crime one would be the last, but had what I
think is a good idea for another one. If I ever
get the next big one finished, then I will try and
get it down, although that probably won't be for
a year or so.
The big and philosophically ambitious 'historical
mystery' genre has some famous contemporary examples,
Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose being
perhaps the most prominent. Did you set out to write
An Instance of the Fingerpost with such books
in mind? Or did you find the manuscript growing
in unexpected ways as you did your research and
wrote the early drafts?
Certainly the manuscript grew
all on its own—it began as a simple and straightforward
historical crime novel, meant to be simply the first
part. But then I decided to see if I could make
it historically accurate, not merely a tale of contemporary
people in fancy dress. That meant trying to fictionalise
ways of thinking, as well as getting the material
details right, and that posed problems of coping
with the complex 17th century understanding of truth
in a fashion which the final four-part story could
illustrate fairly well. Eco comes in a little here,
although in general the comparison with his (wonderful)
book is not that helpful. In The Rose he
quite knowingly plays the clever philosophical game
of inserting a near-contemporary figure (Baskerville—Sherlock
Holmes) into the medieval context. I decided to
see if I could do without the conventional detective
figure, and conventional means of gathering and
assessing evidence, and still have something that
would work as a mystery.
An Instance of the Fingerpost is set
in 1663. Charles II has just regained the English
throne, and experiment- and observation-driven science
and empirical philosophy are gaining strength. It's
a compelling period, and one thing that strikes
me about it is how perfectly adapted it is to your
plot. But I'm wondering which came first for you—the
period or the plot? Did you choose the period setting
because it fit the themes and plot lines you were
interested in developing, or did you choose the
period first and develop ways of matching your evolving
plot and themes to it?
I think the two went together—the
plot would be absurd set in almost any other period,
and the 'periodisation' would be weakened if the
plot (and its solution) had been more conventional.
That said, it was the idea of using a different
means of analysis to the clue-based deductive mode
which led me to the period—I needed a large
number of examples of ways of thinking to make it
work, and this period is particularly rich in evidence
through trials, scientific writings and so on.
An Instance of the Fingerpost includes
a rather grimly detailed (if wryly amusing) autopsy
that draws on both historically outmoded medicine
(such as 'Will the heart of a poison victim truly
not burn in a fire?') and contemporary anatomy.
Indeed, throughout the book, you refer frequently
to medical ideas of the 1600s. How much research
in 17th century as well as 20th century medicine
did you have to perform, to achieve that balance
between historical and anatomical verisimilitude?
Quite a lot for the 17th century,
as their understanding of illness was very different
to our own, but all the terminology was different
as well—for example, one major affliction
for women was called "illness of the mother."
This was a serious, sometimes fatal malady which
has no descendant today. The medical details (how
you die from blood-loss, for example) I checked
out with doctor friends to try and get it right.
The difficult part was to describe illnesses in
ways which would be understood by contemporary readers
in one way, but which could be explained in the
book in a totally different, but equally logical
fashion. The obvious example of this is probably
the dream sequences, which have to be interpreted
by readers in a Freudian sense, but which are just
as reasonably and accurately interpreted in a pre-Freudian
manner by the characters.
In addition to writing mysteries, you have
also written extensively about art history, history,
and finance. Which do you find is more comfortable
to write in—fiction or nonfiction?
I like both—even the eurobond
market has its interest, once you get into it and
begin to understand how it works, although I doubt
I will ever return to that sort of writing now.
In some ways the subject isn't so important; it's
the task of taking complex material and trying to
make in comprehensible without simplifying which
is the satisfying part, and that applies to eurobonds,
the doings of the Vatican, art history and 17th
century medicine equally.
Finally, two related questions. Many writers
have a favorite 'neglected' writer—someone
they think has been unfairly ignored by the general
reading public. Do you have one yourself? And who
do you think is the best under-appreciated writer
My obscure authors keep on being
discovered. I began reading the Patrick O'Brian
naval stories years ago as well as Robertson Davies,
but neither of these can be called unrecognised
any more. I even gave a Harry Potter to a Godchild
before he made Madonna seem like an unknown. Delightful
for the authors, and well-deserved, of course—but
I always feel ever so slightly betrayed when one
of my private joys becomes public property like