My first novel, The Convictions of John Delahunt, was a first-person account of a true-life murderer and Dublin Castle informer, and while it was fun at times to inhabit his amoral head, I knew that for my next book I wanted my main character to be the hero.
I imagined a Jane Austen type heroine loose in Regency Dublin. She would need plausible access to murder cases and investigations, and so the idea of The Coroner’s Daughter came to be: Abigail Lawless, headstrong and scientifically-minded, fascinated by the macabre, and disdainful of the restrictions society would place on a girl her age.
I also knew the year in which to set it: 1816, known as the year without a summer. A dust cloud from the eruption of Tambora in Indonesia had settled over Western Europe, bringing frost to mid-July, crop failures and hardship. The sun turned blood-red, and black dots scattered about its disk became clear to the naked eye. Fears of the end of the world swept Europe.
In Ghent, for instance, papers reported that a regiment of cavalry happened to sound their trumpets while a storm was blowing overhead. ‘Suddenly cries, groans, lamentations were heard on every side. Three-fourths of the inhabitants rushed from their houses and threw themselves on their knees, believing they had heard the Seventh Trumpet of the last judgement.’
The unseasonable cold kept Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin and Lord Byron indoors while they summered near Lake Geneva. They dreamt up ghost stories in the gloom, which led to Godwin’s creation of Frankenstein and his monster.
She wrote to her half-sister: ‘The thunder storms that visit us are grander and more terrific than I have ever seen before . . . One night, the lake was lit up—the pines on Jura made visible, and all the scene illuminated for an instant, when a pitchy blackness succeeded, and the thunder came in frightful bursts over our heads amid the darkness.’
At the same time in Dublin there was a growing conflict between students of the Enlightenment, who wished to abide by rationalist principles, and a burgeoning evangelical movement whose proselytising would become known as the Second Reformation.
For me, the eerie weather, religious fervour and rationalist zeal created a perfect tinder-box atmosphere for gothic crime fiction.
After writing The Convictions of John Delahunt, where the plot was based on actual crimes, it was daunting to embark on a new murder mystery from scratch. I found inspiration in old reports of coroner’s inquests from the 19th century – in the language, the mysteries and characters portrayed. I also studied the forensic techniques of the time, or rather, how poorly they were employed.
Since most coroners had no background in medicine, physical evidence on a body was routinely overlooked. It induced George Male to publish An Epitome of Forensic Medicine in 1816, which was perfectly timed for me. It became my textbook for Abigail and her forensic adventures.
A story that struck me particularly was that of a young nursemaid accused of killing her newborn in the home of her employer, Mr Nesham. The child was discovered with various knife wounds on his body, but the maid insisted that he had been stillborn, that she had inflicted the cuts in a fit of grief and guilt. A medical examiner tested this claim by submerging the baby’s lungs in water. He found them to be buoyant, which meant, he said, that the child had drawn breath before he died. The jury returned a verdict of ‘wilful murder’.
A poignant discovery was made afterwards. The Dublin Medical Press reported: ‘A fellow-servant, in seeking out a change of linen for the prisoner, has found several articles of baby-linen among her clothes, with also a quantity of new flannel and calico, evidently intended for the expected event.’ It begged the question, why had the girl’s intentions towards her child changed so drastically? The details of this case inspired the opening chapter of The Coroner’s Daughter.
While working on the book, I was struck by a fundamental difference in writing a first-person hero as opposed to the villain: in crime fiction, the villain drives the story. In the case of Delahunt, the machinations and murders belonged to him, and the reader could follow in real time as he drew and executed his plans. We were with him as well when his luck ran out and the noose, literally, tightened.
The hero has to be responsive. Abigail reacts to events that are unexpected and not directly seen by the reader. She can be wrong-footed, uncertain, even come under attack. The challenge was to make the investigation as compelling as the crime, to focus on the thrill of discovery and deduction, and to ensure that the tension and sense of danger ratcheted up as she got closer to the truth.
In other respects, the challenges in writing were much the same: developing character, providing strong motivation, establishing an authentic and engaging voice. That last point was a concern when it came to Abigail, perhaps because I was writing from the point of view of a young woman rather than a man. I fretted for a while, but then I thought of a first line that captured her wit, her appreciation for the macabre and her relationship her father: ‘For my eighteenth birthday, Father promised me the hand of a handsome young man, which he duly delivered mounted in a glass bell-jar.’
After that, I didn’t look back.
(c) Andrew Hughes
Author photograph (c) Joe Gavin
About The Coroner’s Daughter:
1816 was the year without a summer. A rare climatic event has brought frost to July, and a lingering fog casts a pall over a Dublin stirred by zealotry and civil unrest, torn between evangelical and rationalist dogma.
Amid the disquiet, a young nursemaid in a pious household conceals a pregnancy and then murders her newborn. Rumours swirl about the identity of the child’s father, but before an inquest can be held, the maid is found dead. When Abigail Lawless, the eighteen-year-old daughter of Dublin’s coroner, by chance discovers a message from the maid’s seducer, she is drawn into a world of hidden meanings and deceit.
An only child, Abigail has been raised amid the books and instruments of her father’s grim profession. Pushing against the restrictions society places on a girl her age, she pursues an increasingly dangerous investigation. As she leads us through dissection rooms and dead houses, Gothic churches and elegant ballrooms, a sinister figure watches from the shadows – an individual she believes has already killed twice, and is waiting to kill again…
Determined, resourceful and intuitive, Abigail Lawless emerges as a memorable young sleuth operating at the dawn of forensic science.
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