It began with three unrelated ideas and one street sign. The first idea: the only female detective in Edwardian London (there was such a woman in what is laughably known as ‘real life’, but though I was intrigued by Maud West’s exploits, I wasn’t interested in writing a biography); secondly, a former actress who worked as the body double of a much, much more famous actress (this too came from life, but nor did I want to write the true story of Mrs and Mrs Sullivan and their employers Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, fascinating as it is); and finally, a super recogniser, one of an elite team of police officers with extraordinary powers for facial recognition (this too, exists: London’s Metropolitan Police established the world’s first Super Recogniser Unit in 2015). Only when I saw a street sign reading ‘Violet Hill’ did I begin to imagine how it could be one book with three interlinked stories, and my job was to weave them together and allow my eponymous hero to lead the charge into the future.
The result is that Violet Hill opens in December 1918 in post-War London. The city is grieving, a wound whose dressing was taken off too soon. After the first World War, the UK’s one million so-called ‘surplus women’ had to find a new way of living now that the traditional prospect of marriage was unlikely. Just what was that sudden societal disregard like? Was is oppressive or liberating? How do you try and remake your life in that situation? (In Singled Out, Virginia Nicholson’s fascinating chronicle of the women left alone and vilified after the first World War, she describes Charlotte Bronte’s famous ‘Reader I married him’ finale to Jane Eyre as, “the biggest sigh of relief in English literature.”)
Violet Hill, a young woman who runs an investigations agency that is barely breaking even, is hired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s business manager to uncover a renowned spiritualist he believes is deceiving his employer. Conan Doyle was a well-known believer in spiritualism and other psychic phenomena. His son Kingsley died as a result of war wounds, and Conan Doyle was desperate to contact him again – via any means possible. In Violet Hill, spiritualist JC Selbarre convinces Conan Doyle he can connect father and son once more. But Violet has a guilty secret in her own past – something not even her loyal assistant Chrissie knows – and when it is revealed to the entire room at one of Selbarre’s séances, she is forced to wonder could there be some truth in spiritualism? Is it really possible to deceive a man as logical as the creator of Sherlock Holmes? She discovers that there are powerful vested interests involved in maintaining certain delusions, and that even the most astute eye is not always beyond deception or peril.
A hundred years later, Susanna Tennant is a Detective Constable in the Met Police. She is a super recogniser, one of a tiny percentage of humans who possess extraordinary powers for facial recognition. When concussion causes her ability to temporarily disappear, she begins to dig into the past lives of the Victorian house she rents in London’s Primrose Hill, as well as the life of Phyllida Hartigan, an unusual older woman with a terribly scarred face, who befriends her. Phyllida and her former husband Jack were once body doubles for a celebrity couple. She describes them to Susanna as conjoined shadows, paid to preen while their employers hid: “paid to skulk around corners, waiting, always waiting, to appear, to glow and glimmer… Jack once likened our lives to a state of constant dry arousal.”
I first heard about super recognition a couple of years ago. Often referred to as the Metropolitan Police Service’s ‘secret weapon against crime’, super recognisers have a remarkable ability to instantly recognise faces they barely know. Even a fleeting glimpse of a stranger’s face, or a couple of features, can be enough for a super recogniser to make a positive identification. It struck me as the most fascinating ability; an invisible skill that can’t be switched off. As character Susanna explains it: “My working life was spent looking at images taken from CCTV footage and connecting faces from different recordings, as though London was a vast join-the-dots puzzle. There could be months, years, of a time gap between sightings, but I would remember a person. Snapping, we called it, when we recognised an individual across a number of recordings linking them to what had previously been considered unrelated crimes.” One of the leading lights of the Met Police Super Recogniser Unit is an Irishman, Padraig O’Riordan, who was a great help with my research. The average person can recognise maybe 20 per cent of the faces they see, whereas super recognisers like him can remember up to 95 per cent. The first studies of super recognition came about as a result of research into prosopagnosia, the inability to recognise faces that is also known as ‘face blindness’. Researchers began to investigate whether, rather than being a fixed point, prosopagnosia was in fact the end of a scale, with its opposite condition on the other. (And if you think you might be a super recogniser, look online for the Cambridge Face Memory Test or University of Greenwich Super Recogniser test.)
Susanna stumbles across a long-buried investigation that a century earlier, haunted Violet. And so I ended up with three ideas, one street sign, and two unique women who would never meet – except in the reader’s imagination.
(c) Henrietta McKervey
Henrietta McKervey will be taking part in Murder One: Ireland’s International Crime Writing Festival, taking place in Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre 1-3rd November.
About Violet Hill:
December 1918: Post-War London is grieving, the city a wound whose dressing was taken off too soon. Violet Hill, the only female private detective in the city, is hired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s business manager to uncover spiritual trickery he believes is deceiving his employer.
January 2018: Susanna is a super-recogniser, one of an elite Met Police team of officers with extraordinary powers for facial recognition. When a freak injury causes her unusual ability to suddenly disappear, a dangerous criminal whom she no longer recognises decides to close in.
Compelling stories across two eras weave into this page-turning, literary adventure of identity, deception, danger – and detection.
‘Henrietta McKervey is a storyteller of rare gifts. Violet Hill is a wonderfully assured and compelling novel, so evocative of a London that has long ceased to be, yet crackling on every page with urgently contemporary resonance and meaning. I could not put it down.’ Joseph O’Connor
‘McKervey is a skilful, intelligent storyteller who looks at the world from fresh perspectives; she raises questions about the gap between appearance and reality, truth and fiction, surveillance and security that will stay with a reader long after they finish reading this novel.’ Lia Mills
Order your copy online here.