Publication day always catches me out. I see my book advertised for sale, saying it’s available for pre-order, and the date when it’s expected to be published; and I get the emails from my publisher with a rough date when they expect the book to be out, but still I’m never prepared. It’s like getting married: you know the date but it always seems to be weeks away, until you wake up on the morning of the wedding and wonder which shoes you’re going to wear.
This time, I was expecting my latest novel Holy Blood to come out at the beginning of April, and had a schedule prepared for blogs and announcements and invitations to the launch. The publication date is always a little hazy to allow for hold ups with the printer and distributor, so when the doorbell went on Friday afternoon, I genuinely thought it must be someone collecting for charity or wanting to read the meter. I didn’t expect a large and hefty box of books to be thrust into my arms. But it was, and there they were, the copies of Holy Blood I’d ordered months ago when it was accepted for publication.
At least this time I got my copies of my book before my mother. When Paternoster was published, I knew it was coming out in June, and for some reason I thought that meant the end of June, so I went away on holiday. I was staying in a seaside cottage, weirdly called ‘Eden Cottage’ (the name of my protagonist) and along from it was an ‘Aidan Cottage’ (the name of the other major character in the books). Just to add to the weirdness, there was a little ornament hanging up in the cottage with ‘Paternoster’ written across it. The signs were all there. The cottage was only a couple of hours from my mother’s house, so I went to see her for the day. She lives 300 miles away from me, and I don’t get to see her that often. A mere two hours to get to see her was nothing.
I was at my mother’s house when a parcel came for her, and in it were six copies of Paternoster that she’d pre-ordered. She got her copies before I even knew it was published. When I got home at the end of my holiday, my author copies still hadn’t arrived. I had to wait another few days. But Mum got hers, and mightily pleased she was to get hers before me, too.
Anyway, this time it was just me and the cat to open the box and take out the books as carefully as if they were new born lambs, and line them up on the table and admire them.
This is my fourth published book, and I still feel the same sense of disbelief as I did when I held the first one, Sacred Site. It’s a mixture of wonder that the book is finally, actually done and finished and a proper book, the text neatly aligned and the cover all shiny and thrilling. And I can’t quite believe that I’m the one who wrote it. Every time I flick through the pages a bit of text catches my eye and I think ‘Did I write that?’ Sometimes I’ve forgotten how I wrote and crossed out and rewrote and got fed up and walked away and came back and tried again. I forget the bits that made me laugh when I wrote them the first time, and still make me laugh when I read them now. Again there’s that sense of amazement for forgetting them. They seem like someone else’s words, not mine. I don’t know whether that’s because it’s a long time from finishing a book to seeing it published (almost a year for Holy Blood) and I’m so deeply into writing a new book that I’ve dismissed the old one from my mind, or whether the writing was simply channelling, after all. Sometimes it jolly well feels like it.
I think that the thing that makes it all wonderful though, is it that when it's a ‘proper’ book it distances itself from me: the book is an entity all on its own. The umbilical cord that tied it to me has been cut: it’s time for it to make its own way in the world. It’s a strange and amazing feeling, and one I never get used to.
This beautiful chapel of ease, dedicated to St James, is in Stoke Orchard, a few miles outside Cheltenham. Inside, the walls still bear traces of their mediaeval paintings. Though the colours are faded now, in their heyday they would have been vibrant, even garish. Their purpose was to illustrate the Bible’s teachings to people who couldn’t read or understand Latin, as all services in the church would have been conducted in Latin. The fact they’ve survived the rigours of the reformation of the church and the hammer blows (literally) of Oliver Cromwell’s vision of England, is astonishing. In other churches, the paintings survived only to fall foul of Victorian whitewash. Any that survive, as they do here, are incredibly fragile and increasingly rare, a fact that makes them doubly precious.
But what makes this church so special to me is that it contains a number of pilgrim crosses. The church was on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela: pilgrims heading there from the north of England or from Wales would break their journey at certain points along the way, offering up prayers for a safe journey and return. This chapel is one of those stopping off points. On their way to Spain, pilgrims carved crosses in the stonework of the church, just inside the door. On their way home, they carved a circle around the cross they’d made, indicating they'd safely made it back. To me, these marks are so poignant: a tangible mark of both the faith and fragility of previous times.
My interest in pilgrims and pilgrimages started long ago, as a child taken to visit church after church, abbey after abbey. Was I the only ten year old who could spot a Saxon tower? Later, when I lived amongst Aboriginal people, I came to see correlations between pilgrim routes and the songlines. Walkabout is, arguably, a form of pilgrimage.
And now my latest book, Holy Blood, concerns itself with the holy relics housed in abbeys in the middle ages. Some relics were regarded as so sacred they attracted thousands of pilgrims, whose offerings at the shrine provided a valuable source of income for the abbey. In Holy Blood, the abbey is Hailes, near Winchcombe, a few miles from Cheltenham. It housed one of the most sacred Christian relics of all: a phial of the blood of Christ, collected at the time of his crucifixion. Pilgrims flocked to see the relic: the mere sight of it was believed to ensure salvation.
But Henry VIII, forgetting that he himself had walked barefoot in pilgrimage to the shrine at Walsingham, ordered the destruction of the relics. The Blood of Hailes was removed and tested, and declared to be a fake. A short time later, the Abbey itself was Dissolved, the land given away, and the buildings dismantled.
The plot of Holy Blood came about when on a visit to Hailes, one gloriously sunny summer day, I found myself wondering, ‘What if the Holy Blood of Hailes wasn’t destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, after all? What if it survived somehow?’
And from there I started reading, widely, about pilgrims and pilgrimages, the Dissolution, monastic life, and what happened to people who continued to believe in relics and the Catholic church. And I did my own pilgrimage, to Walsingham, in Norfolk. Not barefoot like Henry VIII, but still. It was as I imagined pilgrim sites to be in the past: groups travelling together with their priest, some solemn and overawed, others laughing and with a ready quip; the sales of badges and stickers to proclaim ‘I was there’; a strangely festival atmosphere and a disconcerting rubbing shoulders of the sacred and the profane.
But as I stood in the Slipper Chapel, silent and overawed by the press of history, I understood how it might have felt to a mediaeval pilgrim, weary and travel stained, to reach his destination at last. And I saw how embodied an experience pilgrimage is, to undergo the rigours and perils of the journey, which could easily last for months. No wonder they bought badges to mark the event. I’d done nothing more strenuous than sit in a car, but I too, bought a badge, to mark my pilgrimage.
George Orwell named nine cases in his essay on the ‘Golden Age of Murder’; six of them are poisonings. So what is it about poisoning that delivers such delicious horror to the writer and reader of crime fiction? For me, it’s the fact that the poisoner has to be close to the victim, and may even be a family member, and because poisoning subverts all our cultural beliefs about food. Food is meant to nourish and restore; we use the phrase ‘comfort food’ to show how food nurtures our mental as well as physical health. How creepy, how insidious then, to transform the substance that’s meant to sustain into something intended to kill.
Poisoning is the epitome of premeditation. It takes thought, time and cunning to devise a way to poison someone. The poisoner is cold-blooded indeed to make these preparations. Having administered the poison, the poisoner needs nerves of steel to watch their victim eat it, and then watch them suffering a long, painful and protracted death, even sometimes being called on to nurse their victim.
The Golden Age of Murder
When we think of poisoning, we tend to think first of the golden age of murder, and the cases that gripped the nation, and which still interest us today. Cases such as Madeleine Smith, the young woman from a well-to-do Scottish family, who was charged with killing her lover with arsenic-laced cocoa. She was tried under Scottish law, and found not proven – neither guilty nor not guilty.
Another sensational arsenic poisoning case was Mrs Maybrick, who unwisely soaked fly papers to extract the arsenic to make a face wash to brighten her complexion. Unfortunately when her husband died of arsenic poisoning, the finger was pointed at her, though later it was discovered that her husband was an arsenic eater, taking increasing doses of the stuff daily to improve his constitution.
Far from poisoning being a ‘woman’s crime’ (though it’s often spoken of that way), many of the infamous poisoners from the golden age were men: Seddon, who killed his lodger to get his hands on her gold; Armstrong, who administered poison to his nagging wife; and Crippen, who silenced his wife with hyoscine.
There are common elements to these cases that spark the imagination: the closeness of the poisoner to the victim, the initial incorrect diagnosis of gastritis or stomach flu, the exhumation and testing of the body, and the fact that arsenic remains in the body, a finger pointing to foul play. Add in the big characters of the time like the barrister Marshall Hall and pathologist Bernard Spilsbury, and a domestic drama is transformed into national obsession. To me as a crime writer, these highly emotional set-pieces are almost irresistible.
But is poisoning only for the golden age of murder? If you’re writing a contemporary crime novel, what does poisoning offer as a method of murder that you don’t get from shooting, stabbing or strangulation?
Firstly, you get more choice over the time of death. In poisoning, symptoms may take a while to appear. Though some, like cyanide, are instantaneous, some deadly poisons may take days before the victim realises something is wrong. For example, it takes up to five days before symptoms of paraquat poisoning occur, and several days after that before the victim dies. This gives the crime writer an opportunity to muddy the murder timeline and bring in a few red herrings, as it will be impossible to determine exactly when the poison was administered.
Poisoning also gives you, the writer, some choice over the symptoms and appearance of the corpse. You might want the symptoms to look like an illness such as a heart attack, to confuse all the characters except the savvy detective. Don’t forget that no one will test for a poison unless there is a suspicion to do so, and an idea of what to test for, so your fictional murderer might initially get away with it until the weight of evidence grows.
Alternatively, you might want dramatic, frightening or bizarre symptoms to raise the tension in the story. Your victim might be found with a blackened face (silver nitrate poisoning), yellowed skin (nicotine), or suffer pre-mortem smoking breath and faeces (phosphorous).
Picking the Perfect Poison
When I researched and wrote my novel Paternoster, I learned that it pays to decide on the poison early in the writing process, and check the symptoms, time line for reaction, and appearance of the victim, because it might just change the direction of the story.
Paternoster is set in Cheltenham. Initially, the plot concerned murders at an exclusive introduction agency, and the poison I wanted to use was mistletoe, partly because of the connection between mistletoe and kissing (yes, the working title was ‘Fatal Kiss’), but also because the trees in Cheltenham hang heavy with mistletoe and I wanted a uniquely Cheltenham brand of murder.
However, when I researched mistletoe, I was disappointed to find it wasn’t fatal (unless you scoff a ton of it and I couldn’t see the victim falling for that) so I had to find another poison. Off I went to my writers’ big book of poisons, and browsing through the pages, I came across a deadly poison, little known yet easily available, which was used traditionally in trial by ordeal. Thinking about this poison set me off on a different plot about secret societies in contemporary and Georgian Cheltenham.
I was thrilled to be invited to speak at this year's Cheltenham Literature Festival about my new book, Paternoster. It was great to be in front of my home crowd, all eager to hear about the 'dark side of town', and tickets sold out quickly!
I was introduced by fellow History Press and Cheltenham author Anne Strathie, who pointed out that we also both went to the same university (St Andrews in Scotland) and that Paternoster contains a car chase down her street.
Alex Clark was my interviewer, nobly stepping in at the last minute after the original interviewer was ill, and asked great questions which elicited some things that surprised even my friends:
- I don't just read crime fiction - I like to read a variety of books including the classics, history books, chick lit, and contemporary literature
- I wrote my first novel when I was nine, and yup, it was a time-slip murder mystery, this time about a plot to assassinate Elizabeth I and put Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne
- I have a reference book I call my 'Writers' Big Book of Poisons' that I consult when I want exactly the right poison for a story
The audience had super questions, too, asking about how I soak up the atmosphere of Cheltenham to add authenticity in my books (answer: I walk the streets. I've been advised to re-phrase that in future!); how to make characters become real to me (answer: talk to them, take them places, see what happens. Though this can backfire - some of them are so loud now I have to tell them to be quiet!); and how I do my research.
This last question led to the sorts of scrapes you can get yourself into as a writer. A number of years ago I was writing a novel about a dirty bomb, and consulted people about weapons grade anthrax. When I wrote Sacred Site, I needed to know about guns and rifles. And when I wrote another thriller, about Aboriginal terrorism, I needed to know about petrol bombs. I had a bit of explaining to do!
Then after the talk, the questions, and the book signing, I was taken off for champagne with my friends.
It's a tough life on the mean streets of Cheltenham!
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.