The novel Unlawful Things unwinds along the pilgrim road from London to Canterbury. When walking tour guide and poet Helen Oddfellow meets historian Richard Watson, she thinks she may have found her soul mate. But she soon discovers that digging up secrets from the past can be deadly in present-day London.
The story begins with a fatal stabbing in a tavern in Deptford, south London, close to where the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe was murdered. And the Marlowe connection is no co-incidence. The dying man’s last words contain a message for Helen, which sets her on the trail of a lost Marlowe manuscript, an aristocratic scandal and the hidden remains of England’s greatest saint.
Helen’s own life is soon in danger, as she struggles to solve the mystery, find out who was behind the murder and outwit the man who wants to know the secret even more than she does.
Inspiration from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
The seeds of the novel were sown over the course of a three-day walk from London to Canterbury, taking the route that Chaucer’s pilgrims would have followed. As I walked, I was struck by the literary heritage of the route – not just from Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales, but the links with later writers such as Charles Dickens and Christopher Marlowe.
Fact, fiction and the places in between
My favourite novels are a good mix of fact and fiction. I love the point where an author – having established a real location, historical events or characters – takes a leap into fiction. It could be historical fiction, like Hilary Mantell’s masterful Wolf Hall, or Andrew Miller’s exhilarating Pure. It could be fantasy, like Ben Aaronovitch’s beguiling Rivers of London series. The key seems to be to establish that secure base of a believable world, from which to launch.
Most of the locations in Unlawful Things are real places that I’ve visited. Most of the historical basis for the story is true. But I’ve taken enormous liberties with the facts, diverting histories down side-channels and filling in the gaps with pure imagination.
Image: From Caroline LD’s photostream on Flickr, with CCL.