Sergeant Mendick and the themes and influences of Victorian crime novels

Many years ago I read about a ship named Madagascar. According to the story, this vessel was a clipper that was pirated by her own crew. The loyal hands were murdered and there was rape and pillage. A bit like Treasure Island really, except it was meant to be true. I stuck the story away in my mind for future use.

About four years ago I was researching my true crime book  Glasgow the Real Mean City when I came across the almost unbelievable story of the theft of the Scottish ship Ferret. That was a tale of fraud, international theft, supposed murder, imposition and hints of gun-running that covered three continents and was only solved because of a home-sick Glasgow man in Australia.

Both stories had a nautical base and as I was loath to waste either, I combined them into a single story centred around my fictional detective Sergeant James Mendick.

So far I have written two novels around Mendick. The first, Darkest Walk, was shortlisted for the Roma FilmFest and was a winter winner in the 2011 People’s Book Prize. The second, A Burden Shared: the Dundee Murders, had reviews which said nice things such as: ‘an excellent crime novel and an excellent historical novel’ and ‘loving and often gritty detail.’

The third has the same Edinburgh publisher: Fledgling Press.  I have given it the working title of Mendick: Golden Voyage, and I am hopeful that it will be out in the spring of 2016.

Fiction is an excellent medium to convey ideas, but I always find that reality is more amazing. Darkest Walk was based around the Chartist movement of 1848, arguably the largest working class political movement in the world until that time, plus the manipulations of the social elite to gain power. One group wanted a form of democracy and the other, much smaller, grasped everything for themselves, yet the media of the time demonised the former and lauded the latter. The press has always wielded considerable influence on the minds of those who are incapable or unwilling to think for themselves or read beneath the headlines. My man Mendick was in the midst of course.

A Burden Shared was on a more familial level with the effects of tragedy on the minds and behaviour of people and the ease with which personal loss could lead to racism, mob-rule and riot. Again, Mendick was stuck between a rock and a hard place, while balancing the loss of his wife with a most intriguing woman. That story also has a hard core of reality with the desire for an image of respectability that was so important to the Victorians, washing over the intensity of family life typical of the period.  Good Queen Vic herself set the tone with her immense brood of children and her decades of mourning for Albert.

In all three books, historical fact forms the vehicle for the cargo of fiction and characterisation, while the perceived period psychology forms the motivation for the actions. All tied up in adventure with a smattering of sex of course.

Victorian crime was often sordid, petty and ugly but there were golden nuggets that fascinated. It is the novelists job to dig through the dross to unearth the gold, polish it lovingly and use it as a focal point for stories that reveal the reality of life while hopefully entertaining the readers. The world has changed a great deal since Sergeant Mendick struggled with the complexities of crime but people have not. Remove the technology and we are much the same.


About malcolmarchibald

Happily married for 34 years to Cathy, I have three grown children and live in the depths of Moray in northern Scotland. I was educated in Edinburgh and Dundee and work as a lecturer in Inverness, while writing historical books, both fiction and fact.
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