If Words Could Kill

Emma Street,PR and social media volunteer for Lincoln Book Festival, writes:

Wednesday night at the Collection was a ‘steal’ for the audience members who were presented with a ‘killer’ introduction of three, for the price of two authors. The Victorian era has always been a source of fascination among readers of crime – among the many novels that were written, you also have the real-life cases of Jack the Ripper and other notorious criminals. Issues arising from the novels discussed touched on copyrighting and censorship – a real threat to any authors in the audience.
Claire Harman’s novel “Murder by the Book” broaches crime and historical fiction, to piece together the death of Lord William Russell. The whole of London was scandalised by the murder of a famous and important Lord in his bed at night, but behind the murder was a best-selling crime novel and various plays based on the text. The question at the heart of the story: could a work of fiction do real harm?
At a time when crime was associated with the lower classes, who were mobilising and beginning to gain an education through reading – the crime stories published in the press were growing in number. At a time of no copyright laws, one of the ‘crimes’ for authors was the stealing of their texts and use for plays without their permission. These plays were cited as influential in making young boys want to be like notorious Jack Sheppard – by creating a romanticised and glamorised version of events.
“Books and plays were immortalising criminals” and encouraging people to have a blurred version of fact and fiction, right and wrong. Claire Harman’s talk on a murder and the mystery surrounding the issue of censorship in a time of no copyright, was wildly successful – with queues afterwards for signings of her book.
Ambrose Parry, AKA Chris Brookmyre and Dr Marisa Haetzman, were up next to discuss their ‘killer’ mix of fact and fiction to create “The Way of all Flesh” and start their historical crime series. The novel is based around medical student, Will Raven, and former housemaid, Sarah Fisher, who find themselves in Edinburgh’s underworld to find out who is responsible for a series of deaths.
Intriguingly, the married couple make an almost tense pairing when it comes to writing – with acclaimed author, Chris, wanting to embellish and dramatise the story, but anaesthetist, Marisa, wanting to focus on the facts and have a scientific perspective over the story. What comes of this pairing is a delightful blend of fact and fiction, with a villain based on a real-life medical professional who committed murders, and a look into the historical development of chloroform.
“As a writer you’re like a vampire, you’re always waiting for the next story”. – Chris Brookmyre. It may have taken them a while to realise their book was destined to be a crime novel, but they did know it was crucial to look at women of the time and base experiences in the book on real cases. Especially when it came to discussing the controversy surrounding chloroform and midwifery, as giving birth was seen to be divinely ordained and something that shouldn’t be interfered with.
If Words Could Kill was a wonderful night treading lightly between fact and fiction, touching on the historical time of the Victorian era and looking at crime and science. Massive thanks go to: Claire Harman, an award-winning biographer and author of the best-selling “Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World”, and Ambrose Parry, whose book “The Way of all Flesh” is long-listed for the Mcllvanney Prize.