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Gallows Court: An Interview with Martin Edwards

September 25, 2018

Gallows Court is the new novel by Martin Edwards. The setting is London, 1930. A series of violent murders, the details as gruesome as the Ripper case, has horrified the capital. Rachel Savernake is the enigmatic heiress at the heart of the mystery. Brilliant, beautiful and cruel, Savernake solved the Chorus Girl Murder and is on the hunt of another killer. Yet, she is equally adept at using violence for her own ends.

Jacob Flint is the cub reporter temporarily working the crime beat at The Clarion. He instinctively feels there is more to Savernake than meets the eye and starts tracking her ruthless misadventures across foggy London town. The stage is set for a bloody confrontation at an ancient place of execution – Gallows Court.

Edwards previous work includes the Harry Devlin novels and the Lake District Mysteries. He is also the author of the acclaimed critical study, The Golden Age of Murder and editor of the hugely popular British Library Crime Classics series. Gallows Court is a change of direction for the author, being a blood-drenched thriller with a 1930s setting immersed in Gothic atmosphere. I was floored by the novel’s riveting blend of action and intrigue, terrific pacing and compelling characters, particularly the unforgettable Rachel Savernake.

I first met Martin when he was a guest at the Visions of Noir conference I organised in Liverpool in 2015. He’s always been enthusiastic and generous, and he kindly agreed to be interviewed by me about his new novel. The following exchange was conducted by email.

Interviewer: What was the genesis of the idea for Gallows Court? Is it something that you had been toying with for a while, or did it come to you on impulse?

Edwards: After writing seven Lake District Mysteries, I was keen to try to write something very different. I’m always looking to stretch myself as a novelist, and two ideas competed for attention. One was a present day novel of psychological suspense, the other was a story set in the 1930s, a decade which I’d researched extensively and which fascinated me. When the idea of the character of Rachel Savernake came to me, that made up my mind- she belonged to the 1930s, without question. I wrote a short story about her first, just to make sure that she was someone I was comfortable to write a whole novel about, since that would mean a commitment of a couple of years (or three, as it turned out!) I’ve not tried to sell or publish the story, but it was a worthwhile writing exercise, a sort of limbering up for the long haul of writing a fairly unorthodox novel.

Interviewer: The narrative deals with doubling and switching of identities, often in terms of the morality of the characters and their motivations. It made me wonder were there any real-life inspirations for the characters of Rachel Savernake and Jacob Flint?

Edwards: No. I’ve written one book which was inspired by a real life character – my only other historical novel, Dancing for the Hangman, which is about the life and misadventures of Dr Crippen. This time I wanted to work entirely with characters from my own imagination.

Interviewer: You’re well-known as a historian of Golden Age detective fiction with an encyclopedic knowledge of writers of that period. Can you indicate which Golden Age writers, if any, were an influence on the novel.

Edwards: The influences were indirect rather than direct. I have long been interested in the fact that the Detection Club, set up in 1930, did not allow thriller writers to join for more than 20 years. This was because the likes of Sapper were not deemed to be good enough writers. Dorothy L Sayers, who reviewed crime fiction for the Sunday Times for two and a half years, was scathing in her assessment of the literary merits of most thrillers. So I was tempted by the idea of trying to write a thriller set in the 1930s which might have been literate and thought-provoking enough to pass muster even with Sayers. What I was not trying to do was to write a pastiche Golden Age whodunit. Plenty of those are being written nowadays, very capably. I set myself the task of trying to write a book that was avowedly and unashamedly commercial yet very different from other books set in the period (whether written then or now).

Interviewer: Some of the murder scenes have a Grand Guignol Hammer Horror feel to them. How did you approach the writing of these scenes, and were you worried that they would go too far?

Edwards: There is indeed a Grand Guignol element in some of the crimes, and again this reflects my attempt to write a thriller that was dramatic, and in some passages melodramatic, while fusing a 1930s ambience with a modern psychological sensibility. I was attempting to write a book that was packed with classic Golden Age elements – a killing in a locked room, a cipher, a secret underground passage, conjuror’s illusions, and so on – and which wove together several intricate puzzles, yet was by no means purely cerebral. A thriller has to thrill, and I wanted the story to be entertaining, first and foremost. That excellent crime writer Michael Gilbert used to argue that thrillers were harder to write than whodunits, and he may have had a point; I’ve written plenty of whodunits, but it seems to me that the best thriller writers (like Lee Child and John Buchan) have a flair for keeping readers on the edge of their chairs, and that’s what I was trying to do. So in writing the most dramatic scenes (especially in the theatre, the Hannaways’ house, and in Gallows Court at the end) I was consciously testing the boundaries of credibility while trying to make sure the reader wanted to keep turning the pages. All of this was, of course, inevitably a high risk strategy. I was writing without a contract of any kind, and could not be sure that I’d be able to write a book which satisfied me, or would be accepted for publication. But I persuaded myself that it was a risk worth taking. I’ve always been a fairly ambitious writer, and if I stand back and look at my output over the years, I feel that it is certainly very varied. I also like to believe that I continue to improve as a writer.

Interviewer: There are lots of twists and turns in Gallows Court, so I was surprised when I read you started writing without a plot outline. Did this require a lot of revisions to make all of the plot contortions fit seamlessly?

Author Martin Edwards

Edwards:  I decided from the outset that because this book was to be very different from my previous work, I’d write it in a different way. I was fascinated by the idea of Rachel, this mysterious, very rich, and very ruthless young woman who appears from nowhere and involves herself with bizarre murder mysteries, and she was the starting point. Jacob came later, since I realised I needed an ‘ordinary person’ viewpoint character with whom readers could identify to some extent. With my whodunits, I’ve always known who the murderer is, who the victim is, and what is the motive. The test I set myself here was to figure out how to make sense of a complex and mysterious scenario. Many of the major twists (including the crime at the theatre, and the events at the bungalow Jacob visits) occurred to me during the course of writing, rather than forming part of an initial plan. I did a great deal of rewriting to fit it all together in a way that was (I hoped) seamless. What I try to do as a writer is to create characters who (even if described in a fairly straightforward way) have some depth to them, some potential. This is the case with certain characters who meet an unfortunate end in the novel; their misfortune was to interest me so much that I created in my mind backstories for them which meant that someone had a reason to kill them!

Interviewer: The narrative jumps between the remote Gaunt island and a menacing London, and a 1919 and 1930 setting. How did you approach historical research and period details?

Edwards: While working on The Golden Age of Murder in particular I did a great deal of research into life in Britain in the 1930s, reading many books written during that decade, and also many histories of the period. Of course, I did need to research some points specific to the story – for instance, the tea room in Oxford, the restaurant where Rachel goes to lunch, the nature of newspapers in the 30s, and the conjuring illusion which plays a part in the storyline.

Interviewer: Finally, and without giving away any spoilers, could Gallows Court be the start of a new series with the same longevity as the Harry Devlin novels and the Lake District mysteries?

Edwards: There is going to be a sequel to Gallows Court, for sure, and I wrote the story with that possibility very much in mind. Beyond that, who knows?

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