Roz Southey is a British musicologist who has also turned to crime. Crime fiction, that is, in her series featuring Charles Patterson, a “determined but impoverished musician in 18th century Newcastle upon Tyne,” as she describes him on her home page. The Patterson series was inaugurated in 2007, with Broken Harmony, followed by Chords and Discord, Secret Lament, Sword and Song, The Ladder Dancer, and the 2012 installment, Airs and Graces. Of Sword and Song, Library Journal declared in a starred review: “This unusual historical series just keeps getting better.” In a starred review of Chords and Discords, Publishers Weekly praised Southey’s “realistic but wickedly pointed characterizations and the convincing evocation of the sounds and stink of a preindustrial city.”
Roz, it’s great to have you with us finally at Scene of the Crime. I know that as a musicologist you have written nonfiction books about music in England, but can you give us some insight to your connection to Newcastle upon Tyne and to the 18t century–your own special crime scene?
My historical detective novels (The Charles Patterson mysteries) are set in Newcastle upon Tyne, in the north-east of England. I don’t live in Newcastle but I do work there. The novels are set in the early 18th century, which is a period I’ve always been interested in, but which is intensely unfashionable! People often try to suggest that nothing much happened in the period which totally bewilders me. Britain was at war for most of the century, there was the American Revolution and the French Revolution to cope with; at home there was the Industrial Revolution, the growth of towns and cities which put new pressures on people, and the new rise of consumerism. Newcastle was a border town and a port (which meant an influx of all kinds of people and tension between the Scottish and the English) and a centre for the local area and in particular for the coal trade. It was heavily industrial, which meant a great deal of poverty and a great deal of wealth for those fortunate to own the industry. In addition, it prided itself on being up to date, and every bit as good as London. The potential for conflict is obviously large – an ideal place to set books!
When I was doing a university course in Newcastle, I was introduced by a lecturer to the 18th century newspapers in the local library and that was it – I was hooked. My special interest is the history of music-making; all kinds of entertainment grew up as towns flourished – the wealthy were looking for something to spend their money on. A huge amount of information survives on music-making in the north-east and I couldn’t resist using it for mystery books. My hero is of course a musician …
What things about 18th-century Newcastle make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
The contrasts between wealth and poverty, the rich and the poor. Newcastle grew up on the hills around the river Tyne; the wealthy lived on the hills, in big houses amongst large gardens and in close reach of the countryside. The poor lived down in the river valley, on and around the Quayside, with fogs and the smoke from local collieries drifting up the river, which smelt quite appalling. They were crowded into narrow alleys (or ‘chares’) and then the wealthy wondered why they behaved so badly … And then there were the middle classes, to which my hero Charles Patterson belongs: the tradesmen and the merchants, the ship owners and the professional men – doctors, lawyers and clergy. Surprisingly, some women also had more independence than is commonly believed at this time.
A little bit of both – when I started the first book, I’d just finished a PhD on music-making in the north-east and I wanted to use the material in a more light-hearted way. It was therefore natural to set the book in Newcastle. But as I went along, I found myself enjoying depicting the town more and more. I’ve always enjoyed urban fantasy – I think that’s what I’m writing, in a way, in an historical setting.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction?
Setting shapes character so much that I think it can’t be ignored. And I don’t think the characters and the scenes come to life properly unless you can picture them in their setting. I enjoy exploring different parts of Newcastle; the latest book in the series (Airs and Graces) is set in large part on the Tyne Bridge, which was rather like London Bridge in having shops and houses on it – the murder at the beginning of the book actually takes place in a shop on the bridge. There is a huge temptation to use the setting symbolically, which I try to avoid; I never think things like that quite work.
How does Patterson interact with his surroundings?
Charles Patterson, my main character, is a musician who finds that solving crime tends to pay rather better than playing the harpsichord … He is indeed a native of Newcastle although he is by no means a provincial; like all musicians with ambition, he has been to London for training and experience. He came back to Newcastle because he recognizes that there are more opportunities – and less competition – there than in London. He’s very much at home there, comfortable with all the local people, of all classes. But he’s not blindly partisan; he knows the snobbishness, meanness and unfairness that exist there too.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
The local setting has always been a big plus in the books – I’ve lost track of the number of people who tell me they love the precise naming of streets and places. I’ve even had people tell me they’ve looked up the places on a map. Reviewers too seem to enjoy that aspect of the books: amongst other, the Historical Novels Review said ‘You can see and smell the city’; Booklist said ‘What really makes the novel come alive is its setting.’ It’s immensely flattering when people write things like that; I think I must be doing something right!
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
Thankfully, my only known goof so far is a very small one. One of the main streets (one of the genteel streets) is Westgate Road. I failed to realize that in the 18th century it was known as Westgate Street. Fortunately, most people – then as now – generally refer to it simply as ‘Westgate’, so the error only appears once or twice!
Of the Patterson novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
I seem to much prefer the gritty, dirty bits of the town! To a writer, they are always more fun to describe than the nice scenic bits. Here is a short extract from the second in the series, Chords and Discords. Patterson is feeling annoyed:
“March is a damnable month. Wind funnels down the narrow streets and makes you stagger and weave against its force. The river down in its valley is turgid; smoke and coal dust blow into your eyes, and burrow into your throat. I struggled down to the Sandhill, trying to get those late November days out of my head. Ridiculous to brood over it – it was all past and done with. On the Sandhill, the fish market was in full spate. Seagulls screeched overhead; fisher-girls shrieked with laughter; their menfolk shouted. Housewives haggled over fish for dinner. Over all their heads loomed the ugly hulk of the Guildhall, with gentlemen lounging on the balconies, surveying the bustling scene of commerce below.
“I spent some of my small remaining coins on a bowl of buttered barley at one of the sellers outside Nellie’s coffee house and ate it with my back to the wind. The smoke had somehow got into the barley as had the taste of fish, and the bitter taste of resentment. I left it unfinished.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
I’m not sure I have any ‘favourite’ writers – my favourite book is usually the last good one I’ve read. But, as I said before, I do like urban fantasy as a genre, and I’ve definitely been influenced by that kind of writing.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
Somewhere warm. I love rain, but hate cold. Somewhere in the south of France, I think, with a view over the deep blue Mediterranean, a balcony to write on, lizards darting in and out of the walls, olives and lemons to pick at will, and traffic only a distant, distant hum … Oh, and lots and lots of trees – I adore trees which is probably owing to being brought up in a country area (the Lake District in the west of England). Which probably, when I come to think of it, is why most of my writing is set in cities and towns – the lure of the exotic …
What’s next for your protagonist?
Ah, now that would be telling … Actually, I’m one of those writers who never quite knows what’s going to happen when I start the next book. Another murder, of course, and fatherhood is looming too …
Roz, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information on Roz Southey, visit her home page.