Philip Gooden is a versatile British author of fiction and nonfiction. Former chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association, he is known for his Nick Revill series, set in Elizabethan London, sometimes referred to as the Shakespearian Murder Mystery Series. More recently he has penned the Thomas Ansell Victorian sequence, featuring this London attorney and set in various cathedral towns from which the books in the series take their titles. Also, working with fellow authors Susanna Gregory, Michael Jecks, Bernard Knight, Karen Maitland, Ian Morson, and C.J. Sansom under the joint pseudonym of the Medieval Murderers, he has helped to write a number of well-received historical mysteries.
The London Guardian has dubbed Gooden’s historical mysteries “great fun,” while Publishers Weekly declared: “Gooden will give you a gratifying taste of the danger and excitement of that lusty place and time.”
In addition to this fiction, Gooden has also written several books on the English language, including Faux Pas?, which won the English Speaking Union award for the best English Language book of 2006, Who’s Whose?, and the 2010, The Story of English: How the English Language Conquered the World.
I have two series, one set in Shakespearean London and a Victorian sequence set in a variety of cathedral cities, so far Salisbury, Durham and Ely. The attractions of Elizabethan London are obvious. It was a growing city and the centre of an increasingly powerful and self-confident country under Elizabeth I. Also it was a dangerous place, with the area below the river Thames (principally Southwark) a kind of wild south, full of theatres, bear-pits, brothels and prisons.
As far as the Victorian series goes, I’ve chosen cathedral cities for their dramatic and picturesque qualities. Salisbury has a cathedral which is a triumph of medieval architecture, with a spire that can be seen for miles. Similarly, Durham’s cathedral dominates the town and was constructed partly as an assertion of Norman power, while Ely is the dominant feature of the slightly eerie landscape around the city. These cities were important in the Victorian era, arguably more so than they are now.
What things about these places make them unique and good physical settings in your books?
Salisbury is close to Stonehenge and the area is full of prehistoric sites such as burial chambers, some of which I used in the first book, The Salisbury Manuscript. Durham was a mining town in the 19th century but also had a university and, of course, was and is an ecclesiastical centre. There’s a lot about magic and conjuring in The Durham Deception so I was able to use the town’s Assembly Room as a place where performances were staged. The fairly grim prison was also useful for the heroine’s incarceration and, later, an execution. The Ely Testament shuttles between Ely and Cambridge, only a few minutes on the train, so there’s quite a bit about those places in the book.
Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
In the cathedral mysteries, the town is more than a backdrop but doesn’t quite have the status of a character. You have to tread the line between giving the readers too much information and leaving them short-changed.
How do your protagonists interact with their surroundings?
So far I’ve had my ‘detectives’, Tom and Helen Ansell, visit each city on business. Tom is a young lawyer who can plausibly be sent to different parts of the country to see to his firm’s clients. I also needed to provide Helen with something to do, so I made her an aspirant writer, with a commission in the last book to write pen-portraits of Ely and Cambridge for a magazine. Their occupations make the couple naturally inquisitive. Using outsiders means that they’re more observant – or more ready to comment on what they see.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
In the third book in my Shakespearean series, The Pale Companion, I chose a country-house setting outside London where murders take place around a midsummer performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, staged by a touring company of players from the Globe theatre. In homage to all those 1930s cosy Brit mysteries, I made the weather idyllic, cloudless, sunny. Only later did I discover that the summer during the year in question, 1602, was actually terrible, and indeed the whole period was noted for constant rain, disastrous harvests, etc. A historical blip which I doubted that anyone noticed but which niggled me.
Of the cathedral town 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?
‘They were riding along a slightly elevated way between fields, some of peaty broken earth, some with a dark-leafed crop that Tom couldn’t identify. The town of Ely slowly shrunk to his backward-facing gaze until only the bulk of the cathedral remained. Lines of willows and poplars fringed the fields, interrupted by the occasional hut or meagre dwelling. There was the sense of water everywhere, either dazzlingly visible in the pools and channels beneath the slanting sun or lying very close underground or waiting just beyond a horizon that lay straight as a ruler.”
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?
He’s light years away from the historical mysteries I write, but I’m a great fan of Lee Child and his Jack Reacher series. Every book is set in a different part of the US, from the deep south to New York to the mid-west to LA, and each evokes the place in a spare but effective style.
Not certain but I’m thinking of Winchester as a possible setting for another cathedral mystery.
Thanks so much for joining in the discussion, Philip.
For more information on Philip Gooden, visit his blog.