Dan Waddell is assisting Scene of the Crime today in its investigations into setting and fiction. Waddell, a Londoner, is a former journalist, the bestselling author of Who Do You Think You Are? that accompanied the BBC series on genealogy, and, most importantly for us, the author of the crime series featuring Scotland Yard’s Detective Chief Inspector Grant Foster and his genealogist assistant, Nigel Barnes. The two made their debut in The Blood Detective, in which a century-old crime comes to haunt the present. A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted of this work, “Waddell’s adept characterization and pacing make for an exciting start to a new series.” A Booklist contributor concluded, “Let’s hope Waddell can find many more genealogical excuses for Barnes to assist the police with their inquiries.”
Waddell did not disappoint; Blood Atonement once again pairs Foster and Barnes in the hunt for a serial killer. A Library Journal reviewer found this offering an “outstanding thriller,” while a Booklist contributor dubbed it a “definite winner.”
Dan, welcome to Scene of the Crime, and thanks so much for sharing your thoughts about the spirit of place in your crime fiction.
To begin with, would you describe your connection to London?
I’m from the north of England originally, but ever since I was a kid I dreamed of being a Londoner. I love cities and, for me, London is the ultimate city. The history, the hustle and bustle, the mass of people, the faded Victorian glamour, the way ostentatious wealth sits side-by-side with the mundane and hard-up, the rickety old tube system, the whole thing. I visited when I was a student, saw a show, the bright lights, all the clichéd stuff, and knew I had to live there. I eventually moved here in 1997 to work as a journalist and haven’t even thought of living anywhere else (apart from New York, the other ultimate city.) I fell out of love with journalism. The affair with London is still going strong.
What things about London make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
I’ve always been thrilled by the notion of standing on a spot and thinking, “Lots of things happened here.” I get that in London all the time. The past is so rich and so present. Places carry the stain of the past – no matter how hard town planners have tried, knocking down houses, encouraging gentrification, different parts of London have their own unique aura and atmosphere. It’s as if it’s in the air.
Did you consciously set out to use London as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
For my first, The Blood Detective, I had a plot and a character. I didn’t have a specific location though knew it needed strong sense of place, and wanted it to have one. I was living on the outskirts of Notting Hill, which has this chocolate box image, but is actually a vibrant area with quite a seedy past and an edgy present. A few streets away was Notting Dale, Notting Hill’s less glamorous sibling, dark and dingy, with past notorious for violence, abject poverty and racial tension. I decided to dig a bit further, and started to explore. I realised it would make a fabulous setting. The clincher came when I was given a ride home by a cab driver and we passed on unassuming modern cul-de-sac. He told me it used to be Rillington Place, scene of a famous mass murderer. I walked down the street. The murders happened at number 10. Though they had rebuilt the road, changed its name, torn down the houses, they could not bring themselves to put up a new number 10. Between houses nine and 11 was a gap. It might just have been me, but the rain was falling, the sky was slate grey, and I just sensed a malevolence. I had my location.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes?
Definitely. I wanted the location to reflect the theme of the first book. The idea that the past cannot be denied. That you can sweep things under the carpet, hide them away, mark the down as dead, but in the same way a drowned body will always eventually wash up on shore, the past will always rise to the surface. The location in The Blood Detective was as important a ‘character’ as my genealogist or my detective. In my second book, Blood Atonement, I wanted to move away from that a bit, for the sake of variation, though London still plays a part. However, in future books London, its past, and its dark secrets and nooks and crannies will play a major part.
I have two protagonists, detective and genealogist, and both contrast. My copper Grant Foster has lived in London all his life, and like many born Londoners, is a bit blasé about the past. Nigel, my genealogist, is bit more bright-eyed and awed. Foster also lives very much in the present because the past is too painful, so the history means little to him. Nigel is the opposite. He finds the present day too awkward, so he loves to escape into the past and London affords him every opportunity.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
Good question. A few locals have written to me put out a few errors in my depiction of Notting Hill/Notting Dale, but generally the reaction I’ve had is positive. More has been made of the location in the US though, interestingly enough. Perhaps because the film Notting Hill made out everyone in the area was walking around with a floppy fringe like Hugh Grant, saying “Golly gosh!” and falling in love with impossibly unattainable women, so when my book came along and depicted a less rosy image it had an impact. As for non-English speaking, it’s only just been released in the Netherlands and Germany so I’m still waiting…
Of the novels featuring Foster and Barnes, 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?
The Blood Detective is exclusively set in the location I’ve outlined so it would have to be that. I love the underground and I’m fascinated by its history, especially the idea that when it first opened God-fearing Londoners refused to travel on it because it was below the surface and that was seen as Satanic, as if one was doing a deal with the Devil. The 1879 killer, demented and deranged by religion, to whom I occasionally flashback, reflects on his experience, and I’m quite happy with that. It must have felt very strange, thrilling and exciting to the first people who rode it….
“Underground in that coffin on tracks, he knew the devil was with him. The decadent, the godless, the drunks and the whores; it was their chosen chariot. Around him men smoked their pipes, the smoke billowing through the airless carriage, mingling with the foul odour of the gas lamps. As they passed west they were plunged alternately into bright, eye-blasting light and profound darkness. He lasted two stops in the fetid atmosphere before he thought asphyxiation would claim him. At Paddington he emerged, gulping in great lungfuls of air. I’ll go to Hell when the Lord tells me and not before, he vowed, and had not been anywhere near it since…”
Non-fiction the works of Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair and Ed Glinert, all wonderful chroniclers of London past and present, have been a massive influence. Patrick Hamilton is my famous London novelist. As for fiction, too many to mention, but in the crime field, Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall, Henning Mankell, Ross MacDonald, George P. Pelecanos, Michael Robotham and Cathi Unsworth have all kept me up all night recently.
What’s next for your protagonist?
The London Underground, disused ‘ghost’ stations and dark murderous secrets.
Thanks again, Dan, for a great interview and some new insights into old London.
Visit Dan at his author Web site.