Will Thomas is the author of the popular historical fiction series featuring detective Cyrus Barker and his apprentice, Thomas Llewelyn, set in London and parts of the British Isles in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The series starts off with Some Danger Involved, and is continued with To Kingdom Come, The Limehouse Text, The Hellfire Conspiracy, and last year’s The Black Hand. The books deal with vital topics of the day, from anti-Semitism to anarchism.
The books have received critical praise. Of Kingdom Come, Booklist noted, “Thomas places his cast of likeable even heroic characters within a complex political minefield and the waits for the explosion. Intense and insightful.” The Denver Post declared the same novel a “thorough delight.” Library Journal noted of The Hellfire Conspiracy: “Thomas knows his Victorian London and his way around the makings of a great mystery. Fans of Victorian historicals will snap this up.” The New York Times Book Review said of the Barker and Llewelyn books, ‘Will Thomas explores wonderful uncharted territory…true believers who go along for the ride will hate to see it end.”
I did not grow up in Britain, but I was raised in a family of Scottish first generation Americans. I can recall as a child believing we were moving back to Scotland any minute, as all the songs said. There was a good deal of English literature in my house growing up, and I read it all: Doyle, Dickens, Stevenson, Wilde, Kipling. Each book presented its own kaleidoscope image of London, so that even before I finally visited her, I could walk her streets blindfolded.
What things about late nineteenth-century London make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
London is still a collection of villages rather than a collective whole, and even when an ethnic group moves out of an area and another moves in, the village’s identity changes but does not end. Jack the Ripper’s London is now Pakistani, and yet a glance at her will reveal the bare bones.
I most certainly did intend to make the city of London a character in my book. At one point, my protagonist says “London’s a right raucous lass when you get to know her.” If I cannot make a reader itch to walk the streets of my character, Cyrus Barker, I’m not doing my job properly.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
A good writer should take advantage of the locations available to him. If a character travels over Tower Bridge, why would you not think of a way to make him visit the Tower itself? It’s a romantic backdrop steeped in history and peopled with ghosts. Not taking advantage of the locales of a particular city is to homogenize your own writing.
How does Thomas Llewelyn interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the London affect Llewelyn?
My narrator, Thomas Llewelyn, is a Classics scholar and a history buff. He’s conscious of what a privilege it is for him to work every day in a city that is evolving as an empire. The city itself confers upon him the kind of glamour that one had in ancient Rome as a Citizen. People want to move there, but never can. People want to stay there, but don’t pass muster. While both my heroes are outsiders, they both call London home.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
I love getting emails from British fans telling me how much they enjoy my books. They’re too polite to nitpick. After hearing that Americans are not accepted by British readers, I’ve found myself welcomed openly, which is very humbling, and of course, makes one try even harder to get one’s facts right.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
In my first novel, I had my characters pass over Tower Bridge, though it wasn’t completed yet! One reader called me on that. I had my protagonists bypass the bridge in the second novel, and the Tower Bridge actually appears on the cover of the third book. In the fourth novel, a body washes up along the pilings below it. I’ve had a lot of fun at the bridge’s expense, I suppose.
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 have read and reread so many of the late Victorian novelists, not merely for ideas, but for enjoyment. I stand in Doyle’s shadow, but my books are just as influenced by Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray.
What’s next for Barker and Llewelyn?
A nemesis from Cyrus Barker’s past comes to London to prove that his old enemy is not an invulnerable as he thinks. And of course, Thomas Llewelyn must avoid the charms of a lovely girl and stick to the matter at hand.
Will, many thanks for taking the time to stop by Scene of the Crime.
For more information on Will Thomas and his books, see his homepage.