Kate Rhodes discusses the London settings of her Alice Quentin series
The latest book in Kate Rhodes' Alice Quentin series is out now, and she's here to talk about the London setting of this chilling series.
Posted on June 22, 2015 in Guest Author
Tags: kate rhodes
It was a specific place that led me to write my first crime novel, Crossbones Yard. A relatively unknown location on a quiet London street touched my imagination so deeply I felt obliged to write about it. The place was Cross Bones graveyard in Borough, the city’s only cemetery for prostitutes over three centuries. The site looked totally neglected, thousands of unremembered lives buried under the asphalt. It seemed like the ideal setting for my book, but how was I going to bring it alive? I decided to make my main character forensic psychologist Alice Quentin fascinated by London’s history and geography as well as the workings of the criminal mind. Her passion for running and cycling allowed her to see parts of the city that are impossible to access by car. She became a conduit for my own passion for central London’s architecture, because like me she grew up in the leafy suburbs of Blackheath, forty minutes away from the bright lights.
When it came to writing my second book, A Killing of Angels, location again lay at the heart of the story. I’d been fascinated by the banking crisis in 2008, when an entire nation’s financial security had been jeopardised by a small band of brokers. I took long walks around the city’s financial sector, the Square Mile, getting to know the terrain. Even though many banks have moved out to Canary Wharf, the place still resonates. You can almost hear the chink of coins being counted in Dickens’ day. In my book Alice has to navigate the area’s labyrinthine streets to find out who is killing the city’s top bankers. I lost a good deal of shoe leather while researching the story, tracking down bankers prepared to discuss their lives and preoccupations and committing the area to memory. I wanted to be able to describe how the grand limestone buildings reflected light on a hot summer day, as if they were blameless.
Two locations feature in The Winter Foundlings, the third book in my series. The story alternates between the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury, and Northwood high security psychiatric hospital, which was inspired by visits to Broadmoor. Both locations haunted me in different ways. The first exhibit on show when you enter the Foundling Museum, London’s first orphanage, is a row of white pinafores and decaying leather shoes heaped in a pile; remnants of the foundlings’ uniforms. The walls of the building pulsate with loneliness, similar to the bleakness of Broadmoor. Both are places of incarceration, children and men locked away, far from home and family.
The setting for Alice’s most recent adventure, River of Souls, is my most ambitious yet. I wanted to locate all the crimes on the river Thames, between Battersea Bridge to the west and Execution Dock in the east. My research was fascinating, exhausting and muddy. I spent days walking the Thames river bank at low tide looking for abandoned docks and stairways that a killer could use to his advantage. I had to get every detail right: many people are passionate about the Thames, as if London’s watery lifeblood belonged to them alone. My sister is worst of all. She studied history at university and remains passionate about it, regularly taking people on walking tours of the river. It was great to be able to pick her brains, but also scary, in case I made a mistake. Experts at the Museum of London helped to put my mind at rest, giving me a personal tour of artefacts dredged from the river: Bronze Age daggers, Roman glass and jewellery.
It has taken me four books to understand why location is so important. If a story manages to capture a sense of place, it lingers with you for days. My job is to get it right, so my readers can smell the Thames as it ebbs out to sea. If I’ve done my work well, they will inhale boat diesel, raw tobacco and a faint whiff of the exotic spices the shipping companies imported for centuries.
The latest book in Kate Rhodes’ gripping Alice Quentin mysteries series, River of Souls, is out now.