A Conversation with actor and Historical Fiction author, Richard James
Please give a warm Coffee Pot Welcome to Historical Fiction author, Richard James.
|‘Richard James as Sherlock Holmes’ photograph by Joanna Yates.
Mary Anne: Hi Richard, it is so wonderful that you could join us today. Many people will recognise you from the stage, film and television, but you are also an award-winning playwright and author. Did your experience as an actor help you create the amazing historical settings and cast that can be found in your books?
Richard James: That’s a very good question! I suppose, as an actor, I’m always asking myself ‘why is my character doing this?’, which really helped me get under the skin of the characters in my books. I’m always looking for subtext, the currents beneath the water that I find so interesting.
Above all, though, the two strands of my career - being an actor and a writer - have both been about telling stories, whether on the stage or the page. Many readers have told me my novels are very filmic, very visual, and I suppose that’s because I can almost see them in front of me as I write, like looking through a camera. As an actor, I’m used to reading scripts, marking their beats and how to begin and end a scene. I even think of my books in terms of scenes rather than chapters and cast my characters from actors I know or have worked with!
Finally, acting is all about imagination. As a performer, I am tasked with imagining how my character might react in certain circumstances and relating that to the audience. The perfect training for writing a book, I’d say!
Mary Anne: The Head in the Ice is the first book in your fabulous Bowman Of The Yard series, could you tell us a little about your series and what inspired you to write it?
Richard James: The series is set throughout the year 1892, following Inspector Bowman’s discharge from a lunatic asylum. He is undergoing treatment for extreme melancholia following the death of his wife, a death for which he holds himself responsible. As the series progresses, we see him plunged back into some brutal investigations – including the discovery of a frozen head in the river Thames. Before long, he falls victim to his own fragile mental state.
A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to be on a very long theatre tour. Despite performing in two shows a day, I managed to find the time to write the first book in the series, ‘The Head In The Ice.’ After almost five hundred performances, I needed something to break the feeling of Groundhog Day! Almost every chapter was written either on a train or in a dressing room. I knew at once it had to be a series and relished the idea of following the same cast of characters throughout one decisive year.
Mary Anne: What drew you to set your series in the Victorian era?
Richard James: I have long had a fascination with the Victorian era – or rather the literary version of it, which may not be quite the same thing. No one really believes that Conan Doyle’s London, for example, ever really existed but it’s a myth that we’ve all bought into; the foggy streets, the dark, forbidding alleyways. I think it’s almost like a folk memory and it’s one I really wanted to play with. I’ve long been a fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories (I’ve even played the great detective on stage) but wanted my central character to be more vulnerable, less sure of himself and, crucially, to evolve throughout the books.
It’s a period that lends itself to larger than life characters. I’m always drawn to them as an actor (for example, playing David Walliams’ ‘Awful Auntie’) and, now, as a writer. It was also an age of incredible industrialisation in which, it could be argued, a few people profited off the backs of the many poor. This seemed the perfect backdrop against which to set a detective series!
|Awful Auntie cast with David Walliams, photograph by Roberta Bellekom.
Mary Anne: What were the challenges you faced in researching this period of history and were there any unexpected surprises?
Richard James: Because I’m not writing about the dim and distant past but an era that only drew to an end a little over a hundred years ago, there are plenty of resources to turn to. I discovered an online map published by the National Library of Scotland featuring maps from the period. Helpfully, it includes a transparency feature which enables you to look through the Victorian map to the streets as they look today. Certainly as far as London is concerned, I was amazed to see how little has changed. The street patterns remain the same in many places and even many buildings are still in place. I’m also lucky to live close enough to London that, if all else fails, I can easily hop on a train and take a look myself!
In the course of my research for the first book, I learned that my idea of how the Victorians treated their mentally ill was not quite as things had been. In fact, following the Lunacy Act of 1845, steps were taken to ensure their treatment was humane and based on a scientific approach. I had to deal with the fact that, whilst this was good news, it’s not narratively that interesting! However, I reasoned, for a man like Bowman, even the most progressive regime would be difficult to bear.
Mary Anne: What advice do you have for aspiring Historical Fiction authors?
Richard James: Create a world that people want to spend time in and a cast of characters they want to spend time with. Compose a compelling story that will force them onto the next chapter rather than put the book down.
Don’t be put off by writers who seem to write a book every month. Take your own time. But remember, finding the discipline to write is a common problem. It will take many hours of effort. As celebrated comedy screenwriter, Brian Clemens, would say, ‘Arse to chair, pen to paper!’
Mary Anne: Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to chat with us about your wonderful series!
If you would like to find out more about The Head in the Ice and read an excerpt, then you know what to do — SCROLL DOWN!!
The Head In The Ice
A Bowman Of The Yard Investigation
By Richard James
A woman’s head found in the River Thames.
Battling with feelings of guilt over his wife’s death - and having spent time recovering in an asylum - Detective Inspector George Bowman must join his colleagues, Sergeant Graves and Inspector Hicks, to discover the woman’s identity.
A deal struck with the editor of the Evening Standard to follow the investigation from within turns sour following a botched ambush on a suspect’s lair.
A false identification, a doomed visit to a Spiritualist Meeting and Graves' investigations into a ship called Nimrod all serve to bring Bowman closer to a revelation.
The investigation unfolds, but Graves and Hicks grow increasingly concerned at Bowman’s mental state.
A chase across the frozen streets of London leads to a final confrontation on the waters of The Thames, where Bowman must face the demons that haunt him to catch the killer
Praise for The Head In The Ice.
‘Wonderfully atmospheric, full of the thrills of Victorian London.’
'A genuinely impressive debut.'
Andrew Cartmel, The Vinyl Detective.
'Crime fiction with wit and twists.'
Richard Foreman, Raffles: The Complete Innings.
“It’s an obvious but unfortunate case of suicide.” Inspector Ignatius Hicks of Scotland Yard stood upon an upturned crate he had found beside the river and declaimed from a lofty height to anyone who cared to listen. As it happened, the crowd was sizable for so early in the morning. They had been drawn by the sight of a team of men, stripped to their shirtsleeves despite the cold, sawing and chiselling their way through the ice near the shore. With occasional shouts and curses, they ordered more tools be brought from the cart they had pulled down to the river’s edge. It was a curious spectacle in the harsh morning light, and one that attracted the attention of many on their way to work. Even the vagrants beneath Westminster Bridge had risen early to investigate.
The roofs and chimneys around them stood in sharp relief against a piercing blue sky where the rooks and pigeons wheeled. The sun, still low on the horizon, cast long shadows in the streets but even where it reached the ground unhindered, was of insufficient strength to offer any warmth.
Inspector Hicks was a large, bearded man muffled against the cold in a giant, calf length coat. He held a smoking pipe in a gloved hand the size of a large ham, and used it to punctuate his pronouncements as if this very action would lend them credulity. The motley gathering about him regarded him as nothing more than a circus turn.
Such was the scene that greeted Inspector George Bowman. His dark brows, jammed beneath a bowler hat, were knotted into a frown and his thin mouth was drawn down in an expression of concentration as he tried to keep his footing on the ice. The cold did not agree with him. Despite the application of several layers, a thick scarf and an extra muffler, Inspector Bowman felt frozen to his core. And he could no longer feel his feet.
“Happy New Year, sir.”
He was joined, squinting into the sun, by Sergeant Anthony Graves, a man whose surname was quite at odds with his naturally cheery disposition. A curly mop of blond hair framed his handsome, youthful face and he seemed not to mind the cold at all. He wore no hat and no gloves.
Bowman grunted in reply and nodded across to the gangly young man and his pretty girlfriend who stood shivering by the river’s edge. “Not for them, it isn’t,” he growled. “They found the body last night and raised the alarm. They just can’t tear themselves away.”
Graves followed his gaze. “Poor devils,” he said. “I’ve ordered some hot soup for the men. I dare say they won’t mind sharing it with them.”
“I’ve never known it so cold,” said Bowman, puffing on his hands in a futile attempt to restore feeling. “Will you take their statements?”
“I will. But I’ve no doubt Inspector Hicks has got the whole thing wrapped up by now.”
Bowman could tell Graves felt awkward in his presence. It was there in the little sideways glances he had afforded him during their conversation. Finally, his tall companion cleared his throat.
“Are you feeling quite well, sir?”
Bowman felt the skin on his neck begin to burn beneath his scarf. “I am well, thank you.”
It occurred to Bowman that this was the first time he had seen Sergeant Graves since the night of the incident. The mundanity of their conversation was a world away from their last meeting. Looking at Graves, Bowman could see that he had not changed a bit. His face still had the flush of youth, his eyes bright and inquisitive. For Bowman, however, a lifetime had passed. He felt he had aged ten years. Anthony Graves had seen it all. Indeed, he had held Bowman back as his wife lay trampled in the dirt. If he had been left alone to intervene as he had wished, Bowman would surely have died too. He had often wished it so.
“Well,” Graves stammered, clearly eager to put an end to the exchange as quickly as he could, “It’s nice to see you back, sir.”
As they talked, the men had reached the little audience that surrounded Hicks and, seeing them approach, the bearded inspector broke off from his performance.
“Ah, Bowman, so glad you could join us again.”
The implication in Hicks’ choice of words was harsh, thought Graves, and he winced at their cruelty. Unabashed, Hicks drew from his pipe then held it aloft in a dramatic fashion. “Listen and learn.” Bowman rolled his eyes and looked down to his feet as Hicks continued, opening his arms wide in an expansive gesture. His great voice boomed over the crowd. He would, thought Inspector Bowman, have made an impressive actor.
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photograph by Steve Ullathorne.
Richard James has been an actor for almost thirty years. He is most well known to viewers of a certain age for playing various regular and recurring roles on chidren’s television, including The Mysti Show, My Parents Are Aliens and MI High. He has also appeared on the big screen with the likes of Burt Reynolds and Helena Bonham Carter and toured the country in stage adaptations of David Walliams’ most popular books.
As a playwright, he has written almost thirty plays that are performed the world over, frequently winning awards at festivals and competitions.
The Bowman Of The Yard novels and short stories are his first as an author.