Publication Date: 1st December 2020
Publisher: Sharpe Books
Page Length: 305 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Mary Anne: A huge congratulations on your series, The Salisbury Manuscript (Tom Ansell Cathedral Mysteries Book 1) Could you tell us a little about your series and how you came to write it?
Philip Gooden: Thanks. Mary Anne. I’m delighted to be taking part in the Coffee Pot Book Club once more.
The Holy Murder series is made up of three murder mysteries set in English cathedral cities in the 1870s. I’d already written a series of mysteries with Geoffrey Chaucer as the central character and another six books featuring Nick Revill, a player in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, so I thought it was time to come up to date and write something more modern - or 19th century at any rate.
Like countless others, I’ve long been a Sherlock Holmes devotee, not just for the wonderful characters and mysteries of the stories but because of their atmosphere, which can be sinister and playful at the same time. And I enjoy Dickens and Wilkie Collins, with their intricate, gothic plots. In my own way I tried to get something of that feel into The Salisbury Manuscript, the first of the series.
Knowing I was going to write about several cathedral cities (Durham and Ely are the settings for the second and third books), I needed a character who could plausibly travel from one place to another while going about his business. A churchman would have been one possibility. But I settled on a young lawyer, Tom Ansell. After all, lawyers know about family secrets and are sometimes faced with mysteries, and they certainly encounter people who are in strange or stressful circumstances.
I needed to balance Tom, who’s a bit dry and - well - lawyerly, with a partner who is slightly less conventional. His fiancée is Helen Scott. She’s independent-minded, has ambitions to write, and naturally she gets caught up in the mysteries which Tom finds himself investigating. In fact, in one book she actually gets put into gaol. (To even things out, in another of the books he gets imprisoned.)
I enjoyed writing the back-and-forth dialogue between Tom and Helen. I hope it’s bantering and affectionate. Also, of course, it is very useful in a detective story for the central character to have another person to bounce ideas and theories off.
Mary Anne: With the tallest church spire in the United Kingdom and the home to one of the only four surviving manuscripts from the original 1215 Magna Carter, Salisbury Cathedral is a truly remarkable building. What was it about Salisbury Cathedral that sparked your imagination?
Philip Gooden: We lived in Bath for many years so Salisbury was a relatively short car or train ride away. I’ve always looked forward to that first sight of the magnificent spire as you approach the city, and even at night you can see the red star shining at the top of the steeple (prosaically the light is an aircraft warning beacon). The lawns, tree-lined walks and buildings in the Salisbury Close are particularly attractive. It’s not surprising that ex-Prime Minister Ted Heath chose to live at Arundells, one of the most elegant houses. I remember seeing the solitary policeman stationed outside the gate when he was living there. There’s a kind of family feel to a cathedral close too, with the various dwellings and church offices clustered around the parental, almost overbearing presence of the cathedral. But despite the sense of security, there can also be mystery and mayhem, and I considered that (made-up) Venn House would not only be home to a cathedral canon but also to his murder.
Mary Anne: When researching this novel did you come upon any unexpected historical discoveries?
Philip Gooden: I had an enjoyable time tramping around Old Sarum, the hill-fort a few miles north of the city, which provides the opening scene and also a location for another murder in The Salisbury Manuscript. Stonehenge is the most famous prehistoric site not far from the city but there are many other mounds, barrows and monuments in the area. As in so many parts of Britain, this is a place where you feel close to the distant past. It can be literally under your feet.
I also took a ‘spire tour’ of Salisbury Cathedral. It’s another world up there. Visitors can’t go to the top of course but they can see how the medieval builders left their scaffolding in place inside the spire, presumably because it was too much trouble to dismantle. I also learnt that a sailor capered up the outside of the steeple to celebrate the Restoration, when Charles II came to the throne. Apparently he did a handstand at the top. These are the sort of oddball facts that give extra flavour to a story.
Mary Anne: Do you think historical fiction authors have a responsibility to depict the past as accurately as they can?
Philip Gooden: Yes and no. Readers should be aware that they’re reading fiction - the writer is allowed to make things up! But most historical fiction authors probably have an innate wish to stick to historical fact, partly out of respect for the past and partly because they will have have done quite a bit of research which they don’t want to waste. In other words you don’t turn the French into the victors at Trafalgar or marry off Queen Elizabeth I, unless you are writing a counterfactual or ‘alternative’ story. History provides enough narrative twists and surprises anyway, without the need to invent much. And if you are dealing with a well-known person or event there are almost certainly gaps in what is known about them which you are at liberty to fill as you wish.
Mary Anne: What do you think makes for a successful novel?
Philip Gooden: I think people read fiction for different reasons, though often those reasons overlap. One is the simple power of page-turning. The reader just has to know what happens next. The story is king. Another big draw is sympathy or identification with one or more of the figures in the narrative. You grow to like, maybe even to love, them. There might be a more intimate response: that you are not alone because the protagonist of a novel is going through a similar experience to one of yours. You could it fellow-feeling. Or, conversely, readers may be glad that they don’t have go through what the central characters are enduring. Another factor in successful fiction, and perhaps the most rarefied one, is that the reader relishes the author’s style, the way with words, the view of the world. If all three elements - page-turningness, sympathy and style - combine in your novel, then you’re a very fortunate and accomplished author.
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