D.E. Meredith is the author of the highly acclaimed series about Professor Adolphus Hatton and his friend and morgue assistant Albert Roumande. (Photo: Copyright Trevor Leighton)

Thank you for taking the time for this interview.
Your series starts in victorian England. Why did you chose this specific time and place?

Devoured’s (dt.: „Der Leichensammler“) set just before the publication of Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” (1859). The Victorian period was a time of huge economic change and massive social upheaval but there was also a thirst for knowledge; innovation and daring.

London was the largest city on earth, whilst Britain’s sprawling Empire was dominating the world.  Railways were criss-crossing the country, literacy rates rising, the middle classes burgeoning with new ideas about politics, governance and morality. The Christian Church was in crisis. Meanwhile, Marx was writing “Das Kapital” in the British Museum, as blue stockings started to demand more rights for women and Universal Suffrage.

Meanwhile, life for the poor was also nasty, brutal  and short with its slums, dog fights, bare knuckle fighting, laudanum addiction and  high levels of child mortality.  The average life span for a woman living in London was just thirty two. There were numerous killer diseases which the Victorian  medical profession were struggling to cope with never mind cure –   small pox, scarlet fever, syphilis and cholera.

Just think Slum Dog Millionaire with top hats and you won’t be far away.

What writer could resist such a dynamic setting for a crime novel? All those twisting passages and dark alley ways – and don’t forget the pea soupers (fog!) which is the perfect place to hide a body.

What exactly fascinates you about forensics and the beginning of the scientific world view?

That it was new, innovative and experimental.

Victorian scientists’ understanding about how the body worked – how it decomposed, how it changed after death – was on the march but they by no means knew how everything worked. Although, a huge array of scientific advances were being made in the key fields of chemistry, physics and mathematics, many methods were just out of reach.

That said, the Victorians discovered a whole host of things, which could be used by the early forensic scientists.

For example, in 1836, the British chemist, John Marsh discovered a new way of detecting minute traces of arsenic in human tissue (known as the Marsh Test and still in use today), whilst the mercury thermometer was used, for the first time, on dead soldiers by Dr John Davy to try and determine time of death. Dry plate photography was invented by 1854 and quickly adopted by a number of  prisons to categorise and study the so-called criminal classes. Meanwhile, in Colonial India, Sir William Herschel was starting to develop finger printing techniques to verify documents as a substitute for the written signature and keep tally of his mainly, illiterate workforce.

In Germany, the manufacturing of powerful new microscopes by companies like Zeiss led to a far better understanding of molecular structures.

There were also many new discoveries made in the medical field as well, such as the identification of „Tardieu Spots“ – haemorrhages occurring in asphyxia deaths – and the beginnings of usable blood tests by the 1860s – which could be used for taking forensic samples at a crime scene.

In other words, the methods, tools and techniques had finally arrived. With careful observation, scientific knowledge and technical know-how, a cadaver could become its own „silent witness“. And this, at this tantalising moment of discovery, is where my novel, DEVOURED, begins.

Your own life has been very exciting – advertising, consulting and campaigning in very dangerous places in the world. How did that help with your writing career?

Having worked in Rwanda, Bosnia and so forth during the heights of their conflicts, my head is full of weird images, I guess. I know about death, pain and heroics as well as misery  and I try to imbue some of this experience in the books. Especially in The Devil’s Ribbon which has a bombing scene, based closely on my own experiences in Kabul. I had the misfortune to be in a  shelling attack just before the city fell to the Taliban. If you  have extreme moments in life,  as a writer, you are bound to draw on  them. It’s part of the process of releasing the imagination and delving into the crevices of your memory and mind – necessary tools for writing fiction.

Victorian or historical mysteries have been in demand for the last few years. Did you plan to write in that area or did it come naturally for you?

I never planned any of this. I never wanted to be a writer. It was all very spontaneous but  now I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

I read a book by a great Nineteenth Century Naturalist  who travelled to Borneo collecting butterflies and beasts.  That travelogue inspired me with its tales of ape hunts, Birds of Paradise and malarial visions. When I read about his epic journey classifying flora and fauna, in the 1850s, I was knocked sideways and felt compelled to write a story.

The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace set my imagination alight, so much so that instead of doing my usual  work  (I was due to start a new project for Greenpeace), I found myself tapping at a key board, producing what was to be the first draft of DEVOURED in a matter of months. And one thing simply led to another.

Discovering the world of Victorian Naturalists led me thinking about C19th attitudes to Science which led me to thinking about pathology and the dawn of forensics. This chain of disparate thoughts all happening in a very short time and somehow I’d found I’d created the beginnings of my forensic “detectives”, Professor Adolphus Hatton and his morgue assistant, the doughty, Monsieur Albert Roumande.

The genre you write in seems to be perfect for you. If you had to choose another which would you prefer and do you have plans to write in another direction?

Thank you for saying so! I love writing about the Victorians – they lend themselves to burlesque, comedy, tragedy, pathos and of course, lots of gore. But writers are always drawn to stories and characters, not just historical moments. I have been working on a contemporary crime novel set in Rwanda for a while now and will get round to finishing it one day soon, I hope. It’s set in 1994 and the present day. I love writing contemporary fiction. I’m told my writing style is quite different by those who’ve read an early draft. Much more gritty. We shall see.

You must have been researching a lot for your novels. How did you go about that and how do you keep track of all the information?

I’ve done masses of research in the period but I am very lucky because I live just outside London, in a Victorian house and the city is my main inspiration. So much of London is still resolutely, indisputably Victorian, especially the area around Smithfield, where my novels are set.

I’ve read a huge number of books including one  which shows how  anatomists preserved bodies and pickled organs. Anatomists were artists, as well as brilliant scientists. They took great personal risks to preserve cadavers, so others  could study what they termed „morbid curiosities“. Sometimes they were poisoned by the vapours they breathed, as they tried to preserve an eyeball or the nerves and arteries of a face.

I have a separate book shelf for all my Victorian related books and lots of scrawled notes. Keeping a handle on the research is not a problem. Keeping a handle on my twisting, complex plots can be a bit of a nightmare! But I’m learning fast. Writing mysteries is so much about understanding the craft.

Was it always planned to write a series about Hatton and his assistant Roumande?

No, I never had any plans to be a writer or create a series, as I mentioned but I love Hatton and Roumande. They feel very real to me as I’ve lived with them for five years now. In the next in the series, The Devil’s Ribbon, you learn much more about who they are and what makes them tick, as men. As their friendship deepens, their personal trials and tribulations come more to the fore.  It’s got great reviews in the US and so I hope you get to read it in Germany, soon – no news yet, on that score but fingers crossed.  It hits the shops in the UK this February.

It’s all about the Irish in London, ten years after the famine and the early Republican movement. There’s a missing chef, a cholera outbreak, more bodies, a terrorist plot and Hatton falls in love with a very alluring woman, whose husband has been murdered by Fenians – the so-called, Ribbonmen. Hence the title!

Who are your influences? Which writer do you admire most?

My main influence,  I would say is  definitely Conan Doyle. In terms of writers, I admire, there are so many but when I’m delving back into my work, I always re-read little passages by  Dickens and Joseph Conrad. For writing methods, I love Stephen King’s “On Writing” and for contemporary brilliance, David Mitchell is the first writer, I reach for  if I’m looking for inspiration. I loved his “Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet.”.

What novels are lying on your nightstand and could be recommended?

I would strongly recommend “Florence and Giles,” by John Harding which I  recently read. It’s a re-working of Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw”. It has a wonderful idea at its core, and is funny, shocking and brilliantly imagined in equal measure. I loved it.

For a more lyrical treat, try John Preston’s novella, “The Dig”. Set in the summer of 1939, just before the outbreak of war, it revolves around  a group of disparate  people who are drawn together and involved in the archaeological dig  at Sutton Hoo for a Viking  Ship  – England’s equivalent to Tutankhamun. It’s poetic, nuanced and  very moving. A wonderful, measured piece of work and it will make you gasp with its beauty and possibly cry – well, it did me.

Thank you again for your time. I am looking forward to the next novel in your series!