Interview by Pat Black
Booksquawk talks to Hereward Proops, the author of the Inspector Forrester mysteries. Set in late Victorian London and elsewhere, they capture the raucous spirit of the pulp magazines as well as the spooky feel of HP Lovecraft’s weirdest tales. The Sound of Shiant, the lawman’s first full-length adventure, sees him battling local gangsters and strange undersea creatures on a remote Scottish island.
1. The Edmund Forrester mysteries follow on from a very grand pulp tradition. What influences were brought into play for these stories?
I'm a big fan of pulp fiction, particularly the old Sexton Blake stories from Union Jack magazine. The heroes of the pulps and the penny dreadful magazines that came before them were the progenitors of the modern day comic book superhero. These old stories are tremendous fun and don't take themselves too seriously. The authors who wrote for the pulps churned out these stories and novellas at an impressive rate. There was very little time for major re-writes and editing before the magazines went to print. The stories were full of action, chases and derring-do. I've always felt that it's a real shame these magazines aren't around any more.
The Edmund Forrester stories aren't intended to be literary chin-scratchers that provoke great debate, their aim is purely to entertain.
Another passion of mine is the Victorian adventure story. H. Rider Haggard is one of my favourite authors and the way he was able to work fantastic elements into his stories whilst maintaining a “real world” setting has been very important in my development of Forrester's world. I didn't want to write steampunk fiction nor outright science fiction or fantasy, I wanted to create a believable, historically accurate nineteenth century world and throw in some supernatural elements. I guess you could call Forrester's adventures a Victorian X-Files.
2. In The Sound of Shiant, we get a little more backstory for the Inspector, in particular looking at his marriage. Was it a deliberate decision to make Forrester's life seem more realistic in this way, or was it all more of an organic process while you were writing?
Forrester was originally written as a fairly minor supporting character in my first attempt at a novel. Inspector Forrester was a no-nonsense copper with a bit of a thuggish streak and early on in the book, the main protagonist breaks his nose and escapes justice. That novel is pretty much finished but is in desperate need of an overhaul before it ever sees the light of day. My wife and I were on honeymoon in Venice when I wrote the first short story featuring Forrester (“Strictly Business”). As I wrote, I began to realise the potential he had for further adventures. Now I think of it, Forrester is the reason why that first novel has never been properly completed – I've had far too much fun writing stories about him!
When dealing with a short story, the protagonist doesn't need too much backstory as it can totally screw up the pacing. In The Sound of Shiant I wanted to flesh out Forrester's character a little bit more and give the reader some understanding of why he is such a grumpy bastard. The failed marriage was another aspect lifted from that first novel. His shame over his broken nose and failure to catch the criminal made him throw himself into his work at the expense of his marriage.
In answer to your question – I guess it was a bit of both. I deliberately wanted to share a little more of his past with readers, particularly those who enjoyed the short stories. However, his backstory has always been there, it's just that it has been sitting on my hard drive for four years!
3. The Sound of Shiant takes the Scotland Yard man out of familiar territory to Scotland itself. Could you talk a little bit about what inspired you to write about Scotland? And were there any local myths and legends that you took as inspiration for the Blue Men?
Though I was born in Birmingham, my wife's family are from the Isle of Lewis and we've lived in the Outer Hebrides for the past two years. I love it up here, it's like nowhere else in Britain. There's a peculiar rugged beauty to it and whilst the winters can be particularly brutal, the stunning scenery more than makes up for it.
The idea of taking Forrester up to Scotland first came to me when we were preparing to move to Lewis. The notion of removing him from his familiar environment and putting him in a place where he was the foreigner appealed to me. By the time I started to write the novel we were living on the island and I was able to channel my experiences of being an “incomer” into Forrester's adventure. I was doing some research about the history of the island and stumbled across the legends of The Blue Men of the Minch, the island's own cryptozoological beasties. They're not mermaids or kelpies – they're something wholly unique to the Hebrides. As far as I can tell, they've never featured in a novel before and the opportunity to write Forrester versus sea-monsters was just too appealing.
4. The dialogue in the book is superb, and captures regional accents without confusing readers. What was your decision-making when it came to representing speech?
I've got a real thing for regional dialects. That first novel I keep mentioning was set in Thomas Hardy country and so I was able to use that hilarious West Country accent throughout. I love the Scottish accent but I found it a lot harder to put to paper. Being English, I didn't want to make an arse of the Scottish accent in case my neighbours burned me alive inside a giant wicker man.
I spent a lot of time reading Neil Munro's “Para Handy” stories and listening to how my work colleagues talk. The Lewis accent is different from a regular Scot's dialect too. It has a more sing-song quality to it – partly due to the Scandinavian Viking influence and partly due to the fact that Gaelic is still spoken on the island. Transcribing the genuine Lewis accent onto paper is virtually impossible so I settled for a more generic Scots accent but made a real effort to include as much of the local slang as possible in order to make up for it!
5. From London to the Wild West to the Hebrides; the Inspector is a well-travelled fellow. Where can we expect to see him pop up next?
Hmmm... That's a good question! Chronologically speaking, The Sound of Shiant takes place a few years before his move to America. The forthcoming ebook collection of short stories Strange Cases collects “The Casebook of Edmund Forrester” and “The Second Casebook of Edmund Forrester” as well as three brand new stories. One of the new stories details Forrester's journey across the Atlantic and pays tribute to Bram Stoker's Dracula.
I've got some ideas of where he can go from New York. As already mentioned, I love H. Rider Haggard so it might be fun to send him to Africa or South America and have him stumble across some lost civilisation.
The Sound of Shiant is available now. Read the review here.