Tag Archives: The Black Dahlia

The Intel: Piu Marie Eatwell

Piu Marie EatwellIf macabre Victorian litigation is your thing then you’ll be kicking yourself for forgetting to read our review of The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife And The Missing Corpse. But don’t despair, take your head out of your hands. Simply scroll down a bit, a little bit more, nearly there, to see that triumphant review. Alternatively, click here.

The Druce Portland affair was one of the most drawn-out legal sagas the Uk has ever seen, and Piu weaves an eccentric tale of tunnelling dukes, desperate widows and dirty, rotten scoundrels, spanning the Victorian and Edwardian eras. So — and you know where we’re going with this by now — Piu is here to give us the intel on the whole lurid affair.

Born in Calcutta and raised in the UK, Piu has lived in Paris for the last decade, where she found the inspiration for her first book, about the French, called They Eat Horses, Don’t They? Liu talks double lives, intensive research and slogging…

Tell us about The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife And The Missing Corpse

The Dead Duke, his Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse is a historical true-crime story. It re-tells the fantastic story of the alleged double life of the 5th Duke of Portland, a Victorian eccentric who burrowed a maze of underground passages beneath the family seat of Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire. A celebrated court case of the time alleged that the Duke had lived a double life as a businessman in Baker Street. It dragged on for ten years. Was it true?

The story has as many twists and turns as a novel —  how did you come across this Victorian cause celebre? 

I was snooping around some second-hand bookshops looking for a new story, when I came across this in a tatty, 1970s book about ‘Victorian Scandals.’ I was hooked.

What does the whole affair tell us about the Victorians and Edwardians, do you think?

It tells us a lot about the duplicity and hypocrisy of the era. The Victorians prided themselves on their strict sense of ‘morality’ and high standards of honour in public and private life: the reality, of course, was very different.

The book is packed with a delicious cast of scoundrels and chancers – which of the participants in the case really came alive for you as you researched them?

I have to admit to a secret crush on the 5th Duke of Portland. Even after all this research, I still don’t know what made him ‘tick’. Why did he dig hundreds of miles of tunnels under his estate? Was he a genius, or just plain crazy?

The Dead Duke, The Secret Wife And The Missing CorpseHow long did it take you to research the affair?

It took me about a year to research and write the book, with three visits to the Manuscripts and Special Collections Department at Nottingham University to review and make notes on the documents. Following such a long and complicated case was a huge undertaking.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

Dedication and self-motivation. Also, the sheer craft of writing. People tend to think of writing as ‘inspiration’, but actually it’s about 5% inspiration and 95% sheer slog: writing, re-writing, putting pen to paper when you’re tired, complying with deadlines, being rejected, and plodding on. I always say – when people tell me they have a ‘book in them’ – to write three, rip them up, put them in the bin, and then write another! If you can do that, you might have a chance….

Who are the authors you admire, and why? 

There are so many! I tend to be influenced by people I’m reading at any one time. At the moment I’m reading a lot of American literature as research for my next book (set in 1940s California), so I would say Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep), John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath), and Truman Capote (In Cold Blood). All of them capture the strange ‘doubleness’ of America: on the one hand the American dream, and on the other, the American nightmare.

Give me some advice about writing…

All the points made above about craft, determination, and diligence.

What’s next for you?

I like to alternate true crime with books about France (where I live). So I’ve got a new trivia book about France coming out next Spring, and a project on the Elizabeth Short/ “Black Dahlia” murder, which took place in Los Angeles in 1947, in the pipeline.

Irene – Pierre Lemaitre

51EZo357u5L._SY445_Pierre Lemaitre’s new novel Irene comes with the burden of expectation on its shoulders. Its predecessor Alex won the CWA International Dagger Award last year. I certainly enjoyed it – you can see that review from way, way back, right here. Alex was a breathless exercise in plotting, full of hair pin twists and turns.

Turns out, though, that in its native France, Alex was a follow-up book. Now Lemaitre’s first book in his Camille Verhoeven series, Irene, has been translated, allowing readers in the UK to discover the tragic events alluded to in Alex. So, basically we’re getting everything backwards. Needless to say, if you’ve already read Alex, you’ll have possibly experienced the same feeling of dread that I did reading this first, er, second book.

You may want to stand on a Yellow Pages to reach the blurb:

For Commandant Verhoeven life is beautiful: he’s happily married, and expecting his first child with the lovely Irene. But his blissful existence is punctured by a murder so savage that even the most hardened officers on the force are shaken to the core. In the face of the seemingly motiveless horror, only Verhoeven makes the vital connection – the crime scene resembles one described in a James Ellroy novel too closely for there to be any coincidence.

As the stylised murders continue, Verhoeven traces the crimes’ literary inspirations, and risks his superiors’ ire by taking out adverts to inform the killer of his progress. Before long, the case develops into a personal duel, with each man hell-bent on outsmarting his opponent. There can only be one winner – whoever has the least to lose…

As with Alex, there’s a playful quality to Irene, and a twisty duh-duh-DAH moment towards the end, which makes it difficult to  talk about it in detail without giving too much away but, look, we’ll give it a go.

Irene is meta, darling. It’s all about itself and it’s all about crime-fiction. It’s kind of French in that respect. They love all that shit over there. There’s even a quote at the beginning by Roland Barthes, the only philosopher to have died, as I understand it, by getting knocked over by a milk float. Which is by the by. He wrote about just this kind of thing, the third meaning, and all that. So, as readers, we are invited to make a few assumptions about Camille Verhoeven and about the  hunt for the killer dubbed the Novelist – and then Lemaitre pulls the rug from under our feet.

I’m in danger of boring myself here, so, without getting all airy-fairy about it – and hideously out of my depth – Irene is basically Lemaitre’s love-letter to crime fiction, and Irene is all about how we take what we read – you know, as readers of fiction – for granted.

I’ll stop vainly trying to impress, and tell you that there are gruesome murders. Very gruesome murders. There’s an investigation by an eclectic and loveable team of detectives. There’s a powerfully gripping race against time at the end, and some nice character work. Lemaitre’s characters are always good.

Except if you’re a woman. If you’re a woman you’re usually slaughtered in an unpleasant way – which is kind of tiresome. Even the titular Irene remains something of an enigma character, an ideal for the vertically challenged Camille.

In Alex he shared top-billing, but in Irene Camille is front and centre. We experience everything through him – or so we think. Poor old Camille Verhoeven. He’s a proud man who stands four foot nine or thereabouts, which is enough of a burden to bear in life, and then Lemaitre really puts his miniature protagonist through the wringer.

I like Camille as a character very much. He’s a singular, old-school detective, and his dependable nature and his tantrums, and his love of sitting at home with the wife reading books on classical painting, contrasts sharply with the grotesque slaughter that he investigates.

This contrast always struck me as curious in Alex, another bloodthirsty novel. Camille is such a dazzlingly aristocratic little creature, and there he was surrounded by all this grim stuff. it was almost as if Poirot had somehow wandered by mistake into the pages of LA Confidential. In this novel, Ellroy’s universe literally does invade Camille’s world when the Novelist recreates the murder of The Black Dahlia.

Anyway, Irene is an enjoyable read. But not as successful a piece of work, perhaps, as Alex – there’s no shame in that, not many novels are. It’s more of a slow-burn, and there’s a lot to enjoy here – unless you’re squeamish, then you may not like it all, oh boy, no. What really shines through is Lemaitre’s love of the genre. If you know your classic crime-fiction you’ll really like this book, and all its sly and bloodythirsty references.

Oh, hold on. It wasn’t a milk-float. It was a laundry van. My mistake.