Author Diana Bretherick recounts the enjoyment and fascination she felt while researching her nineteenth-century thriller City of Devils.
Research is one of the great joys of writing an historical novel. Delving into the lives, loves and crimes of people in the past is extremely rewarding, particularly for someone like me who is incurably curious (or should that be ‘nosy’). For City of Devils I started with my main character, Cesare Lombroso, the world’s first criminologist who was living and working in the Northern Italian city of Turin in the 1880s.
My first port of call was the work of the man himself, which gave me a good idea of his voice and also his ideas. I was lucky in that there are very good recent translations of his main works, Criminal Man and Criminal Woman. His voice in these books is very distinct and that, along with the commentary from his translators Mary Gibson and Nicole Rafter, helped me in developing his character as well as opening a window on to some of his stranger ideas which are at the heart of the story.
For example, he believed that certain people were born criminals and that they could be identified by their physical characters such as protruding ears, heavy jaws and bulging eyes. This always breaks the ice at parties, believe me.
I wanted to create a feeling of place and period, as well as attitudes towards crime, both those of Lombroso but also in a more general sense. I relied mostly on Victorian detective novels and Sir Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor to give me an idea of how people (particularly those of a criminal persuasion) behaved and expressed themselves.
But of course, you can’t write about Italy without going there. I made several location visits to Turin and carried out some arduous restaurant-based research. There are a number of references to food in the novel, and all the dishes (and the wines) have been sampled personally by me − some more than once. It can be a hard life being a writer!
I also spent some time wandering round looking for likely places for body-dumping, and visited Lombroso’s crime museum to see his collection of criminal curiosities including shrunken heads, death masks and even his own skeleton. That’s a holiday my husband won’t forget in a hurry.
At this point I feel that I should inject a note of caution. It is entirely possible to get carried away. I speak as someone who spent a whole day examining the history of the bowler hat just because one of my characters wore one. At some point, of course, the research has to stop and the writing has to start. And just because you’ve found something out doesn’t mean it should end up in your story. But still, research is great fun and undoubtedly one of the best things about writing historical crime fiction.
Now I’d better go. I need to find out about Egyptian death rituals and nineteenth-century exsanguination techniques for City of Devils‘ sequel, The Devil’s Daughters. Don’t ask!