When I published Murder at Mansfield Park in 2010 I did an interview about it on BBC radio, and I remember the almost breathless awe in the interviewer’s voice as she said, “This is your first novel, and you’re trying to write like Jane Austen?” Amazing though it may sound, that was the first time that it really came home to me what a mountainous task I’d set myself. Though I’d been under no illusions about how some readers might react to the idea of turning an Austen masterpiece into a murder mystery – there will always be some people who regard classic texts as sacred cows, never to be touched, let alone re-imagined as comprehensively as I had done. I can see where they’re coming from, of course, and there are things I would draw the line against myself (including alien invasions of Regency rectories). But if you draw the line too strictly, you restrict literature rather than protect it – a creative engagement with previous works has given us Virgil’s Aeneid, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, to name but three examples, and we’d probably have only about two and a half Shakespeare plays without it. So I make no apology for taking previous novels as my inspiration, and hope – in my own small way – that in doing so I bring to them something new.
My second book, Tom-All-Alone’s, was a murder story that ‘ran in parallel’ with Bleak House, while the latest, The Pierced Heart, gets its teeth into one of the most enduring 19th-century novels of them all, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
So how exactly did I go about doing that? The first thing to say is that delving into Dracula was a very different experience from working with either Austen or Dickens. In Murder at Mansfield Park a huge part of the challenge was ‘ventriloquising’ her voice – the distinctive and beautiful cadences of her prose, which are such a great part of the pleasure the novels give their readers, and – at a deeper level – are the external expression of the values of harmony, order and proportion to which her society aspired. With Dickens it was very different. I had no intention of trying to mimic his style, realising that any such attempt was probably doomed to unintended parody by the end of the first page. So with Tom-All-Alone’s it was the world I wanted, not the words. The London of fog and filth, of slums and sickness, and all those other social abuses Dickens could not even begin to put in a novel, like baby farms, and child prostitution, and the horrors of the lunatic asylums.
Which brings me to Dracula. And here I must make a confession. As a myth, Dracula is right up there with Frankenstein as one of the most powerful parables the post-classical world has ever produced, but as a novel, it’s actually not very good. It’s rambling and repetitive, and could have done with a strenuous edit. And while it starts memorably, and has some truly extraordinary passages, especially in Whitby, the last third drags, and cannot sustain either the tension or the tale. My mission, then, was to find a way to draw in the eerie atmosphere of the original, and yet produce a narrative with pace, characters that would convince, and – let’s not forget – a credible and satisfying crime mystery that could stand up on its own.
My answer was to create a structure and characters that echo Dracula, though are not the same. In other words, people and events that entice the reader’s expectations, but which do not always prove to be reliable parallels. Thus one of narrators is a young girl, Lucy, who returns home to a town “on a starkly beautiful northern shore, with a view across the bay to the town and the ruined abbey standing high above it”. But is the name Lucy a reference to Stoker’s Westenra, or a play on its original meaning of ‘light’, since we will discover that she too, is in her own way, a thing of darkness?
And at the same time, in my parallel narrative, the private investigator Charles Maddox, makes a journey by train across Europe, just as Jonathan Harker does, to the castle of a nobleman he finds both erratic and elusive. There is a secret about this nobleman – some sinister key to the strangeness of his behaviour – that enthrals Maddox just as the Count did Harker. And, like Harker, Maddox is soon beginning to wonder whether his own reason is betraying him – whether he can trust the evidence of his own senses – when he wakes one night from a nightmare in his high octagonal chamber:
Charles sits up with a strangled cry, the sweat rolling down his back, and his hair wet against the back of his neck. He takes great gasps of air, willing his heart to slow, his breathing to abate. He has no idea how long it is before he notices there is a line of light slanting across the floor and realises that the door to his room is open, though he’s sure he bolted it before he went to bed. Then the light is gone and the room is drowned in dark. A dark he has never seen so deep before. Dark so absolute that he can see nothing, not the outlines of the furniture, not even the tiny sliver of moonlight between the shutter and the sill. He sits, motionless, alert now to every tiny sound in the room, and his senses start to distrust themselves as the fizzing silence mingles with the sound of – what? Bare feet on the thick carpet? A hand drawing back a damask drape? And then he shudders as if stung. An icy finger is running, slowly, teasingly up his bare arm, so lightly it scarcely feathers his skin, but so piercingly it’s as if a needle of fire is threading his veins. He puts his hands out wildly, blindly, but encounters nothing, touches no-one. But then he hears the sound of laughter – playful, mischievous laughter – that seems to echo all about the room. He makes to get up but finds himself constrained. Something is binding his wrists, holding him down. He tries to wrench his hands free, but feels a cord dig against his skin. And now his arms are being drawn back behind him – he struggles but the grasp is too strong, and his wrists are forced hard against the wood of the bedstead and he hears the rustle of satin being tied. And now he is in no doubt. A woman is climbing onto his lap and tearing open his shirt with frozen fingers. He can smell her scent, feel the caress of silken ringlets and the tip of a hot wet tongue slipping across his chest and down, down, down. And then there are lips at his throat that sharpen into teeth, and a cold hand that stifles his breathing and the low murmur of a man’s voice, speaking words he cannot understand.
When he wakes the next morning there’s a tell-tale stain on the sheets that leaves him red with shame. But there is nothing to say he did not dream it entirely – no marks about his wrists, no tear to his shirt, and when he goes to the door it is locked, and from the inside.
But later, when he strips off his night-shirt to wash, he finds two tiny spots of blood at the neck, which were not there before….
Published in October 2014