Ten weirdest things I learnt writing a crime novel

Kat Clay  

They say truth is stranger than fiction, and no more so in crime writing. When I wrote a crime novel set in Victorian London, I discovered some bizarre factoids from poisoned juries to body snatchers. If you’re looking to write crime, research is essential to making the story authentic (or at least to avoid letters to the author pointing out anachronisms).

Over the past three years I researched the history of crime and investigation in London. Here are some of the weirdest things I found out:

The original coronial inquests were held in the pub

In the Victorian Era, before morgues were introduced in the mid-1850s, most coronial inquests were held in the pub. This was to do with the space – large tables allowed you to lie out a body – and partly to do with local knowledge. Police figured that regular punters having a pint could identify local people. If the coroner identified that a crime had been committed, they would send the case to the magistrate. Even later, morgues were still uncommon; people were writing to The Times in the 1880s to demand a morgue.

Skin slippage

Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is compulsory reading for any crime writer, but one particularly gruesome detail about what happens to our bodies after death has stuck with me. Skin sloughage or skin slippage is where skin peels off the body as the flesh decays. Shudders…

Detectives evolved from spies

Despite the plethora of BBC crime shows, the French were well ahead of the British when it came to detection. Detectives evolved from the French agents provocateurs, or undercover agents. The French introduced fingerprinting and criminal photography well before anyone in London, while Londoners resisted these plain-clothes policemen on the basis that Big Brother was spying on everyday people. So much so locals even rioted at Wapping River Police Station, killing a policeman.

Poisoning the jury (also at the pub)

While reading a copy of The Times from 1856, I stumbled across a bizarre story of jurors who had reconvened at the pub for a pint, only to find the beer tasting a little funny. Turned out the defendant had poisoned their beer. Thankfully one quick-thinking juror called for a doctor and the men survived.

Tabloid journalism began earlier than you think

While you might think of Hush-Hush magazine from A. Confidential, journalists have been chasing stories at Fleet Street since the 17th century. Tabloid journalism exploded in London the 1850s after the elimination of stamp duty on newspapers. The Illustrated Police News, ‘penny-bloods’ and ‘penny dreadfuls’ quickly became popular, with illustrators attending crime scenes and courtrooms to sketch criminals for the front page.

Female thieves

Women had an advantage when committing thefts – with great big crinolines in the Victorian era, there were records of women hiding things as big as a bolt of fabric underneath their dresses.

Cocking a gun

Clicking the safety off a gun in a crime thriller might be a way to raise the stakes, but only single action revolvers require this step. If your characters are releasing the safety on any other gun, you will probably look silly.

Buried alive and body snatchers

People were terrified of being buried alive in the Victorian era, so much so that some people had a bell attached to their graves in case they woke up after they’d been buried. Likewise, the lucrative trade in the dead led to thorough graveside security measures, such as metal grates over coffins to prevent bodysnatching.

Watch your neck

In the mid 1800s, garotters would mug lonely walkers at night by strangling them from behind. However, the garrotting panic is a case of tabloid journalism picking up on a terrifying crime and exacerbating the paranoia, so much so that people began wearing steel collars under their shirts to foil anyone sneaking up.

Crime lingo

Perhaps you’re a mudlark looking to pilfer coal from a punt (a thief who’d swim through the river knocking coal and other goods off boats). You could be a skittle sharp with a pineapple out for a game of rats and mice (a street gamer with a bomb looking to play dice – or a $50 note depending on where you are). Or maybe you’re a patterer who’s a rake with swag (a smooth talker who’s a charming womaniser). If you’re any of these codgers you’d better watch out for the blue locusts (police). Learning some patois of the underworld is a sure-fire way to make your crime writing more authentic. I keep a notebook filled with words from hard-boiled and noir novels to insert into my writing.

Hear more from Kat Clay and learn everything you need to know about writing and publishing crime in Masterclass: Writing Crime Mon 24 June at The Wheeler Centre.