Introduction and Questions by Philippa Coughlan 
London Society takes its problems to Sherlock Holmes. Everyone else goes to Arrowood.
Following on from Arrowood, and The Murder Pit, Mick Finlay has recently published the third novel in the Arrowood series; The Thames Corpses. Philippa Coughlan spoke to Mick about his fascination with Victorian London, Sherlock Holmes and his the future of Arrowood.
The Interview
  1. Your main character Arrowood has been described as a “flawed but engaging hero.” How did he evolve in your writing of the first book of the series?

I saw Arrowood as a less successful rival of Sherlock, but I didn’t want him to be similar to Holmes. From the beginning, I decided he had to be interested in psychology and character rather than Holmes’s insistence on deduction and forensic clues, and he couldn’t be particularly brave or athletic. I also wanted him to be a little over-emotional at times and not as debonair as Holmes. As I wrote the stories, I’ve enjoyed developing these qualities. He has a lot of positive characteristics too, which are just as important to his personality.

2. Late Victorian London is hardly glamorous in your novels. Why do these grimy and unsafe parts of the city make it a perfect setting for such crimes that Arrowood and Barnett have to solve?

Victorian London was a fascinating place, and so full of contrasts. I love reading about the details of working-class life and the conditions that the very poor had to endure. It was also a place of passion and politics and great social change. There were so many opportunities to make or lose money, and a lot of crime. It really is a perfect setting!

 3. You delve into deeper psychological issues with many of your characters and with Arrowood’s detecting methods. As you teach in a Psychology Department presumably it is something you want to delve into with criminal minds and ways to unravel clues?

Yes, definitely. Arrowood uses Victorian ideas about psychology in trying to solve his cases. He uses ideas about emotions (from Darwin and Gustave LeBon), mental health and illness (from William Maudsley), and perception (from William James). He also rails against the popular ‘criminal anthropology’ which claimed criminals could be identified by their faces. I really enjoy reading about what the Victorians understood about the mind and human behaviour and then trying to get Arrowood to apply those ideas.

4. Why did the antagonism with the famous Sherlock Holmes become a major theme for the books and will they at some point meet or clash?

The idea for the Arrowood character came to me when I was reading Sherlock stories. I thought that any other private detective living in Holmes’s world might well resent Sherlock’s fame and claims to be a genius. The antagonism is only a minor part of the books, but I do enjoy writing those parts. They haven’t yet met, although they’ve come very close. So far I haven’t actually written Holmes into a scene as I don’t want to intrude on Conan Doyle’s turf, but it may happen in future novels.

5. Your own life is a book in itself! Two interesting jobs were as a market stall holder in Portobello Road and a tent-hand in a travelling circus. Tell us more.

I had a market stall in Portobello Road for about five years selling t-shirts. I also sold them at Greenwich market for a few years, but my main one was on Saturdays at Portobello. I spent 7 months in Australia when I was 19, and had a lot of different jobs there. For a few weeks I was tent hand in Ashtons Circus, travelling around Victoria putting up and taking down the big top every few days. Us tent hands had a few other jobs, such as leading the camels around the ring, training the piglets and assembling the tiger cage half-way through the show.

6. In ‘The Murder Pit’ you explore Victorian attitudes to lunacy and locking up people who don’t fit into society. It is based around Caterham Asylum and I trained as a nurse at what the asylum later became -ie St Lawrence’s Hospital in Caterham. You described what such places looked like and about the characters of the staff and inmates very well. Had you visited such a place?

I didn’t visit Caterham, but I’ve worked in two of the old Victorian asylums when they were still used as hospitals in the 1980s. The first was when I was 16 on a 2-week volunteer work camp in a hospital in Derbyshire, and the second was working as an assistant psychologist in Bromham Hospital in Bedford. I also worked for five years in social services with adults with learning disabilities. All of those experiences left me with vivid memories that I drew on when writing those scenes.

7. The personal lives of Arrowood and Barnett are also troubled. Do all fictional detectives need a level of dysfunctionality?

That’s a good question. They usually do have that, but not always. I suppose it’s a way of creating a three-dimensional character. Dysfunction can provide conflict, but can also give a character a certain sensitivity which is useful in solving crimes.

8. Perhaps Arrowood might evolve into a TV drama series? If so, who would be perfect for playing his role? Dare I also ask who portrayed your favourite Holmes too?

It’s being developed for TV by Tiger Aspect ,although whether it will ever be made is still uncertain. They have an idea of who they want but I can’t tell you that. Sorry! Basil Rathbone’s my favourite Sherlock.

9. There’s a lot of detail from excellent historical research in your books especially about the poor and living conditions in London. But it is done with a light touch in the plots. Is it hard to get the such a balance right?

It’s very tempting to write down everything you’ve learned when writing historical fiction. I try and resist that by thinking about what Barnett would notice and what would be so obvious to him that he wouldn’t talk about it. Apart from the set piece descriptions (e.g. when first arriving in a setting), I try to slot in the details incidentally, such as what they eat and what they see when walking home late at night. I also try and keep the pace going and not spoil the emotion of big scenes with too much detail. It’s a constant consideration.

10. What is next in your writing plans?

I’ve just sent the fourth Arrowood book to my editor and am waiting to hear what he thinks. It’s a nervous time!

Born in Glasgow, Mick left when he was a child, living in Canada and then back in England. Before becoming an academic, he ran a market stall on Portobello Road, and has worked as a tent-hand in a travelling circus, a butcher’s boy, a hotel porter, and in various jobs in the NHS and social services. He teaches in a Psychology Department, and has published research on political violence and persuasion, verbal and non-verbal communication and disability. He now lives in Brighton with his family.