ALEX REEVE: Weaving Truth Into Fiction

Written by Alex Reeve

“I love doing research. It's like cheating, but with permission.” Greg Rucka

Alex Reeve

Perhaps it takes a peculiar kind of mind to take joy in reading London bus timetables from the 1880s or discovering the exact sequence of livor mortis in a corpse. But to me, research is one of the most satisfying aspects of writing a crime novel.

Who cares, you may ask, what colour Westminster Bridge was painted in 1880? It’s green now, so readers would probably accept that it was green then, and the colour isn’t intrinsic to the plot anyway. Except, it wasn’t green then, it was grey, and I have to get it right for the same reason I have to find out where the staff entrance of the hospital was or exactly when Little Pulteney Street was renamed. Because if I don’t, the story will feel inauthentic to me. I have to believe it so readers will too.

I suppose you either love research or you don’t. Historical crime writers are particular suckers for punishment, but any crime novelist will have to do at least some research. Writers of contemporary crime have the added disadvantage of tens of thousands of police officers, lawyers and forensic scientists able (and often willing) to tell them that they got a tiny detail wrong.

Research can lead to the most delightful discoveries in the most unexpected ways. In an early draft of The House on Half Moon Street, I wrote about a holiday that my character, Leo Stanhope, took as a child in Brighton, when he got sand between his toes and fell asleep to the sound of the band by the pier. Except, as my editor pointed out, Brighton isn’t a sandy beach. I felt like an idiot, and realised I had a difficult choice: to do the easy thing and change the line about sand or find another beach. So, of course, I spent several hours researching holiday resorts frequented by Victorian Londoners, hoping for one with a sandy beach, a pier and a bandstand. To my huge relief, I found Margate. The town also had (and still has) a rather delightful cavern encrusted with seashells, which I mention in the novel, so there was some reward for all that effort.

Some of my most interesting research was reading about the many examples of transgender people in the Victorian era. Contemporaneous newspapers are especially useful, not just for the facts but also for the attitudes and tone of voice of the journalists. Of course, I also spoke to modern transgender people for a first-hand view, and they were kind enough to give me a lot of support and encouragement.

One question I’m commonly asked by readers is: What if something has to happen for the plot, but it’s contradicted by the actual history? Well, in that case, I take the dog for a long walk and then come home and drink a gallon or two of tea, and eventually set to work. First, I check absolutely everything about the research in every possible source – my standard is only that something could happen, not that it necessarily did happen. After that, if the research still won’t cooperate, I try to shape the plot around the problem. For example, in the second book in the Leo Stanhope series, which is titled The Anarchists’ Club (out May 2019 in the UK), there’s a certain layout of a street which I needed for the story. The maps of 1881 match my needs almost perfectly, but for one small strip of grass. That little patch of green, long-since built over, which no-one will ever recognise or care about, caused me hours of work. Eventually, I found a more detailed map of the area and realised I could make the scene work by incorporating a disused timber-yard. It gave me great satisfaction to find a solution that complemented the real history.

I liken the writing process to creating a tapestry, where each thread is a little bit of truth, and my job is to weave them together to make something new. So, spare a thought, as your eyes skim over a description of a building or the name on a gravestone, for the author, who probably spent a morning walking round it, shuffling through old photographs and interrogating an archivist before writing that sentence.

Out now: The House on Half Moon Street published by Raven Books, 27 Dec 2018.


Alex Reeve

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