As a teenager I had a fascination with old-time Penny Dreadfuls and turn-of-the-century thrill fiction. Tom Sayers was a leading character in one of those old story papers, The Marvel. Loosely – very loosely – based on an actual historical figure, the fictional Sayers was your classic Victorian hero. Clean-living, morally upright, and with a hero's enviable physical prowess.
These were the unsung narratives of the Age of the Great Storytellers. They gripped the masses, but they weren't made to travel. Haven't you ever bought the DVD set of a TV show you used to love, and realised with a twinge of sadness that what you're experiencing isn't pure joy, but rather that joy remembered?
It takes more than just the old material to recreate a form. My ambition with The Kingdom of Bones was to take the characters, settings and narrative pacing of those old stories, and to bring them to new life with the kind of themes and complex psychology that we look for in modern fiction.
Page 69 of the novel finds Police Superintendent Turner-Smith, "a formidable figure with a broad white moustache, a war wound and a walking-stick", in the back room of a public house. He's here to meet a man whom he believes to be Tom Sayers. The year is 1888 and the setting is the North West of England. Sayers is a former prize-fighter who's given up the ring, and now serves as the business manager to a small touring theatrical troupe.
Unbeknownst to Turner-Smith, the man across the table is an impostor. The real Tom Sayers is in the theatre next door, watching his company perform. What's about to take place will deprive Sayers of his good name and his liberty, with consequences that will pretty much destroy any future he might have hoped for with the woman he loves.
Turner-Smith considered the man before him for a moment, and then decided that he could speak as one gentleman to another. They were more likely to have interests in common than in conflict.Even though the story's main character is offstage in this scene, I should imagine that the page makes for a reasonable taster of the novel as a whole. I've always reckoned that the best way to test out a book is to pick a random paragraph or two; at the very least, they'll give you a sense of whether you connect with the author's voice. In this case I'd hope that page 69's combination of history, greasepaint and villainy will give any prospective reader a fair idea of what lies ahead.
“Take a look at this, please, Sayers,” he said, and placed before him one of the pasted-up sheets that suggested a link between paupers that had been mutilated without apparent motive, and the stage company’s progress around the country.
The other man read for a while, and then glanced up.
“Some of our less notable receptions.”
“The dates, Mister Sayers. Look at the dates.”
He read on for a while. Then he sat back in the attitude of a man conceding an argument that had already been won. “This is very revealing,” he said.
And Turner-Smith, who for the past minute had been given the opportunity for a closer study of his visitor, said, “Are you by any chance wearing greasepaint, Mister Sayers?”
The man threw the paper onto the table between them.
“Ah,” he said. “There you have me.”
Under the table, Turner-Smith reached out for his sword stick. He took care not to signal his intention. “Yet you are not listed on the playbills among the actors,” he said.
“Very true.” The man smiled. “I can see that you are too good a detective for me, superintendent.”
A few moments later, the man rose from the booth and walked out of the saloon. The four commercial travellers in the next booth were laughing so hard at a story that none of them noticed his departure. One took a draught from his mug and leaned back in his seat, only to splutter it out all over the table.
His fellows were slow to catch on. Their humour ebbed, where his had vanished in a flash.
“What the devil?” he said. “Something pronged me!”
And he turned in his seat to find out what it was.