Marilyn Todd is best known for her mystery novels set in the worlds of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. Last month, Snap Shot, the first in her new series of Victorian mysteries, starring Julia McAllister, a murder suspect turned England’s first crime-scene photographer, was released, soon to be followed by two more titles. The British author is also a prolific and distinguished short-story writer who has been contributing to EQMM for many years and has won two EQMM Readers Award scrolls. She has a story in our current issue, July/August 2019, and another coming up in September/October. In this post she talks about one of the triggers for many of her stories and novels.—Janet Hutchings
You’re lucky. You probably didn’t spend most of your early childhood confined to bed. But for those of you who did, and like me were an only child, you’ll know that necessity becomes the mother of inventiveness.
Not being a girlie girl, dolls were off the list, I was too young to read, and there’s only so many teddies’ tea parties you can host. Oh, but pictures . . . ! Pictures fired my imagination like you can’t—well, imagine. For a start, cats and cream had nothing on me when it came to those Butterick patterns my mum used for making clothes.
I’d wonder who these women were, where were they going, who were they meeting, would they ever be in the same place at the same time? Questions, questions, questions, which soon evolved into stories, and the best bit? Those stories never stopped changing. The woman in black. She was obviously the victorious trophy wife, lording it over her rivals. The next day, she’d be the illustrator’s daughter given the limelight, and I’d be capturing the backlash among the rest of the models. The next day, it was obvious. They were five grifters, poised to pull off a scam at Monte Carlo (where else)?
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t then, and never have been, lonely, and it wasn’t an unhappy childhood. Far from it. Unable to go out because of me, my mum took in whatever work was available to do at home, whether it was typing envelopes, sending out coupons or making jewellery boxes. We’d sing, we’d giggle, she’d read me stories, teach me all sorts of skills (I was a touch-typist at twelve, made my own clothes at fourteen, and it goes without saying that I was a precociously early reader). When Dad came home at night, after putting in overtime at the factory, he and Mum would sit at the kitchen table, stuffing cuddly toys or painting tiny toy figures, laughing, chatting, joking into the night.
But the bottom line was, I was still stuck in bed, where much of that time was just me and my imagination. I’d pore over the National Geographics that my grandad brought, whisking myself off on worldwide adventures, discovering lost tombs in the desert and diving shipwrecks in dangerous seas. And while the desire to take a camel across the Sahara and trek through jungles hosting mosquitos bigger than trucks soon wore off, the wanderlust lingers.
Plitvice Lakes in Croatia inspired my thriller Dark Horse. I actually ran out of nails to bite here.
While thrills of an altogether different kind from the Arizona mining town of Jerome inspired “The Wickedest Town in the West.” So much so, the story scooped an EQMM Readers Award.
Last, but not least though, were old photos. Even as a kid, one thing stood out: no one throws photos away. Leastways, not in our family! Both my grandmothers kept boxes (lots of boxes) bursting with pictures dating back to the dawn of photography, and quite honestly, if I’d found caveman paintings at the bottom, chiselled out of the rock, I would not have been remotely surprised. This, I realised later, is because photos are memories, and no one tosses memories out. Especially when two world wars are involved.
Reliving their back-stories, there was no need for fiction. Real life was spellbinding enough, and maybe it was just our lot, but who’d look at these curled, faded images, mostly black-and-white, but some sepia, and suspect they were hiding adultery, tragedy, triumph and pain?
So while I was content, knowing Great Aunt So-and-So didn’t smile in front of the camera in case her dentures fell out, that Grandad’s Auntie X was carrying on with Uncle Y, and so was Auntie Z, how Uncle Wotnot had to hide his homosexuality because it carried a prison sentence back then, and the bloke in the back row of that wedding photo killed a man with his bare hands, didn’t mean I wasn’t curious about other peoples’ pictures.
This one, for instance. Doesn’t she look happy! Don’t they both! Bonnie & Clyde, if you didn’t already know. And so it went on, me looking for the stories behind the pictures, then, if I couldn’t find one, inventing one to fit.
Which was fine, until I visited the Klondike Museum in Seattle. It’s proper name, of course, is the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. You can see why I shortened it. But on the wall outside, the plaque reads “. . . adventure and hardship . . . dreams made . . . hopes shattered . . . lives changed . . . a city transformed.” Staring at the photos of the suffering, the challenges, the bones of the 3,000 pack animals who died on one trail alone and whose bones still lie there today, I knew, in that instant, that I had to write about someone who took images that would also change lives.
In 1895, there were no crime-scene photographers in England. The Parisian police were applying the concept with considerable success, but over here, the Home Office was barely getting to grips with mugshots, never mind fingerprints, footprint casts, or photographic records that captured a murder scene before evidence was trampled, contaminated or lost.
So was born Julia McAllister, a spunky young woman taking risqué pictures to survive, and who would have happily continued, had someone not started killing her models and framing her for their murders.
Who said you can’t rewrite history?