Some Background to David Roberts' 1930s Detective Series

David Roberts gives some background to his 1930s detective series featuring Edward Corinth and Verity Brown and, in particular, the latest one.

In October 2006 Constable and Robinson publish The Quality of Mercy, the seventh in my series of detective stories set in the 1930s. When I began writing Sweet Poison, the first in the series set in 1935, back in 1999 I imagined it would be light-hearted if not unashamedly humorous in tone but as the years went by – the fictional years and the real years! – I find the mood has darkened.

The Quality of Mercy is set in 1938 and begins with the Anschluss – the rape of Austria by the Nazis. My heroine, the journalist Verity Browne is a Communist so it is not long before she is deported by Vienna’s new masters and we see history through her eyes. We see Hitler who so hated Vienna which had humiliated him when he was a struggling painter spend just a few hours in the city before returning to Berlin. We see how Eichmann immediately set about ‘spring cleaning’ the city of its Jews and we see – or rather Verity sees – the brutal hand of Nazi Germany extinguish what it was that had made Vienna and the Viennese tolerant, cultured and un-military.

Based on the American foreign Correspondent Martha Gellhorn, Verity is not ‘objective’ but she sees clearly that the failure of the democracies to do anything about Hitler’s aggression will lead inevitably to war. Within the year the British Government was issuing gas masks and organizing trenches to be dug in London’s parks.

How did we get to this position when, after the Great War, France and Britain had solemnly sworn to avoid another blood-letting, another frenzy of killing which had destroyed a generation of young men? Without wishing to sound too pretentious, the Lord Edward Corinth/Verity Browne series sets out to answer that question while also providing Dorothy L Sayers-type detective stories. Unlike the great Sayers whose novels were, of course, contemporary and who made no mention of outside events, the investigations Lord Edward carries out are firmly set against the history of the period.

My research – always the best part of writing historical novels – is based on wide reading of the novels, diaries and memoirs of the period – from all of which you can hear people talking. In the popular fiction of the period, you can capture the slang, the rhythm of ordinary speech. The diaries written by people who knew they were living through interesting times are invaluable. When the snob MP ‘Chips’ Channon went to dinner with Wallis Simpson and the Prince of Wales, he carefully recorded what they ate, what they said and what impression they made. Although I wasn’t alive in the 1930s, sometimes I can bring my own memories to my story.

For example, in The Quality of Mercy I draw on my recollection of Lord Mountbatten whom I knew in the last three years of his life. I remember sitting out on the terrace of Broadlands, his magnificent house near Romsey, looking out over the Test, one of Englands’s most beautiful rivers and a fisherman’s paradise, and wondering what intelligent questions I could find to ask this man who had been one of history’s lead players.

The butler brought us lunch – three frankfurters! Lord Mountbatten gave me one and took the second before solemnly cutting the third in half for us to share. The butler’s arthritis was too painful for him to be able to open the bottle of tomato ketchup so I did it for him. It is this combination of the trivial, the absurd and the magnificent that makes up the weave of history and which I have tried to reflect in my series.

My books feature real characters such as Winston Churchill and Guy Liddell the formidable head of MI5, as well as characters based on real people, such as Lord Weaver who owns the New Gazette, the paper for which Verity writes. Many readers will recognise in him Lord Beaverbrook, the proprietor of the Daily Express. If I use ‘real people’ under ‘real’ names I never make them do anything they could not have done or say anything they might not have said. I allow myself greater freedom with characters who are almost historical – but not quite.

We complain bitterly about our own times. Politicians are so often portrayed as corrupt and businessmen seen to be prepared to buy their way into the ‘upper class’. However, compared to the 1930s, our age is a model of virtue. In this low, dishonest decade, as WH Auden called it, corruption was rife and covered up by mutual agreement between the media and the ruling class. Everything was for sale, politics was polarized and painfully brutal and apathy made ordinary people not wish to know what was happening just across the channel or under their own noses.

However, as in every age, there were valiant, truthful men and women who fought against the prevailing tide of evil and in Lord Edward and Verity I have tried to draw two such. What was the quality of mercy I allude to in my title – all of which in the series are quotations from Shakespeare? In 1938, the British Government let it be known that this country would accept any children – whatever their race, colour or creed – whose lives were in danger. Up until the outbreak of war trains trundled across Europe carrying mainly Jewish children fleeing the new German Reich. Ten thousand lives were saved and all the children survived the war. Ten thousand! Pitifully few put against the millions who died but one of Lord Edward’s (and my heroes George Orwell’s) fundamental beliefs is that where you can help one person escape the flames you should do so however many millions you cannot save. The dictators talk in terms of classes, of society, of the ‘national good’. The man and woman worth his salt talks – if he talks at all – of the individual.

This is the ‘mercy’ – the so -called Kindertransport – which not even the United States allowed to take place because it was thought wrong that children should be parted from their parents. To end with another quotation from Shakespeare – from Measure for Measure – one of his bleakest plays: ‘Mortality and mercy in Vienna live in thy tongue and heart.

About article author

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David Roberts

David Roberts was an editor at Chatto and Windus, editorial director at Weidenfeld & Nicolson and a partner of Michael O'Mara Books, before becoming a full-time writer in 2000.His series of crime novels set during the 1930s featuring Lord Edward Corinth and Verity Browne and optioned by Colum...More about David Roberts