It is my very great pleasure to introduce you to Amy Myers, author of a Victorian mystery series featuring bandy legged chimney sweep Tom Wasp and his young apprentice, Ned. By night, the pair live in the dark and dangerous world of London’s underbelly. By day, they clean upscale chimneys and meet with toffs, mayhem and murder. Click on either book title below to learn more.
Amy’s writing is a seamless and atmospheric blend of mystery, pathos, humour and historical detail that will leave you wanting more, as I did upon finishing Tom Wasp and the Murdered Stunner. This is historical fiction at its best. I was so thrilled to see the second book in the series on the shelf that I picked it up immediately, read it straight through and then got in touch with Amy to ask her to do a guest blog for us. Fortunately, she said yes.
The slum home of Tom Wasp, the chimney sweep detective in my current crime novel series set in the 1860s, is a far cry from the Duke of Wellington’s Number One London. My ‘Number Two London’ is in the East End, in an area that Charles Booth’s poverty maps of the city colour dark blue and purple – the worst in London for crime and destitution. Tom and his ‘chummy’, his apprentice young Ned, lodge in two small rooms in Hairbrine Court, not far from the Tower of London or from the London docks. Their home is also close to the notorious Ratcliffe Highway, where in the 1860s murders and violence are everyday occurrences, as sailors flood ashore from the docks in search of drink, women and song. Twelve-year-old Ned’s knowledge of the dark side of life is as great as Tom’s, but they travel cheerfully onwards taking happiness if and where they can find it. In Ned’s case this is often in the form of a pie from the local pie-shop, a rare treat.
Where do Tom’s cases spring from? No problem. As the ’fifties TV series reminds us, there are a thousand stories in the naked city, and London can boast a great many more than that. Plots and backgrounds for crime novels are endless. A sweep can go anywhere provided there’s a chimney, and Tom meets everyone from ‘purefinders’ (don’t ask!) to the highest in the land. On the Ratcliffe Highway no splendid balls are held, but plenty of pub knees-ups; there are no glamorous West End shows, but the nearby Wilton’s Music Hall is in its heyday; nor are there grand theatres to appreciate Shakespeare, only casual penny gaffs where a version of Hamlet would take twenty minutes; and no gentlemen’s clubs exist, only Paddy’s Goose, the most notorious criminal hang-out in London.
The initial idea for a new case usually stems either from my own book collection or from the London Library, a marvellous institution. Thomas Carlyle was the inspiration behind its founding in 1841, and its premises have been in St James Square since 1845. It never discards a book, and members can borrow the vast majority of the ancient tomes it treasures, together with modern books. Down in its basement lurk old books about London galore, as do bound volumes of The Times going way back to the eighteenth century.
Once the idea is established, I turn to contemporary street maps and build an image of the area that interests me. That done, I walk through the area itself, just to get the feel of it. Of course the docks are no longer in use, their buildings either demolished, turned into shopping arcades, or in the case of one Georgian warehouse on West India Quay into a superb dockland museum. Second world war bombs have flattened many of the streets that Tom Wasp knew and those that remain are greatly changed, and yet it’s possible to superimpose the image of the 1860s on what one sees today. The great Hawksmoor church of St George’s on the Ratcliffe Highway (now called The Highway) was reduced to a roofless ruin during the war, but its outer face can be seen today, because the new church of 1963 has been constructed within it. Modern Wapping has a high street that Tom might have recognised at least in part, especially the Thames River Police station which is still in operation, with steps down to the Thames. Sherlock Holmes knew it, and so does Tom Wasp.
The pie shops which so sorely tempted Ned may have vanished, but in my imagination I can still see Tom plodding his gentle way along the streets around Number Two London.
Tom Wasp’s full-length cases are recounted in Tom Wasp and the Newgate Knocker (Five Star, 2010, and available in audio) and its predecessor Tom Wasp and the Murdered Stunner (Five Star 2007 and audio). His short stories appear in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and anthologies, and four have been reprinted in a collection published by Crippen and Landru, Murder ’Orrible Murder.
Please visit Amy’s website here.