I love Sherlock Holmes. I’ve loved him since I was about 13 and discovered Arthur Conan Doyle’s work for the first time. I was thrilled by the characters, puzzled by the mysteries, but most of all enthralled by the setting; the atmosphere of Victorian London, elegant and sordid, gaslit and murky by turns. That's a major reason why I chose to set The Whores'Asylum in the 1880s – it was a world I enjoyed writing about, and one I felt I knew - well, as well as anyone born nearly 100 years later could.
|“Holmes gave me a sketch of the events”|
You know where I'm going with this (or at least I hope you do, given that this post's about artwork) … the thing is, it was Sidney Paget's wonderful illustrations for the stories when they originally appeared in the Strand Magazine that really brought Holmes, Watson et al to life: Paget added the famous deerstalker and I think also the Ulster cape, for example. And what would be more appropriate for a Victorian novel (like, ooh, I don't know, mine) than an exquisite series of bookplates to accompany the narrative?
So when I was emailing my editor Juliet Annan at Fig Tree about the cover art for my book, I suggested, in a throwaway fashion, that it would be amazing to have some pictures of key scenes scattered through the text – it's a typically 'period' thing, so would be very much in the spirit of the novel – though I was sure (I said disingenuously) it would be far too expensive to consider …
To my delight Juliet said she loved – in fact, LOVED the idea – and immediately set about finding a suitable artist to work on the cover and illustrations. Score! All I had to do was go through the story and find some of the most visually dramatic scenes, then sit back and wait for them to be turned into fantastic Pagetesque black-and-white line drawings. I also had to comb the text for physical descriptions of the various characters (harder than it sounds, and even harder to keep them consistent – to my shame I discovered one minor character had been endowed with brown, green and blue eyes … this has now been fixed :)
I'm not one of those writers who has a crystal-clear picture of their characters in their head from the outset; I tend to build them up from the inside out. I knew this much: my eager young medical student Stephen Chapman (in some ways the hero of the novel, though only briefly a narrator) would be handsome and open-faced, with high, fair colouring – i.e. blond hair and blue eyes, and that to provide a visual contrast, Diana, the woman he falls for, would be black-haired and dark-eyed, with a “pale and interesting” complexion. (Needless to say, she's also quite a looker). But I wasn't visualising anyone in particular – as the authors of the brilliant How Not To Write a Novel say, playing the Julia Roberts/Tom Cruise plus-or-minus game (a Japanese Julia Roberts, a fat, bald Tom Cruise etc.) does nobody any favours.
Similarly, Edward Fraser, Chapman's best friend, who narrates much of the story, was outwardly very much sidekick/wingman material – a less confident Watson, a reticent, hesitant sort content to be outshone by his brilliant and dashing companion. He doesn't say much to everyone else; but he's got plenty going on in his head which the reader alone is privy to. He emerged as a lean, stooping chap with receding hair of “a peculiar dark auburn colour” - always dressed in black, as befits a student of theology with limited means, and appearing rather older than Chapman, though the two are almost the same age. Who did he look like? Himself. What did that mean? I didn't quite know – but I was aching to find out.
Kester's the villain of the piece, and though I based his “high, hoarse” voice on that of an ex, his looks, apart from his stone-cold grey eyes, are described as … well, nondescript. Here's Diana on Kester's appearance:
“He appeared so deceptively mild; he was not especially tall nor strong, and his countenance was somewhat plain – neither very handsome nor very hideous. His sole claim to beauty was a soft and sensual mouth, rosy as a girl’s, which contrasted eerily with his grey, fishlike eyes. He did not wear his vices in his face, as some men do, though perhaps he was yet too young for that. His aspect, when he was not drunken or angry, was unassuming. It would not be easy work to pick him out of a crowd.
In short, in looks and bearing he was altogether quite ordinary. I wonder sometimes, when I think back on it, if that was not the very thing that haunted and enraged him. I wonder if he had been handsome, like Henry, or even very ugly, like poor Towers, he should have been a different man. I cannot say.”
The banality of evil made flesh, in fact.
|Grow the hair, add a 'tache: Chapman!|
The above, at any rate, was how my characters appeared to me and therefore in the text – but I didn't set to writing with a gallery of detailed portraits floating before my eyes. I didn't cast the (surely inevitable?) six-part TV adaptation in my head – well, not much, though Laurence Fox, if you're reading this, I'm willing to audition you for Chapman :) In short, I was open to however the artist decided to render the people in my book, because I love (even LOVE) having my work illustrated, ever since I had a short story on UntitledBooks and to my delight, it was accompanied by a fantastic picture by the superbly-named Sarah Buttery. There's something about seeing your characters afresh through somebody else's eyes that's completely intriguing and revelatory.
First up, of course, was the cover – that needs to be sorted out before anything else so that the publisher has an image for their catalogue and for Amazon. The first artist Juliet found didn't work out, but then she settled on a great pastiche artist called Max Schindler, who came up with a rough sketch for us to look at (on the left).
The style was great, the shield design was awesome (I must stop using Americanisms, but somehow I don't want to) but the boaters had to go – it's not Zulieka Dobson after all – and some colour needed adding.
Also, Diana (for it is she) was barefoot, and I wasn't sure why. Not to mention the wandering apostrophe in the title … He kindly took my comments on board, went away and came back with Mark 2 (the red version on the right below).
Loads better – but still, the picky pain-in-the-arse author in me worried about the expression on her face: did she look a bit bored? Was this the right message to be sending? And that cleavage – the title has whores in it, for sure, but Diana's not one of them; it felt a bit Katie Price for my taste. I tentatively expressed my views, and my very patient editor passed them on to my very patient artist. Third time lucky, we hoped (see below).
Bingo! That was the one – I loved Diana's new wistful expression, and she didn't have everything in the window either. Much more suitable. This turned out to be the final cover, and I'm immensely glad it did, because everyone I've shown it to so far has really liked it. It looks even more spectacular in real life, because it's embossed and debossed (new word) with a textured, cloth-effect cover and GILDED as well – the shield/curtain bearing the title is shiny, shiny gold. In short, it will be a brand new paperback designed to look like a late 19th-century hardback. Love, love, love. I've got an advance proof of the cover hanging on my wall as I type and I keep on darting across the room to appreciate it anew.
So, the cover was ready – now for the illustrations! I was sent roughs of seven key scenes from the book, ranging from a formal ball to a strangulation, via a duel, a naked lady being painted, a prostitute soliciting in a dodgy tavern, and a masked orgy. (I feel I have ticked all the melodrama boxes here ...) Lucky Max had to deal with some more of my authorial objections as I pointed out that the tart looked too prosperous, the artist probably shouldn't be wearing a cliché – sorry, beret – and the duellist holding a gun in his left hand is actually seriously injured on that side. Moan, moan, moan – it's all us whining writers ever do …
However, in my defence, the reason I was so pernickety about the content of the illustrations is that each one is on the facing page to the scene actually described – so the reader having just read about one character's arm getting maimed would definitely be puzzled to see it whole again in the picture opposite. And in my artist's defence, he took what I said and produced the magnificent final versions you see below. Needless to say, I'm super happy with the result and extremely grateful to Juliet and Max for making it possible – mainly because I can't draw to save my life and am in awe of anyone who can.
I've taken the liberty of adding a short excerpt from the scene each illustration depicts, to put it in context … and, of course, because that's what Conan Doyle would do. Enjoy.
‘Fraser,’ said Chapman, ‘may I present my good friends, Mrs. Diana Pelham and her cousin, Dr. Neil Cornell?'
‘Mrs. Pelham,’ I said, ‘surely I have had the honour of meeting you before?’
'Ten!’ cried March. Valenti swivelled to face Hereward, small and far away, ethereal now in the mist rising from the green earth, Jameson at his side. I had been praying all night; silently, I prayed again.
'Oh for God’s sake just sit, Fraser,’ said Hereward impatiently.
‘You look like a travelling-salesman. If you stand upon ceremony you’ll stay there till you drop.'
‘Come on, Doctor,’ Sukey wheedled, soft and sloppy, ‘pour a girl a glass.’
'Teasing?' snarled Kester, ' I’ll tease her, the impudent bitch.
I’ll tease the damned life out of her!’
Before he could gasp for breath, I jerked the rough noose back, crashing his skull against the iron gate, and pulled the leather tight about his throat, leaning into it with all my bodily might.