Person or Persons Unknown by Jean Briggs
In a letter entitled ‘How I Write My Books’, Wilkie Collins refers to the development of plot and character in the writing of The Woman in White. The central idea of conspiracy, he says, suggested the chief characters: villain and victim. The villain he conceived as being foreign: ‘Count Fosco faintly shows himself to me, before I know his name.’ The victims had to be innocent; the first, Lady Glyde, came to him quite quickly, but the second remained elusive so he left her ‘to come of her own accord.’ After a day or two, Collins explains that ‘Poor Anne Catherick comes into the room, and says “Try me”.’ Setting about the writing of the novel, Collins observes that the characters develop in all ‘sorts of ways’.
Charles Dickens makes a similar point about the writing of Dombey and Son of which he says ‘The way in which these characters have opened out to me is one of the most surprising processes of the mind in this sort of invention.’ And it is true. At first they are, indeed, person or persons unknown.
Just as Wilkie Collins begins with the central idea of a conspiracy, so the writer of the murder story begins with the idea of a murder, and the first two characters present themselves: the murderer and the victim. The investigators must come in. In my case, Charles Dickens came in and said ‘Try me’. Who could turn down an offer like that? He needed a partner so Superintendent Jones came in – there was something familiarly harmonious in the pairing that was hard to resist. Persons known.
And yet, four characters do not a novel make. There would be other victims, no doubt. One murder does not a novel make. Suspense is needed; tension is needed; terror is needed. And so, more persons, hitherto unknown, come in. They come in boldly, demanding their place, certain they are needed: ‘Try me, try me.’ Now known, but unknowing – poor innocents, their time will be short.
And, then there’s the supporting cast: the laundress, the maid of all work, the messenger boy, the police constables, the orphans, the poor woman whose son is missing, oh, and the dog. The minor roles – or so the writer thinks. P.D. James refers to the idea that characters grow like plants in the author’s mind. Into The Murder of Patience Brook comes Scrap, the messenger boy – just a functionary. But, no – he seems to have a history that demands to be told. There’s Rogers and Feak, the police constables. Rogers –who knew? – falls in love – with Mollie Spoon who has brother, Walter, who ran away to sea. Feak has a mother, a nurse, Mrs Feak, whom Superintendent Jones calls ‘The Sybil of Star Street’ – a good woman, a widow who wants her son to get on. I know, Mrs Feak, I’ve got it all down! Then there are the stationer’s children, Tom and Eleanor Brim, whose father is dying of consumption. They’ll have to be taken care of by someone, eventually. I can’t just abandon them in an orphanage. And so these unanticipated characters develop in all sorts of surprising ways.
Children – Charles Dickens was fond of them. The street boy, Scrap and the mute boy, Davey, are his other self, the boy he might have been if he had not been rescued from the blacking factory where he had pasted labels onto the blacking bottles. He was twelve, about Scrap’s age.
Where do they come from, these insistent children? They surely have their origins in all the reading about the period: Dickens’s novels and short stories, his journalism, his speeches, his letters; Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor; Charles Manby’s Curiosities of London Life; The Seven Curses of London and The Wilds of London by James Greenwood, and other sources, too numerous to mention. What happens, I think, is that the fiction writer’s imagination goes secretly to work in the course of reading, and out of that strange alchemy of fact and imagination, into Death at Hungerford Stairs, come Robin Hart, Kip and Tilly Moon, Jemmy Kidd and the disfigured boy, Nose, who has no other name.
Names – they have to have names. Often the character doesn’t really take shape until he or she has a name. But, where do the names come from? Some come from Dickens. In another story, Dickens takes the name of Vholes as part of a disguise. I have him see it on a passing cart. Vholes appears in Bleak House. Rigaud and Blandois come from Little Dorrit. Constable Rogers appears in Dickens’s article On Duty with Inspector Field. Dickens stole names: Dartle, Tapley and Tupman came from tombstones, shops and neighbours in Rochester where he lived as a boy. Sikes and Sowerby came from the area of Norfolk Street in London. My neighbours, alas, have perfectly ordinary names, though the names of Dickens’s neighbours were, perhaps, ordinary enough until he got hold of them and attached extraordinary characters to them. Some of my names come from tombstones in country churchyards; others from the obituary columns from where I stole the apt name Godsmark for a clerical gentleman. Poor Robin came from Shakespeare; a friend gave me Nat Boney.
As in Dickens and Trollope some are chosen for their reflection of character or occupation: Blackledge in The Murder of Patience Brooke is a thoroughly bad lot; Jonas Finger is a thief and a rogue; Fikey Chubb in Death at Hungerford Stairs is another nasty piece of work – Fikey , a forger, appears in Three Detective Anecdotes; Noah Hatch is a waterman; Mrs Brine adulterates the gin she sells, and Tempest Slinger whose name I found in a pamphlet at an old house will – someday soon – be a sailor, Tilly Moon is an albino child with silver hair, and Little May, like the flower, is not long for this world.
Known then. No longer person or persons unknown. They have names, personalities, families, lives, tragedies, and I become fond of them, even the villains, even Fikey who stinks to high heaven. I expect he’ll come to a sticky end, but, not yet.
A true story: in 1838, Eliza Grimwood was murdered in a house of ill-fame at number 12 Wellington Terrace, Waterloo Road. Dickens wrote up the story in Three Detective Anecdotes as the tale of The Countess. Inspector Field of Dickens’s article On Duty with Inspector Field investigated but was disappointed. There was no evidence to convict the only suspect, the man with whom Eliza Grimwood lived, one George Hubbard.
The coroner’s jury returned a verdict: ‘against some person or persons unknown’.
JEAN BRIGGS taught English and Drama in various schools, from Hong Kong to Lancashire. She enjoyed writing plays, especially spoof murder mysteries: A is for Arsenic, B is for Bludgeon, C is for Cyanide were all set in ridiculously clichéd country houses, featuring sinister butlers and half-mad aristocrats poisoning or bashing their way to inheritances. A Lesson in Murder saw the slaughter of half a staff room by a lunatic former pupil bent on revenge –naturally, that went down very well with the pupils. The highest point of her career as a playwright came with a performance of a reduced Hamlet in the presence of The Queen – not an ideal choice, she thought afterwards – almost the entire court of Denmark slaughtered.
Then Jean retired and moved to a cottage in Cumbria. Her players were gone – and her audience. She missed the teaching and writing. What next? A novel, perhaps? It was 2012, the bicentenary of Charles Dickens. Time to re-read him and to discover his articles on the police in his magazine Household Words. An idea was born – suppose Dickens was involved in a murder case? As far as Jean knew, he wasn’t, but he had portrayed murder and he had created detectives: the private detective Nadgett in Martin Chuzzlewit and Inspector Bucket in Bleak House. Dickens explores the psychology of the murderer; he understands human nature; he constructs a narrative; he has imagination, and he knows the streets of London – surely these would make him a skilful investigator. He admired the police so she invented a partner for him, a professional policeman from Bow Street.The idea was worth a try. She wrote the first of the Dickens and Jones mysteries: The Murder of Patience Brooke which is to be published by The History Press in August 2014.The next two cases: Hungerford Stairs and Murder by Ghostlight are finished and another is on the way. D is now, of course, for Dickens!