LESLIE SCASE | INTERVIEW
Billie Ingram Sofokleous speaks to this south Walian crime writer about his new novel Fatal Solution, set in Victorian-era Pontypridd and replete with murder and mining…
The latest instalment in Leslie Scase’s ongoing Inspector Chard series finds the eponymous crime-solver with his hands full when three murders happen in Pontypridd, in rapid sequence. With a long list of suspects and no real assistance, this is all set against the backdrop of a recent colliery disaster which completely ravages the local community. A fight for control of – hugely lucrative – train production then comes looming into view. Chard has no way of stopping the constant meddling of his shambling superior, and there are noticeable tensions in the force as the inspector’s workload piles up.
The research Scase and I discussed during our interview made his work seem all the more vivid. Setting the piece in south Wales offers a still-relatable sense of the locals being in each other’s pockets; his imagining of a crime plot shifts between noir film-like drama and unerring historical accuracy. The gritty realism of the dialogue treads a fine line, timelessly understandable despite injections of archaic slang. The pivotal murders are gruesome, and stayed with me long after I finished Fatal Solution in my first sitting – and after I spoke to Leslie about this novel and other facets of his work.
How did you get into the mindset for writing this book?
Well, it’s darker than the first one [Fortuna’s Deadly Shadow] but I kind of want each book to be different from the next. I have seven in mind; there will certainly be five. The third book will be very different in style to the first two. That’s deliberate. What I quite like to do is mix it, because I think there is some quite funny bits in it too. At the core, it is a whodunnit.
What is your creative process?
I’m very much a planner. I plot. The whole thing is thought through in scenes, much like a film. I deliberately don’t write a lot at once. Even if I felt like writing a lot, the most I would ever write is around four pages. I spend a lot of time thinking, plotting out maybe subsidiary plots – but what if I put in a little red herring in here? Thinking about what a character is thinking, to get inside their head. Things can change – would they really do that?
What did you do for research for writing this book?
The last book was set in the ironworks in Treforest, and I wanted to put it all in; my wife gave me really good advice to cut stuff out, because it was stopping the story. The use of language is difficult to gauge as well. I recently posted a blog that went on the Crime Writers Association site about the use of historical language. The language of the middle and higher classes were quite stilted, but I couldn’t make it accurately stilted in the book. You can’t use the flow of language nowadays or you’d start every sentence with the word “so”, which is common.
Language in the 1890s, some of the slang that they would have used – an example of something I used in the blog was “poked up at being caught doing the bear” which is being caught hugging your girlfriend. It’s all about the balance. You can spoil a book by making it too modern.
I also researched the seasonality of food: we are so used to having any food at any time of the year. I have a list of what foods are in season so I can get the meal right, that is the length of what details I would learn about.
It’s all about knowing what people at the time knew about and what they didn’t. Fingerprinting, for example, doesn’t feature yet. The first fingerprint bureau wasn’t set up until 1899 or 1901 and that was when a first arrest was made… for the theft of a billiard ball. It makes things easier in a way as there is no featuring of DNA, although I did attend a lecture by a professor of forensics. It was fascinating – but I wasn’t expecting the chunks of dead bodies onscreen.
How has lockdown hindered you in research?
I had [already] done quite a lot of the research for the first book and it [Pontypridd] is where I grew up. It was the reason I had decided to put it there and in that time period: it was where my grandparents got married in 1898. I was part way through this story before lockdown – the third one is basically written and the fourth is on its way. That is part of the frustration, as I’m trying to hold information back when speaking about the second book. You don’t know much about Inspector Chard, and his love interest – in the third one maybe all will be revealed.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating this book?
I don’t want to ruin anything, but the honest answer is the terrible accident of the Cilfynydd Pit Disaster [an 1890 explosion which killed 290 people]. Oh, and the ease in which you could obtain a poison until the Pharmacy Act of 1868 was written.
Are any of the characters based on people you know?
No, Chard isn’t. I don’t think any of the characters are. Dick Jenkins is a mixture of Talfryn Thomas – the reporter from Dad’s Army – and somebody that used to work in the factory where I did. An embellishment here and there. A lot of the characters are partly people I know and mixed with actors.
If you were to have this made for screen, who would play the cast?
I think I know! The central character is the only English character, but I would want a Welsh actor to play him. A shorter version of Luke Evans. Karen Gillan with a Welsh accent could play May Roper.
It’s so difficult because I have a change of tack in the third book, and I wrote with actors in mind there. I can picture what they look like, but putting them in terms of what actors they look like is difficult.
What two characters do you wish you had created? And What book that you’ve read in the last year would you recommend?
Book: I would recommend Rubicon by Tom Holland. Not the actor!
Fatal Solution is published by Seren. Price: £9.99. Info: here. There is a virtual launch for the book on Tue 25 May, with Leslie Scase in conversation with Matt Johnson, co-chair of Crime Cymru, followed by a Q&A session. Tickets: free. Info and booking: here
words BILLIE INGRAM SOFOKLEOUS