Finlay’s The Murder Pit (Mira, Feb.) highlights the differences between his Victorian sleuth, William Arrowood, and Sherlock Holmes.
How did you come up with this series?
I was reading the Sherlock Holmes stories a few years ago and thought that if I was a private detective in London at the time, I’d be pretty annoyed that Holmes was getting all the publicity and adulation. I’d be jealous, too. That’s when the idea for William Arrowood’s character came to me. The next step was to try and make him different from Holmes.
Can you expand on Arrowood’s view of himself as an “emotional agent, not a deductive agent”?
This is Arrowood’s self-presentation, and doesn’t exactly correspond to what he is. He’s trying to distinguish himself from Holmes when he says this, and he doesn’t recognize that he does use deduction in his own work. When he says he’s an emotional agent, he’s talking about how he uses the psychological work that was being published at the time by people such as Charles Darwin and William James. He watches people’s behaviors and expressions to try and decide what’s behind them; he’s also referring to his own emotional character in contrast to the aloofness and composure of Holmes.
What aspects of Victorian London do you think Conan Doyle most romanticized?
I have tremendous respect for Conan Doyle, but he wasn’t trying to write social realism in the way his contemporaries George Gissing and Arthur Morrison were. His representation of British colonialism emphasizes adventure, as a lot of Victorian fiction did, and doesn’t really deal with the negative consequences of the British Empire for the colonized peoples. His stories contain some very stereotyped depictions of black people and women, and his picture of London at the time is also quite sanitized. Yes, he had the murders, the thefts, and the blackmails, but for the most part he airbrushed out the poverty, cruelty, and sickness, so you didn’t really get a sense of just how awful life was for the very poor. I’ve tried to show at least some of that in the Arrowood books.
You’ve praised Conan Doyle’s dramatic uses of secondary characters to illustrate social controversies. How have you tried to do the same?
Secondary characters are a great way of bringing out important social issues. In this book, Willoughby, a man with Down syndrome, shows how vulnerable those with intellectual disabilities were in Victorian society, and his brother’s rejection of him embodies the eugenics movement that was popular with many leading Victorians.