Behind the books

The Haunting of Alma Fielding - Q&A

Interview with Kate Summerscale

How did you first learn of the haunting of Alma Fielding? Was her case well known? Did it contribute to the larger cultural conversation at the time, or was Nandor Fodor just ahead of the curve?

Unsolving a murder

by Kate Summerscale, London Review of Books

‘We are aware that programmes such as Making a Murderer, Serial and The Jinx can effect change, spill into life – this is part of their allure.’

The Plaistow horror

by Kate Summerscale, Daily Telegraph

‘I was baffled by why the brothers had plotted to kill their mother, and decided to find out what I could about their childhood.’

The words on the stone

by Kate Summerscale, BookPage

‘At first, I could find no trace of Robert Coombes’ life after 1912, but eventually, on a website about Australian cemeteries, I came across a photograph of his gravestone in New South Wales.’

Penny dread

by Kate Summerscale, The Guardian

‘Penny fiction was Britain’s first taste of mass-produced popular culture for the young, and – like movies, comics, video games and computer games in the century that followed – was held responsible for anything from petty theft to homicide.’

Broadmoor’s secrets

by Kate Summerscale, Sunday Times (£)

‘The Victorian patients’ files contain the desperate, disturbing histories one might expect, but they also portray an institution of surprising gentleness.’

Blood brothers

by Kate Summerscale, The Wicked Boy, Bloomsbury

‘In early July 1895, during one of the hottest, driest summers in living memory, Robert and Nathaniel Coombes were seen roaming the streets and parks of East London. Robert, 13, had packed in his job at a local shipyard. Nattie, 12, was bunking off school.’

Five chronicles of crime

by Kate Summerscale, Waterstones blog

‘The best true-crime books tell urgent, intimate stories that also cast light on a wider world. When a murder is investigated, whether by a detective or a writer, the private is made public, something hidden is revealed, secrets are exposed.’

How to frame a murder

by Kate Summerscale, Daily Telegraph

‘To take photographs of murder victims, Bertillon constructed a tripod more than two metres high. His pictures record the aftermath of a killing from a suprahuman perspective, as if seen by an angel.’

My favourite elephant

by Kate Summerscale

‘Uncle is a millionaire elephant who wears a purple dressing gown, engages in savage skirmishes and is wildly generous to his followers. Though he is principled and kindly, like Babar, he is also prone to petulance and pomposity, and he is easily bored.’

On writing Mr Whicher

by Kate Summerscale, The Guardian

‘If Whicher helped me to write my book, he also helped me to finish it. When I reread his reports to Scotland Yard, I realised that the whole of his theory about the killing had not been made public. To conclude the story, and satisfy my detective fever, I made even his suspicions my own.’

Five bewitching fictional diaries

by Kate Summerscale, Sunday Telegraph

‘A diary is only one person’s version of the truth; it can conspire in its author’s fantasies as well as her dreams, becoming the most unreliable and corrupting of narratives.'

Madame Bovary & Eleanor Marx

by Kate Summerscale, Financial Times

‘As a woman in late 19th-century London and the daughter of a radical thinker, Eleanor Marx had freedoms of which a provincial wife such as Madame Bovary could barely dream. But she recognised Flaubert’s heroine, and she felt for her. The depth of her identification became clear only upon her death.’

Mr Whicher on TV

by Sally Williams, Daily Telegraph

‘On day two we realised we’d gone wrong on Whicher’s room, when he is in a state of nervous breakdown,’ the director explains. ‘Instead of looking like a distressed detective, he looked like a ​​romantic poet with writer’s block. So, we reshot it. We dirtied down the walls and gave him an 1860s equivalent of pizza boxes and cans of Stella.’

The Victorian Morse

by Neil McKay, Daily Mail

‘Anyone who has been on a film set knows how difficult it is to get authentic performances out of extras. But those who were in this scene gasped and watched spellbound, as if they were witnessing a real murder case unfold.’

I wish I’d written

by Kate Summerscale, The Independent

‘I came across Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier when I was in my teens, in a box of my grandmother's books. I was gripped but baffled by the story. Afterwards, I remembered only its mysterious, confused atmosphere, passionate, messed-up, blurred.’

The invention of Cluedo

by Kate Summerscale, The Guardian

‘The detective novel on which Cluedo seems to have drawn most directly was Agatha Christie’s The Body In The Library, published in 1942, which opens with Colonel and Mrs Bantry of Gossington Hall discovering in their dusty library the corpse of a young, platinum-blond dancer called Ruby Keene.’

Victims & voyeurs

by Kate Summerscale, The Times (£)

‘A true-crime story may pander to our darker instincts, but it lights up inner worlds as well, our own and those of others: it can show us the killer and also the detective, the victim and also the voyeurs.’

The act of reading

by Kate Summerscale, Daily Telegraph

‘I just like stories,’ said Julianne Moore. ‘I like reading, and that’s what led me to acting... [it] always felt to me like reading aloud.’

Ghosts of Road Hill House

by Kate Summerscale, Sunday Times (£)

‘After the publication of my book, a few readers sent me emails and letters about ghosts. Some reported strange sounds and visions in the former homes of the murdered child’s family. And from one reader, I received a ghostly image.’

Chasing the writer

by Kate Summerscale, Daily Telegraph

‘‘‘Why does the writing make us chase the writer?’’ Julian Barnes asked in Flaubert’s Parrot, the novel that made him a literary star. ‘‘Why aren't the books enough?’’ I asked him why he had decided to write about his family now.’

The afterlife of a murder

by Kate Summerscale, The Guardian

‘In the years that followed the murder, the story of Road Hill went underground, leaving the pages of the press to reappear in the pages of fiction. It shaped the first detective novel and the early psychological thrillers. Jack Whicher was transformed into the archetypal detective hero — and into his double, the spy.’

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Official website © Kate Summerscale 2017. Background image: 1882 Reynolds map of London / Wikimedia Commons