Charles Dickens started his career as a newspaper reporter, and wrote about social issues throughout his life. That’s one of the things that attracted me to his novels – and inspired my new novel, Folly Ditch.
The world of Oliver Twist, with criminal gangs, children in danger and vicious thugs exploiting the most vulnerable, may seem like a long-gone historical era. But when I thought about some of the stories in the news now, I began to see parallels. Fagin and Bill Sikes would fit right in with today’s people traffickers, gang-masters and county lines drugs operators.
I wanted to explore those parallels, to look at how the criminal underworld that Dickens wrote about lies just below the surface of today’s Britain. The result is Folly Ditch, in which Helen Oddfellow’s investigations into a brutal Dickensian-era murder lead her to some very twenty-first century criminals.
A ‘good villain’ is essential for a decent thriller or crime novel, and Dickens created some of the best. He began his career writing for newspapers, where he no doubt heard about plenty of thugs, conmen, swindlers and murderers. My own experience as a newspaper reporter certainly helped when it came to creating some villains of my own. And when I began writing Folly Ditch, I found myself drawn back to a character from my first novel, described by one reader as ‘terrifyingly convincing’.
The key to creating a good villain, as a writing tutor once told me, is to remember that every villain thinks they’re the hero. Something that Dickens, I’m sure, kept in mind when writing his swaggering, thuggish burglar, Bill Sikes.