I had fantastic fun being interviewed and answering readers’ questions at the online launch party for my new book, Folly Ditch. The video for the launch is online now on my YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fhaTp9gTrzA
Charles Dickens told his biographer that Nancy in Oliver Twist was based on a real woman. But who was she?
The character is a ‘fallen woman’, part of Fagin’s gang and the lover of the burglar Bill Sikes. When we first meet her, she and her friend Bet are described as ‘not exactly pretty, perhaps, but they had a good deal of colour in their faces, and looked quite stout and hearty. Being remarkably free and agreeable in their manners, Oliver thought them very nice girls.’
Dickens doesn’t tell us exactly what Nancy does, but the description hints at prostitution. She has no police record, however, and is able to go to the magistrate court unrecognised to see Oliver’s trial for pickpocketing. It’s Nancy who comes up with a plan to kidnap Oliver off the streets. But she has a change of heart, protects the boy from Bill when he threatens to beat him, and eventually goes to Oliver’s benefactor to warn him of danger to the boy.
Although she is offered a chance to ‘go straight’ she prefers to go back to the only life she knows, out of loyalty to her friends. That fatal act, however, is seen as a betrayal that Bill Sikes cannot forgive.
A few years ago, another author found a report of a murder case where a woman was killed in circumstances similar to Nancy, shortly before Dickens wrote Nancy’s death. But Dickens did not know the murdered woman, although he probably heard about her death and may have used it while writing Oliver Twist. So who was Nancy?
We don’t know, and we probably never will. But that little mystery was enough to spark my imagination – and get me started on the novel that became Folly Ditch.
I made a little video of some of the ways in which Nancy has been depicted – view it here.
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.
A Dickensian murder mystery. A brutal modern-day gang. Can Helen Oddfellow outwit an old enemy – or will she be his next victim?
When literary researcher Helen Oddfellow finds an old newspaper clipping in an antiquarian bookshop in Rochester, she uncovers a Dickensian murder mystery. But her quest to solve the puzzle takes a dangerous turn when the bookshop owner disappears.
The 200-year-old report of a woman’s murder on the steps of London Bridge provides clues to the real-life inspiration for Nancy, one of Charles Dickens best-loved characters. As Helen investigates, she discovers the woman died because she knew a secret that the British establishment was intent on covering up. Now Helen knows… and the secret is still alive today.
Helen teams up with the booksellers’ distraught teenage daughter, and enlists help from a charming businessman who seems to have more than a passing interest in Helen herself.
As they follows the dead man’s trail, Helen discovers that the eerie marshes of north Kent are home to a modern-day criminal gang more brutal than anything Dickens dreamed up. On the bleak shore of the Thames estuary, she comes face to face with an old enemy . Can she keep Nancy’s secret from him, without sharing her fate?
Expected publication: August 2022
Long-listed for the Stockholm Writers Festival’s First 5 Pages prize.
I had a great time recording an audio-tour, Dead Men in Deptford, to celebrate Deptford Literature Festival in March 2022. The tour takes in local literary types from Christopher Marlowe to Charles Dickens, diarists Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, Joseph Conrad and Anthony Burgess.
The tour is still online, so you can listen in, download the map and transcript, and visit yourself – or just listen in and imagine the scenery!