Meet prolific crime writer, J.C. Briggs!

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Welcome to my website, Jean!

Your international career, before becoming a prolific author, was as an English and Drama teacher. Can you tell us something about this fascinating part of your life and how you came to be working in the Far East?

I went to teach in Hong Kong because of two love affairs – one that had ended and one that was beginning. The one that ended was painful and I wanted a fresh start; the one that was beginning led me to Hong Kong, but, alas, the person concerned was posted to America and that was the end of that. However, I loved the new school, made many friends, and met my husband so Hong Kong has a special place in my life, though I have not been back for many years and will probably never return.

 

Do you think that your previous involvement in drama has enabled you to deepen the characterisation and events within your novels?

I think reading made me a writer, and teaching English and Drama, too. Everything you have ever read feeds your imagination and contributes to your experience and understanding.

 

In 2012 retirement coincided with the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth. This sparked the idea of creating a detective series featuring Charles Dickens. How daunting was this once you had made the decision to commit to writing the series?

I didn’t think about a series. I just had the idea for a detective story – I’d always wanted to write one and when I read about Dickens’s founding of The Home for Fallen Women, the idea came to me about a murder there. The first book sparked the second. At this stage I was thrilled to find that I could do it and it wasn’t until I embarked on a third that I realised what a hazardous undertaking it was – to have the nerve – cheek, even, to use Charles Dickens as a detective, but it was too late, the first one was published. No one seemed to object so I have carried on to write eight so far – number six has just been published by the wonderful Sapere books.

The Quickening and the Dead

You obviously had an in depth knowledge of the author’s work, but how much further did you need to delve into his life and writings to really feel you understood the man?

I read as many of the biographies as I could – I knew the facts must be right. The most important resource to stimulate my imagination is the letters – 14,000 of them in the Pilgrim edition, and these give me Dickens’s voice as well as facts about his life, opinions he held, and his attitudes to the issues of his day and to the people he knew. The speeches are very useful, too, as is Household Words for which there is an on-line edition. If I get stuck, lack inspiration, or generally feel I can’t get on with a book, I read his, and very often a quotation or incident sets me off again.

 

What was the most surprising aspect of his amazing life that you discovered?

His boundless energy – it is astonishing how much he did, not only as an author, but as a journalist, editing Household Words and writing numerous articles for it, making speeches, presiding over philanthropic enterprises, directing and acting, writing all those letters, walking as many as 17 miles a day, dining out, and having a wife and family of nine children. There were actually ten, but Dora died as a baby.

 

Were you surprised when you realised that Charles Dickens had generously supported The Home for Fallen Women? Do you think he was ahead of his time in understanding some of the social issues impoverishing women?

I was surprised to read about The Home for Fallen Women. It was an extraordinary thing for an author to do. What concerned him was the grim cycle of criminality – created by poverty – imprisonment followed by further crime because there was very little provision for women who went into prison. There has been some comment on his arranging for the young women to emigrate, but Dickens knew that they had to escape their past lives and start again.

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Have you had a strong response to your series from Dickens’ fans?

Yes I have. The most touching comment was ‘Charles Dickens would be proud of you.’ I’m not sure about that, but people do say that they have gone on to read Dickens again or for the first time because they’ve liked what they’ve read in my books and that is really pleasing – for a former English teacher.

 

Charles Dickens travelled widely giving readings. Do you intend to include various settings as the series continues, although mainly set in London?

I love the London setting – all gaslight, fog and dark alleys, made for murder. I did venture to Manchester in the third book. As luck would have it for Dickens, Superintendent Jones happened to be visiting Manchester at the same time. They went to Paris in the second book and Dickens was in Venice at the beginning of number five. The question set me thinking, though, about a country setting – a Chesney Wold sort of setting appeals, a large and gloomy house with wastes of empty rooms.

 

He was interested in ghosts, supernatural entities, mesmerism and séances as were many in the Victorian era. Would you ever attend such an event to try to make contact with the soul of the man himself? If so, is there a question you would love to pose to him?

He was very sceptical about séances or table-rapping as it was called. I don’t think I’d dare to try to make contact. Suppose he hated the idea of becoming a character in a book!

At Midnight In Venice

It is well documented that his marriage and his parenting skills were perhaps lacking by today’s expectations, but he had many dimensions and seems to have been gifted in other areas of his life. How much do you think his experience of Marshalsea debtors’ prison in his younger life affected his outlook upon the shortcomings of society and fuelled his drive to try and help educate people about these issues?

The number of prisons which appear in his works testify to the deep and enduring impression made by his father’s imprisonment in the Marshalsea. It was a scar on his heart and I do think it heightened his sympathy for the poor, especially children who were born into the most abject poverty and received no education. He supported the Ragged School Movement, the Foundling Hospital and various other charities for orphaned and abandoned children. He sponsored a shoe-black boy who was a Ragged School pupil, and there are many, many instances of private charitable acts. It was as if he felt that he would have been one of them had the family’s fortunes not improved.

 

Has your investigative Charles Dickens been compared to the fictional Sherlock Holmes? If so do you see them as very different characters or similar and in what ways?

I haven’t seen any comment about Sherlock Holmes. I think Dickens’s approach to the investigations is more intuitive and emotional than Holmes’s, though Dickens was said to be incredibly observant. His eyes missed nothing and he had a very exact memory for detail – useful traits for a detective. Holmes seems more ‘scientific’ to me and rather bloodless at times.

 

How careful/respectful are you of what he does within the fiction so that the reader who is not aware of the real man’s life is given a distorted reflection of the man he actually was?

I do try to be very careful about my portrayal of Dickens. As I said before, the facts must be right, but it is in the gaps where the historical novelist can invent something that might have happened in that space. A good example is my Manchester story. Dickens did go to Manchester with his amateur theatrical group and they performed a play by Bulwer-Lytton. I invented another occasion and included a different play by Bulwer-Lytton – a play that Dickens admired. I invented the murder, of course, and I chose a different theatre in Manchester, one which had been demolished, but I was astonished to find that there had been an accidental shooting in that very theatre and the property manager had been tried for manslaughter.
As to my version of Dickens, there have been comments that it is rather too fond a picture, but I have based it on my reading of him, and I do think his relationship with Superintendent Jones would be rather different from other relationships, and I do try to hint at his faults and his growing dissatisfaction in his marriage. Claire Tomalin says ‘everyone finds their own version of Charles Dickens’ and Charles Dickens, the detective is mine. I wanted to be true to the character of Dickens as I discovered him in his own works, his letters, his speeches, and the biographies. There is a very amusing – and rather prescient – quotation from Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest: ‘I am not in favour of this modern mania for turning bad people into good people at a moment’s notice…’ I’m saying the opposite – I am not in favour of turning good people into bad people, so I am careful. There is a danger that when a writer presents a famous figure in a very unflattering light, or even invents incidents in which the person, say, turns to crime or deviancy that is then believed by the general reader who may not have an academic knowledge. In the end, though, the detective story sets out to entertain so I really don’t think it is my place to invent a Dickens who is wicked, or criminal, or deviant.

 

The books are intriguing detective novels in their own right, but are also layered so that Dickensian references and threads are woven throughout. Do you consciously add these in or does it happen organically as you have absorbed so much research about the man, his life, his letters, novels and the reports about events he held?

I think the references to his life and works do come naturally now as I have read so much, though I still have to check the facts and dates.

 

Would your ideal dream to be to see your series televised? If so, who do you think would do the part justice?

It would be amazing to see the stories televised – what a dream! I saw Ralph Fiennes as Dickens in The Invisible Woman – he’ll do very nicely, thank you.

 

Who has inspired you the most in your work and your life?

My husband whom I miss every single day.

 

How have you stayed fit in mind and body throughout lockdown and these challenging times.

Gardening and walking about the country lanes to keep fit in body, and writing a new book, finding a new story for Dickens and Jones.

 

What is next for J C Briggs?

I have just signed a new contract with Sapere for two more Dickens books which are finished. I’ve started another, and I am contemplating a new series with a female protagonist. I’ve started writing fragments, but there’s no discernible plot yet, which is something of a problem. I hope one will emerge.

Thank you for your time and patience answering my questions in such an inspiring way and every continued success with your fascinating books.

Whitby: unique, beautiful and historic

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The historic maritime port of Whitby conjures up a myriad of images that connect people through time to this beautiful ancient town.

 

From the iconic Abbey ruins atop its headland, reminding us of its Christian heritage, to the harbour below where the Esk flows into the sea, a booming whaling industry thrived; now it is a tourist magnet and thriving community.

The existing Whitby Abbey ruins date from the Norman period when Benedictine monks founded a new abbey on the site of the original, which had been destroyed by Viking raiders in 867 AD. The order and abbey was to be destroyed and dissolved by Henry VIII.  However, it is the original abbey that holds its lasting place in history, founded by Oswy, King of Northumberland in 657AD and associated with St Hilda. The Synod of Whitby, which was held in 664AD, was noteworthy as Celtic Christians lost the debate with Roman Christians on how the calculation of Easter would be made, the effect of which we still feel today.

Whitby as a settlement can be traced back to the Bronze Age. Brigantes, Romans, Saxons, Vikings all played their part in the town’s development, but it was the abbey that first made the difference between a settlement and the town it would become, between the mid-C18 and C19, a thriving maritime port.

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The Yorkshire Saga #1

The Alum industry in the C16 century also played an important part in the growth of the importance of the port. Alum was an important fixative used in the dyeing of cloth. The remains of such a works can be explored at Ravenscar further along the coast. In To Love Honour and Obey this is mentioned, as the fires and smells of the process polluted the coastline at the time. Modern methods of production made the century old methods of alum production obsolete, but in the early C19 it thrived.
From the mid C18 to mid C19 the port was an important whaling, fishing, boat-building, rope and sail-making harbour with many associated industries prospering alongside.

One of these ‘trades’ was smuggling and the narrow alleyways and snickets were excellent for moving contraband through the streets unseen to the prying eyes of the customs or revenue men. Another use for them was for young and able men to dodge the pressgang should one dare to come by.

 

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Today Whitby is a bustling town where freshly caught fish are savoured in the many restaurants and inns. Whitby crab is delicious.

The White Horse and Griffin is a restored C18 coaching inn on the east side where Charles Dickens once stayed. The cobbled yard to its side, and the style of small brick out houses further along hidden in one of these yards, inspired the bath house where Willoughby takes Beth in The Yorkshire Saga series Book 1.

The visitor can take a trip out of the harbour and see for themselves the view many a returning sailor would have seen, as the church on the headland welcomed them home.

 

Whitby has many historic sites and buildings to explore, a myriad of gift and crafts shops. It also holds a number of popular festivals including the very lively and colourful Whitby Folk Week, the dramatic costumes of the Whitby Goth Weekend and even a Pirate Festival to name but a few.

The famous cartographer and explorer, James Cook, lived at his master’s house in Grape Lane in 1748 at age 18 as he served a merchant seaman’s apprenticeship.  The house is now the home of The Captain Cook Memorial Museum and is well worth a visit.

Sir William Scoresby is another famous native who invented the ‘crow’s nest’ to protect sailors, and his family’s legacy to the town and whaling industry is also celebrated within the town’s museum.

After the mid C19 the whaling industry and shipbuilding trade died down but a new invention, the railway, arrived and the town on the west side of the Esk developed to accommodate guests in fine hotels. This railway accesses the beauty of North Yorkshire NYMR such as Goathland, Grosmont and Pickering; some of the locations were used in TV’s Heartbeat series and Harry Potter. It is a really beautiful journey to take.

One of the guests who stayed here was Bram Stoker. This gave the town a connection to his famous work ‘Dracula’.

 

The 199 steps lead up from Church Street from the C15 cottages to St Mary’s church at the top and the abbey beyond it. The church inspired another scene within To Love Honour and Obey because of the unique box pews and the gallery above. The setting, building and views from outside this church are well worth a visit.
When Queen Victoria went into a long period of mourning, another of Whitby’s industries thrived; that of Whitby Jet. The Jurassic period’s fossilised remains were mined and skilfully crafted into jewellery. Once the fashion changed, and association to death dulled its popularity in the early C19, demand faded, but not completely as it has regained some popularity today.

 

Whitby also features in For Richer, For Poorer as Jerome and Parthena escape their pursuer in a Yorkshire coble. The harbour would have been busy with many vessels leaving from the steps at all times of day and night to catch the tide.

 

The Yorkshire Saga series is set against the beautiful setting of North Yorkshire weaving fact and fiction, real and imagined towns along the coat and moors.

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Crime and Punishment – Part 2

In my exploration around Ripon’s three amazingly well preserved law and order museums I was touched at the ease at which a person’s life, regardless of their age or sex, or the seriousness of the crime, could be devastated by incarceration, transportation or death.

The Police and Prison museum was mentioned in an earlier post.

The Courtroom, however, is based upon a Victorian courtroom and has been well preserved. It presents some shocking facts about how crime was dealt with from before this period too. The ‘Quarter Sessions’ were held at: Epiphany, Easter, Midsummer and Michaelmas and trial was by jury. Sentences passed here could send people to be punished in the market square or for more serious crimes to the County Assizes to hang.

From the seventeenth century the court could also sentence a ‘criminal’ to transportation to the colonies for up to 14 years. This could be instead of a death penalty. It was thought that criminal behaviour could spread so by removing it the problem it would literally go away by sending them to…

“His Majesties Colonies over the seas… preventing the communication of the cantagion.”

This was an extremely cruel system as many failed to return. Forgery was a capital offence, but this could be reduced to transportation. We usually link this to sending prisoners to New South Wales, Australia (1788-1868) as dramatised in the TV series Banished, but before this convicts were sent to the Americas from as early as 1610 to 1770’s.

Special gaols (jails) were built to house debtors. These were self-funding as inmates had to pay, if able, which made it difficult for them to clear the actual debts they were imprisoned for.

Suicide was judged as a crime and the bodies of such poor souls would be buried at crossroads rather than in consecrated ground.

Lesser sentences included whipping (for both sexes) pilloried or placed in stocks, was done publicly to humiliate and shame. Fines could be levied, but if the person was poor there was little point to this. When the standard of living improved then fines became more popular and they raised money to build more prisons, which were expensive to build and run.

A person could be bound over to keep the peace. It seemed normal for the harsher sentences to be levied against offenders who had already been before the court.

The last case of a man to be held in the stocks was in 1857. It was interesting to learn hat it was the Methodist and Evangelical Christians, who had previously been behind the banishment of slavery, who helped change public opinion and the law against such public cruelty as a punishment.

Vagrants and the poor had a different fate. If they stayed within the law and did not steal in order to feed their family they could end up in the harsh regime that was the workhouse. Ripon’s Workhouse certainly provides plenty of information about the long days and the harsh life of the individuals and families that were made to work there. Families were split, even mother’s from their children.

From being stripped and bathed at the entrance, to the early rise and long hours picking oakham (the threads were literally unpicked by hand (the phrase ‘money for old rope’ was born) to harder labour of breaking rocks. They did nothing to encourage people to stay willingly, but to make them work in the absence of any social welfare, they were places to avoid if possible.

Sophie's Dream Sophie’s Dream is to find an exciting life away from her strict education in a workhouse. She applies, with references, through an agency for a position as Governess in New South Wales. Along with other young women, she is chaperoned to their new life, beyond the social barriers in England. Abandoned on the quayside of Sydney, Sophie discovers the agency is a sham. Her instincts lead her to Mr Matthias Wells and a very different world opens up to her.

Sophie’s Dream is also available to buy on Smashwords!

More about crime and justice within the era: