I hope you’ve enjoyed your visit to the world of Matthew Corbett, and I hope you’ll follow Matthew’s story as it progresses. I intended this series to be a time machine of sorts, not only to tell an evolving tale of mystery and adventure but to show what life was like in the colonial era.
Having said that, I have to say also that the history depicted therein is not totally accurate, nor is it totally inaccurate. I suppose that’s like saying there are many shades of gray, but then again… there are many shades of gray.
I’m not sure anyone can write a totally accurate depiction of any historical era, simply because we don’t—and can’t—live there. We go by what’s already been researched and written, or we go by diaries or documents or maps, but the deal is that even with the most meticulous research and attention to detail we’re still looking at the era through our modern-day lens. We can’t help but do so. We know only what we’ve read and what researchers have surmised, and they too see the era through their own lens. So, in a way, the past must always remain a place that can never be fully and accurately reached, though we can surely visit it in our imaginations.
As a fiction writer, I have edited history to suit my story, and I’ll give you some examples of how and why.
I am certainly no expert. I might read and study and research day and night, but I’m never going to get everything right because I just can’t. Bear in mind also that there’s an expert for everything under the sun, but there’s no one expert for everything under the sun, which you have to kind of try to be when you’re writing a book of historical fiction…especially when it’s historical mystery fiction. I’m learning as I go along, but I’m never going to be perfect and my writing and research won’t be perfect either.
Case in point: the money. In the colonial era there was a bewilderment of different types of money that even makes the experts’ heads spin. Dutch money, Spanish coins, of course the English coinage, wampum and the barter system.. .wow. Put all those together, plus the fact that the value of money went up and down so rapidly over the span of the colonial era, and you have one big mess to clarify, if you’re going to deal with money at all. I had to, so I’ve simplified the issue of coinage in order not to overwhelm. Again, not totally accurate, but not totally inaccurate, either.
Here’s a small but interesting item: what do you call the three meals of the day? Breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Well, in the era I’m writing about these were called breakfast, dinner, and supper. In previous books in the series I used the more modern terms for meals, but I thought I might be more accurate here and use the colonial terms. Now, the problem comes about when a character asks another character to meet him for dinner at twelve noon. That’s going to knock a reader out of the story. Dinner at twelve noon? Must be a typo. The reader may well say: heck, this darn book’s full of typos! Dinner in the daytime? Supper at night? Supper? Isn’t that something a hillbilly eats?
See where I’m going with this? Actually, I grew up in the south hearing the term supper used for the nighttime meal, but I’m not sure most people are familiar with that term, and certainly not dinner instead of lunch. So I’m working through this, and though in this book there are a couple of “dinners” used to describe the nighttime meal, I’m moving more toward supper. As for “dinner” used to describe the midday meal, I just say…midday meal.
Again, not totally accurate but not totally inaccurate, either.
One big thing that I’m dealing with is the actual years the series is set in, and let me explain this so you might get a handle on it.
When I wrote the first novel featuring Matthew Corbett, Speaks the Nightbird, I planned for a single book, set in 1699 at what was basically near the end of the belief in witchcraft in the colonies. The book involves a woman accused of being a witch, so 1699 is when it needed to be because after that date you really don’t get any more reports of people believing in witchcraft in the old colony documents. So: 1699 it was.
Okay, so I retired or “went away” for a few years. Now one day I think, hm, y’know, I might like to do another book featuring Matthew Corbett. Well, now…where could I go with him? And I thought: I could combine the mystery and puzzles of Sherlock Holmes, the action of James Bond, the weird villains of Dick Tracy, the atmosphere of the Hammer costume-piece horror films of the ’50s, and bring my interest in American history, detective fiction and whatever else I might conjure up to a series. This sounded like it would be fun to write, and it also sounded as if it would be fun to read, which is always my first reason to want to create anything.
I wanted Matthew Corbett. Not Matthew’s son or grandson. But the more I read about the colonial era, the more I realized 1730 or so would be the most fertile starting place, because the social structure was more defined and there really was a lot going on. Also, the maps I found of New York tell an interesting tale: in 1690, it was a small, rather primitive town to our standards, but in 1730 it was well on its way to becoming everything we think of as a “city” today.
But…if Matthew was twenty in 1699, in 1730 he would be…fifty-one?
I have no problem with people over fifty, since I’m one myself, but the idea of a swashbuckling hero fifty-one years old setting out on a quest to uncover a mystery on a global scale did not sit right.
So, what I’ve done is combined the eras of 1690 and 1730 and come out with something in-between that I can live with, and that Matthew can live with. I am trying to be faithful to the atmosphere of what was, but once again…not totally accurate, not totally inaccurate.
One thing I would have missed out on by setting the series in 1730 was Lord Cornbury. He actually was the governor of New York and New Jersey from 1701 to 1708, and there’s a portrait of him in the New York Historical Society that shows him dressed in women’s clothes. Evidently he was obsessed with pleasing his cousin, the Queen, and has been hailed as the archetype of the crooked politician as well as at the time called “a degenerate and pervert” for his habit of crossdressing. Reports say he may have worn a dress when he attended the funeral of his wife. What’s not to love about that kind of character?
Speaking of another character, and I would be terribly remiss if I did not: Mister Slaughter himself.
In England in the 1930s, a stage actor changed his name to Tod Slaughter, and soon became known as “Mr. Murder” for the roles he so vividly portrayed. Slaughter was an original, and he broke the mold. He was an over-the-top, scene-stealing, red-blooded, teeth-clenching, funeral-bell-laughing villain, and it’s thought that he portrayed Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, at least 2,000 times on stage. His film version of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street was released in 1936. In the movie The Crimes of Stephen Hawke, he actually breaks the spine of a small boy. His villain in that piece is aptly known as “The Spinebreaker.”
Slaughter’s characters are usually upwardly-mobile scoundrels with an eye for young ladies with family money. Murder was soon to follow. His performances are not for everyone, for sure, and they may not have “aged” well, but when I was a little boy and Horror Creeper Theater came on at eleven o’clock on Saturday nights showing a Tod Slaughter movie with its scratched film and strangely-muffled soundtrack…man, I was there.
I would like to think that Mister Slaughter would appreciate this encore performance.
Hopefully, you’ll understand more of both where I’m coming from and where I’m going with this series. As I say, I’m not an expert, but I’m learning. The challenge is writing what is essentially a “modern” mystery around a “period” settling. Matthew Corbett’s world is both elegant and brutal, more pure than we can know and more wicked than we can imagine, and I think that this combination is what’s always interested me about the era.
So: I do hope you’ll return for more adventures with Matthew, and his continuing struggle against the hand of Professor Fell. Though Matthew Corbett’s world may be a place that can never be fully and accurately reached, it will be more than enough for our imaginations.
I thank you for your continued readership, and your gentle graces.
Your Humble Servant,
Originally presented in Mister Slaughter, Subterranean Press, 2010.