In a real life incident that took place in 1918, the famous magician Chung Ling Soo was shot to death on a London stage in front of two thousand people.
The inquest returned a verdict of death by misadventure. But what if it was wrong? What if somebody hated the magician so much, they murdered him and made it look like an accident…?
Graduate reporter Emily Bennett thinks so. She’s been obsessed with Chung Ling Soo ever since the fateful night she sat among the audience watching him die. When she’s commissioned to write an article on the anniversary of his death, Emily uncovers a story of revenge, deception and thwarted love set in a hedonistic 1920’s London, where nobody is who they appear to be.
She meets several strangers during her investigation, each with their own secret to keep, and Emily must put her life in danger to uncover the explosive truth of what really happened to the greatest magician of the age.
Targeted Age Group:: 18+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I wrote my book partly in response to Western perceptions of Chinese in the 1920 – to show that behind the caricatures of drug-addled, criminally-minded fiendish Orientals were real people, many of whom were refugees fleeing war-torn homes in an attempt to make new lives in an alien and deeply hostile land. I was also keen on finding out more about the sudden surge of women into the workplace after world war one and men's often often reprehensible responses to this. I also wanted to write a story that includes non-stereotypical gay characters. Finally I love the 1920s, London and exploring the motivations that drive people to commit crimes.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Emily Bennett comes from all the strong plucky motivated women I have met in my life – she is graduate reporter trying to break into the male-dominated newspaper industry in 1920s London. I created Jack Muldoon to represent all the unspoken, written out of history men who loved (and lost ) other men in the trenches of the first world war. Edward Tait, an entitled young man to begin with, goes on a journey with Jack that leads him, through grief of his own, to becoming a better person. I wrote Sam Kincaid, drug baron, to explore how a seminal childhood incident can mar and form a man's character, ultimately leading him to depravity. Fionnuala Mayhew, owner of a 1920s London nightclub was a combination of Tallulah Bankhead and independent, slightly-mad women I have met – she was great fun to create.
At around the same time on the Friday morning that Emily Bennett was making ready for her first interview, Edward’s mother woke him up with a cup of tea and a caution not to dawdle, for it was, she reminded him, collection day from the docks. He sat up, took in the surprising fact that he was still dressed, and was about to lift the cup to his lips when memories of the night before came sidling in, like spiteful orphans. Whereupon, addressing no-one in particular, perhaps his conscience, he said out loud, in a voice thick with sleep, ‘Oh dear God, tell me it’s not true.’
‘Tell me,’ he said groaning, ‘that I didn’t agree to become a smuggler.’
I’m not a criminal, thought Edward, I can’t be, I like musicals and fine dining. He jumped out of bed, peeled off Thursday’s clothes and washed in distracted haste, trying to piece his evening together. Feathers, he remembered, Shanghai Jack was going to hide stolen ostrich feathers in with the chests of tea. Edward was to stash them somewhere safe, unopened, until they met later in the pub. He dressed, half-stricken with remorse, and mumbling to his mother that he had no appetite for breakfast, Edward walked out the door to the bus stop through the misery of a cruel April morning.
By the time he reached the warehouse in Mincing Lane, he’d worked himself up into such a pitch that even Dolores remarked how peaky he looked. Then he went in search of Big Pete, to ask if he wouldn’t mind getting the cart ready, only to find him in the yard doing just that. Edward couldn’t face going upstairs to make a cup of tea, it meant having to pass by Dolores’ desk, and she had a way of looking at him.
Instead he hovered, watching Pete work, trying to convince himself that he’d imagined it all, Shanghai Jack wouldn’t be waiting, the day would pan out as it always did, blessedly uneventful. It would mean having to forgo the money, but at least he’d be saved from a hanging, the fate Edward had in mind as he and Pete drove through the gates into claustrophobic old St Katharine Dock.
Squeezed between the Tower of London, the Royal Mint and neighbouring London Dock, to which it was united in one larger system, the cramped twenty-three acres of docks had about them a cloistered oppression, as if guiltily aware that a medieval Church, from which it derived its name, as well as a poor hospital, had been knocked down to make room for it, at great and bitter expense. Some 11,000 inhabitants had been dispossessed in the process, the soil on which their houses and tenements once stood having been shipped up river to provide reclaimed land for wealthier homes in Pimlico.
Built at prodigious speed in the name of commerce, St Katharine came close to failing even at that, its single grand purpose. Shortly after opening, engineers started designing bigger steamships with deeper drafts that it was too shallow to accommodate, and so was obliged to accept crumbs swept from the tables of its grander, more modern relations down river.
The dock had been laid out in a rough quadrangular shape around two main bodies of water enclosing a third, smaller basin where the medieval poor hospital had once stood. Surrounding the basins were a series of lofty warehouses, brooding on white painted cast-iron columns. Stone-blackened with barred windows, they resembled nothing short of prison blocks to Edward’s overwrought mind that morning. The unwholesome air rang with the sounds of the docks, they echoed off high dripping walls into his aching head, and Edward the penitent clattered over the stones under a fine drift of black ash from ships’ funnels, in a muddle of self-condemnation for a crime he was yet to commit.
At length they arrived in the cart-yard facing ‘C’ warehouse where, along with a dozen or so other vehicles, horses steaming and stamping in the damp chill, they waited their turn to be summoned by the Customs Officer. Pete wandered off for a chat, he always knew somebody or other, while Edward gave Old Hob his nosebag, and took the opportunity to gather his thoughts.
There was no denying he’d had too much to drink and put himself in a predicament. Here he was, however, halfway to becoming a smuggler, and what could be done about it but be pragmatic? Whatever else he might have said to Shanghai Jack, Edward hadn’t exaggerated when he explained that his customs clearance note did provide him with safe passage out the docks. Provided, that was, the tea chests tallied with the weights given in the note. Anything much over, and Edward knew they could be opened for inspection.
When at last their turn came, he approached the Customs Officer, on the edge of the colonnade, a large beam-scale weight to one side of him. He was a lanky man, and being too big for his portable desk, two large booted feet protruded from the other side of it, into which Edward unwittingly stumbled.
Mr Moffat, Customs Officer, had started his morning by stepping barefooted into a pot of cold piss. Driven to distraction by his snoring, Mrs Moffat had banished him to spend the night on a camp bed in their son’s bedroom. Some hours later, he was woken by the sound of his son peeing into the chamber pot like a colt, which ten-year-old Ronald then left in the middle of the room, ready for his father to step in.
Mr Moffat’s mood wasn’t improved by the discovery, at breakfast, that there wasn’t any milk for his tea. The cows in the Welsh dairy round the corner had ‘turned’, his wife informed him, and she was saving what was left of the condensed milk for Ronald. Mrs Moffat didn’t want him catching rickets, and made sure to administer a daily dose of calcium. In vain did Mr Moffat point out that the dairy in Ropemakers’ Fields wasn’t the only place to get milk. His wife told him she got enough lip from their son and sent him on his way with a warning to come straight home after work.
St Katharine wasn’t Mr Moffat’s usual domain, he disliked the decrepit place, it was like working in a tomb, but the usual officer in charge, Mr Merrywether, had been confined to bed suffering a case of severe gout and Mr Moffat had been asked to fill in. Knowing his luck, it would end up becoming permanent, and fixing with a glare the young oaf who had just kicked him, he said, ‘I’ll thank you to mind your step.’
‘I’m dreadfully sorry,’ said Edward, his heart sinking. He didn’t dare ask what had become of Mr Merrywether. This new fellow looked and sounded like he’d stepped from a coffin.
Mr Moffat raised a bony hand, rattled it impatiently, snatched the proffered customs note and began reading, methodically. That he liked to approach everything in life from the same predictable vantage point was evident from the symmetrical arrangement of stationery and red ledger lying open beside his elbow on the desk. It was an approach explaining his consternation at breakfast. Mr Moffat had heard of people who drank their tea without milk. He wasn’t one of them. It also explained why, having spent his morning athwart of methodical, he intended on extracting as much satisfaction as he could from the young upstart standing in front of him, as a way of balancing the scales.
Reaching the end of the page, Mr Moffat put the note aside and Edward, in agony, dared raise his hopes, not realising the Customs Officer had only just begun. Proceeding to run a bony digit down one page of the ledger, Mr Moffat found his place, picked up a fountain-pen, and set to writing, with great deliberation, tip of a pink tongue peeking from the corner of his mouth, oblivious, it seemed, to the grind of the docks around him. This done, he laid down the pen, picked up the note and waved it in the air, all the while looking at Edward, as if to say, ‘yes, sonny, you’re in for it’.
A porter answered the call, plucked the note from Mr Moffat’s hand, and placing it in the basket at the end of the rope, gave a tug. It was drawn up level with the loophole door, and pulled into the shadows. Before long, the first of the wooden tea chests comprising Edward’s consignment was lowered down in a net. He watched in a cold sweat as it settled onto the cobblestones.
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