I’m delighted to welcome Helen Barrell to the blog today. Helen is a writer of historical crime fiction and non-fiction and her first book, Poison Panic, told the true story of arsenic deaths in 1840s Essex and was published in 2016. Her second title, Fatal Evidence, was published on the 4th of September and is a biography of Alfred Swaine Taylor, a leading nineteenth-century forensic scientist. Here’s Helen to tell us a little more about it.
Can you describe your new book in one succinct but sensual sentence?
From crime scene to laboratory to courtroom – and sometimes to the gallows – this is the world of Alfred Swaine Taylor and his fatal evidence…
What compelled you to write about a forensic scientist, and why?
Fatal Evidence evolved out of my first book, Poison Panic. And Poison Panic came about thanks to my fascination with poisons (thanks, Sherlock, Poirot and Miss Marple!) and a note I found in a parish register saying that a man had been poisoned with arsenic. In researching Poison Panic, I kept bumping into Alfred Swaine Taylor. He was the toxicological expert witness who found arsenic in the poisoning victims – or in a couple of cases, found no poison at all, which saved a couple of necks. Then he turned up at the investigation of a strangulation, to analyse bloodstains. And this was 1850; I had no idea that bloodstains could be analysed that early.
I found Taylor fascinating, and started to research him – he nearly ended up with his own chapter in Poison Panic. But I wanted that book to focus on the lives of the women who were accused of poisoning, and an entire chapter on Taylor would disrupt the flow. Besides, I’d found out so much about him by then that I realised he needed not just his own chapter, but his own book!
Which authors have been your main inspirations?
I know it’s boring and obvious, but I suppose Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, because although they wrote fiction, it was reading their stories at an impressionable age that left me fascinated by poisons and historical crime-fighting. The moment I saw the word “arsenic” in that burial register, my inner Holmes/Poirot went into overdrive!
As far as true crime goes, Kate Summerscale is of course an inspiration; The Suspicions of Mr Whicher did a great job in interesting people in Victorian crime. But I also found Judith Flanders’ The Invention of Murder really interesting – I read it when I started to research Poison Panic, and Taylor pops up in it a few times too.
How does your writing process work; confusion and paper flying everywhere or calm and ordered?
As these are true crimes, I have to make sure I don’t miss anything, or distort the facts. So I compile very tight timelines of events. For Poison Panic, the timelines for each of the three protagonists went to one or two sides of A4 each, but Professor Taylor required a huge spreadsheet.
Taylor’s spreadsheet included usual life events of birth, marriage and death, but it also featured publishing dates for his articles and books, as well as the cases that he worked on. Then in two box files I had A4 envelopes ordered by decade (the 1850s and 1860s needed more than one envelope each because he was so busy!) containing print-outs of newspaper articles and sometimes his own articles, book chapters etc, all in chronological order.
I’m glad I did it that way even though I know it sounds tedious. And it meant I could find intriguing overlaps with cases. Why didn’t Taylor start his analysis of William Palmer’s alleged victim, John Parsons Cook, as soon as the remains arrived in his laboratory? The answer is perfectly simple once you have a timeline: he still had to go up to the north-east for the trial of Joseph Snaith Wooler, the defendant in the Great Burdon Slow Poisoning Case.
What is your guilty pleasure when writing? (Chocolate, wine, coffee…)
Vast quantities of tea, the occasional gin, far too much chocolate, a cheeky pork pie, with a musical accompaniment of Chopin and John Field.
Please share your blurb with us.
A surgeon and chemist at Guy’s Hospital in London, Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor used new techniques to search the human body for evidence that once had been unseen. As well as tracing poisons, he could identify blood on clothing and weapons, and used hair and fibre analysis to catch killers.
Taylor is perhaps best remembered as an expert witness at one of Victorian England’s most infamous trials – that of William Palmer, ‘The Rugeley Poisoner’. But he was involved in many other intriguing cases, from a skeleton in a carpetbag to a fire that nearly destroyed two towns, and several poisonings in between.
Taylor wrote widely on forensic medicine. He gave Charles Dickens a tour of his laboratory, and Wilkie Collins owned copies of his books. His work was known to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and he inspired the creation of fictional forensic detective Dr Thorndyke. For Dorothy L. Sayers, Taylor’s books were ‘the back doors to death’.
From crime scene to laboratory to courtroom – and sometimes to the gallows – this is the world of Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor and his fatal evidence.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Helen Barrell is a librarian and author. She has appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Punt PI, has written for magazines such as Fortean Times and Family Tree, and guest blogs for Findmypast. She has given talks at literature festivals and for local and family history groups. Her first book, Poison Panic: Arsenic Deaths in 1840s Essex, was published in 2016.