David Cairns on The Case of the Emigrant Niece

Amy Chandler

The author of a new novel set in 19th century Australia discusses the story, his influences and the gold rush.
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The novel centres around the gold rush era in Australia – what inspired you to write about this time period?

My first novel came about because I was researching my Australian wife’s forbears who were transported to Van Diemen’s Land in the 1830s. Once they had served their sentences, they moved to the mainland and landed bang in the middle of the world’s largest gold rush. It was almost inevitable that they would become involved although we didn’t know that until I started my research.  There followed a year or so of research and I found the whole episode to be mesmerising. Additionally, I have always enjoyed Dickens and Conan Doyle so the period was one that attracted me – near enough to be tangible, distant enough to have its own distinct character.

Did your research dig up any examples of the negative aspects of such a lucrative period in history?

Although the goldrush created great wealth; particularly in the later stages, most people barely made ends meet – it was as the Australian’s say, unforgiving hard yakka!  The colonial government was repressive and a haven for upper class rejects and chancers from the UK (although not all filled this mould) and the inevitable nepotism and corruption followed.  This mindless approach to managing things led to the nearest thing Australia had or has come to an armed revolution, the Eureka Stockade massacre which I describe in my previous novel, The Helots’ Tale: Redemption.

What excites you to write about the nineteenth century?

It was a period of huge change; the industrial revolution brought greater efficiency and capability but at enormous human cost, too.  The changes are fascinating but tangible.  I enjoy researching the details as well as the major events, ensuring that, for example, you don’t have your characters crossing the Forth Bridge because it hadn’t been built yet but rather crossing the Forth on an ingenious ferry.  In such a setting there are many stories of right and wrong, haves and have nots, underclass and upper class.  It was an age with great atmosphere and I love using the English language to paint pictures and stir emotions, so such an atmospheric backdrop is fuel for my fire.

The story of Mary Mitchell’s missing inheritance is one that has a satisfying and uplifting ending, but how often, or if at all, were women swindled out of their inheritance and financial security in a world that was so male-dominated?

As anyone who watches period drama or reads or listens to stories of the era, it was a fact of life that upon marriage, women became chattels and their personal fortunes transferred to their husband. Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice portrayed a woman’s lot eloquently, marriage was the goal, but marriage was also a route to penury and/or misery too often. Mary Mitchell’s situation was, however, really a tale of corruption that continues to this day – a modern equivalent is Britney Spears’s guardianship travails. Where people have power (and its usually men) the desire to profit from those over whom you have power is a dangerous temptation. I have also worked with many lawyers in my career. Some good, others not so but it’s rare to find one who deliberately damages his client for his or her gain. My story was inspired in part by thinking about how easy it would be for an unprincipled man to take advantage of his situation – especially in the much less regulated 1800s.

The novel has many twists and turns where Errol Rait and Findo Gask are so close to catching Icarus Chiles. What made you decide to not imprison Chiles for his crimes and instead have a form of ‘natural justice’?

I was tempted!  However, I wanted to leave his fate ‘up in the air’ for a possible future appearance.  My own Reichenbach Falls!

Are there any specific mystery series that inspired you to follow down this choice of genre and characters?

One reviewer commented, “The style of this novel has more in common with Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone than with a 21st-century publication” and there is a conscious attempt to try to recreate not only the atmosphere of the time but also – to some extent – the writing style of 19th century authors (without the laborious paragraphs of musing about irrelevant matters that some authors felt obliged to use – perhaps a sign of our times where we have much less time available). I certainly try to emulate Dickens’s powerful language at times and, although Conan Doyle wrote short stories for Sherlock Holmes (which demands a different plot structure and timing than a full-length novel) I am sure there are influences here too.

Can you recommend any books, historians or resources that readers can use to learn more about the gold rush era of Melbourne or the 19th century in general?

Much has been written about this era. I can recommend Nothing but Gold by Robyn Annear and Rebellion at Eureka by Alan Tucker for something specific. More generally The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes is a fascinating book on the founding of Australia.  For a simple precis and further research, the National Museum of Australia is as good a place as any to start: https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/gold-rushes.

The novel has several dynamic locations, in particular the isolation of Australia from the rest of the world. Did you discover any first-hand accounts or reports that shed light on how isolated this country was from the rest of the world?

This was one of the challenges of writing the book.  I like to keep things moving at an engaging pace but, of course, at this time things just didn’t happen quickly for the most part.  There was no telephone, no telegraph to Europe, no airplanes, only sailing ships that took 3 months or more to reach Melbourne from London or Portsmouth.  So a communication with England took at least 7 months.  Tracking the convict ships out to Australia was instructive.  There are several Ship’s Surgeon’s reports extant which make you realise how isolated individuals were at the time.  Not just when settled in Hobart, for example but also while travelling and out of reach of everything, alone on the vast seas.  Studying newspaper articles of the time also throws up first-hand accounts of the time and I wove much of this into the fabric of the book.

The novel has a Sherlock Holmes-esque nature – are you a Watson or a Holmes? And why?

Yes, it does.  I’ve never thought to put myself in either man’s shoes but I guess, inasmuch as Rait is the Sherlockian character – although more sociable – and Gask is his sidekick – although no dummy himself – and Gask is telling the story, I must have a soft spot for Watson.  I also am still waiting for Holmes to conclude that the newcomer is a reporter just back from India with a first cousin in the army only for the newcomer to destroy the analysis, “No. I’m a chef with no army connections and I’ve never travelled out of London” and better still, have Watson divine the truth!   Watson is the more human character, and I think more empathetic.

Can readers expect the return of Rait and Gask?

Absolutely.  I’ve had more than one reviewer ask the same question, eager to read the next chapter.  I’m 20% of the way through their next adventure, The Case of the Wandering Corpse.  I’m hoping to have it released this April or May.  This will, however involve less travel and is likely to be more complex in the storyline.  But still Rait and Gask and Mary Mitchell too will be front and centre!

David Cairns of Finavon is an author and his latest novel The Case of the Emigrant Niece is out now.