David Cairns on The Case Of The Wandering Corpse

Amy Chandler

The detective novelist discusses his latest.
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What inspired your latest novel The Case of the Wandering Corpse

The murder that introduces Gask and Rait had its genesis in 1864, after Franz Muller – a German tailor – was publicly hanged for the murder of Thomas Briggs. This was the first murder on a British train. At the time, because trains were in their infancy, the British public worried about the safety of this new mode of travel so the case was sensationalised by the Press. It was further boosted by Scotland Yard detectives pursuing him as he attempted to flee to New York across the Atlantic Ocean.

The relocation of the body in my story might have been triggered by a sub-conscious recollection of Sherlock Holmes’s The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans first published in 1908 in the Strand magazine.  I won’t spoil that story by revealing any more for those still to experience the Sherlockian joys!

Errol Rait uses plaster of Paris to cast the footprints of the killer at the docks, what was crime solving like during the nineteenth century? What techniques were vital in catching a killer?

In 1844, Victoria formed a specialised Detective Force. However, corruption soon became endemic and by the 1880s it had become a public scandal with Detectives criticised for their dubious information-gathering methods and lack of accountability. And, although Eugene Vidocq founded an investigative unit in the early 1800s in France which introduced forensic concepts, the use of forensic science to assist in the detection of crime did not really begin to take root until the turn of the century.

Detecting amongst the ‘professionals’ at this time was consequently mostly a case of using logic, eyewitnesses, extracting confessions and persuading the vulnerable to testify against their associates – easier to do in these days when the death penalty was used so frequently, even in cases where no victims had been killed.

Australia is presented as a melting pot of different cultures with criminals Jan Pienaar, Retief and Willem Nel leaving South Africa for a life of independence. What was the appeal for those settling in Australia?

The overwhelming lure from 1850 until the 1890s was the discovery of gold. In the twenty years to 1871 the non-aboriginal population quadrupled to 1.7 million as migrants arrived from across the world to make their fortune including a substantial Chinese contingent.

 For those struggling to survive in a class-conscious European clime or in religiously conservative societies like the Transvaal or Orange Free State, Australia offered freedom and the prospect of wealth, encouraging both entrepreneurs and those seeking to prey on the wealthy around them.

The mysterious secret society that only communicates in Afrikaans creates a sense of danger and intrigue, were these types of criminal gangs rife in Australia?

 Australia was probably no worse and no better than any frontier society of the time.  Colonial Australia was, of course, famous for its Bushrangers, and criminal gangs flourished in The Rocks district of Sydney too. The Rocks Push gang, or the ‘Push’, was notorious and was engaged in running warfare with other gangs of the time such as the Straw Hat Push and the Glebe Push.

With a surging Chinese population, it would also be inevitable that Chinese triads would flourish.  The Chinese normally arrived as contract labourers, digging for gold to pay off their indentures while family back home would be bound to serve the man who controlled them. There was also a flourishing Chinatown in Melbourne and Sydney at this time.

The Broederskap society in Australia is my own invention, very loosely modelled on Die Broederbond, a secret society that existed in South Africa.

The docks are a location for illegal deals and a heightened sense of political unrest, what inspired you to use this location as the heart of the secret society?

In an era where imports and exports were loosely governed but highly taxed (remember the Boston Tea party!) the docks offered a quick way to make money..  Although there were and are skilled people who worked there, it was also an obvious place for the poor and unskilled to gather to obtain work.

The fact that these labourers had no job security and were at the mercy of shipowners and others could create a febrile atmosphere for those wishing to leverage this discontent.

The docks can also be a dark, murky world. In Sherlock Holmes’s stories the brooding menace of the docks in Victorian times was a regular ingredient and, for me, it provided the perfect place to involve the villains of the piece.

What types of research did you conduct when writing this novel?

It helped that my wife and friends have been or are Melbourne residents so there is a ready source to tap to verify locations at least.

But this only helps you so far because more than 150 years ago things were very, very different.  So, underlying everything, is a search for veracity.  Did this or that building exist in 1864?  Has it changed at all? How did you travel from Melbourne to Ballarat?  Was it raining? How long did it take? What was this or that real-life character like? And so on and so on.

This involves digging back into a variety of documents.  Old newspapers, parish records, biographies, autobiographies, published academic research, genealogical records, weather records, reference libraries.  Most important for me is having physically experienced the locations.  One hundred and fifty years ago is not really that far back and, with the right mind’s eye, it’s possible to transport yourself back to that age and see the road, the building, the people walking by as they would have been.

What do you enjoy about writing detective fiction?

First and foremost it’s the freedom. I began writing with a two-volume book about the life and times of my wife’s forbears who were transported to Australia in the 1830s. I was often tempted to add a flourish with an imagined event that would have been exciting or intriguing but improbable, so I didn’t do it.  It was a true story. Writing fiction, however, albeit intertwined with real events and facts, was liberating in this regard.

I still remember the first time I picked up a Sherlock Holmes story.  The intriguing plots, the atmosphere. This combined with transporting yourself back in time and meeting real characters that lived during that momentous century is also something of which I will never tire. You may know that the Melbourne Cup is Australia’s biggest horse race, but how about actually riding a horse in the very first race or living the Eureka Stockade massacre?

What’s next for detective duo Rait and Gask?

There’s a big world out there and the century still has many inventions to discover, conflicts to endure….  The next chapter will be entitled ‘The Case of the Beth-El Stone”.

It starts in Melbourne but sees Findo Gask and Erroll Rait as well as Mary Mitchell travel back to Scotland where they find themselves wrapped up in an adventure that began in the dawn of time and ends with the Knights Templar, a descendant of Bonnie Prince Charlie and others clashing with matters of State.

There is also the question of what’s going on between Findo and Mary and where will that lead…

David Cairns of Finavon was, until recently, a technology entrepreneur. He has lived and worked on four continents and, after many years making his home in the Perthshire highlands, these days makes he stays on the Gold Coast with his Australian wife. He is the author of The Helots’ Tale series – Downfall and Redemption – and the Gask and Rait Mysteries series. His latest novel The Case of the Wandering Corpse, is available from all good book retailers) www.CairnsofFinavon.com.

Interview by Amy Chandler