Turpin’s Assassin: Richard Foreman Interview

The infamous highwayman has a new lease of life.
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You have written many bestselling novels set in both Ancient Rome and the medieval period. Dick Turpin, and Turpin’s Assassin veers away from your usual spheres and paints a picture of 18th century England. How did you find writing about a different historical era, and do you see yourself writing more novels set during this time period?

A change is as good as a rest. I wanted to write something fun and different. As much as I needed to climb a hill and immerse myself in a brand new character and wave of research, it was a challenge worth accepting. As with Rome and medieval England, I wanted to allude to how much the era and people of the past are the same (as well as different) to those today. As a Londoner, born and bred, it was fun and fascinating to read about the capital in the 18th century. If you think that this generation somehow invented excessive drinking and casual sex, then think again. Britain both found its feet – and even its swagger – in the 18th century. It witnessed the growth of empire, coffee shop culture, literature, industry, gin consumption, among other things.

I will certainly continue to write more Turpin novels. As to whether I will write another series set the during period, your guess is as good as mine at the moment.

Dick Turpin was a notorious criminal – violent and wicked. What first attracted you to writing about Turpin? Why did you decide to soften some of the harsher facets of his character and background?

I originally flirted with the idea of writing a series about Robin Hood. But Angus Donald and David Pilling have done so recently. Despite the numerous comics and screen adaptations concerning Dick Turpin (including Carry on Dick, of course), I thought there was a gap in the market for a series of novels about him, which combined both fact and fiction. Readers like crime, as well as history. Turpin allows me to combine the two. The real Dick Turpin was indeed unpleasant, at best. I have tried not completely shy away from his crimes (most notably the robbery at Earlsbury Farm and the murder of Thomas Morris) but, as I mention in the End Note, the novel explores the myth as much as the man. Whereas I have tried to remain faithful to the historical record when dealing with figures such as Marcus Aurelius, Henry V and Bohemond of Taranto – with Turpin I gave myself more licence. There is still something of the anti-hero, as well as the hero, about him though, in the narrative.

Aside from the protagonist, the novel features other intriguing and well-developed characters that help to drive the plot and mould the atmosphere of eighteenth-century England. Where did you find inspiration for the other characters, such as Pierre Vergier, Nathaniel Gill and Marie Harley?

I wanted to create a villain in Pierre Vergier that one could compare and contrast with Turpin. He is almost an undistilled version of the highwayman. He is beyond the law, and certain moral codes. A self-diagnosed superior being. He is violent and vile, which only makes it all the more surprising that readers have somehow taken to Vergier. If Turpin is akin to Richard Sharpe, then Nathaniel Gill is his Harper. Gill helps to provide some humour and humanity, to both the book and Turpin’s life. Marie Harley can be seen as a counterpoint to Turpin’s wife, Elizabeth, as well as a character in her own right. Her relationship with Turpin also allows him to move in more rarefied circles. Sometimes brandy inspires me, sometimes vodka.

Like in many crime novels, there is often a surprising twist that takes place. That is certainly the case in Turpin’s Assassin. Did you find it difficult to integrate the twist or did you feel that it came about quite naturally?

As with other crime novels I have written, I was keen to include one or more twists in Turpin’s Assassin. Indeed, I often come up with a twist in a plot and then work backwards from there. It takes quite a bit of forethought in relation to devising the story, tone and protagonist for the first book in a series. As much as there is a plan in place though, I always give myself room to manoeuvre. One also needs to be clever and to try to stay one step ahead of canny and well-read readers nowadays.

Can you outline what your writing process looks like – from obtaining a novel idea, to conducting the research, to the finished book?

It’s not that it’s a secret or mystery, but it’s difficult for me to explain. I usually pick a figure or moment from history to write about (such as the First Crusade, the Agincourt campaign or the lives of Julius and Augustus Caesar). The history provides a certain amount of structure – but I am a novelist, I do get to make events and characters up. I have certainly got better over the years in terms of structuring books and not over researching things. Due to having written quite a few books, I have grown more proficient at editing myself – and knowing where my strengths and weaknesses reside. For the most part the research process involves lots of reading. Like Turpin, I am fond of buying and consuming books. My house is full of them, along with empty bottles of brandy and vodka.

Can you tell us what we may look forward to in the upcoming novels in the Dick Turpin series?

I am currently writing Turpin’s Rival, the second book in the series. The plan will be to write five books in total. I would like to include William Hogarth, the painter and satirist, in one of the novels at some point. Similarly, Samuel Johnson may make a re-appearance. Other than that, I only have some loose plans. Suffice to say I am looking forward to being inspired.

Richard Foreman’s Turpin’s Assassin is out now.