Shropshire author brings a Victorian murder mystery to Wales in his compelling whodunnit crime novel
Updated: Nov 21
It was researching family history that set things in motion. My original family surname is Schiappacasse. My grandfather was born in the Italian town of Rapallo and came to South Wales in the 1890s. My grandmother’s family had themselves moved to Pontypridd from Wiltshire. The couple were married in 1898 and I have their wedding photograph on my wall. Interest in their story led to me to look into the history of the town of Pontypridd; and I discovered that the town of the 1890s was vibrant, with a wonderful theatre, bars, a music hall and thriving businesses.
I had for some time considered writing a crime novel and it suddenly occurred to me that the predominant image we have of crime in the late Victorian age comes from a) Sherlock Holmes and b) Jack the Ripper. Whitechapel and the foggy streets of London clearly dominate the genre, whereas the Victorian legacy of other towns and cities seemed to be ignored. Pontypridd would therefore be the backdrop for my novel to try and break the mould.
Who then would be my main character? To my mind it had to be an outsider because I would be taking the reader to somewhere unfamiliar, and it would be helpful for them to ‘share’ the main character’s experiences. I eventually chose someone from my adopted county of Shropshire.
Thomas Chard is hard-working decent man who, following a scandal, has decided to start his life afresh in South Wales. He has the common touch and mixes easily across social divides, but does occasionally make mistakes. As to the plot, my starting point was the discovery of a railway crash that happened just outside Pontypridd in 1893.
The ‘back page blurb’ for Fortuna’s Deadly Shadow reads: -
1893: A train carrying its passengers to the bustling, industrial new town of Pontypridd crashes and in the chaos of the disaster, a killer covers the trail of a violent murder.
Two years later Thomas Chard’s arrival in town to take up his post as inspector in the burgeoning police force, coincides with the grisly discovery of a body in the River Taff. Chard grapples with the demands of his new job – rudimentary Victorian police procedures, an authoritarian superintendent, and finding a murderer. His investigations lead him beyond respectable society, through the shadowy back streets of Pontypridd to the seamier side of town populated by money lenders, pick pockets, prostitutes and gamblers. As Chard’s list of suspects grows, each with their own secret to guard, he realises that he must disentangle the web of lies being spun around him in order to catch a killer.
The journalist and BBC sports commentator Eddie Butler was kind enough to read the book before publication and provide this review: -
'A wonderful crime romp in Victorian Ponty, alive with delicious contrasts: the town's golden, blackened age; full of warmth … and murder.'
In terms of writing style, I have been heavily influenced by some of my favourite historical crime writers; and also, by some popular TV series. The essence is a teasing whodunnit, with a supporting cast of quirky characters. There are dramatic scenes, murders and also a good mix of humour which I think is essential. The aim is to entertain, but I took care to research the period very carefully, and have included historical notes for those that are interested.
but has only just been published in E-book format by Seren Press (November 2020)
2021 is set to be a busy year as Thomas Chard’s second adventure, provisionally named ‘Fatal Solution’ will be published in April 2021 in paperback and as an E-book.
In addition, there will be a short story (not featuring Inspector Chard) published as part of an anthology of West Midlands writers.
Covid has put some plans on hold, but I hope to be appearing at the Wolverhampton Literary Festival (Wolves Litfest) in February, when I will be giving a talk on crime and punishment in the late Victorian age.