“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Mi Casa, Su Casa: Rafe McGregor on William Melville

Rafe McGregor (right) was kind enough to pen a few words for ye olde blogge, on the real-life spy-catcher William Melville, who also happens to be – although it’s surely only a coinkidink – the hero of his debut novel, THE ARCHITECT OF MURDER. To wit:

“My main interest as a writer is – and probably always will be – the hardboiled detective story, but for a number of reasons my first published novel is a historical murder mystery. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, however, as historical crime stories often lend themselves to the hardboiled style, and I was pleased to make the most of this in THE ARCHITECT OF MURDER, which is set in London in 1902. Once I’d decided to go back in time a hundred years or more, I found there were a number of significant differences in telling the story and writing the novel. Some were disadvantages, and some advantages, and one of the latter was being able to mix real historical personalities with fictional characters. Several real people appear in the novel, but the most important by far is a gent by the name of William Melville: top Met thief-taker, spymaster extraordinaire, and as Irish as Guinness.
  “Melville was born on the 25th April 1850 in Sneem, County Kerry. At the time, Sneem was a poor village, with some of the inhabitants living in conditions described as ‘medieval’. Melville wasn’t quite that badly off, as his parents ran a bakery-cum-liquor store, but his origins and education were certainly both humble. In THE GUARDS, his first Jack Taylor novel, Ken Bruen writes:
“There are no private eyes in Ireland. The Irish wouldn’t wear it. The concept brushes perilously close to the hated ‘informer’. You can get away with almost anything except ‘telling’.”
  “Perhaps that explains why Melville, like so many of his contemporaries, sought to make his fortune overseas, leaving Ireland some time between his seventeenth and twenty-first year. I read that – like Jack Taylor – Melville was a competent hurler in his youth, but as so little is actually known of his early life, I had doubts, and you won’t find him taking a camán to anyone in THE ARCHITECT OF MURDER …
  “Melville’s life is better documented after he joined the Metropolitan Police in 1872. He distinguished himself several times in his early service and was recruited to the new Special Irish Branch in 1883. This was the first specialist detective branch set up in the British Empire, with the aim of bringing the Dynamiters’ bombing campaign in London to an end. Although Melville spent most of his life in London, he always thought of himself as Irish, raised his children to be Irish rather than English, and didn’t see any contradiction in working against the Fenians.
  “In 1893, he found himself in charge of the new Section D, renamed Special Branch, which now concentrated on the anarchist threat and VIP protection duties. Alec Marshall, the narrator of THE ARCHITECT OF MURDER, sums up the next nine years of Melville’s career:
“William Melville had been one of the most famous policemen in the Empire when I was growing up. He was one of the original Special Irish Branch, established to counter the Fenian bombing campaign, and had played a part in foiling the Jubilee, Balfour, and Walsall Plots. He’d also been personal bodyguard to the Prince of Wales, the Shah of Persia, and the German Kaiser. It was claimed that while anarchists and nihilists traditionally regarded London as a safe haven because of the British government’s reluctance to repatriate them, ‘Melville’s Gang’ were so effective that the violent extremists had all left for greener pastures.”
  “‘The King’s Detective’ – as Melville was known to the public – retired from the Met in 1903 to set up the organisation that later became MI5, and he is considered a possible candidate for Ian Fleming’s ‘M’ in the James Bond novels. Many of the details of Melville’s work with organisations such as the Secret Service Bureau (as featured in the latest adaptation of THE 39 STEPS) are still shrouded in mystery, but much of it involved preparation for a future war with Germany, which was regarded as inevitable by 1909.
  “One of Melville’s strengths, which distinguished him from so many of his contemporaries in the early days of spying, was that he knew how to keep a secret. Most of the spies exposed before the First World War were caught because they either boasted of their profession, were incredibly careless, or both. Melville was neither, and had a reputation for the type of ‘need to know’ flow of information with which everyone is now familiar. I won’t say any more about his fascinating career, so as not to reveal too much of the plot of the novel, except that he finally retired at the end of 1917. He died of kidney failure in February the following year, aged sixty-seven. There is, as far as I know, only one biography of this remarkable Irishman, M: MI5’S FIRST SPYMASTER by Andrew Cook (first published in 2004, and still in print), which is well worth the read.
  “THE ARCHITECT OF MURDER takes place the year before Melville’s move to the secret service. He’s a fit fifty-two year old, the superintendent in charge of Special Branch, and at the height of his powers. He’s also rather busy with all the royalty in London for King Edward VII’s Coronation. Shortly after the home secretary tells him to find out why the will of the richest man in the Empire is taking so long to prove, he hears that a young Scottish war hero named Marshall is back in town. Marshall used to lodge with one of the witnesses to the will, and was a policeman before the war. Melville does what any chief of police would do: lights up a Henry Clay, pulls Marshall’s file, and sends his best man to fetch him. Thus begins THE ARCHITECT OF MURDER.
  “The novel is the first Marshall and Melville case, but it won’t be their last. There is plenty of work left in the first decade of the twentieth century, and a horde of villains lurking in the shadows of the metropolis. Meanwhile, across the channel, a man with a handlebar moustache, crippled left arm, and an appetite for conquest watches the British Isles. Unfortunately, he won’t be the last of his race to attempt to rule the world …” – Rafe McGregor

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