Too Hot to Handel, the fifth book in the John Pickett mystery series! It’s the pivotal book, and the one I’ve most looked forward to writing. The saga of John Pickett began around 2004, when I approached Five Star/Cengage about doing a Regency-set mystery series after their large-print arm, Thorndike Press, bought subsidiary rights to The Weaver Takes a Wife and its two sequels, Brighton Honeymoon and French Leave. The Five Star editor seemed interested—so then I had to make good on my proposal. Yikes! What to do?
The mystery genre is very series-oriented, so I knew I would have to come up with characters I could live with for a long time. I was still feeling a bit lost after finishing French Leave, last of the Weaver books, and I was sure I could never create another character I would love as much as I loved Ethan Brundy. I’d enjoyed writing the cross-class romance in The Weaver Takes a Wife, and readers had responded positively to it (in spite of one editor’s insistence that “no woman could possibly fall in love with a man like that unless he was devastatingly handsome”), so I decided to return to the well. This time the romance would develop over the course of several books, as a subplot to the stand-alone mystery in each book. (I use the term “subplot” loosely; even after five John Pickett novels and two companion novellas, I still don’t think of myself as a mystery writer—and I don’t know a single person who reads these books for the puzzles!)
I decided that the hero/sleuth would be a very young and inexperienced (in more ways than one) Bow Street Runner, and the first book in the series would introduce him to Julia, Lady Fieldhurst, whom he meets quite literally over her husband’s dead body. This scenario was especially suited to a slow-developing romance: John Pickett is smitten at once but, unlike Ethan Brundy in The Weaver, he possesses neither the fortune nor the self-confidence that would embolden him to court a woman who is miles above him socially. As for Julia, her mind would not instantly leap to thoughts of love and/or marriage with a man so far beneath her; a series would allow for her to fall in love gradually, in a way a stand-alone novel would not.
Before I got too far along, I had to decide on a specific year in which to set the debut novel, In Milady’s Chamber. I had no idea of the timeline over which the series would play out, so I wanted to begin it early enough in the century that the creation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 would not encroach on John Pickett’s territory before the series wrapped up. As I developed the plot of that first book, I determined that Julia and her husband would have married in 1802, while England was briefly at peace with France, and that the story would begin six years later with his murder. This grounded the first book, and thus the beginning of the series, in 1808.
So far, I had a setting, a skeleton of a plot, and rough ideas of the major characters, but if I was going to build an entire series around a Bow Street Runner, I had to learn all I could about them in order to create a realistic world for John Pickett to inhabit. An internet search led me to Henry Goddard’s posthumously published Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner, which includes a very lengthy introduction by Patrick Pringle, British writer and historian who was perhaps the greatest 20th-century authority on the Bow Street Runners. Another invaluable source was Hue and Cry, Pringle’s history of the Bow Street Runners from their creation in 1749 by Henry Fielding (he of Tom Jones fame) to their dissolution in 1839. In his introduction to Goddard’s Memoirs, Pringle notes the lack of contemporary sources, almost all the official records having been destroyed in 1881 when the Bow Street Police Office moved from its original site adjacent to Covent Garden Theatre across the street to the site where the Bow Street Magistrate’s Court building may still be seen. (It’s this sort of thing that makes writers weep.)
Still, I was able to uncover quite a bit of information that I hadn’t found anywhere else—and I had to “unlearn” some of the bits and pieces of information I’d picked up over the years. The red waistcoats so ubiquitous in fiction, for instance, were worn by the Horse Patrol and, later, the Foot Patrol, but the Bow Street Runners were always a plainclothes force. So while John Pickett would have worn them when he first came to Bow Street, he wouldn’t by the time the series began—which meant I was going to have to determine exactly what he would wear.
In the meantime, I’d picked up another tidbit from this discovery, as well: Not everyone at Bow Street was a Runner. The members of the Foot Patrol worked at night, and earned the lowest wages at half a crown—two and a half shillings—a day. As one might expect, this bottom rung of the ladder was where many eventual Runners started out, including memoirist Henry Goddard. He enlisted in the Foot Patrol in 1824, and within a year or two was promoted to the Day Patrol at a salary of three shillings and sixpence per day. Finally he rose to the position of Principal Officer—those individuals we know as Runners. He was twenty-six years old at the time, which told me I was not too far afield in letting my precocious young John Pickett achieve that position at age twenty-three.
Bow Street Runners were paid twenty-five shillings a week, but they had other ways of supplementing their income. The first of these was by taking private commissions from anyone who was willing to pay them. The fee for their services was usually a guinea a day (twenty-one shillings—almost a week’s regular wages) and, if the case should take them beyond London, fourteen shillings a day for travel expenses, including meals and lodging. If the case was successful, a reward would be paid as well.
Another, more controversial, income stream derived from the longstanding practice of offering payment for convictions. Unfortunately, this system invited corruption, which had reached its peak (or perhaps its nadir) with the 18th century “Thief-Taker General” Jonathan Wild, who enticed the young and/or gullible into committing crimes so that he might collect rewards for bringing them to justice. Although Wild was hanged for his crimes almost a quarter-century before the Bow Street force was established, his memory still lived in the public consciousness, and even in death he managed to blacken the reputation of the Bow Street Runners, who utilized a very similar system. (Spoiler alert: A variation of Wild’s racket is a major plot point in Too Hot to Handel.)
I also learned that the Bow Street Runners operated under the auspices of a magistrate, who would be, in essence, John Pickett’s boss. At about this time in the planning stages, my then-critique partner, inspirational author Beth White, pinned me down and forced me to create a backstory for John Pickett. (Well, maybe not literally, but it felt like it.) And she was quite right: Through this exercise I discovered that John had originally been a juvenile pickpocket—something he hadn’t told me yet—and that it was his magistrate who had rescued fourteen-year-old John from a life of crime.
Clearly, this magistrate was going to be an important continuing character in the series. But who was he? After a fruitless search for the identity of the Bow Street magistrate in 1808, I decided I would have to either make one up or appoint Sir Nathaniel Conant to that position five years before he actually held it. Adding to my frustration was the fact that I could find nothing about Conant from which to extrapolate his personality. I did, however, find Patrick Colquhoun, who was never at Bow Street, but who served as magistrate at Queen’s Square from 1792 until his retirement in 1818. Orphaned at sixteen, he was sent by family members to what was then the colony of Virginia to make his fortune—which he did, in spades. This, along with other aspects of his life, made him an ideal mentor for young John Pickett, so I fudged my history a bit and cast him in the role. (This backstory can be found in e, a prequel novella.) It wasn’t until I’d written three books in the series that I found the following quote from one of his contemporaries: “Although Mr. Colquhoun bore externally a somewhat pompous and domineering aspect . . . there never, perhaps, was a heart more alive to the domestic interests of the poor . . . .” At this point in my reading, I gave a fist pump and shouted, “Woo-hoo! Nailed it!” In fact, the bond between Pickett and his magistrate has turned out to be almost as much fun to write about as the developing romance between Pickett and Julia, Lady Fieldhurst.
Having established John Pickett in his career, it was time to think about the romance. It’s all on John’s side at first, which led to some interesting reviews of In Milady’s Chamber. One reviewer said, “If you’re looking for a romance, you won’t find it here,” while another enthused, “The sexual tension crackles, because absolutely nothing happens!” Julia’s feelings for John have been growing with each book, but I knew it would take something big, something dramatic, to make her willing to “throw her cap over the windmill,” so to speak, and commit what would amount to social suicide. He’d had a girlfriend (albeit briefly) in Dinner Most Deadly, and that had forced her to confront her own feelings of jealousy, even as she acknowledged that she had no real claim on him. This was a huge step for her, but I realized nothing less than the prospect of losing him forever—not to another woman, but to death—would push her over the edge. (Besides, it was about time she suffered a little for his sake; so far all the suffering had been on his side.) I had vague ideas as to how I might bring it about, but it was when I was researching Family Plot that I made the discovery that clinched it. The short prologue takes place in an actress’s dressing room in the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane. While reading up on the theatre, I learned that it burned down on the night of 24 February 1809. Furthermore, the source of the fire was never discovered. There was no play being performed that night, not even a rehearsal, so the theatre was empty.
Aha! An unsolved mystery! This sort of thing is writers’ catnip. Granted, that empty theatre was something of a drawback. I’m sure it was good news for all the actors, stagehands, and spectators who would have been in the building and thus in danger, but it makes for dull fiction. So I staged my own production—a performance of Handel’s oratorio Esther—and filled the theatre to capacity. I thought it would be fun to have John dress up as a gentleman for a change (thus giving Julia a glimpse of what might have been) and, when the theatre catches fire, let him play the hero in a big way. He rises beautifully to the occasion, but when he’s coshed on the head and left unconscious, Julia has to step up and show what she’s made of.
When I first started writing this series, I’d assumed it would end once the romance was resolved, but having reached that point, I can see there’s still the fallout from their marriage to be faced. John will have to meet his in-laws (you can imagine how delighted they’ll be), and Julia will have to come to terms with her fall from grace in the eyes of Society. Their love and their commitment to each other will be challenged—and I hope you’ll come along for the ride!
If you’re interested in giving the John Pickett books a try, I wouldn’t recommend starting with Too Hot to Handel. Although I think (hope?) it’s strong enough to stand alone, I believe you’ll enjoy it more if you’ve had a chance to get to know the characters first. If you’re reluctant to try a new-to-you author, I suggest downloading Pickpocket’s Apprentice first (only 99 cents!), or looking for them at your local library.
Ms. South is giving away a signed copy of Too Hot to Handel to one lucky reader. Make a comment below to be entered in this drawing.