Kate Colquhoun’s fantastic Murder in the First-Class Carriage is a meticulously researched telling of the death of Thomas Briggs, the first murder victim in the history of the British rail system. In 1864, Briggs disappeared from a first-class Victorian rail car, only to be discovered some time later, badly injured on the train tracks. Less than a day after being found, Briggs died, and the hunt for his killer began. Kate Colquhoun’s vivid account of the unprecedented crime, as well as the subsequent investigation, trial, and media explosion surrounding the event has received stellar reviews, and placed her on the short-list for the 2011 Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award for nonfiction. Today Kate joins us on the Winged Elephant to talk about the work that went into producing Murder in the First-Class Carriage. Welcome, Kate!
OP: In Murder in the First Class-Carriage, you describe not only an account of the first Victorian railway murder, but also the enormous degree of media attention that the investigation received. What drew you to this story, nearly one hundred and fifty years after the fact?
KC: I found myself reading some of those old accounts and just got hooked. It's something to do with how this one event opened a window onto the period of the early 1860s (the sensation-loving generation) and also onto the gritty industrial extremes of London—then the greatest city in the world. Because the story turned out to be more than the sum of its parts and because the cast of characters was as rich and varied as a Dickensian novel, they were believable and I cared about them.
OP: Although it is a work of nonfiction, the book still has the pace and drama of a novel. Did you find inspiration in traditional genre fiction—crime novels and thrillers—while working on Murder in the First Class-Carriage?
KC: Absolutely. I read nothing for pleasure but Victorian sensation novels and crime writing: both fiction and nonfiction. Obviously In Cold Blood remains the greatest nonfiction account of a brutal crime and it is masterfully well told. But novels like Caleb Carr's The Alienist were as useful to me for their renderings of pace and atmosphere as The Woman in White.
OP: Can you tell us a bit more about the research process? How long did you spend writing the book, and how difficult was it to access primary documents like police reports and trial transcripts?
KC: Fortunately police and Home Office files relating to several of the most high profile capital cases of the later nineteenth century have survived in the National Archives and, fortunately, these are located on my side of London. I could not have written the book without them. I'm not a novelist—I can't make things up. It is crucial to me only to include facts recorded at the time. That the Old Bailey Online has online transcripts of all capital case trials was an enormous help. The British Library and Brit Lib newspaper depository were equally important to my research. It's why I live in London—proximity!
OP: The race to identify the killer and catch him was eagerly followed by the public on both sides of the Atlantic. Now that Murder in the First-Class Carriage has been published in the United States, you are also a transatlantic sensation! Do you think the book holds the same interest for American and UK audiences?
KC: You'll have to ask American readers. I sure hope so. I do think that the story allowed me to create a snapshot of New York in August 1864—in the middle of the Civil War, hot, strained, still under construction, fast, mad and bustling—and of its emerging Police Department. The American advocate who represented the prisoner at the extradition hearing has to be one of the most exuberant characters I've researched. So that, for me at least, the American chapters were as involving as the ones closer to home.
OP: In 1864, the murder of Thomas Briggs provoked a widespread sense of intrigue, and an urgent need for closure. As you point out in the book though, no one could ever know the truth about what happened between Briggs and Müller on the night of July 9th. Were there any difficulties in writing this book, given the inherent uncertainty of the events it describes?
KC: I'd call them pressures rather than difficulties. I was constantly taking the book apart and 'restitching it' in the hope that the joins would not be apparent. There are clearly conventions in crime writing that have to be 'learned' and I did it the hard way, through trial and error. It was enormously fulfilling as a writer to be so stretched—consciously to employ narrative techniques in the retelling of history. I'm now a bit addicted.
Thanks for joining us, Kate. Murder in the First-Class Carriage is available now. For the latest updates from Kate Colquhoun, be sure to follow her on twitter, and check out this BBC video in which correspondent Nick Higham interviews her as they visit the documents and sites that formed the basis for her book.