'Nineties' Leith reminded me very much of Sixties' Gorbals' - Ross Macfarlane QC
Great wealth, alongside crushing poverty, the Edinburgh of 1850 in which Advocate Edward Kane and his man Mr Horse exist is one of Dickensian extremes, but whether rich or poor, crime and corruption is never far away.
Edward Kane and the Parlour Maid Murderer is the debut novel from Ross Macfarlane, QC, a featured author at this year's Aye Write literary festival.
Already well known to readers of the Evening News and The Scotsman, Macfarlane introduced Kane and Mr Horse in a series of short stories in the papers and reveals that the origins of his unlikely double-act lie in his love of Charles Dickens.
The Senior Advocate, who lives in the New Town, recalls, "I was researching a story about the visit of Charles Dickens to Edinburgh in 1841 and discovered he had visited the Advocates Library where I was based and had dinner with his friend, Patrick Robertson, in a house just across the way from where I live. It struck me Edinburgh would be a fabulous setting for a 19th century murder mystery. Not only that, I thought it would be fun to incorporate a murder trial set in the period. I say ‘fun’, but remember, in those days, the penalty for murder was death. And that’s how Edward Kane, Advocate, was born."
Set in Victorian Edinburgh, the tale finds Patrick Macnair facing the ultimate penalty, death by hanging. Why then, has he employed a young defence lawyer with no trial experience? And why does Macnair refuse to tell his Advocate what happened on the night the crime took place? As his investigations take him from the great houses of Edinburgh to the taverns and alleyways of the Old Town, will Kane be able to solve the mystery and save a man from the gallows.
Originally from Glasgow, the writer who grew up the The Gorbals of the 1960's, recalls, "My dad was a chef and my mother a waitress. Both had left school at 14. There were not that many books in the house, but my father would always come home with a tall tale or two, usually about why he was so late. So, I always loved stories. As a wee boy, I would collect comic books and read them again and again. I’m convinced that I taught myself to read by studying Superman comics, there was a culture of aspiration among the poor then, the idea of reading books or listening to music to become a better kind of person. It’s something I have tried to reflect in the novel.”
He explains, “Books are either doors or mirrors. A book either takes you into a land where you feel great and want to to stay, or it reflects your own life. The problem for me was that, on the rare days I did go to school, they gave me books that reflected my own life when what I wanted to read about was people who had butlers, cooks and nannies, not kids that lived in tenements like me. So that aspiration is a part of the Edward Kane books. I am trying to take the reader on a walk along Drummond Place, Heriot Row, places where you can pull on a door bell and hear the tinkling inside as it rings. Aspirational, because for me books are doors, not mirrors."
Having "done every job imaginable" and already a father of two, Macfarlane came to the Capital at the age of 28 to read Law at Edinburgh University. A mature student, his legal traineeship brought him to David Clark and Co on Leith Walk.
He remembers, "What was interesting was that Nineties' Leith reminded me very much of Sixties' Gorbals, both had a very strong working class identifying culture."
It was while training in Leith that he took the first steps on the path that would see him become one of the UK's ‘noted legal experts’ in the field of Child and Family Law.
"People with the most horrible family problems used to walk through the door on a daily basis and I developed an expertise on the law as it affected children. When I became an Advocate in 1994 I created a series of Law Reports dedicated to Family Law, which are now cited in all Scottish Courts and in Supreme Courts in England. For me it's always about the welfare of children and getting the best results for the most vulnerable."
Today, as a Senior Advocate, Macfarlane may mix in very different circles to those he was born into but he remains down to Earth and has never forgotten where he came from, he jokes that the only connections his family had with the law were from "being on the wrong side of it".
He laughs, "The first time that I prosecuted serious crime in the High Court, I joked to my dad, 'Come and watch me. It’ll be the first time you’ve been inside the High Court without a blanket over your head’."
Because of his intensive schedule, the father of five wrote The Parlour Maid Murderer on the commute to and from Court sessions, "I travel a lot by train, so every morning, Monday to Friday, I would take out my little Bluetooth keyboard on the train and connect it to my phone. Then I would write for the duration of the journey for an hour or an hour and a half.
"Every day. Little by little, the book emerged. After about nine months, I had over 100,000 words. It’s that Scottish saying, isn’t it, ‘Many a mickle maks a muckle'."
The good news for fans of Kane and Mr Horse is that the writer can foresee more books featuring the young Advocate and his “Angel with a broken nose”.
"I have a long story arc in my head that I think will take around five books to complete, so, as my mother used to say, 'God spare me', and I’ll write the rest. I’m already 20,000 words into book two, Edward Kane and the Wages of Sin, so watch this space, but if you meet me on the train... sorry if I’m stuck in 1850."Tomorrow in the Evening News: Introducing Edward Kane, Advocate, and Mr Horse – read the first of four exclusive extracts from Edward Kane and The Parlour Maid Murderer Ross Macfarlane has been chosen as featured debut author by the Scottish literary festival Aye Write which opens online on May 14, at www.glasgowlife.org.uk/arts-music-and-cultural-venues/aye-write