Queen’s Counsel Stephen O'Rourke explores old Edinburgh through the eyes of his Crown Agent in gripping new novel
Dr Mungo Lyon, a medic with a tarnished reputation, sits at the heart of a thrilling new spy novel which opens in the Capital of 1829, as a frenzied crowd gather to witness the hanging of infamous murderer William Burke.
The publication of that book has allowed Edinburgh QC Stephen O’Rourke to realise a long-held dream, having his debut novel on sale in bookshops, albeit the online variety right now. The Crown Agent, O’Rourke’s gripping historical spy thriller, was inspired by a character he created in 2012 for a short story competition.
Born in Greenock, brought up in Port Glasgow, attending secondary in Glasgow and coming east to study Law at Edinburgh University aged 18, the author has lived in the Capital for 27 years now, so it's not surprising to find the action of his novel tracks back and forth between east and west coasts before heading off to Jamaica.
Reflecting on his early years here, he recalls, "I did law and then my solicitor traineeship here and have now been an Advocate at the Bar for nearly 20 years. It's funny, because when I came here in 1994 there was still very much a sense Edinburgh was the other side of the world – I could count on one hand the number of times I'd been to Edinburgh in my life although there is a picture of me, aged four, sitting on Mons Meg," he laughs.
Set in Scotland, 1829, a ship adrift, all hands dead, and a lighthouse keeper murdered leads the Crown to seek out Dr Mungo Lyon. Forbidden to practise as a surgeon due to the Burke and Hare scandal, he is exactly the man they need to investigate...
O’Rourke explains how The Crown Agent grew from that earlier short story.
"The theme for the short story was 'Tropical' but I didn't want to write about palm trees and golden beaches. For some reason, I had this idea of an older professor at Edinburgh University who lectured in the movement of the seas, tides and oceans, but who had never been outside of Scotland. A letter from a former student, now in Jamaica, inviting him to come to the West Indies gave the story a cliff-hanger ending, would he would go or not?"
O'Rourke was "absolutely gobsmacked" when the story won the competition.
"From that germ of an idea I started wondering, if you were a professor of marine science at that time, what would you have studied? Specialisms didn't develop until later, so the people who pioneered specialisms like chemistry, physics and sociology probably studied more traditional qualifications like medicine, law or mathematics themselves."
"Then I thought, if this guy was a professor of marine biology in 1880, he might been a young doctor at the beginning of the 18th century. If that was the case, maybe he would have been a young surgeon at the time of the Burke and Hare scandal. If he was, that would have been traumatic for him and maybe lead to a change in career. Then I had this idea that if you were going to be a spy, being a marine scientist would be a great cover story as you could go anywhere in the world that's near water. Suddenly it all clicked."
Researching and writing the first draft took from 2012 to 2015, O'Rourke reflecting the analytical nature of his day job proving ideal for researching 19th century Scotland.
"There was a huge amount of research, much of the book is set in Jamaica so at one point I had shelves of book and maps about the history of Jamaica. I also plundered the archives of various organisations for the Scottish research; you can look up the commercial canal service that used to operate between Glasgow and Edinburgh. One of the things I really enjoyed discovering was just what the journey from Edinburgh to Glasgow would have been like then. Today you can do it in the blink of an eye, in those days it could take two or three days, two days if you did it by canal boat."
The first lawyer in his family, O'Rourke fits his writing around an increasingly busy work diary, which over the years has seen him take on both civil and criminal cases.
The 44-year-old who lives in Stockbridge reveals that working in the legal profession was always something he aspired to.
"At school I had the idea of having a vocation, doing something as a professional calling was important. A calling to the bar is a vocation, something that comes from within, a desire to give yourself to a cause bigger than you that helps people.
"Over time I've been a High Court prosecutor, I've defended in the High Court and I'm doing a number of mainly civil cases at the moment that are very demanding. Many people have a hobby, whether its rebuilding MGs or playing golf, writing is my hobby, my downtime and is a complimentary release for the kind of work I do, creatively writing it is something that I really enjoy and get a big kick from."
That 'kick' is never greater than when he learns young people have read The Crown Agent.
"This is where I acknowledge the influence of John Buchan and Robert Louis Stevenson, they are masters at writing in the first person, you can almost feel the character's heartbeat in your own chest. I was really trying hard to bring that sense of Mungo’s heartbeat to the reader. I’m delighted when friends tell me that they passed the book to their 13 or 14 year old and how much they engaged with it."
The Crown Agent, published by Sandstone Press, is on sale now – one third of income from the book goes to the Tumbling Lassie Committee, which campaigns against modern slavery
Tomorrow, read the first of four exclusive extracts from The Crown Agent, only in your Evening News