Crime-writer E.S. Thomson brings gory murder to Surgeons’ Hall
THE twisted spines of two women who lived and died in Edinburgh in the early-19th century gave local crime-writer E.S. Thomson (the E stands for Elaine) the inspiration for her latest book, Surgeons’ Hall.
It’s an appropriate title as those deformed skeletons are displayed side by side in the Pathology Museum of the afore mentioned institution.
The display index reveals they suffered from severe osteomalacia, the adult form of rickets.
It notes that ‘one of the skeletons is from a woman who was well known around the city’ and described as ‘The little woman, with rather a good face and a great deal of impudence, who went with great velocity on her crutches.’
Spotting the exhibits in their cabinet gave Elaine the spark of an idea that soon gave birth to Thrawn-leggit Mary and Clenchie Kate, the sisters central to her fourth Jem Flockhart Mystery.
“I made those names up,” admits the writer who is no stranger to the Pathology Museum, where she became fascinated by the skeletons.
“I found them so arresting I just couldn’t stop looking at them... these were women who had grown up and lived all their lives in Edinburgh.
“Looking at the skeletons, they must have been titchy, but they were also said to be beautiful.
“I found that appealing for a character; beautiful faces but with the scrunched up legs and a beetle motion.
“Then I gave them beguiling singing voices, like sirens, but also a rough witty repartee for contrast.
“I wanted make them as interesting as I found the skeletons, to give them life in some way, that was important to me.”
Thrawn-leggit Mary and Clenchie Kate lie at the heart of Elaine’s latest book to feature Victorian apothecary and amateur investigator Jem Flockhart, which will be launched with a special event, Murder at Surgeons’ Hall, at the Nicolson Street venue on 25 April.
Born in Lancashire, Elaine came to the Capital at 18 to study at Edinburgh University and, having gained her PhD in the Social History of Medicine, never went home.
“It is so great here. I was so lucky. Where could be better than Edinburgh, you don’t just have the beauty of the city, but its history too.”
Now 50, the mother of two teenage boys works as a lecturer by day and writes by night.
The history that saw her make Edinburgh her home also plays a huge part in her books, she says, “There’s always a strong Scottish history of medicine theme running through the novels in this series.”
Jem Flockhart, along with side-kick Will Quartermain made their debut in the novel Beloved Poison, although the fact Jem was a cross-dressing female didn’t sit well with the publisher that originally commissioned the book.
“I got the character’s name from Duncan and Flockhart, the Edinburgh chemists,” Elaine reveals, before explaining, “As a female writer it was important to me that my protagonist be a woman, but I had to conceal her to allow her to go into all the situations a man could go at that time.
“So I dressed her in men’s clothes. However, she doesn’t choose to dress like a man, it was her father who made the decision to bring her up as a male, that way she can’t just reveal who she is.
“The fact she must stay hidden allows her to reflect on the role that women have at that time while herself living in a male world.”
She pauses for a moment, before revealing, “Anyway, when they read it, the publisher didn’t want it. They said, ‘We can’t really get along with Jem as a character’.
“They didn’t say anymore than that, but it was clear why they didn’t want it.”
Thankfully, other publishers celebrated the fact Jem was a bit different and Beloved Poison was published in 2016. Dark Asylum and The Blood followed in 2017 and 2018.
Along with Surgeons’ Hall (due out on 21 March), all four mysteries paint a dark and immersive portrait of Victorian times, no doubt the influence of Charles Dickens, whose works the young Elaine was particularly drawn too.
“I always wanted to be a writer,” she recalls.
“My childhood was quite a boring one, there wasn’t a lot to do, so I read a lot.
“But I always thought writing was something other people did because I read all the hard-core stuff like Dickens and R.L. Stevenson - when you read them, you don’t tend to think, ‘Oh, I could do that’.”
It’s not surprising then that there should be elements of ‘Dickensian London’ in her novels.
“That was Dickens’ world, so who better to read to learn about a world that was dirty and visceral, and Edinburgh is the same kind of city, you can still get a sense of that walking its streets, they’re just a bit cleaner now.”
Despite the bloody nature of her books, Elaine has a confession to make.
“They are quite gory but there’s an element of road-kill to what I write.
“I’m drawn and repelled simultaneously yet I enjoy writing the gorier bits, which is strange because I’m a big fainter,” she laughs.
It’s a trait she shares with her character Will Quartermain.
“Just like Will I know what that’s like; you see this darkness closing in and know what’s coming.
“I’ve been able to take my glasses off, put them in my pocket, and pat the person next to me on the shoulder and say I’m about to faint, before I actually do,” she says.
“I even passed out in the cinema with my sons a few weeks ago, watching Doctor Strange.
“That was a bit alarming but I’ve never fainted at any of my own work... yet.”
Penning her books in long-hand with a fountain pen, Elaine admits she is old school.
“It’s the only way, there’s a connection between your mind and your head, which means whatever you’re seeing in your head... out it comes.”
Which is exactly what she is doing right now, a fifth Jem Flockhart mystery, Nightshade, is in the pipeline.
“Because Surgeons’ Hall is so visceral I want Nightshade to be a bit less dark, so I’ve set it mostly in Jem’s physic garden - it will be more poison and plant based rather than body parts.”
Before she leaves to continue writing, however, there’s one mystery yet to be solved. What does the S in E.S. Thomson stand for?
“It was suggested by my publisher that I use initials but I don’t have a middle name so the S is a fiction.
“So, any S name you fancy can be dropped in there as the need arises,” she laughs, before adding more seriously, “Apparently, people are more likely to read a book written by a man than a woman. That should shock us all really. The horrors of the patriarchy are so embedded in our thinking.
Murder at Surgeons’ Hall Book Launch, Surgeons’ Hall, 25 April, 7pm, £3, https://es_thomson_surgeons_hall_launch_shm.eventbrite.co.uk