Linda Stratmann explains how she found the perfect place for murder (it’s on the Central Line).
A few years ago I was looking for a topic for my next non-fiction book and a friend told me a fascinating story from her family history. The origin was a document handwritten by her late father, and concerned Bayswater entrepreneur William Whiteley who was shot dead in 1907 by a man claiming to be his illegitimate son. The event was all the more shocking because it exposed the great man’s history of philandering. According to my friend’s account, the killer was the twin brother of her ancestor, who was then arrested by mistake for the real perpetrator. Of course I investigated, and found that the murderer, who shot himself at the scene, did not have a twin brother and there was never a mistaken arrest. The story was one of those family legends that get passed down through generations usually based on a coincidence of surname. It did however arouse my interest and the end result was a book, Whiteley’s Folly, about the career and murder of the man who founded the great Bayswater store, and in so doing changed the face and the future of the entire district.
A few years later, I was looking for a suitable setting for my first fiction book The Poisonous Seed, and was drawn to Bayswater. Here was a place which while it was undeniably part of London, with all the buzz of the metropolis, also had the character of a small town, with its own personalities, concerns, societies, and a very individual atmosphere. I wanted to set my stories not in the higher echelons of society or with those engaged in a grim struggle for survival, but with the shopkeepers, professional people, and artisans, all busy making a living and maintaining their image of Victorian respectability; for that, Bayswater was perfect. The physical location, lying between the fashionable West End and the
villages of Middlesex, and the links afforded by the great terminus of Paddington Station, opens out a wealth of possibilities that I have only just started to explore.
As The Poisonous Seed opens, it is January 1880, and Police Constable Wilfred Brown is tramping along a very chilly Westbourne Grove.
The constable wove a determined way through armies of large women in heavy winter coats fiercely clutching brown paper parcels, vendors of hot potatoes and mechanical mice, and deferential shopwalkers braving the cold to assist cherished customers to their broughams. The chill air was seasoned with the scent of damp horses and impatient people. Despite the appearance of bustle and prosperity, there were, however, signs that all was not well in the Grove. The bright red ‘Sale’ posters had a sense of desperation about them, and here and there were the darkened premises of businesses recently closed. On the north side of the Grove, the unfashionable side, opposite the sumptuous glitter of Whiteleys, he found his destination, the murky yellow glow of the morning gas lamps softening the gilded lettering of William Doughty and Son, Chemists and Druggists. He pushed open the door and the sharp tone of an overhead bell announced his entry into the sweet and bitter air of the shop, where the glimmer of gaslight polished the mahogany display cases, and within their gloomy interiors, touched the curves of porcelain ointment pots, and highlighted the steely shine of medical instruments.
As the series develops, I can see Bayswater becoming a personality in its own right, the environment gaining in richness and diversity. The streets, the shops, and the numerous minor characters are a huge backdrop against which events will unfold and mysteries are unravelled. Like a nineteenth century Midsomer, everything will happen in Bayswater!