Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Please join us between Thanksgiving and New Year's when our authors present original holiday short stories. We hope they will add to the season's festivities! 11/28 Annette Dashofy, 12/3 E. B. Davis, 12/8 KM Rockwood, 12/13 Korina Moss, 12/18 Tammy Euliano, 12/23 Warren Bull, 12/28 Paula Gail Benson Have a wonderful holiday! -----------------------------------------------------------------------------

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

An Interview with Christopher Huang by E. B. Davis

The year is 1924. The streets of St. James ring with jazz as Britain races forward into an age of peace and prosperity. London's back alleys, however, are filled with broken soldiers and still shadowed by the lingering horrors of the Great War.

Only a few years removed from the trenches of Flanders himself, Lieutenant Eric Peterkin has just been granted membership in the most prestigious soldiers-only club in London: The Britannia. But when a gentleman's wager ends with a member stabbed to death, the victim's last words echo in the Lieutenant’s head: that he would "soon right a great wrong from the past."

Eric is certain that one of his fellow members is the murderer: but who? Captain Mortimer Wolf, the soldier’s soldier thrice escaped from German custody? Second Lieutenant Oliver Saxon, the brilliant codebreaker? Or Captain Edward Aldershott, the steely club president whose Savile Row suits hide a frightening collision of mustard gas scars?

Eric's investigation will draw him far from the marbled halls of the Britannia, to the shadowy remains of a dilapidated war hospital and the heroin dens of Limehouse. And as the facade of gentlemenhood cracks, Eric faces a Matryoshka doll of murder, vice, and secrets pointing not only to the officers of his own club but the very investigator assigned by Scotland Yard.

I was sent a copy of A Gentleman’s Murder by a publicist from Inkshares, a publisher I’d never heard of, and due to an endorsement blurb written by Rhys Bowen, I gave it a try. Written by Christopher Huang, the story of Eric Peterkin appealed to me because of the character’s vulnerability and the setting of London during the post WWI era.

Please welcome Christopher Huang to WWK.           E. B. Davis

Christopher—even after going to the Inkshares website, I don’t really understand the publisher’s process. Could you describe it to me? The company claims to be reader-driven. How do they get books out to readers? Do readers vote, and if your book is popular, it then gets published? What’s it all about?

It’s about getting off to a running start, and it’s about evaluating the market for a book. The process is this: you set up a page on the Inkshares website with your book title, a synopsis, and perhaps a couple of sample chapters. You don’t actually need a completed novel at this point, though it helps.

Then you begin what they call a “campaign,” in which you try to sell pre-orders of the book to people, based on whatever material you’ve got on that webpage. The idea is that each pre-order sale represents a vote of confidence, someone who’s willing to put money down on the projected success of your book. After all, anyone can say that a book is wonderful if you asked them to, but talk is cheap and once you put a price on a vote, suddenly people get a lot more skittish.

The general rule is that you need 750 pre-orders within your campaign period to qualify for publication, but things like contests could lower the requirement.

The book starts with a conversation between Eric Peterkin and his friend Avery Ferrett. Eric and Avery seem like two very different men. Eric dresses in a tight military style, whereas Avery wears deconstructed clothing without creases. Eric spent a year in the trenches in France as a lieutenant. Avery, for his health, spent the war in Buenos Aires. How do they know each other? Why are they friends?

Eric and Avery met on a London train platform in 1919: Eric had just been demobbed from the Army, and Avery had just returned from Buenos Aires. Each of them was the first person the other met on arrival in London that day, and for a while they were each other’s only friend in the city. Also, there was a murder involving an impertinent lift boy and a bag of gobstoppers, but that story’s going to need a lot more work if I’m ever to release it into the wild.

You are a Canadian. Was there a reason you decided to set your book during the 1920s and in London?

It’s just a milieu I’m very fond of, thanks to Agatha Christie and all the detective fiction writers of that era. The Anglophilia has to be fed! And the advantage of the period is that you don’t have to worry about all the advances of forensic science putting the investigation beyond the grasp of your amateur sleuth. The 1920s, I think, are just similar enough to the modern day to be familiar while still being different enough to be a fascinating foreign land.

“Detective fiction wasn’t just literature; it was interactive entertainment.”
Kindle Loc. 5964

Would you explain to our readers what you mean by that statement?

Certainly! I mean that, generally speaking, when you read a book, you experience the world as the hero experiences it; but with detective fiction, you’re engaged in a different way. You’re encouraged to think one step ahead of the protagonists. It becomes a game, trying to spot the clues as they come up and guess at the hidden secret at the heart of the story. And in that sense, it’s interactive. You don’t just read a mystery: you play it.

The requirements for membership in The Britannia Club, Eric’s club, are experience on the battlefield and members must be gentlemen. What qualifies a man for gentlemen status?

That’s a title whose meaning has evolved, especially over the course of the 1800s. It once indicated a sort of minimum aristocracy, but it gradually came to mean a degree of refinement, education, and respectability—characteristics expected of the lower aristocracy but attainable by anyone else. What it means in the present day is actually something of some interest to me. With all the current news of men behaving badly (an understatement), I rather wish that the gentlemanly ideals—honourable behaviour, respect for women, the use of one’s privilege in the service of the underprivileged – would come back into fashion, and that “being a gentleman” were something more men aspired to.

Even though Eric’s ancestors were founding fathers of The Britannia Club, his status is unpopular because he is half Chinese. Yet on the battlefield, Eric found war to be the great equalizer. He was respected as a commander. Why would military men be prejudiced?

I think that if you’ve spent years fighting a certain enemy—if your primary experience of a certain people is that they’re trying to kill you—then you’re likely to form a prejudice against them. Then again, joining the Army was, until recently, one of the best ways of seeing foreign cultures, and thus gaining a more nuanced view of the outside world. A lot would depend on the nature of one’s Army experience.

A publisher pays Eric to read mysteries and evaluate them. How did he get his job? What are his qualifications?

The publisher was a friend of Avery’s family, and Avery helped convince him to hire Eric—another reason why Eric remains friends with Avery. It never got around to a question of qualifications, though Eric does have a degree in Classics. But I doubt if he’ll hold that job for very long: he’s not very good at it.

How did the Far East mysteries with their menacing Mandarin villains get popular?

I blame Fu Manchu. Everyone loves to read about exotic cultures, real or imagined, and Fu Manchu was exotic. That’s all it comes down to, I think: exoticism. The Mandarin character provided a romantic idea of what the other side of the world might be like, and his villainous typecasting provided a way of saying, “But we are better, and our values are better.”

I was surprised that the victim, Albert Benson, a conscientious objector, would have been admitted to the club, but he was. Why?

Aha, there’s a bit of a plot point there. But the stated reason, the one that we open with, is that he did spend time in the thick of the fighting as a stretcher-bearer. It was a dangerous job, going out to the battlefield to retrieve the dead and the wounded, and many conscientious objectors volunteered to do it. If they didn’t fight, it was out of principle, not cowardice.

What were the Chinese Labour Corps?

They were a noncombat unit in the First World War, performing support services such as filling sandbags, building depots, moving cargo, and so on. They were not expected to fight, but that didn’t mean they were out of danger or that they suffered no casualties. There are WWl graveyards in France with Chinese headstones for those who died there.

What was the White Feather brigade?

That’s an unofficial name that I cooked up to describe them. Officially, they were the Order of the White Feather: people (almost always women) who distributed white feathers as an award for cowardice to men whom they thought were shirking their duty to their country. Though some men were shamed into enlisting by this accusation of cowardice, the Order was not very popular with the armed forces. It was very easy to mistake soldiers on leave or essential state employees—or, in one case, an actual war hero on his way to receive his Victoria Cross—for so-called “cowards.”

The Britannia Club has safe deposit boxes that members may use, and Benson uses one. After another member bets that he can get into the box and take an item out by the next morning, Eric is enlisted as a third party to vouch as to what was placed in the box by Benson to ensure no cheating occurs. After Benson’s murder, Eric is the only one who knows what was in the box. Those items become the basis, clues, of his investigation. Why does Eric investigate Benson’s murder?

Eric’s family has been associated with the club since its founding, and Eric feels a sense of responsibility to the club. But beneath that is also a strong sense of justice and honour. He’s certain that the murder is not being properly investigated. It also appears that the others are anxious to sweep the matter under the carpet, and he finds this unacceptable.

Shell shock and war neurosis were two early terms for what is now known as PTSD. How were those disorders treated then, if at all?

There were a range of treatments, some more brutal than others. Electroshock therapy, for instance, or solitary confinement. Remember, nobody really knew anything yet, and the study of psychology was still very new. I think Seale Hayne Military Hospital achieved one of the best success rates for treatment, employing gentler techniques like occupational therapy in peaceful, agrarian surroundings.

Eric suffers a flashback to the war where the here and now recede. What precipitated this episode?

The sudden threat of danger. It catches him by surprise, and his mind leaps to a similar moment in the War.

I always thought WWI was responsible for black market cocaine, but morphine addiction was a more common plight and dates back to the American Civil War, “a soldier’s disease,” as you stated in your afterword. Was society tolerant of morphine addiction?

I think people were tolerant of it the same way they were tolerant of alcoholism. Few people really thought of morphine as an “illegal” drug, so there wasn’t much sense of addicts being criminals. They thought, rather, that addiction was a sign of moral weakness, and they were more concerned with whether the addict caused trouble in the community. I don’t know if that means they were more tolerant, but the views seem somewhat different.

Eric solves the murder, but he also learns a lot and gains maturity. What is the result for his men? For his club?

Ah, a potential spoiler minefield! For Eric’s men, the ones he had charge of in the War, it’s a matter of getting in touch. There is a lot to be said, I think, for the support of social networks, and in a world before social media, it takes a little bit more effort. For the club, let’s just say that the good is restored and the bad is washed away ... as they should be.

What is Bovril and how is it used in England?

A liquefied cow! It’s a very thick, black liquid, or maybe you’d call it a viscous paste, and it tastes of salted beef. You can spread it on bread, or you can dilute it with hot water to make beef tea, or you could make it into gravy. There are probably other applications, but these are the ones I remember that don’t involve Chinese congee. It’s a delicious piece of my childhood, and I rather miss it.

This isn’t your only book. What else have you written?

“The Hero Unmasked!” is interactive fiction in a more traditional sense—odd though it is to refer to something computerised as “more traditional” than a printed book. You are the protagonist, and the narrative changes with the choices you make. And it’s a very different sort of story from A Gentleman’s Murder, too, being a superhero fantasy set in the contemporary world. I am, as you can see, very fond of my interactive fiction.


KM Rockwood said...

Thanks for introducing us to a different path to publication!

I admire people who can write good historic fiction, especially mysteries. This book sounds like something I will look into.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Congratulations on your recent publication! I enjoy reading about England between the wars: Vera Brittain, Robert Graves, Charles Todd, and Maisie Dobbs. I look forward to reading your book.

Gloria Alden said...

Congratulations on your recent publication. Like Margaret I enjoy reading about England between the wars. I'm a big fan of the Maisie Dobbs books and look forward to reading yours, too.

Jim Jackson said...

Congratulations on your Inkshares success. What from that experience would most help other authors?

~ Jim

carla said...

That's an interesting concept: that the reading experience is interactive.

Warren Bull said...

Interesting idea. Thanks for sharing

Unknown said...

(Oof, a month late, but....)

Thanks for having me, and thanks for the congratulations.

Mr. Jackson: as a newcomer, I hesitate to give advice, but I think I've benefited a lot from keeping a level head in the face of criticism. And I've found it helps to be cooperative and communicative with one's editor. But really, I'm the one who should be asking for advice here, I think!