Adam Nightingale reading from his work
Adam Nightingale worked at The Galleries of Justice Museum for several years and can still occasionally be found haunting the gloomy cells there. His previous publications Murder and Crime in Nottingham and Heroes and Villains of Nottingham are explorations of his enthusiasm for history and true crime in his hometown. With the recent release of Masters of Crime he moves his focus to London and the real life master criminals who inspired such fictional villains as Fagin and Moriarty. We persuaded him to come out of the shadows to talk to us.
What is it about the dark and sinister side of history that draws your interest?
It’s a bit of a mystery. History acts as a filter I suppose. Historical distance confers a degree of colour and exoticism that makes the awful things some of these people do seem alien and almost like fiction. There’s an attraction in that.
Do you have a favourite tale from Nottingham’s brutal history?
I think the Georgian era is a woefully neglected part of Nottingham’s local history. It was such a wild and transitional time where Nottingham went, by way of the Industrial Revolution, from the pastoral beauty spot described by Daniel Defoe as “one of the most beautiful and pleasant towns in England” to a dirty, squalid, largely overpopulated incubator of vice, poverty and political agitation.
I love Nottingham during the Civil War as well, especially as relayed in the memoires of Lucy Hutchinson, the wife of John Hutchinson the great Puritan soldier and defender of Nottingham Castle. When you read her account of life during wartime in 17th Century Nottingham it’s a bizarre mixture of the familiar and the completely alien. You recognize the street places and landmarks but the Market Square is being used to coral prisoners of war and St Peters and St Nicks are being used as sniping platforms by Cavalier soldiers to shoot into the castle. Also the Hutchinsons had an almost Shakespearian way of rallying the troops and threatening their enemies that I really like.
Was it a big leap from writing about Nottingham to writing about London?
Not really. It was a relief actually. I was champing at the bit to write something on a larger scale.
Your book—while dealing with history and literature—isn’t an academic history, or literary analysis, in fact it is somewhat reminiscent of the storytelling of oral history. Is this something that’s important to you?
Yes, Very much so. It always has been in most of the vocational or career paths I’ve attempted to follow. I’m a failed actor, a product of the Drama School system. The thing that always fascinated me back then was trying to understand and communicate, in part or in full, the story of the character that you’re playing to an audience.
I go to church and used to want to be a minister in the Pentecostal church. In my teens I went to a large city centre church and listened to some very dynamic preachers tell exotic stories about their preaching adventures around the world. These guys were great story tellers. I later realise that I would have been a rubbish minster as the majority of the work isn’t storytelling, it’s pastoral and administrational and what mainly attracted me to preaching was that element of storytelling.
I didn’t plan to write history books. I had written fiction before but with more failure than success in terms of getting publishers interested. I didn’t have ambitions to write history books. History books were simply the foot in the door to get published. But my approach to history was always to tell the story, find out who these people I had elected to write about are, render their world as vividly as possible and tell the story as succinctly and dramatically as I could.
Your books are very nicely illustrated. Is it important to you to bring the past alive in both words and pictures?
Not as a general rule, but in the instances of these books absolutely because I think the two artists and the photographer (Stephen Dennis and Jean and Mark Nightingale) are wonderful and Masters of Crime and its two predecessors are all the more attractive, weird and dramatic because of their contributions. If they get work or commissions out of this I will be very pleased.
Your book deals with some of the greatest criminal masterminds in history. Do you have a favourite of these anti-heroes?
Jonathan Wilde, London’s first great gang boss.
And who is your favourite fictional villain?
Of those that feature in the book Sebastian Moran, Professor Moriarty’s chief of staff. He is the consummate henchman with exotic weaponry and an interesting back story incorporating an encounter in a sewer with a flesh eating tiger.
Of those not featured in the book I love the utterly corrupt and murderous police officer Captain Dudley Smith from James Ellroy’s LA Quartet, the sorcerer Mocata from the movie version of The Devil Rides Out, and Echo the transvestite ventriloquist played by Lon Chaney in the silent movie The Unholy Three.
Were you surprised by anything you discovered while researching your book?
Yes. Reading William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Jack Sheppard a Romance was fun. It is largely forgotten now, but in its day it outsold Oliver Twist. It’s an awful book but there’s something about it. In spite of itself it deserves a reappraisal.
I also enjoyed looking at ostensibly familiar figures like Fagin and Raffles and realising how much of our perception of them is filtered through the people that have played them on screen. Our memories of Fagin are largely flavoured by the musical Oliver and Ron Moody’s interpretation of Fagin. As a consequence we think of him as an irascible rogue and Bill Sykes as the real villain of Oliver Twist. But Fagin as written is a frightening manipulator who has more blood on his hands than anybody else in the novel.
Reading some of the Raffles stories was the real joy of writing Masters of Crime. Because he was played on screen by actors like David Niven and Nigel Havers, we think of Raffles as a raffish, essentially benign outlaw perpetrating victimless crimes against those that can afford it. But the stories have a very dark subtext that places Raffles in a direct with more overtly disturbing anti heroes like Tom Ripley, Dexter and Hannibal Lecter.
In this book you address the intersection of literature with real history. Were you ever tempted to fictionalise the past yourself, rather than write a historical account?
I’ve been doing that pretty much since I started writing. Writing fiction has always been my first love and incorporating historical elements and characters into that fiction has been a recurrent feature of my writing. But so far my fiction hasn’t yet garnered the interest from publishers that the factual stuff has. Some of it is pretty bizarre it has to be said. But hopefully, if this book does well, then I can direct a bit of attention to my novels and short stories.
Are you surprised how few people are interested in history?
I respectfully disagree. I think there is a real interest in history out there among the general public, but there are also a lot of dead spots; neglected eras, forgotten historical figures, and worst of all a lack of overall chronology. But there is interest and passion.
I’m doing a one man shows called Georgian Bloodbath: A Grisly Lecture. It’s about criminal Nottingham in the 18th Century. I’ll be performing it after hours at the Galleries of Justice Museum on 17 November.
As far as writing goes I haven’t got anything lined up just yet but I have plans. I’m just waiting to see how the new book does and then some of these plans may or may not be implemented. But if they are they may involve the American West, or cannibalism in the New World, or the Hollywood actor and sometime pugilist Victor McLaglen. A good literary agent would be nice…
Masters of Crime
is available now, £18.99, from bookshops, or the History Press
, or call 01235 465577