Sunday 10 August 2014

Murder weapons - Michelle Lovric

Lucy Coats and I teach a regular Guardian Masterclass about Writing for Children. Now I also write for adults. And I consider that I write for both sexes, regardless of age. So, being bi-genred? ambi-scritacious? Lithist-Girlboy Book-Trans-Genre? – part of my contribution to our Masterclasses is to discuss the difference between writing for adults and writing for young people.

My position is that I don’t find much difference. Crucial to both adult and children’s novels are pace, the creating of an immediate and intimate engagement with the main character, a proper story arc, having something worth saying, big trouble and at least one belly laugh.

On either side of the age divide, there’s one particular aspect of novel-writing that I like to emphasise. It is this: whether I’m writing for children or adults, I always moonlight as a murderess.

the death mask of Maria Manning, murderess
Stories feed on conflict. Conflict feeds on life-and-death. Death feeds on life. It raises all the stakes. So, in the course of your story-writing, you are almost certainly going to be obliged to kill someone. Whether by sickness or stealth, by old age or violence, with regret or with pleasure, you will at some point start to kill your characters.

I have been thinking recently about all the instruments of death I’ve deployed in my nine Venetian novels.

Venice is a city with a remarkably low crime rate, so I’ve had to test my creativity.

Working backwards … in my latest, The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters, I used a laundry boat.

'A laundry boat?' I hear you ask, in Lady Bracknell tones.

But as The Harristown Sisters are only just published, I don’t want to give too much away about the exact method.

Given that The Harristown Sisters is all about hair, I’ve also inflicted more than one follicular assassination. I don’t want to say who or when or exactly how, but it concerns certain dangerous quack products for the hair. My sisters sell quack hair potions themselves, yet it is a surprise to them when one falls victim.

Women of the Victorian period used petroleum products to strip the grease from their hair, and it led to several deaths in both London and Paris. The Hairdressers’ Weekly Journal of 31 July 1897 warned how petrol vapour, being heavier than air, could invisibly flow from the point at which the liquid was applied to a flame, drawing an ignition back to the head. This was the fate of the twenty-eight-year-old actress Irene Musa (Mademoiselle Pascaline) who was having a lotion of petrol applied to her head when some drops fell, reaching a lighted stove nearby. The fire rushed to her clothes and hair. Struggling with the flames, the actress tried to throw herself out of the window. Her sister and a woman friend caught her by the feet just before she dropped several floors, but she died anyway of her burns.

In The Book of Human Skin, I used poison from the aconite flower grown in one of those secret courtyard gardens that lurk behind almost every high wall in Venice.

I also used Venice by remote control: smallpox spores hidden inside the pages of a book sent from la Serenissima can prove fatal when a paper cut to the finger goes bad.

The recent Russian edition
of The Remedy
In The Remedy, the weapon of choice – again no spoilers – is deployed under this deserted bridge at night. It is the Ponte dell’Olio at Rialto, with the gracious marble lace of Ca’ d’Oro floating behind it.

In The Floating Book, I wrote of the Syrian printer Johannes Sicculus, falsely accused of minting counterfeit coins. The tools of the two trades were similar and several early printers suffered bad fates. Sicculus’s hands are cut off and hung on chains around his neck before he is decapitated. This takes place between the two columns of the Piazzetta, the traditional place of execution in Venice. His death is witnessed with horror by one of my protagonists, Lussieta, married to a printer herself.

Not far away is the place where the gentle editor Bruno goes to shoot an arrow through the bars of the cell that holds Sosia, his lover. He does this to save her the scarcely survivable torture of being paraded in a wicker cage through the city while scourged in the back along the points of her kidneys, liver, spleen and heart with spurred whips made from horses’ tails. Then she is to be branded on both cheeks and her upper lip with an ‘S’ for Stregoneria or witchcraft. I found exactly this punishment in records of a contemporary trial.

In Carnevale, I used horses and ice. The Grand Canal froze over six times in the 1700s. When that happened, the Venetians took to their newly solid byways with gusto, as this painting of 1708 shows (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

There were even horse races on the Grand Canal. I used the ice-storm of 1791 for several deaths in the family of my protagonist, Cecilia Cornaro, a painter of portraits and lover of both Giacomo Casanova and George Gordon, Lord Byron.

The lagoon had frozen over five times in my memory and on each occasion all Venice ran mad for entertainments wild enough to obliterate our anxieties. We held an extra-mural Carnevale. Anyone with the use of their limbs threw themselves onto the ice and completed to glide as if footless or to make the most spectacular falls … Beneath us the ice groaned, full of our old, drowned sins. We peered down at it, looking for corpses and golden plates fabled to have been thrown from the Palazzo Labia during antique Carnevale banquets. But the ice kept its dark heart, and our own, hidden from us.

That year, a grand tournament of horses was held on the solid green ribbon of the Grand Canal. The whole family had gone together to watch the event. We climbed the fragile wooden dais near the Carità church and found seats among a hundred other Venetians and a handful of dazzled snow-struck tourists. I sat with my nieces on either side of me, my mother and Sofia behind, and my father in front of us. The little girls thrust their tiny hands inside their panther-skin muffs; my father’s head looked pale and tender in the clear cold air.

With fanfares and flourish of flags the race began. There was a plume of glassy splinters as the hooves rutted the ice. At first the racers galloped in a smooth arrowhead formation. But seconds later a single horse and its rider lost their footing and slid loose from the pack. We saw the pointed head of the horse hurtling towards us and the rider with his mouth open in a silent scream. As the rider and horse collided with it I heard the backbone of the dais snap and then felt myself flying across the ice ….

Cecilia Cornaro faces a different kind of murder - the temptation to end herself when cruel man makes her life unbearable, stripping her of dignity and self-respect.

Byron has bombarded her with his fascinations. But what she believes is his passion turns out to be the shine of her own love reflected back. Soon enough, the monster leaps out of the mirror and commences to trample her, with cruelty or cold indifference which is crueller than cruelty. But fortunately Cecilia, nearly submerged in the swollen Grand Canal, almost letting go of her painful life, has a revelation …

In a short story called Pantegana for Venice Noir, I used the ferro of a gondola thrust between the shoulder blades of a man who deserved nothing better.

In children’s books, you must, of course get rid of the parents. I have despatched parents in particularly Venetian ways.

In The Undrowned Child, I based my prologue on a real life incident in which a gondola was accidentally run down by a ferry. In my case, a murderous flock of seagulls provoke the tragedy, but again no spoilers as to how.

There are two kinds of seagulls in Venice – the small, sweet, black-headed Cocai, and the large cold-eyed grey-backed Magoghe. As seen above. A whole family is drowned in this incident. They find all the bodies except that of a tiny baby, who was on her way to be baptised.

‘The fish ate her,’ people say….

In The Mourning Emporium, poor Renzo loses his mother to an ice flood.

A Heath Robinson contraption whereby the early winter sun is directed to melt an iceberg on which my heroine, Teo, is strapped.

I also ravage the city with ‘The Half-Dead Disease’.

The ship’s cat Sofonisba is made to walk the plank. (I must have been in quite a mood when I wrote that book, as I even kill Queen Victoria.)

In Talina in the Tower, it is Ravageurs – hyena-like creatures who roam Venice with French pretentions, fearsome appetites and murderous intentions.

The Ravageurs too are based on research. There was once a time when the Santa Croce area of Venice was known as ‘Luprio’. And centuries ago wolves used to creep into the city across a mud causeway at low tide.

In Talina, I also deploy death by scorpion. Venetians nursed a superstition about witches, that these ladies could kill by burying a scorpion, wrapped with the victim’s hair, in a pot of sand. As the scorpion slowly expires, so does the owner of the hair.
A witch placing a scorpion into a pot in order to make a potion.
Etching by F. Landerer after M. Schmidt.
These glistening Venetian glass scorpions are made by the hand of a master craftsman at a beautiful shop near San Tomà, and never hurt a soul, despite their terrifying realism.  I did, however, find a dead one next to my bed in Venice the year I wrote Talina in the Tower and was somewhat perturbed, being infected by the Venetian superstition that these sinister creatures signify sad and dangerous journeys.
my domestic scorpion

In The Fate in the Box, I use the bell tower of the Frari church as a place where children are sacrificed in a bizarre and cruel ceremony known as the Lambing. (I hasten to add it is not all as it appears).

But the villain of the piece ends up being pursued up the dim ramp that winds around the bell tower interior by two Sea-Saurs. With the consequences you’d expect.

Here's a miniature Saur I found on my terrace the other day.
Again, perfectly friendly.

I’m working on two new books at the moment, and I’ve been designing myself a carnivorous hotel, loosely based on the work of Chicago serial-killer H.W. Mudgett. I’ve got murderous plans for this sneering stone harpy on the tomb of Andrea Vendramin in the church of SS Giovanni e Paolo.

Anyone like to tell us about interesting murder weapons they've deployed recently?

Michelle Lovric's website
The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters was published by Bloomsbury UK on June 5th this year. This week sees the publication of the American edition, also by Bloomsbury but with a new and very different jacket.
And a lovely review of the novel was recently posted by Sue Purkiss of this parish on our brother site, An Awfully Big Blog Adventure.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Unfair! I've only done one book of crime and it was non fiction. But I did kill off the villain of my one novel by Wild Hunt(he was in wolf shape at the time) and another character had his throat torn out by said villain. My short fiction doesn't have any deaths that I recall.

You have a gruesome imagination, ma'am!

Carol Drinkwater said...

Well, I won't be dropping by for a glass of Prosecco with you, Michelle. Or I might just take you to a banquet in a vineyard to drink bubbly and we'll see who survives…
I have been considering similar character fates to above...

michelle lovric said...

I'll raise you a Venetian spritz, Carol. Such a lovely colour, like diluted blood ...

michelle lovric said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
michelle lovric said...

Sue, I have never torn out anyone's throat. Consider yourself an accomplished murderess!

adele said...

Loved this post...esp the illustrations! And your inventiveness, as ever, leaves me breathless....And Love all that hair on the last cover...I am assuming it's either the US edition or a paperback! Way to go!

Susan Price said...

Loved the post too, Michelle! - My latest book has quite a few murders, come to think of it. One is committed with hollow hazel nuts - the kind hollowed out by mice. They have been used to store wolfsbane (your aconite by another name.) It's been prepared for use as a painkiller, mixed with lard, and sealed in the hollow nuts with beeswax.

A few of these nuts are dropped into hot, highly spiced stew (which disguises the taste of the poison - although aconite is said to taste sweet 'at first.') The wax and lard melt, releasing the poison...which is deadly and fast-acting, as I'm sure you know, Michelle!

Several other characters are also dispatched by longbow.

I was rather pleased by my poisoning but can't match your sustained inventiveness!

Leslie Wilson said...

Great blog! And I resonated it, since I am always trying to think of ways (both natural and unnatural) of killing people. Even if one knows how they died (for example, in an air-raid) one still has to work out how it happened. I used to phone up a friend who was a doctor, but then I realised she was dreading my phone calls, so I do the research on the Internet, or contact my fellow-authors, who are greatly ingenious, as Michelle has demonstrated!

Sue Purkiss said...

Be afraid, gentle readers - be very afraid!

michelle lovric said...

thank you, lovely and dangerous ladies. You're a terrible bad lot! I'm lucky that I can call on my father, who's a paediatric haematologist, who never flinches from my questions. The Wellcome Trust can answer all the others.