This article was written by Toby Clements, for the Telegraph.
One of the shortest books never written is “My Struggle” by Martin Amis. It would be only a few paragraphs long – just a salty description of his Tube ride to deliver the manuscript of The Rachel Papers to his publisher. It seems, at first glance, that Imogen Robertson might have had an even shorter struggle to be published.
She submitted the first 1,000 words of a novel she had yet to write to The Daily Telegraph’s Novel in a Year competition in 2007. Six months later, having been one of five winners of the competition, she was having lunch with Louise Doughty and the other judges. Six months after that Hodder Headline bought her novel, Instruments of Darkness, which she had by then finished. (The original writing entitled “The Ties that Bind”, with which she won the competition, appears in an edited, reordered form at the beginning of the published novel.)
“I heard I’d made the shortlist of the competition when a long contract at the BBC came to an end,” she says. “So rather than get on the phone and try to get another job [as a director of children’s educational programmes], I started writing the rest of the book in earnest. It was easy because I didn’t have to do anything dramatic like give up a job to do it, and unusually I had some money at the time. So I just thought, this is a chance to give it a go.”
She had been thinking about the novel for a long time. Instruments of Darkness is a superior historical murder mystery, set in Sussex and London during the Gordon riots of 1780, with flashes back to Massachusetts during the American War of Independence in 1775. Unusual in a genre that suffers from formulaic plotting and dead-level prose, her novel makes you want to read every word. Little descriptive details tell of both broad and deep research – for example, a surgeon recognises the scars on a character’s cheek as typical of those left by an exploding musket – while the characterisation is thorough and unusual.
Robertson addresses wider social concerns with a light touch and her two amateur detectives, Mr Crowther and Mrs Westerman, are fresh and distinctive. More than that, though, the plot is serpentine and satisfying, with enough false trails and distractions to create a genuine mystery. It must surely be a contender for this year’s Ellis Peters award for historical crime.
Here, she credits Doughty’s Novel in a Year column that ran in The Daily Telegraph in 2007. “It gave me a great set of questions to keep in my head, and it is the source for all the Post-it notes stuck to the wall above my desk,” she says. One of these reads: “Do what you are most afraid of.” Another: “Everything you write has a dual purpose.” “But the main thing I got from the column was the sense of having a friend and tutor at my shoulder throughout the process of writing,” Robertson says.
Another clue to the novel’s strength can be found in the bookshelves that cover every wall in Robertson’s small south London house. They are stuffed with novels by writers such as Patrick O’Brian, C?J Sansom and Bernard Cornwell, as well as biographies and histories of the 18th and 19th centuries.
“I wanted to write about murder because those are the books I love to read, but writing modern detective fiction one is hemmed in by police procedure, and I wanted to give my characters some air. Since I’ve always been fascinated by the social history of the end of the 18th century, it just seemed the perfect place to start,” she says.
On her shelves are also metres of slim, irregularly shaped poetry books. It turns out that Robertson is a published poet. She was commended in the National Poetry Competition in 2005 for a poem she wrote about a potential suicide bomber on the London Underground.
Poets shouldn’t write novels, should they? “I think the novel has a certain tone of voice, and I think all prose needs to have a certain rhythm, so there’s the poetry in the prose. But they are different disciplines and have different requirements,” Robertson says. “Prose has to be transparent, or at least it should be in a book like mine, while in poetry the shape and texture of the individual words are more in the foreground.”
The ability to see things from both sides perhaps comes from her education. She grew up in Darlington, attending the local comprehensive until she moved to take her A-levels at a boys’ public school that admitted girls in the sixth form. It was a culture shock. “I walked into the kitchen on the first day and there were all these girls with really long blonde hair saying: ‘Yah, I think we used to play each other at lacrosse.’” Her impression is tellingly accurate.
Robertson’s flat thrums to the noise of passing traffic, and she tells me that there was a time when she wondered whether she would have to sell it. This is the first glimpse that her struggle to become a writer has not been entirely painless. She recalls the moment when the manuscript was finished but still unsold, and she burst into tears on the Thames Embankment thinking she was not good enough to make it as a writer or as a television director. Only a comment from Doughty (“you’ll find that when you’re a published author”) made her think her ambition seemed “plausible”.
Now, all that seems a distant memory. She has already finished her next book in the series in which Mr Crowther and Mrs Westerman investigate wrongdoing at the Admiralty. She has embraced the lifestyle of a writer – or, as she describes it, “sitting at my desk, looking out of the window and making up stuff”.
Instruments of Darkness is published by Headline Review at £19.99. To order it from Telegraph Books at £19.99, call 0844 871 1515