Julia interviews Will Thomas

Author of The Black Hand and the Barker/Llewelyn series from Touchstone. Visit the author's web site.

Tell me a bit about yourself, your writing, and the scoop on your latest project. Yep, it‘s an elevator talk!

Call me old-fashioned (everybody does,) but I write in longhand, generally out of doors. I sit down and light up my pipe and after a moment, my narrator, Thomas Llewelyn, starts chattering in my ear. I’m hard-pressed to take it all down in my notebook. My wife, Julia, types and edits for me, and we work on rewrites together. When I’m not writing, I study Victorian Era martial arts, such as Bartitsu and Hung Gar.

I was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to a family of Scottish immigrants. Our heritage was an important part of my upbringing. When I was a teen, we moved to Oklahoma, where an assigned reading of “Great Expectations” resulted in a love of Victorian literature which has never gone away. By the time I was seventeen, I was the youngest member of a local Sherlock Holmes scion and something of a walking Doyle encyclopedia. I first broke into writing with several poems in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. However, my eventual work as a Holmes reviewer made me a purist, as far as Arthur Conan Doyle was concerned. With a head stuffed full of rare knowledge about the Victorian underworld, physical culture, Asian subjects, and English history, I envisioned a series about a gumshoe working in Jack the Ripper’s London. Out of that came Cyrus Barker and “Some Danger Involved.”

How would you define the kind of fiction you write, and what in your life influenced you to write it?

I define my series as literary mystery. Thomas Llewelyn is a failed scholar with a good education and a melancholy disposition, who chooses to work for the dangerous Cyrus Barker over suicide. He often references the classics he’s read, just as Barker quotes scripture or snatches of Confucius. Also, there are a number of historial facts and figures in the novels, though I’m coy about stating which is real and which are a figment of my overactive imagination.

My new book, “The Black Hand,” postulates what would happen if the Mafia had attempted to move into London. Cyrus Barker would not stand for that, of course. My books often start with “what ifs.” Then I do intensive research. In this case, I uncovered a host of innovative murder techniques the Sicilians used in Palermo. There was no need to borrow from Mario Puzo.

What astonishes me is that after five novels, I’m still intrigued with the characters. Cyrus and Thomas are two of my favorite people, and I learn more about them every day. It’s not so much inventing as unearthing, as if I were an archaeologist digging up Barker’s past in China, Japan, and the South China Seas. I’m having fun and I hope it shows.

Tell us about some writers, or books, you’d like to introduce folks to...

Well, really, everyone should be reading Julia Spencer-Fleming, but while you’re waiting for the next Barker and Llewelyn novel to come out, I recommend Boris Akunin’s Erast Fandorin novels. They’re set in Moscow during the days of the last czar.

Will Thomas

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“With a head stuffed full of rare knowledge about the Victorian underworld, physical culture, Asian subjects, and English history, I envisioned a series about a gumshoe working in Jack the Ripper’s London.”