Leslie Scase explains why Pontypridd is a perfect setting for his Victorian mystery.
Let’s Go Back in Time
It all started when I began to take an interest in genealogy. My grandmother’s family were originally from Trowbridge. Her parents had moved to South Wales in the middle of the 19th Century and she was born just outside Pontypridd. My grandfather was born in Rapallo, Italy and arrived in Cardiff in the 1890s. Their wedding took place in Pontypridd in 1898 and my grandfather worked in a colliery as a ‘stoker-above-ground.’ I started to think about what sort of place Pontypridd must have been in the 1890’s. What I found absolutely fascinated me.
Pontypridd had only existed as a town due to the industrial revolution. The population of the Rhondda Valleys had exploded in a very short space of time. It was a time of great migration but not everyone was heading to America. Some saw the chance of a better life closer to home. People came from all over England, other parts of Wales, Ireland, Poland, Germany and elsewhere. These weren’t necessarily directly involved in heavy industries (Pontypridd had an ironworks, a steelworks, chainworks, mills and several collieries).
Indeed, when people were earning money, they would want to spend it. On the back of this the market in Pontypridd became famous in its time, drawing thousands to the town on market days and encouraging high quality shops to become established in the town.
The social impact was immense. Many of the issues of immigration that we see today were reflected then. There were unscrupulous landlords, low pay and poor working conditions. There were also great acts of charity and human endeavour. The Welsh language suffered immeasurably, though the incomers often took to their hearts some Welsh words and phrases and established their own dialect. Industrial unrest and intense pressure on the social class structure were also a feature of the age.
In the 1890s Pontypridd itself had a beautiful theatre, active music hall, a state-of-the-art shopping arcade, and an almost endless number of pubs (both reputable and disreputable). It was vibrant and exciting with contrasts of temperance and drunkenness; wealth and poverty; law and violent crime.
I had previously considered writing a Victorian crime novel with dastardly deeds carried out in dark alleys beyond the gaslights, and hansom cabs galloping through the fog, but felt that to go down the Whitechapel road was too much like going over old ground. Now though, I realised that what I had been looking for was right under my nose.
I wanted my central character, Thomas Chard, to be an outsider who would be dropped into this strange, bewildering, chaotic backdrop. I also wanted him to be someone with whom the reader could identify. Not a detective genius, just someone who tries his best and keeps going even when everything seems against him. Chard is very fallible and has a sense of humour. One thing that the Valleys has to this day is an underlying warmth. Humour is never far away, even in adversity. I like to think that Fortuna’s Deadly Shadow reflects that.