Sunday, 23 September 2018

Writing the Crime Scenes: Location as Inspiration

by Karen Lee Street

Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru — a mystery involving old enemies, lost soul- mates, ornithomancy, and the legendary jewel of Peru— is set primarily in early 1844 in the city of Philadelphia, with some brief forays to the Chachapoya mountains in Peru. But it all began in Hackney.

I made my home in that part of London for fourteen years, living in a building that overlooked London Fields and what was once an immense plant nursery renowned throughout Europe. I was surprised to discover that my urban neighbourhood had been a tourist destination in the early nineteenth century due to its enviable collection of exotic flora and the fact that it boasted the largest hothouse in the world. The more I researched the Hackney Botanic Nursery Garden, the more I felt it might be an interesting location for a crime story, and that notion was a key inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru.

Some of the facts that led to the fiction are these: the Hackney Botanic Nursery Garden was originally founded by Johann Busch, a German immigrant who settled in Hackney in the mid-eighteenth century. He rented land on Mare Street and supplied unusual plant specimens to private botanical gardens in Europe. Busch also grew plants from 'Bartram's boxes', collections of seeds put together by John Bartram who had a famous nursery in Philadelphia, now a 45-acre National Historic Landmark called Bartram's Gardens.

When Johann Busch went to Russia to be Imperial Head Gardener to Catherine the Great in 1771, this connection continued, but through Busch's friend and fellow German émigré Joachim Conrad Loddiges (1738–1826), who took over the business. Joachim Loddiges's son George (1786–1846) developed the nursery further with a tropical rainforest display, a palm house, and hothouse collections of orchids, ferns, and other exotic plants that fascinated Victorians, thus making it a popular destination for tourists. George Loddiges also employed plant collectors to bring back unusual flora and fauna from South America, particularly specimens for his ornithological collection, part of which is now housed in the Natural History Museum in London.

One explorer Loddiges hired was Andrew Mathews (1801—1841) who called himself "a traveling collector of natural objects". I discovered that Mathews also gathered seeds and plants for Bartram's Nursery in Philadelphia, but couldn't find out much more about him except that he married a Peruvian woman, they had a son, and Andrew Mathews died at the age of forty in the Chachapoya mountains of Peru, no cause of death given. Was it through accident? Disease? Foul play? The idea for a murder tale began to ferment...

It wasn't only Andrew Mathews who had a connection with the borough of Hackney and the city of Philadelphia. Edgar Allan Poe lived in Stoke Newington from 1815 to 1820 during his boyhood, and he resided at various addresses in Philadelphia between 1838 and 1844, where he wrote some of his most famous tales. I wondered if Poe had visited the impressive Hackney Gardens as a child or had gone to see the Bartram Gardens in Philadelphia whilst living there—and if these locations might be incorporated into my ideas for a Poe & Dupin mystery trilogy. Given George Loddiges's immense collection of avian specimens and that Poe's most famous poem was inspired by Charles Dickens's pet raven Grip, birds seemed tobe a subject worth exploring when concocting a plot.

And so, I returned to Hackney and created a character named after George Loddiges's daughter Helena (1818 - 1871), making her a skilled taxidermist, practitioner of ornithomancy, and an amateur ornithologist who had written a book on the subject. I reasoned that if Poe were hired by Helena Loddiges to edit the book (as he was hired to edit The Conchologist's First Book (1839)), the fee would not only provide the typically impoverished Poe with the means to travel to London in book I: Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster, but would also suggest plot points for book II.

Hackney, Philadelphia, and the Chachapoya mountains are scenes of fictional crimes investigated in Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru and are three places that have more connections in truth than one might initially imagine. The hothouses of the Loddiges plant nursery are long gone, but the Loddiges family vault is located in the gardens of the Church of St John-at-Hackney. Poe is buried in Baltimore, but his former home in the Spring Garden section of Philadelphia is a museum one can visit and Charles Dickens's pet raven Grip (which Dickens had stuffed by a taxidermist after his death) is entombed in a glass box on display in the Philadelphia Free Library. Andrew Mathews died in the Chachapoyas, but how and precisely where is lost to history... as is the mysterious jewel of Peru.

Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru by Karen Lee Street is published by Point Blank, paperback £8.99.

© 2016 by Karen Lee Street