I never expected to become a writer. As a child I was an avid reader, but would-be writers in the books I read were always carrying round notebooks and scribbling down stuff as if in permanent apprenticeship for what they wanted to become. I never did. I worried that I wasn’t passionate enough, or good enough. Even after University when I worked as a publisher, I thought, well, at least I’ll be close to writers. After a couple of years I realised this wasn’t what I wanted to do. It was the late 1980s and the golden age of freelance journalism in Britain. People I knew were managing to make a living getting work as reviewers and feature writers on national newspapers. I plucked up courage to write to and cold call some newspaper books pages – it was frequently awful: the irritated voice at the end of the phone, me all too aware of my lack of experience. But eventually I got a few commissions to write a few reviews, and then managed to swing a job working on a free glossy magazine that went through people’s letterboxes. I learnt a lot: editing, commissioning, writing too. I started to write features for other papers, and then got a job on a newspaper supplement, then another on a glossy magazine. Secretly however, I envied my new partner, another writer who was being asked to write clever articles about serious things, while I was sweating over features about people who took their dogs to work.
Then in 1992, out of blue, I got ill. I had to give up my job. Everything stopped for about two years. Eventually I got better, and as I convalesced, I realised that this was the moment. If I didn’t write a book now, I never would. I knew non-fiction was my thing: I had studied history at university. I had a thing about fact and clarity (not that I always was clear). I started work on my first book, a biography, Anthony Blunt, His Lives, in 1994. Blunt was one of the Cambridge spies, but also a very successful art historian who was distantly related to the Queen. When his spying came out in 1979 the press had demonised him but he had remained an enigma – a famous face without a voice. I found myself fascinated by the notion of discovering that voice.
The book took me almost seven years and was published in 2001 and won the Orwell Prize and the Royal Society of Literature’s W.H. Heinemann award, and was named as one of the New York Times seven best books of 2002. My second book, The Three Emperors, was about the relationship between King George V, the last Tsar and the last Kaiser in the years leading up to World War One. I realised I must have a thing about disfunctional men. It took me another five years. It was shortlisted for the LA Times Biography of the year and the Hesse Tiltmann history prize.
In 2010, after taking nearly 15 years to write two books (and having had two children, so not so shabby), I decided I was ready to try something different which would allow me to use my love of historical research but give me the freedom to make stuff up.
For about ten years I had been ruminating about an early Victorian detective, a self-educated working-class sceptic with access to the bottom and top of early Victorian society. I was fascinated by the 1840s, a decade full of disorientating change and invention, when the world moved from from horses to railways, from letters to telegraph, especially in England, the richest and most industrialised country in the world. But I’d also become fascinated by the Thugs, the Indian bandits who befriended, then strangled, unwary travellers on the roads of India in the early 19th century, and how they were ruthlessly suppressed by the British soldier William Sleeman. I put the two things together, and came up with The Strangler Vine, which was published in January 2014 by Fig Tree/Penguin and by Putnam in the US in March 2105. Its sequel, The Infidel Stain, will come out in the UK in May 2015. I’m just starting my third book featuring Blake and Avery. I can reveal only that it will feature a celebrity chef.
I now live with my partner and two sons in London, barely five miles from where I was born and grew up.