Blake and Avery and how their relationship has developed through two books.
I first had the idea for Jeremiah Blake, my inquiry agent (the prototype of the modern private eye) about 14 years ago. I was in the midst of a huge non-fiction tome about World War One, and writing a detective novel with a made-up plot seemed unbelievably alluring. I knew exactly where I wanted to put him: in London in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, when the chaotic, morally easy-going Georgian era gave way to the more uptight, energetic Victorian one, and when London became the biggest and most cosmopolitan city in the world.
I knew from the start that my protagonist would be working class, self-educated, and clever, too clever not to see through the injustices and prejudices of his period, yet forced to kowtow to his social superiors in order to make a living.
It was a good nine years until I actually got round to writing my first mystery, The Strangler Vine. By then I’d decided that I wanted to write about the Thugs —the gangs of murderous bandits who haunted the roads of India in the 1820s and 30s, befriending, then strangling, unwary travelers. So the book had to be set in India which I reckoned was a good place for a sort of origins story. At the frontiers of the British Empire people from unconventional and modest backgrounds often found opportunity and reinvented themselves. I decided that Blake (he now had a name) had come from a lowlife criminal background and had been transported to India when very young by the East India Company. There he had been spotted by the Company’s intelligence department and trained up to be a spy.
Then I realised that not knowing anything about India might be a bit of a problem. I couldn’t be an omniscient narrator because I would never know enough. I couldn’t write from Blake’s perspective because I felt he needed to be mysterious and inscrutable. I couldn’t use an Indian character because again they’d know more than I ever could. I needed someone to tell the story who was new to India and a bit clueless: my ignorance could be his ignorance. Problem solved.
That was how Blake’s sidekick William Avery came about. He was a young provincial gentleman-turned-soldier, naïve, conventional and full of the prejudices of his class, but with a hidden, less straightforward side: a secret passion for books, an instinct for taking care of others, an eye for a telling detail.
The strange thing was that Avery’s voice, which started out as a response to a structural need, came to me at once: he seemed easy to write, maybe because he was so fallible and reminded me a bit of me. Blake came slower. Taciturn, cool, revealing very little about himself, but with a big hinterland that could only emerge slowly, I found it much harder to get him right.
I’d planned to kill Avery off at the end of The Strangler Vine, but as I wrote the book, I realized that I’d written a real, awkward and—I thought—touching relationship that I wanted to develop. I liked the notion of the older working-class man leading the younger posher subordinate—a relationship unusual and not altogether approved of in Victorian England. At the start Avery feels utterly humiliated by Blake and hates him. But gradually he begins reluctantly to admire him and ends by feeling intense loyalty to him. Blake, meanwhile, has convinced himself he needs no one, especially not a silly, innocent young officer. But his long suppressed humanity is brought out by Avery, whom he comes to recognize maybe ignorant and innocent but is utterly honest and loyal.
In the second book, The Printer’s Coffin, the two meet in London after three years apart. Avery still nurses a powerful admiration for and loyalty to Blake. I think he regards him as the older brother/father mentor he never had, though he disagrees with many of Blake’s views. He hopes they will pick up where they left off, but both have changed. Blake is cool and difficult, and even angrier and at odds with Victorian society. He is determined to keep the world at bay. Avery meanwhile has been traumatized by his experiences in the Afghan war, and his marriage has not been a success. Ironically, it seems to me, each one needs the other more than ever.