Set in Aberdeen in 1840, The Figurehead is a novel I have no hesitation in recommending. The sights, sounds and people of the period are brought to life by an accomplished author. Beginning with a suspicious death, the plot involves a whodunit and why, the carving of a figurehead for the new ship, the social differences between ordinary people and the gentry, and a tentative love story. All with the background of sea-faring, Victorian Aberdeen.
Although all the characterisation is well done, I was impressed by Bill Kirton’s handling of the female characters, especially the heroine, Helen, who is determined to fight some of the restrictions imposed upon women in that period.
I asked Bill the following questions:
The carving of the figurehead is lovingly depicted. Is that one of your own passions?
Yes. In fact, as part of my research for the book, I joined a carving class and made a couple of figureheads of my own, just to try to sense what John Grant felt as he created his figures. Carving’s still a hobby.
I also joined the crew of the Christian Radich for a trip from Oslo to Leith and even got to steer her under sail. It was magical.
Which character did you most enjoy writing?
That’s easy, but it’s a toss-up between two – both women – Helen and Jessie. They’re from different social classes but similar in many ways – mainly through the strength they show in a patriarchal society. In the end, it has to be Helen because she’s less willing to accept the reduced role society expected of women then.
The novel obviously involved much research. How easy, or difficult, was it?
Not difficult at all. I’ve already mentioned the practical aspects of it. In terms of documents and so on, I found an ordnance survey map of Aberdeen in the library. It was dated 1840 so that decided the time frame and I started reading the local papers for the time. Fascinating, absorbing stuff – the adverts, the trials, the offers of emigration – it gives a real feel for the city at that period.
Then there were the books about building ships, the fact that the Scottish Maid, launched exactly 100 years before my own birthday – to the day – had the first ever ‘clipper bow’. And Aberdeen today, with obvious reservations, isn’t so different architecturally, from the Aberdeen of 1840. Archibald Simpson was at his height then.
Are you writing more novels in that period?
I have several different projects and completed books and stories with publishers at the moment, as well as a probable commission for another non-fiction book for Pearson, but when things settle down, I’m looking forward to writing a sequel to The Figurehead. For a start, John and Helen need to sort out their relationship and, more importantly, Helen is anxious to get involved in her father’s business. She has some revolutionary ideas about passenger arrangements on the transatlantic voyages. Then there’s the visit of a theatre troupe and the solution to the mystery of the killing of John’s fiancée. Isn’t it fun being a writer?
Thanks a lot for the excellent answers, Bill. I’m looking forward to reading more about Helen and John – and I did wonder what had happened to John’s fiancée!
Bill Kirton is a well-published writer of crime novels, academic non-fiction, drama and children’s stories. Find out more about him on his Website, and at his Living and Writing Blog. The Figurehead is available as a paperback and a Kindle e-book from Amazon.