Thursday, 17 February 2011

Bleeding Heart Square by Andrew Taylor

Alcohol is not just for diversion into anecdote in books, it can serve move the plot as well. One of the author’s greatest fears is (or certainly should be!) the dumping of large amounts of factual content in one go, pages and pages of detail that leaves the reader numb and flicking forward to the beginning of the next chapter. This is where a couple of libations can really come to the rescue...

Take this example from Andrew Taylor’s Bleeding Heart Square. I picked this out of the library because I work a couple of minutes walk away from many of the locations, and because I’d seen a review which mentioned that one of the main characters was a lush, therefore making it ideal blogging material.

In two pages, Taylor demonstrates how to use a bottle of wine to introduce some back story and a bit of characterisation:

At that moment there came a tap at the door.
“Come in,” cried Ingleby-Lewis, and struggled to his feet.
The door opened, revealing Malcolm Fimberry on the threshold with a bottle of wine cradled in his arms.
“I say,” he squeaked. “Sorry to disturb you. I – I thought I might open some wine and I wondered if I could borrow a corkscrew.”
“Wine, eh?” Ingleby-Lewis sprang towards him. “Nothing simpler, old man. Come in and sit down. Lydia, my dear, would you find Mr Fimberry a corkscrew in the kitchen?”
“If you would like to join me in a glass,” Fimberry suggested, “I’d be more than pleased.”
“How very kind.” Ingleby-Lewis patted him on the shoulder and removed the bottle from his grasp. “Three glasses as well then, please, Lydia. Ah, a Beaujolais, I see. How very wise. You’re quite right of course – solitary drinking is not something one should encourage. Besides, life holds few finer pleasures than a glass of wine with friends.”
When Lydia returned with three unmatched glasses and a corkscrew, she found her father and Mr Fimberry sitting on either side of the fireplace and smoking Mr Fimberry’s cigarettes. Her father took the corkscrew and removed the cork with a skill born of long experience. He poured a stream of wine into the nearest glass.
“None for me, thank you,” Lydia said.
“Nonsense,” Ingleby-Lewis said. “Just a sip. Do you good. Warm you up.” He turned to Fimberry. “My daughter feels the cold, you know. Especially at night.” He measured a thimbleful into he smallest of the glasses and handed it ceremoniously to Lydia. He gave another glass to Fimberry and the largest one to himself. He raised his own glass to the light. “A fine colour. Your good health.” He swallowed a third of the contents.
“I hear you have a position at Shires and Trimble in Rosington Place, Mrs Langstone,” Fimberry said, leaning towards her. “That must be interesting. Working for a solicitor, I mean.”
“It’s early days yet,” Lydia said grimly.
“You’re just opposite the chapel, of course. In fact, as far as I can work out from an eighteenth-century plan of the palace, the house where Shires and Trimble are must be built over part of the Almoner’s lodging. Remarkable to think of the people who must have walked about here in their time. Good Queen Bess, Sir Thomas More, Richard the Third, John of Gaunt, all those splendid prelates of the Church. Why, we walk on history in this part of London. And that’s why we Mr Howlett to guard our gates and keep order. In legal terms, Rosington Place, Bleeding Heart Square and their environs form the Rosington Liberty, and hence in many respects they still fall under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rosington.”
“Very true,” Ingleby-Lewis said. “A spot more? No?” He refilled his own glass. “You must know the place like the back of your hand.”
Mr Fimberry simpered, his eyes huge behind his pince-nez. “Oh, there are some fascinating stories associated with it, no doubt about that. After the Reformation, the Catholic dead were sometimes secretly interred beneath the chapel, in the days when the palace was rented to the Spanish ambassador. It is said that the bodies were brought here to Bleeding Heart Square, and then transferred to the chapel in Rosington Place. They were secretly buried at midnight, to the accompaniment of solemn masses, beneath the undercroft floor.
“Extraordinary yarn,” Ingleby-Lewis said, his eyes straying again towards the bottle.

In just under 600 words the reader now knows that Ingleby-Lewis is a soak, the gloriously Dickensian Mr Fimberry is a funny sort who buys a bottle of wine when he doesn’t own a corkscrew and bothers his neighbours using it as an excuse for a chat and the chapel on Rosington Place, which features later on in the story, is introduced, along with its history, without boring the reader to tears. Simple, when it’s done well...

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