Fresh Blood

Name: BK Duncan

Title of Book: Foul Trade

'...this book certainly set my imagination on fire.'

It is March 1920 and the country is still reeling from the effects of the Great War. Most of the population have been touched by the loss of a loved one. Many of the men who marched off to war, whistling and saying they would be back in time for Christmas were never seen again. As for the rest, they have to live and re-live their nightmares day and night. As with any man or woman who is at a low ebb and in hard times, they are vulnerable and open to predators. And there are many lurking about the streets of London looking for easy prey.

May Keaps is someone who lost both her brother and fiancée to war. She also has to deal with the fact her father took his own life after his son’s death despite still having two daughters alive. With no surviving family, May has to play parent to her younger sister, Alice who dreams of treading the boards at the local ‘Gaiety Theatre’.

May is Poplar’s Coroner Officer and holds down a position that is not normally given a woman. May’s sense of duty strengthens when her boss, the Coroner, Colonel Tindal dismisses out of hand the tragic death of Clarice Gem. Traces of cocaine had been found in her system and the Coroner steered the verdict towards suicide. But May believes there is more to this story, especially with the inclusion of the enigmatic ‘Brilliant’ Chang who may appear suave and cultured for a Chinaman, but is he just another shark in a sharp suit?

With rumours of the Bow Kum Tong taking over Limehouse Docks to widen their empire of drink, drugs, gambling and opium dens; May is determined that Clarice Gems death will not go unavenged. With the help of new acquaintance, Irish reporter, Jack, they both head off to seek the truth. But there are more deaths on the way and soon May discovers that the dark and mysterious nemesis in her imagination may be a lot closer to hand than she ever thought.

With all the centenary celebrations about the Great War, it is poignant that BK Duncan’s debut crime novel, ‘Foul Trade’ is published. However, instead of portraying a country during the 1914-1918 conflict, Duncan sets the scene on a capital city licking its wounds after the war has finished. I admit now that I am not a great fan of Historical Crime, but this book certainly set my imagination on fire.

When I started reading this book I could feel that Duncan had immersed herself in this time period as the sounds and smells are extremely potent. You can feel the poverty of the people who have to do whatever it takes to literally earn a crust. With today’s constant news about rising poverty and the widening gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ you get a sense that things were even harder in 1920. This was a time when normal people on the streets rented damp rooms from suspicious landladies knowing that they would never own a property in their lifetime. This is the way it was back then and the portrait Duncan paints for us can sometimes feel bleak but thankfully does not set the tone for her entire novel.

Duncan’s main character of May Keaps is slightly frustrating as she does tend to play herself down. You’d be forgiven for thinking she was middle-aged but is only mid-twenties. I imagine that many women looked and acted well beyond their years as everyone healed themselves from a war that was expected to last only a few months. There wasn’t the time or money for ‘fripperies’.

Flowing through Duncan’s marvellous portrayal of life winds an even darker undercurrent. Some needed to escape the mundane day-to-day lifestyle or the pain of loss through recreational means. Chasing the dragon with the help of opium allowed some to cleave themselves from reality but also meant they were on a downward spiral as they became dependent on the substance. The only winners were the suppliers who lined their pockets with people’s rent money.

It is this scene that Duncan sets up for May who is drawn into a world she never dreamed existed. Duncan uses history to introduce the newly arrived Chinese contingent. As with everything, you get the bad with the good, the bad being the ‘Tongs’, a gang bent on protection rackets and turf wars in and around Limehouse. It did make me think that with all that is being said about immigration these days, that the UK has been a multi-cultural country for far longer than many realise.

I will say that towards the end of the book and after many ‘escapades’, I did feel that May was floundering a little tackling such a many-headed Hydra as the ‘tongs’ and felt her plan of action should have been better structured. May is an intelligent woman and some of her ‘adventures’ seemed ‘off the cuff’ rather than strategically planned. But this is a very minor quibble.

I really loved ‘Foul Trade’ and Duncan’s evocation of that time is so strong that I felt that every time I put the book down I had to brush the soot and grime of the London streets from my clothes before re-entering the 21st Century. Once opened, I was immediately transported back to London 1920 and the vivid images conjured up by Duncan, whether at the Limehouse Docks or at the Gaiety Theatre felt as though I was looking at sepia photos of this time and place. I have written much in this review and I still have more to say. So I will merely strongly advise you to read this. It is quite simply a stunning read.

Click on the link to obtain the free May Keaps short story, Faith's Reward.

Find out more about the author and her books on:
BK Duncan.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) ‘Foul Trade’ is set in 1920 just after the Great War. Did you decide to write a novel around that era because of the centenary of the First World War or have you always been fascinated by this particular time period?
The direct connection with the centenary commemorations is that over the summer I wrote a prequel short story, ‘Faith’s Reward’ (available as a free Amazon download), set at The Front in 1918 when my main character, May Keaps, was an ambulance driver. I wanted to spotlight the role women played in the Great War and intended it as a testament to the memories they bequeathed to us. But every book I’ve written has been set in the last years of the conflict or in the 1920s – even if the locations are as diverse as Poplar, Cuba, Granada, East Sussex, and the wide skies of Kansas. The era has an irresistible pull for me. It was a time of unprecedented loss and discovery, change and upheaval, political posturing and broken promises. And the parallels with the world we live in today – the expanding gap between rich and poor; class division; the ever-present threat of war; xenophobia and racism; the power of the Establishment; mass unemployment – are astounding, forcing me to remember the Director of the British Museum’s words: “If you think carefully about the past, you will be able to think differently about the present.” On a more frivolous level I’ve always been entranced by 1920’s architecture, culture, films, music, modes of transport, Art Deco ceramics, clothes, and bright, brash advertising ephemera.
Surviving the Great War and living in its long shadow makes the characters in ‘Foul Trade’ who they are, every one damaged either physically, psychologically or emotionally (Josephine Tey wrote in ‘A Shilling for Candles’: “We came through the Great War well, but perhaps the effort was too great. It left us – epileptic.”). Which brings me on to something very personal: there’s a huge part of me that would like to know how I would have been affected. What must it been like to face a future irrevocably altered by a cataclysmic event, the ramifications of which we, with our current sensibilities, can’t possibly comprehend? The prevalence of rolling news and frontline reportage influences our responses to the wars of our time even as they happen whereas, instead of information, Britain in the 1920s was flooded with a sort of collective amnesia which made individuals keep their experiences private, and worked to deny on-going suffering: Wilfred Owen wrote his poems of remembrance to awaken his contemporaries. And, 100 years on, reading them pierces me with something shockingly close to envy because I’ll never be able to test whether I’d have been brave enough to be an unwelcome voice shouting the truth in a colluding world. So I have to do the next best thing and honour the people who did do so in my fiction.
2) Your main protagonist is May Keaps who is the Coroner’s Officer in Poplar, London. It must have been quite something for a woman to hold this position. Why did you give May this particular job?
I knew I wanted to set ‘Foul Trade’ in 1920 and also that it would be peopled by the underclass rather than upper-class flappers. So no amateur sleuths for me; May had to be a working girl with lots of nous but little formal education who investigated murder for a living. But in what capacity? The obvious occupations of police inspector, pathologist or lawyer were all impossible if I wanted to be historically accurate (and I did).
It was when I was tearing my hair out over the problem with a writing buddy that I hit on the job of coroner’s officer – they needed no qualifications; it wasn’t a legally-constituted role so the coroner could designate anyone (one incumbent in Poplar had been the local undertaker) and given the shortage of men after the Great War it was conceivable a woman could have been appointed. Plus – and this was crucial – May had experienced the horrors at The Front and so was not only intimately acquainted with death and violence, she (as many WW1veterans admitted in diaries and memoirs) actively needed the threat of danger to make her feel alive. Survivor’s guilt I suppose we’d call it now. So thinking she wasn’t up to the job would never have entered her head.
In my research I couldn’t find proof positive that there ever had been a female coroner’s officer, but I only found any details of two men in the role anyway – the aforementioned Poplar undertaker and Coroner Oswald’s officer who was a serving policeman given light duties because of his bad chest (probably consumption). The coroner’s sidekick and underling wasn’t deemed important enough to feature in memoirs or newspaper reports and, as this is a status that has been assigned to women throughout history, was another reason why the role was perfect for May.
3) The Chinese community are heavily involved in your novel, bringing with them Opium dens and cocaine. Can you tell us more about the migration of Chinese to London? Were the Tong such a big problem back then?
Limehouse was London’s original Chinatown. Although the streets around the docks were thronged with foreign sailors and those passing through on their way to another country, there were permanent immigrant communities – Norwegian, Scandinavian, Jewish, Russian, Lascar, Japanese, Malay – but it was the Chinese who were the most established. The 1921 census records 337 in Limehouse but this figure is almost certainly unreliable because many landlords did not declare the real numbers living in their overcrowded tenements; a modern estimation is around 500.
Although not statistically significant, the Chinese Quarter in Pennyfields and the Causeway drew attention to itself by being very visible with its laundries, shops, restaurants, gambling joints, and boarding houses. Sax Rhomer didn’t start the fear-and-hate fuelled racism of the era but he did fan the flames with his ‘Yellow Peril’ tales of Dr Fu Manchu. Newspapers (particularly the Daily Express and the Daily Mail) then, as now, ran scare stories that implied the whole country was being overrun by foreigners with the focused resentment against the Chinese springing from the latter years of the Great War when it was thought Englishmen joined the army to fight only to have their jobs, houses, and women appropriated by the Chinese sailors no longer content with a life on the High Seas. It was the ‘contamination of white women’ which was the unpardonable sin; both in, and of, itself, and for the means by which it could be accomplished.
There was a flourishing trade in smuggled opium and cocaine in every port city but London with trade routes to the Far East and Asia had a whole economy based on drug trafficking. Court and police reports, contemporary sociological surveys, and first-hand accounts all point to the opium dens being Chinese owned and run. And it was because the smoking of the drug was thought to actively encourage sexual promiscuity between races that Chinamen were held to be degenerate corruptors of innocent white girls. This belief was so strong in popular imagination that Chinese/English marriages were condemned, any children of the union victimised, their households sometimes firebombed.
Given all of the above, it isn’t surprising that organised gangs formed within the Chinese community to protect their economic interests i.e. control the drug trade. So many myths and cultural stereotypes have always surrounded the tongs that it’s impossible to know how prevalent and how much of a menace they actually were, but I’d guess probably no more or less than the drug gangs fighting turf wars in our modern-day inner cities. I wanted to establish the Bow Kung Tong as a pernicious undercurrent of violence in ‘Foul Trade’ because its members will resurface in future books in the May Keaps series. So be warned!
4) There is a heck of a lot of information about the East India Docks and the industry that went through them during this time. Unfortunately, the docks have been filled in with only the entrance basin remaining. Why did you base your novel around the Docks and Poplar, London? Have you any connection with either place? How much research was required before you could start writing?
Both my parents were Londoners but neither from the East End, and I have no connections with the area.
I had set part of a previous novel in Poplar during the run-up to the 1926 General Strike, and a combination of not wanting to leave my material stagnating on my shelves and a dockland community being perfect for a crime series with its wide variety of people (added spice coming from the area being notorious for murder and violence) were the initial influences on my choice of location for ‘Foul Trade’. Then, when I started my in-depth research I realised my decision was auspicious: the 1914 OS Map showed the Coroner’s Court on the corner of the High Street and Finch’s Court with the Limehouse Chinese Quarter within walking distance, the West India Docks a stone’s throw away, the hospital and police station nearby, and the back of the map listed the principal businesses in the area; the Museum of London Docklands yielded a 1919 diary of a 15-year-old dock messenger boy, Oscar Kirk; the ‘New Survey of London Life and Labour’ catalogued the industries in the vicinity; philanthropic organisations such as the Salvation Army, Dr Barnardo’s and various church societies wrote reports on the living conditions and plight of the poor. So the facts of Poplar in 1920 weren’t difficult to unearth – albeit very time consuming. The London Docks were the busiest in the world and because Britain is a maritime nation with a fascination for ships and the sea, the everyday workings of the ‘town within a city’ were well documented. Photographs of magnificent barques, three-masted schooners and costal wherries – all a common sight sailing in and out of the dock gates throughout the 1920s and 30s – as well as those of paddle steamers (“shilling sicks” J. B. Priestley memorably called them) and huge ocean-going liners added an inspiring romantic backdrop.
But, overall, the streets in the thunderous shadows of the high walls were grim. They stank. It wasn’t only because certain industries needed the River Thames as a thoroughfare that they were situated in the East End; the prevailing winds meant pollution stayed there and didn’t get up the noses of the rich and influential. Just imagine a combination of: tanneries; paint and varnish works; breweries; saltpetre; guano; gasworks; rubber manufacturers; jam and pickle factories; shipbuilding; sheds of ripening bananas; sugar; sulphur from match matching; spices; coffee, rum; sawn wood; coal dust . . . and that’s not to mention the refuse rotting in the mud at low tide, scores of steam engines, horse manure lining the streets, and the odour emanating from backyard privies and overcrowded slums.
And all of that is just a fraction of what I had to learn about my chosen setting before I could start writing the book. Added to which I also needed a taste of what it felt like to walk in May’s shoes so I read the contemporary journalistic accounts of George R Sims’ forays into dockland life and the stories (and pseudo-reportage) of Thomas Burke and his contemporaries, as well as oral history collected from the men and women who lived and worked there.
How long did all this research take me? Months and months and months. I was still digging into some of Poplar’s hidden secrets as I was putting the finishing touches to the final version of ‘Foul Trade’, and, of course, throughout the writing of it I was constantly adding extra touches of light and shade (as well as correcting some historical inaccuracies) as I uncovered new information. Frustrating, yes. But I loved every moment of it.
5) May’s sister, Alice has her heart set on ‘treading the boards’ at The Gaiety. There was a theatre on The Strand with the same name which was demolished in 1956. Was it based on that theatre? Did you have to learn much ‘theatre speak’ when writing those chapters involving Alice?
I called my imaginary theatre The Gaiety because the name evokes fun, laughter, and transport from a life of drudgery whereas, ironically, for the stage turns it was a place of merciless judgement and potential humiliation. Entertainment at another’s expense – not unlike our current television talent shows.
I’ve always been fascinated by old theatres as buildings, the closeted artificially of backstage life, and the rise and decline of Music Hall as mass entertainment. I remember when the Hackney Empire was first being restored to something of its former glory and being taken there by a friend working on the project; although it was a sad neglected place, the flaking walls and threadbare plush seats still held traces of magic and it was easy to imagine what it must’ve been like to be on stage holding a packed-out Saturday night audience in the palm of your hand. It was something of that atmosphere I was trying to recreate with The Gaiety – a theatre long-past its best but buoyed along by tradition, nostalgia (Music Hall was already on its deathbed in 1920) and the heartfelt affection of the community.
Although I already knew a fair bit about the theatre world (I’ve 1920’s theatre bills on my bedroom walls, the caricatures of the headliners drawn by my Great Uncle Arthur who also designed the Christmas cards sent by Sandy Powell. But I digress . . .) I had to do a lot of research to get the period right. Historical accuracy is very important to me because if I’m not convinced of the authenticity of the worlds I create, then how can I expect a reader to be? I read contemporary theatre memoirs; accounts of trips to music halls by Thomas Burke, George Sims, H. Chance Newton, and Horace Barnes; ‘The Stage Year Book’ of 1914 and 1919; the lives of some of the greatest stars of the boards – Marie Lloyd, Vesta Tilley, Little Titch, Dan Leno – as well as those now long-forgotten; books on the history of Music Hall (Roy Hudd, in particular, was a mine of telling and fascinating detail) and the role it played in society; and everything written on the subject by the wonderfully opinionated J. B. Priestley. I also found some brilliant resources on-line relating to the East End theatres of the day in general and, specifically, the Queen’s and Hippodrome in Poplar. All this I steeped myself in until I had absorbed enough to feel as though I had lived backstage in a former life, then I set about having fun making things up. Like the stage turns and details of their acts. I did enjoy causing chaos with the poodles. But my favourite bit of theatre ‘business’ in the book is true and included as a tribute to all those long-dead performers who sweated blood to inject a moment of fantasy into the lives of people even more poor and downtrodden than themselves; the great Walter Aubrey really did leave the stage after dying a death and announced to the wings: “I’m off to pee on my props, and sod the profession!”.
6) This is your debut novel. Did you have to write around your ‘day job’? What sort of writing regime do you try to stick to?
I have been a full-time writer for the past 18 years. The offer of a healthy redundancy package meant a relatively easy transition from a career as an organisation development consultant to apprentice novelist (I’ll let you know if I ever get to the stage when I feel I can tear up the L plates). I tutor a handful of creative writing classes in various academies and colleges in Hertfordshire and Cambridge but the rest of my time I devote to working on my novel of the moment. I treat it as a 9 to 5 job, although in the white-heat of creation (as opposed to research or editing) I’m often found at my desk every evening and weekend as well. Making myself write isn’t an issue, imposing a regime of rest and relaxation is. But for the past couple of years I’ve taken up longbow archery and Argentine Tango (not together, obviously) and have managed to achieve a better work/life balance. Except writing is my life, and you won’t hear any complaints from me about that!
7) As a new published writer what one piece of advice would you give to someone starting out on their own writing journey?
We will only ever write as well as we can. So get better. Learn the skills and craft of storytelling because with them you can transform a good idea into a workable novel, captivate readers’ imaginations, and create a work of fiction you’ll be truly proud of. Luck plays a part at the stage of getting published; it has no place in each of us becoming the best writer we can possibly be.
8) What more have you in store for May Keaps?
The plan was always to write a number of books in the May Keaps series (the titles will all be genuine inquest verdicts – although I doubt I can use: “Death by Visitation of God” – or remarks made in coroners’ summations) and I am nearing completion of the second. In ‘Found Drowned’ May uncovers more disturbing information about the death of her father, explores the strangely insular world of the Isle of Dogs, and Jack becomes a permanent fixture in Poplar.
9) What do you look for when you pick up a book to read?
This is a tricky one. So many, many things. And it changes depending on my mood and whatever phases I am going through in my life. But the constants have always been: a commanding and imaginative way with language; a well-delineated sense of time and place; the writer’s ability to throw light on some aspect of the human condition; characters who will live in my head long after I’ve slotted the book away on my shelves. Plot is never first and foremost with me (which probably sounds strange coming from a crime writer) but storytelling is – of which plot is only one strand. I read more non-fiction than fiction these days in my never-ending quest to seek out material for forthcoming books and my current focus is on oral history. People telling the stories of their lives. Storytelling. (Although a striking cover in a second-hand bookshop will always seduce me into taking it home – paying for it first, naturally).
10) What would you say are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you?
When I was 11, my history teacher, Miss Gibbs, recommended I read ‘The Daughter of Time’ by Josephine Tey. I wouldn’t be surprised if the seeds of writing historical crime fiction were sown the moment I first creased the spine of the Penguin paperback.

‘Queen of the South’ by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, given to me by a Spanish friend when we were sitting on a mountainside in the Sierra Nevada drinking his cider. It is a crime novel, treasure hunt, and adventure yarn all rolled into one. And the man can write. Beautifully. I’ve now read everything he’s written and consider him a master storyteller.

Margaret Millar’s ‘Beast in View’ is a portrait of a complex and compelling woman with a bitter and twisted heart. I read it decades ago and can still picture certain scenes and feel the sense of deep unease the book left me with. She deserves to be a far better known writer and more widely read; our contemporary exponents of psychological thrillers owe an enormous debt to her for getting there first.