The Denton books, Kenneth Cameron


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Dear Kenneth Cameron,

You’re a hard man to track down. I originally wanted to send you an email to say how much I love your books and to urge you to keep them coming but couldn’t find any way to contact you. I suspect that your hero, Denton, another writer, wishes he could do the same thing but it would definitely be much less entertaining if he did.

Anyway, thwarted of my email, I decided instead to write an open letter in the form of a blog post, which would have the additional benefit of letting everyone else know how much I love your books and hope that you keep them coming even if you yourself never actually get to see this, which I suspect you won’t.

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You first came to my attention when I read your superb Winter at Death’s Hotel, which had the fabulously curious and eccentric Louisa Conan Doyle as an accidentally sleuthing heroine in a New York dominated by Irish gangs and indifferent policing. I thought it was marvellous and immediately hastened to read your Denton series about a grumpy American author and former gun slinger living in turn of the century London.

I’ll admit that it took a while for me to get into the first Denton book: The Frightened Man but after just a couple of chapters I was completely hooked thanks to a combination of your robust prose, Denton himself (I found that it helped to imagine him as looking and sounding exactly like Homer Jackson in Ripper Street) and the vibrant characters that come, welcome or not, into his life. I was also enthralled by your meaty and detailed description of turn of the century London in all its sprawling, smokey, stinking, violent glory and applauded your decision to make Denton an almost obsessive walker, which means that we readers get to see the city unfold before his wryly observant eyes as he tramps his way through it and I don’t think that I have ever read a finer and more evocative bringing to life of late Victorian and Edwardian London.

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You, yourself have said that: ‘The mystery novel is a kind of social comedy, a genre that seems to fit me. I suspect it’s significant that I, an American, write about an American in London – the advantage (the mask?) of the outsider. The books are placed in the early years of the twentieth century, making me an outsider there, as well; it would perhaps be better to write about my own time, but at the moment I’m happy with things this way‘ and I think that therein lies the success of your approach. I myself often find myself telling people that writing about the past is ‘like writing about a different country’ and I very much enjoy historical fiction that uses the ploy of an outsider looking in to draw us into this strange new world. It’s hard not to be charmed by Denton’s evident delight in the strange world of London – from the meanest Whitechapel rookery to the gentlemen’s clubs of Mayfair to the aristocratic dinner parties that he is forced every not and again to endure depending on his current level of fame and notoriety.

We, the reader, are invited to follow him wherever he goes and in this way are treated to a whistle stop tour of all of London’s delights, from middle class suburban houses to pubs to journalist offices to the louche cafés frequented by Denton’s bohemian friends, such as Frank Harris, who is, I have to say, a bit of a scene stealer in these books when he makes his occasional appearances to impart his formidable omniscient wisdom, get drunk, boast about his sexual escapades or, on one memorable occasion, chivvy Denton into attending their mutual friend, Oscar Wilde’s funeral.

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Besides Denton himself, who could fail to love the other characters in the series – from Atkins, Denton’s man servant and obvious best friend to his lover, Janet Striker to her protegé, the ‘backward boy’, Walter Snokes. I think actually that Snokes is my favourite character in the series and, having Aspergers myself, I have even been moved to tears by the quietly moving, sympathetic and affectionate way that he is depicted – something that a lot of writers attempting to depict characters on the autistic spectrum could learn a lot from.

Although I always relish the mystery and usually gruesome murder that lie at the heart of the Denton books, I would have to say that my favourite bits involve Denton’s troubled and always amusing relationship with his editor, an austere man who seems wilfully determined to mistake his client’s philosophical, American gothic novels as flat out horror, mainly by taking Denton’s sinister metaphors at total face value which puts a whole different spin on the book. At one point Denton tries to serve him one by apparently giving in and bloody mindedly writing a series of skits making fun of the most famous supernatural characters – only, of course, for them to become wildly popular bestsellers.

There are now seven books in the series, which has moved on from 1900 and the dying embers of the Victorian era to 1907 and the peak of the Edwardian period. Just as he is fascinated by the hidden nooks and crannies of London, Denton also takes more than a passing interest in all the latest technological advances, becoming an early adopter of a telephone, car and other new fangled excitements. I love that his world is never static, which is a problem with so much historical fiction, but that things change all the time with new people and inventions entering (and often leaving) all the time and bringing with them their own complications, problems and solutions. I really do hope that the books carry on to the First World War era and beyond as I’d love to see what Denton and his circle make of it all.

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Anyway, I’d just like to end by saying that I’ve just finished the seventh Denton mystery (I gobbled it up in one day in fact), The Oxford Fellow and am now champing at the bit for another instalment so please, Mr Cameron, accept my congratulations and whole hearted admiration of your books (you’re probably the only writer that currently warrants an insta-buy from me for my Kindle) and WRITE MORE.

Yours etc,

Madame Guillotine.

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