Patrice Lawrence and the Inspiration for ‘The Elemental Detectives’

Patrice Lawrence is the award-winning and Carnegie-nominated author of a wide range of novels including Diver’s Daughter and Eight Pieces of Silva. Her new book, The Elemental Detectives, tells the story of a magical version of eighteenth-century London and two teenagers who battle to save its residents from a mysterious sleeping sickness. You can read my review here.

I was very lucky to have the opportunity to talk to Patrice about the real-life and fictional inspiration behind her brilliant new book. Her responses are amazing and I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did!

One of the main characters in The Elemental Detectives, Robert Strong, is based on a real young man, Jonathan Strong, who lived in London in the eighteenth century. Can you tell us about how you came across him and the research you carried out to flesh out the story of his life? 

I discovered Jonathan Strong – like ALL my UK Black historical facts – by accident and as an adult. I’d been commissioned to research and deliver a guided walk about the history of migration to Hackney, the borough where I lived. Hackney Museum is an exemplar in celebrating the many communities that have made the borough their home. Through them, I found out that there had been Black people in the area for hundreds of years.

My next stop was online. I found an invaluable site that listed information from the baptism, marriage and death notices of people of colour in City of London churches from the 16th to 19th century. (It’s now part of a London Metropolitan Archive resource called Switching The Lens – Rediscovering Londoners of African, Caribbean, Asian and Indigenous Heritage 1561 to 1840.)  I read every single entry as I was transfixed by those people, so many brought to London as enslaved people, all with little to remember them by other than a few words in church records. Their true ages were rarely known and even their names weren’t their own.

I found out about Jonathan when I was researching St Leonards Church – aka Shoreditch Church. It’s a big block of a church on Shoreditch High Street where the BBC comedy-drama ‘Rev’ was filmed. That’s where Jonathan Strong was baptised. I read every online resource about Jonathan that I could, though the most detailed information I’ve found about him recently is in Gretchen Gerzina’s Black England: Life Before Emancipation (John Murray, 1995.)

What made you decide to use a real character in a magical adventure while also keeping so much of his history?

All of my books end up being a mix of ideas that have lodged in my imagination and refuse to shift.

I had wanted to give Jonathan a voice for a while and my agent urged me to wait and find the right story to do him justice. Jonathan was an enslaved teenager who had been brought to London from Barbados by a vicious man called David Lisle. Lisle violently assaulted Jonathan so badly that Jonathan could no longer work. Lisle threw Jonathan onto the streets to die.

Luckily, Jonathan found free medical care at a clinic for the poor run by William Sharp. William and his brother, Granville, were shocked by Jonathan’s story and paid for months of medical bills at Barts Hospital. When Jonathan was discharged, they found him a job with an apothecary.

That should be the start of a happy life for Jonathan, but Lisle spotted him, now recovered and healthy, and secretly sold him on. His new ‘owner’ kidnapped Jonathan and had him imprisoned in the Compter on Poultry in the City of London, intending to ship him to another plantation in the West Indies. The overwork and abuse meant that life expectancy would have been very short there.

Jonathan managed to get word to the Sharp brothers who managed to free him. Eventually, there was a lengthy legal case to determine whether Jonathan was ‘owned’ as a slave or a free man. Jonathan’s case was argued by Granville Sharp.

Jonathan and Granville Sharp won. Granville became a committed abolitionist. His achievements are rightly remembered. Jonathan has mostly been forgotten. It seems that he didn’t live beyond his mid-20s because of the injuries inflicted on him. No one knows where he is buried. I wanted to create a character that gave him agency and made him a hero. Enter, Robert Strong.

At the same time, I’m a massive fan of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series. I love that they are basically police procedurals set in the diverse London that I recognise – with added magic. I’m also a multiple-viewer of the film, Inception. So naturally, I wondered, what would happen if Rivers of London met Inception and someone like Jonathan Strong was a main character?

What happens is that it’s 1764 and the poor have fallen into an enchanted sleep where their dreams are so real that they don’t want to wake. Meanwhile, Marisee’s grandma, Madam Blackwell has disappeared. Robert and Marisee must face the ghosts of Hyde Park, the riddling Dragon in the Mansion House cellar, the murderous sleepwalkers of Chick Lane, the plague monster in the Serpentine and the tithe-master wearing a coat of live swans to solve the mystery before the poor wither away.

This isn’t the first time that you’ve written a historical novel. What do you enjoy most about researching and writing history?

I’m endlessly curious. I know that there are stories buried within stories and teasing those out through the prism of histories is so satisfying! 

My mum loves British history and most weekends she used to pile us into her car and we’d visit a stately home or castle. Sometimes the places we visited were inspired by historical fiction she’d read.  (My mum is a massive reader.)

I love visiting the places I write about to get a sensory impression of them. When I was writing Diver’s Daughter – a book set in the Elizabethan era inspired by Jacques Francis, a real life African diver who salvaged cannon from the sunken Mary Rose – I visited Portsmouth and Southampton. In the former, I really wanted to understand the shape of the harbour and see where the warship sank. In Southampton, I wanted to walk around the medieval walls (and touch them) and try and imagine how it looked in the 16th century. I spent ages gazing at a Tudor house imagining my characters inside and toured St Michael’s church, a medieval church and the oldest building in Southampton. The library in Southampton was an utter joy and the librarians incredibly helpful.

Did you find it freeing to be able to combine history with fantasy or did you feel responsible for making sure that there was a truth behind what you imagined?

My books for teenagers are always about young people with backgrounds that are stereotyped and are often pushed to the edges of society. I feel responsible for how those young people are represented and what my books say about them. I  want the representations to be authentic, but I don’t want to reinforce stereotypes and cause harm.

This carried through to The Elemental Detectives. I wanted the fantasy to be very grounded in facts. During the first lockdown in 2020, I couldn’t read fiction and struggled to write. Instead, I read many histories of 18thcentury London. Because I couldn’t physically wander the streets of London, I did it by proxy! I made copious notes about everything – the lost and hidden rivers, the City churches, the founding of London, the Foundling Hospital, the Lord Mayor’s Mansion House, 18th century air pollution, Christopher Wren’s rebuilding of the churches after the Great Fire… everything! 

The foundations were all ready there for me to build my alternative London!

Robert’s fellow Elemental Detective is Marisee Blackwell, a girl whose grandmother has a powerful connection with the waterways of London. She is smart and brave in the face of danger. She is also Black in a world that is historically perceived through a whitewashed lens. Where did you find the inspiration for her and her grandmother?

I was intrigued by a map book of 18th century London belonging to the writer Catherine Johnson. Her books are set in Georgian London and have Black and mixed race protagonists. They are an inspiration to me.

There was a place marked ‘Black Mary’s Hole’ in what’s now Clerkenwell. There is a theory that a woman of colour called Mary tended a well there. I decided that she absolutely did – and not just that well, all the wells. I imagined her personality as a combination of all my Trinidadian aunties!

I’d always known that I’d wanted two protagonists – a Black boy and a Black girl that were heroes. I wanted to build a friendship out of mistrust and show them flawed and frightened as well as brave. Ultimately, I hoped that all readers would find something to relate to in them.

You’ve included a lot of the truth about the cruelty that Robert experienced while he was enslaved in Barbados and in London. In fact, the story is full of the voices of the lower classes and the poor conditions in which they lived. Why do you think it’s important for young readers to see the history of ordinary people?

As a Black woman born and brought up in a white society, I am painfully aware of the impact of poor or no representation of children like me in books. The history I learned at school taught me that Black people had no place in it other than to be rescued by Europeans. I actually have a book called A Century of Emancipation published in 1933 where the author, John Harris, states that his intention is to write a book that sets out:-

‘…the story of struggles during a hundred years for emancipating child races, backward races, native races from systems either of slavery or of oppression under which they the weaker races have in the past and are still to-day exploited…’

Um… thank you, Mr Harris. It’s astounding that this book was published in 1933, not 1833. But this bias that Europeans were at the top of a racial hierarchy with Black Africans at the bottom was enforced not only through the way that history was told but through the fiction I read as a child. 

Like my mum, I love reading, but the only Black ‘representation’ I found in children’s books was distressing caricatures – golliwogs, Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo and the nasty images of the African Prince Bumpo and his parents by Hugh Lofting in The Story of Doctor Doolittle. I loved writing as a child, but had internalised these early experiences so deeply that I only wrote white characters until I was in my 30s. 

I believed that I had no history and didn’t deserve to have a story. Historians and children’s writers can change that. We can show that history is actually any number of stories told about different people from different perspectives. Everyone deserves to have a story that’s theirs.

The story is set in the City of London and you have used so much of the city’s extraordinary history to create a lore that sits beautifully alongside that in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Did you have fun teasing meanings out of placenames and landmarks? And were there any that really surprised you?

It was excellent fun! I love Neverwhere, but also China Miéville’s Unlondon and King Rat. (China Miéville is an astonishing world-builder.)

I was surprised by how ignorant I’d been of the very blatant 18th century history staring me in the face. How many times had I waited for my bus back to Hackney by the Bank of England not realizing that the Lord Mayor’s Mansion House was across the road –  a real Georgian mansion house in the middle of London.  

I’d also given little attention to the Wren and Hawksmoor churches that were squeezed between the shops and offices in London. How had I missed the giant gilt dragon weathervane on the steeple of Mary Le Bow on Cheapside when I had passed that church so many times – and even eaten in the lovely crypt café more than once? Or, even worse, not noticed the bizarre steeple of St George’s Bloomsbury, even though I had spent hours and hours of my life waiting for a 55 bus there? (It’s topped by a giant statue of George I dressed as a Roman emperor. Naturally, he steps off of it in The Elemental Detectives along with the unicorn and lion that are wrapped around the base of the steeple.)

I also found the history of London’s wells fascinating. According to some books, there were wells in the crypts of St Martin’s in the Field, the church by Trafalgar Square and Southwark Cathedral. St Chad’s well was near to King’s Cross and water cost a shilling a gallon and thruppence a quart. There was even a well in the basement  of what’s now Australia House on the Strand. The water in the Holywell in Shoreditch was tainted by the manure used in local plant nurseries… I loved discovering all those details, especially as I knew those streets so well. I could see them in a new light.

The launch event for The Elemental Detectives was a tour of the historical sites that are featured in the book. If you could pick one place in London to encourage your readers to visit, where would it be and why?

I love free stuff! In The Elemental Detectives, Lady Walbrook the riverhead leader of the Chads, the water spirits, dwells in the underground Temple of Mithras. The ruins of the temple are in the basement of the Bloomberg building close to Bank underground station. It’s free to visit.

The ruins are presented as an art installation with detailed information about the cult of Mithras and London in Roman times. I was even more fascinated by the Roman artefacts displayed in the foyer which give you the sense of everyday Roman London life. 

If you’d like a Roman follow up, trace the remains of the Roman wall that still emerge in unexpected places around the City of London, then pop into the Guildhall Gallery to see the ruins of the amphitheatre. (It’s free too!)

I really love how the book combines history and fantasy so seamlessly. Do you hope that fans of one genre will be encouraged to explore more of the other kind?

Absolutely! When I was growing up, there were few books with teenaged characters. I read all the Sherlock Holmes stories, Agatha Christie and discovered Tolkien, Le Guin and Asimov. Then came Stephen King…

This is why The Elemental Detectives is a fantasy and mystery with a touch of horror!  One of the challenges with genre writing is keeping the tropes while adding something fresh. A mash up of genres can help with that!

What’s next for Jonathan and Marisee?

We-ell… Young Mozart was living with his family in Soho in 1765. He and his sister had been invited to perform for the king and queen. What if London’s music suddenly disappears? And what if it’s London’s harmonies that kept an ancient monster sleeping at the bottom of the Thames?

Patrice, congratulations on your wonderful book! I can’t wait to read more. 

You can find out more about Patrice Lawrence and her books on her website and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

The Elemental Detectives is published by Scholastic who kindly sent a copy for me to review. The cover illustration is by Paul Kellam.

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