Gayle Ritchie chats to author Elaine Thomson about her new novel Nightshade – a dark, gripping, atmospheric thriller.
Nightshade is the fifth adventure for Edinburgh-based author Elaine Thomson’s cross-dressing apothecary Jem Flockhart and her friend Will Quartermain.
“It’s a historical crime story that draws on the Scottish history of medicine and lots of stuff about poisons,” reveals Elaine.
“Jem makes some changes in her physic garden, and unearths a corpse from beneath the deadly nightshade.
“The body has been there 30 years, and is accompanied by some macabre objects – monkey bones, a brass bowl, a collection of tiny ivory skulls.”
As they move closer to uncovering the truth Jem and Will encounter a dark world of addiction, madness, power and death.
“The police aren’t interested, but Jem is determined to find out what the truth is behind these grisly relics,” says Elaine.
“The answers lie in India, and involve some women behaving very, very badly.”
By night, mum-of-two Elaine writes historical crime fiction and by day, she’s a lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University.
With a PhD in the history of medicine, she’s fascinated by poisons and Victorian plant collecting.
“I’m interested in the way plants have been used for hundreds of years for different things – medicine, but also in witchcraft and necromancy,” she says.
It took Elaine “about two months” to write Nightshade, and it follows Jem’s fourth adventure, Surgeon’s Hall, published in 2019.
She wrote it during the first lockdown sitting in a bunker on the Braid Hills golf course in Edinburgh when she had a few weeks off work.
“I got RSI as I had so much to do in so little time!” she says.
“I’m up on the Braid Hills a lot. The views of the city are marvellous. Mind you, I was mostly looking down at my writing pad and my pen desperately moving across the page!
“Now the golfers are back so I’ll have to find some other place to sit! Usually I go on three writing retreats in East Lothian a year.
“I write a full draft in those three weeks. It’s exhausting but a relief to be able to get on with it properly.”
Elaine can’t afford the luxury of waiting for inspiration to strike. She has to “force it out”.
“Mostly I hate everything I’ve written – until I’m on the last chapter, and then, amazingly it all works out! And reading about poisons in bed at night is always fun. I think some people are a bit frightened of me now!”
Elaine finds she does her best work first thing in the morning. And she often rises at 5am so she can slot in a few hours of writing before her children get up.
She admits she sometimes suffers from writer’s block because her head is so full, thinking about her day job, groceries, what to make for dinner and so on.
“If I can get away from all that for a few days and just crack on then I can get stuff done.
“The question is: ‘do you want to be a writer or not?’. If the answer is ‘yes’ then you just have to get on with it.”
Reading about poisons in bed at night is always fun. I think some people are a bit frightened of me now!”
When it came to Nightshade, Elaine was worried the idea seemed “completely mad and ambitious” and that she wouldn’t be able to pull it off. “But somehow, it all came together in the end!” she laughs.
Top crime fiction author Chris Brookmyre is a fan of Elaine’s, describing a previous novel, Beloved Poison, as “vivid, pungent and perilous”.
And she reckons that’s a pretty fair review!
Elaine writes under the name of ES Thomson and her work has been longlisted for the CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger, and shortlisted for the Saltire Prize, the Scottish Arts Council First Book Award and the William McIlvanney Crime Book of the Year Award.
- Nightshade by Elaine Thomson is published by Constable, priced £18.99.