Julian on the inspirations and influences of The Phantasmic Detective Agency

A street scene in Edwardian London.

How a book came to be is always an interesting subject, and in the case of The Phantasmic Detective Agency, those inspirations and influences were from a variety of richly creative sources. Here’s a piece Julian wrote for us, for the Teachers’ Notes of the book, which reveals the moment when the idea for the story came into view.

Over several years I wrote a series of spooky, supernatural short stories for young readers including ‘Shadow Wolf’ (about a wolf who escapes a shadow-puppet play to hunt down the good citizens of Edwardian London) and ‘The Man Who Didn’t Like Getting Wet’ (about a man who is granted a wish by a water-fairy with terrible unexpected results). I also worked on the lyrics and story for a musical play based on the well-known Jewish legend of the Golem.

All these ideas came together in a most surprising way when I was rereading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes detective stories. I imagined a casebook of mysteries for a Holmes-like detective hired to solve crimes involving the supernatural: ghosts, werewolves, faeries. He would stand astride the Old World of superstition, magic and folk wisdom (that feared but respected the mysteries of Nature) and the New World of science and technology (that laid bare the secrets of Nature while taming it to humanity’s control and use).

The setting of Edwardian London seemed perfect for such a story; ever since the mid-Victorian period the pace of technological change and invention (electric lighting, telephones, cameras and cinema, iron ships, aeroplanes) had sped up rapidly. This gave me the idea of two brothers – Alfred, the spirit-detective and Edmund, the stage magician – one performing magic for entertainment, the other for crime-solving. The main characters would be Edmund’s children, Leopold and Lily, who dream of being modern-day heroes, a pilot and a detective respectively.

I enjoyed researching this book from many sources but particularly photos. Images of London were found in Getty Images 1910s: Decades of the 20th Century and Edwardian London by Felix Barker. Several locations in Paris were drawn from the beautiful images of photographer Eugene Atget (1857-1927): the windows of Madame Fernier’s children’s clothing store in Chapter 12; Le Cour de Dragon where our heroes enter the catacombs; Le Pain Agile theatre (Chapter 15) based on the Cabaret de L’Enfer, boulevard de Clichy.

You can find the full Teachers’ Notes, which include some fascinating information on the historical  and folklore background of the book, as well as discussion, research and creative activities, at the Teachers’ Notes page of this website, or at the United Publishers of Armidale website, here. 

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