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. 

Interview with Simon Higgins on Kids’ Book Review

There’s a great interview with Simon Higgins, author of Tomodachi: The Forest of the Night, at the fabulous Kids’ Book Review site. Simon gets asked ‘Twelve Curly Questions’ and replies with twelve interesting answers!

Here’s a little taster:

Tell us something hardly anyone knows about you. 
The two most unusual jobs I have ever had were: 1. Being a roaring monster in a circus ghost train (had to wear a giant rubber head and hairy suit) and, 2. Being a camel handler, helping children to climb on the camel for rides and leading the animal, for the same circus. Many years later, I rode a camel into the Egyptian desert and my guide was surprised at how familiar I was with ‘camel nature’. So, I say, everything you experience is useful. Even weird stuff!

You can read the whole interview here.

Streets, roses and towns: unusual tributes to Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff

michel strogoff roseToday we thought you might enjoy some titbits of intriguing Mikhail Strogoff trivia!

The influence of Jules Verne’s greatest novel isn’t just felt in literature and film, it is also referenced in several unexpected ways.

In France, the novel has left its mark on the landscape, with several streets, especially in Amiens and the Somme region, where Verne came from, named after our hero, such as Boulevard Michel Strogoff in Longueau and Rue Michel Strogoff in Cergy.

Charmingly, there’s also a beautiful red rose variety named after him, with this poetic tribute attached: ‘Who better than Jules Verne’s famous adventurer, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, stoically enduring heat and cold and thirst, to incarnate the spirit of this rosebush with its exceptional qualities?’

But perhaps the most surprising tribute comes not from France, but from the US, where the small desert city of Marfa in Texas owes its unusual name to one of the great characters in the novel: Mikhail Strogoff’s tough, indomitable mother, Marfa.marfa sign