George Mann is the author of the Newbury and Hobbes and The Ghost series of novels, as well as numerous short stories, novellas and audiobooks. He has written fiction and audio scripts for the BBC’s Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes. He is also a respected anthologist and has edited The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction and The Solaris Book of New Fantasy. His latest book is a collection of Newbury and Hobbes short stories titled The Casebook of Newbury & Hobbes, out now from Titan Books.
We had the opportunity to ask George about Newbury and Hobbes, his influences and the treatment of women in Victorian times and what’s next for the series.
SF SIGNAL: Hi George. For folks who do not know what the Newbury & Hobbes stories are about: give us the elevator pitch.
GEORGE MANN: Oh, blimey! I tend to think of them as ‘fantastic Victoriana’. Mystery novels with a supernatural or occult twist, furnished with the trappings of the steampunk genre. How’s that?
SFS: The parallels between the Newbury & Hobbes series and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, coupled with the fact that you have another upcoming book titled Sherlock Holmes: The Will of the Dead, have to mean your a Sherlock Holmes fan. How did you come to discover those stories and how have they influenced your Newbury & Hobbes stories?
GM: I first read the Holmes stories at the age of 13, and they really captured my imagination. Holmes is such an archetype, such a fascinating creation, and the model for his investigations is the foundation for most of the modern crime and mystery genre.
Of course, they’ve been a huge influence on N&H. I think first and foremost it’s about the tone of the stories, the Victorian setting. The Holmes stories were my first real introduction to the Victorian world, and I guess it just lodged there in my psyche.
In my Holmes novel, The Will of the Dead, I finally had a chance to bring some of these elements into my own work, and the novel is actually set in the same alternate history as the N&H novels, with a young Inspector Bainbridge playing a key role in the book.
SFS: What other influences have there been?
GM: Oh, tons. I think we’re all the sum of our influences, really. Everything from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to Doctor Who, by way of The Avengers, Batman, HG Wells, Peter Rabbit and Edgar Allan Poe. It’s all there, and all of it influences what I do.
SFS: The Newbury & Hobbes series offers both self-contained, standalone stories and longer story arcs that span multiple novels. How do you juggle that? Do you have the future stories already mapped out?
GM: It’s developed over the years, if I’m honest. I’ve always had certain character arcs in mind, but the more I’ve written, the richer the world has become and the more stories that have presented themselves. I originally conceived N&H as a series of short stories, and it was only later that I decided to give them a spine of novels. So yes, I have lots of the story mapped out, but I’ve also left myself huge spaces to explore at my leisure. One of the things I enjoy most about writing for this series is the flexibility it awards me – if I have an idea for a story, I generally write it, whether it’s a ghost story, a murder mystery, an action adventure.
One of the things I’m really keen to do is to continue building the alternate history that began with N&H. Most of my other fiction takes place within the same continuum, such as the Ghost novels, the Sherlock Holmes stories etc. I’m keen to map some more of that out in future projects, to see what stories come out of it. And it’s great fun seeding in little links between books and stories, too. Some of the stories in the Casebook do just that, introducing Peter Rutherford from Ghosts of War, for example, into the N&H stories, along with Professor Angelchrist from my Doctor Who novel.
SFS: One of the notable things about the stories is that the female protagonist, Veronica Hobbes, is written with a modern sensibility despite the treatment of women at the time the story takes place. Why include that aspect in the stories?
GM: One of the things I really wanted to do with Veronica was to create a woman with a modern outlook and transplant her to a time when her views and opinions would be out of sync with the society around her. I think it allows me to better explore her character, to highlight the intolerances of the Victorian era, and, fundamentally, to show how many people (not just women), are still subjected to such ridiculous, antiquated prejudices in the modern day. The N&H novels are in no way heavily politicised, but this is one of the things I feel incredibly strongly about – equality – so it’s something that feeds into the way I portray Veronica and the things she has to put up with. All of that said, I consider her a rounded character – she has her issues and fallibilities, just like everyone else. It was never about creating a ‘strong female lead’. I think that’s as much of a cliché these days as anything else. It was more about taking a modern woman and showing all of the crap she has to deal with.
SFS: With the new collection of short stories, The Casebook of Newbury & Hobbes, what can readers expect?
GM: Diversity, really. One of the things I’ve really enjoyed doing with the short stories is branching out into other genres, or other parts of the N&H universe I haven’t yet explored in the novels. As a result the Casebook contains a reasonably eclectic mix of stories and characters. Readers are going to see more than just Newbury and Veronica investigating another mystery. There are appearances from Newbury’s previous companion, Templeton Black, Christmas stories, new recurring villains, a guest appearance from Holmes and Watson, stories that look forward to the future beyond the scope of the novels. Hopefully people will enjoy seeing these other little glimpses of Newbury and Veronica’s world.
GM: I think the short story is a very particular form, actually, for all that it gives you great scope as a writer to experiment and try things you’d never try in a novel. A good short story hinges on a twist, I think, a punch line, and needs to deliver its story in a succinct and timely fashion. So I suppose one of the things you have to get your head around as a writer is the fact you don’t have as much space in a short story. You need to curb your tendency to ramble, and instead think about how every word is contributing to the tale at hand. There’s probably as much thought that goes into a short story as there is in a novel. Sometimes they come as a gift – a rare gift – and arrive fully formed in my head, meaning I’m able to get them down quickly while I’m still burning with the energy that comes from that process, while other times I find myself plotting them out in great deal, just as I would a book. I guess it’s less of an endurance test than a novel, which for me is really all about hard work at the coalface, getting the words down day after day. A short story for me is generally a more delicate process, teasing out the threads of the story and keeping it trim and concise. It’s a different discipline, and both have their challenges!
SFS: What’s in store for Sir Maurice Newbury and Veronica Hobbes? Where are they headed?
GM: Things are going to get worse before they get better. Veronica’s in a bad way at the end of The Executioner’s Heart, and things don’t get any easy for Newbury in The Revenant Express. Following that there’s another novel planned, which I’m provisionally calling The Albion Initiative, and hopefully a second Casebook at some point. Newbury’s going to turn up in my next Holmes novel, The Spirit Box, and there are also plans afoot for a N&H comic mini series, too. So lots more to come!