Welcome to Dolores Gordon-Smith, who’s here to tell us about the latest Jack Haldean mystery, TROUBLE BREWING. In my BBC days, when I did a lot of interviewing, I tried to think up questions that were a bit different, off-beat, to ask my victims – er, guests. But when I realised that TROUBLE BREWING is set against the surprising background of the 1920s coffee trade, I knew all I need today is one of the classic questions we authors get asked all the time. So, Dolores…where did the idea for this unusual background come from?
Well, you know how it is. Casting around for an idea one day, I picked up the mug beside me… and there it was; coffee. So where did it come from? Apart from Tesco’s, that is. Brazil? Yes, and other exotic places too.
So what about a coffee importers….? They’d be in London. of course, but they’d have a plantation in Brazil. Cue for a re-read of Peter Fleming’s wonderful Brazilian Adventure written in 1932. Lots of background there.
The next stop after that was the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, which is so fascinated by coffee it devotes four and a half double-columned pages to the subject before it can tear itself away.
As the story grew, naturally I needed more information. Prices became significant, so that was a day or so scrolling through 1920’s newspapers for prices on the London Stock Exchange.
Despite tea being far and away the most popular hot drink in Britain, coffee was readily available to the working class from mid Victorian times. This is from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor.
For those who were either up late or rose early there were the coffee stalls. Some opened as early as midnight, while others did not start trading until three or four in the morning. The former appealed to “‘night-walkers’- fast gentlemen and loose girls” while those that opened in the morning were more likely to be patronized by working men
The price they charge is ld. per mug, or ½d. per half-mug, for the coffee, tea, or cocoa; and ½d. a slice the bread and butter or cake. The ham sandwiches are 2d. each, the boiled eggs ld., and the water-cresses a halfpenny a bunch.
The first world war broke up the class boundaries and by the time the 1920s arrived, the price seems to be about 3d or so for a drink and there’s plenty of accounts of “Young Gents” stopping by a coffee stall for a pick-me-up after a night out.
However – and here’s the oddity – coffee – “real” coffee was a drink that, to the British, had an awful lot of class. Mrs Beeton waxes lyrical about Italian coffee and Lord Peter Wimsey seems downright finicky about it. That’s probably because coffee, for the masses, was not only instant but mixed with syrup and chicory. This is the coffee I remember from my childhood. The best known brand was Camp Coffee with the iconic label.
I had great fun inventing my own version of Camp (it’s called Royale in Trouble Brewing) and to find out exactly how important Royale Coffee, with the blue-and-yellow label is and how it plays its part in murder, deception, Jack being very clever and very brave – and misunderstood – well, the answers lie in Trouble Brewing.
TROUBLE BREWING is published in hardback by Severn House in the UK; the US edition will be out this coming August. Watch out for news of other formats, ebooks and paperbacks, on Dolores’ website, www.doloresgordon-smith.co.uk where incidentally anyone anywhere can order a signed copy right now.