Clues to My Crime: A. J. Hartley’s FIREBRAND

Mystery Month 2017In “The Clues to My Crime,” authors explain the influences behind their latest works of crime fiction. In this installment, A. J. Hartley (Steeplejack) tells us about the things that inspired Firebrand, his latest work of YA fiction, from Terry Pratchett to rogue hyenas. 


aj hartley and firebrand


Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes

THE BRUCE PARTINGTON PLANS: Since the Steeplejack world has a distinctly Victorian feel in spite of its quasi-African setting, Conan Doyle is an obvious influence, one I consumed voraciously as a teenager, and I was a particular fan of Jeremy Brett’s TV incarnation of Holmes. Firebrand begins with the theft of some secret government documents, an idea directly informed by a couple of the Holmes stories, particularly “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,” which involves a particularly ingenious mystery centering on the movement of a body via the roof of a train.


THE HISTORY, FLORA, AND FAUNA OF SOUTH AFRICA: Between writing Steeplejack and Firebrand, I spent several weeks in South Africa and Swaziland, and the most recent book makes explicit use of the landscape, flora, and fauna I found there. I developed a particular anxiety about hyenas, having stumbled on some horror stories in recent South African newspapers about the activities of a “rogue” male who killed several people, even venturing into homes to hunt. The city of Bar-Selehm, which is the heart of Firebrand, is rooted firmly in South African history—both Victorian and the more recent Apartheid years, and is modeled loosely on Durban for its ethnic diversity. Unlike the more well-known cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town, Durban has a large Indian population, and Firebrand’s main character, a teenage girl named Anglet, is brown-skinned but not indigenous, much like the Indians of Durban, who were imported by British imperialists as indentured servants.


TERRY PRATCHETT’S ANKH-MORPORK BOOKS AND SOME OF THE HIGH SOCIETY SCENES FROM SNUFF: It was clear by the time I finished writing Steeplejack that Bar-Selehm had become a core element of the series, and I learned a lot from Terry Pratchett’s evolving depiction of Ankh-Morpork about how to make the city feel real. Since my stories are told in the first person, it was essential that Anglet, my heroine, knew the city inside and out as only a steeplejack might, so in the first book she would mention street names and districts in passing as Pratchett’s characters do. As I came to Firebrand, however, I realized I had to build on all I had scattered before and make sure it was consistent from book to book, so I began by mapping the city and nailing down every reference I had made in the first book (the map is available on my website), updating it with new information as Ang chased over the rooftops and through the alleys of the city.


John Turner as Roderick Spode

John Turner as Roderick Spode

HITLER, MUSSOLINI, AND P. G. WODEHOUSE’S STRUTTING COMIC BULLYING FASCIST, RODERICK SPODE (LORD SIDCUP): Firebrand involves the rise of a popular fascist who galvanizes much of the white populace against the perceived threat of immigrants, refugees and the indigenous black and “colored” population of the city. The obvious models for such a figure are real life Nazis, Hitler, Mussolini and Roderick Spode (P. G. Wodehouse’s strutting, comic would-be fascist buffoon in the Jeeves and Wooster stories). I was, however, writing this book with the 2016 US election looming, and I didn’t need to look to history or fiction to see the way opportunist and / or racist politicians exploited their demographics’ isolationism, xenophobia, and bigotry.


REFUGEE HEADLINES AND IMAGES OF GREEK BEACHES: Firebrand’s concern for refugees from foreign war, immigration, and the political chicanery which exploits such issues in the name of nationalism was directly informed by the situation in Syria, north Africa, and Turkey (particularly the headline images of women and children clinging to rafts off the beaches of the Greek islands).

A pair of paintings capture the labor of the industrial working class. I have a print of Gustave Caillebotte’s “The Floor Scrapers” (Les Raboteurs de Parque, 1875, oil on canvas) on my wall at home. It has a paradoxically poignant beauty: the effort and precision of skilled labor working in a house the workmen could never afford to live in.

A little outside my period but closer to home is L. S. Lowry’s “Coming from the Mill” (1930). It encapsulates the landscape of the industrial north of England where I grew up—though most of those factories were long closed—and which informs the landscape and the culture of work in Bar-Selehm.


MY GREAT AUNT MARY: Great Auntie Mary (Gardner, born 1902) began working in one of the mills in Longridge at 12. After getting married, she moved to a mill in Ribchester where she was a weaver for at least another 20 years. The noise of the machinery made her rely on lip reading, a fact I borrowed and made into a plot point for Firebrand.

Mary Gardner

Mary Gardner

small hartleyA.J. HARTLEY is the international bestselling author of a dozen novels including several archaeological thrillers, the Darwen Arkwright children’s series, the Will Hawthorne fantasy adventures, and novels based on Macbeth and Hamlet. He is the Robinson Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare at UNC Charlotte. Find out more at



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