Fresh Blood

Name: Gary Dolman

Title of Book: The Eighth Circle of Hell

'...Lizzie’s tale was one which reached out to my heart, touching my soul...'

The Victorian age is often held up as a shining era of British history, a time of wealth and power, of civilisation and philanthropy. It was all of these. Yet it was also a time of cruelty and depravity, where power and wealth were systematically abused. It was the time of the ‘defloration mania’, where young girls were bought and sold like the slaves they became.
Elizabeth Wilson is an elderly woman who has spent a lifetime of grinding toil and poverty in a workhouse. She fled there as a young girl, pregnant and penniless, to escape her depraved uncle and his powerful friends. However, advancing dementia has caused her to regress inexorably back in her life, to the point where she is once again re-living the awful memories of her life as an orphaned child.

Dolman’s debut novel is a powerful tale of treachery and systematic abuse. I regularly read the blackest of crime novels and enjoy the gritty scenes, yet this is one of the bleakest novels I have ever read. Such is the author’s skill though that I never wanted to stop reading. He never crossed into obscene territory or strayed beyond the line of decency, but he still left the reader in no doubt of exactly what was happening.

The lead character Lizzie contributed mainly through flashbacks and Lizzie’s tale was one which reached out to my heart, touching my soul as I spent time with her. Atticus and Lucie Fox as the investigators were suitably clever but never once did they try and steal any of the show from Lizzie. Mary and Michael Roberts were fine additions as were the evil Alfred Roberts and Mr. Price.

Somehow I could picture Victorian Harrogate very well despite the descriptions from the author being very sparse. Proof indeed that what you leave out can be more important than what is there. The choice of Harrogate as a setting though was a masterstroke as it is the epitome of a wealthy town where this type of behaviour could have happened.

This type of novel is not my usual fare, but I am glad that I have read it, for now that I know more of the practice of ‘defloration’ the more I am heartened that we live in more civilised times. Sexual slavery and workhouses are thankfully now a part of our history. To sum up this novel I would have to say that Gary Dolman has tackled the very sensitive subject of paedophilia with just the right mix of detail and outrage in a fascinatingly thought provoking novel which will reside long in my memory.

Reviewed by: G.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) What made you decide to write a crime novel?
When I began writing around four years ago, I had a lot of very difficult circumstances in my life; hardship and illnesses and death. I really began to write as a way of coping with these. One evening I was visiting my father in the care home where he was dying of Alzheimer’s disease when the elderly lady sitting next to him suddenly cried out, begging some uncle to stop, screaming that he was hurting her. It made me begin to imagine what sort of horrors she was reliving and the idea behind ‘The Eighth Circle of Hell’ was conceived.

As part of the plot, I ultimately needed to ask: ‘Is it ever right to commit murder?’ To be able to do that, I needed at least one murder and in order to explore the answer, it needed to be a crime novel. I actually asked that question three times in ‘The Eighth Circle of Hell’ and even now, I’m not wholly sure what the answer is.
2) How much of the abuse detailed in this novel is true and how much is artistic license?
The horrible truth is that everything that happened to Lizzie in the novel was commonplace during the Defloration Mania. The procuresses, the padded chambers, the infanticides by the baby-farmers; even the lurid cabaret in the gentlemen’s clubs is all accurately depicted. All I needed to do was to invent a character and setting and try to imagine what her thoughts and feelings might have been. It was a truly harrowing experience.
3) Did you find any documented proof of the defloration scandal when you were doing your research?
There is a huge amount of documented evidence regarding the Defloration Mania and it is very readily available. I regard it as perhaps the greatest social scandal of recent British history and yet strangely, relatively few people have even heard of it. It was exposed by the pioneering journalist WT Stead in a series of sensational articles he wrote in 1885 for the Pall Mall Gazette newspaper. The articles were entitled ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ and they caused a near riot amongst an outraged public when they were published. As a direct consequence of Stead’s articles, the government of the day hurriedly rushed legislation through Parliament raising the age of consent for girls from 13 to 16 years.
4) A lot of Lizzie’s story is told through flashbacks. Why did you choose this method?
Lizzie suffered from what was called senile dementia in Victorian times. My own father moved into the end-stages of what we now call Alzheimer’s disease whilst I was writing ‘The Eighth Circle of Hell’. Something I noticed was that his memories of the past seemed to continually merge with the realities of the present. I tried to depict this in the novel by the use of flashbacks and it became a very stark and immediate way of expressing Lizzie’s torment, especially when I combined it with the occasional use of the present tense.
5) Why choose Harrogate as the setting?
Harrogate was the pre-eminent spa of the 19th Century. It was proud of its reputation as a genteel place of tranquillity and healing. ‘The Eighth Circle of Hell’ is a novel of great contrasts and hypocrisy and I could think of nowhere better to set the contrast between Victorian prudish propriety and the depravity and destruction it so often concealed.
6) Without getting too sensationalist, your novel mirrors a very similar scandal which has been rumbling on for a few months. Do you think the days of such orchestrated abuse are finally behind us?
The main characters of the novel debate that very subject later-on in the storyline. Several were hopeful that the practice would die with Stead’s exposure and with the birth of the 20th Century. One character dissented however, saying it was part of the dark side of human nature to exploit others. Sadly he seems to have been proved correct.

Girls are being trafficked in huge numbers around the world. They are being abused by gangs and as society breaks down and the number of dysfunctional families increases, so the opportunities to perpetrate such abuse will tragically tend to continue. As in Victorian times, it happens in the very darkest places of society and the victims are ever-reluctant to speak out.
7) To boil your novel down to basics it is a “Private Investigator” novel in which the private investigator very much plays a secondary role. Why did you choose to write it in this way?
I think it is because the investigator is always reacting to, and following in the wake of, the drama of the crime itself. There is additional poignancy too in the way the horrors and chaos of Lizzie’s life experiences are percolated through into the ordered, and rather sheltered, minds of the investigators. The technique to my mind works well and is a way of ringing the changes in future Atticus and Lucie Fox novels where they remain as the constants.
8) Should ‘The Eighth Circle of Hell’ ever be filmed who would you choose to play Lizzie?
I think Evanna Lynch, the actress who played Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter movies would be a great choice for the young Lizzie Wilson. She seems to possess the same fragility yet great inner strength and resolution as the character. Like Lizzie, she knows what it is like to battle her own inner-demons – in Evanna’s case those demons being manifest as eating disorders.

Because her trauma means that Lizzie could never truly leave her childhood behind, Evanna might play her in old age too. Now, that would be a challenge to a make-up department.
9) What are you currently working on?
I submitted a second manuscript to Thames River Press earlier in 2012 with the working title: ‘Seven Gifts of Madness’. Again a historical crime novel featuring Atticus and Lucie Fox, it involves a series of grisly, ritualised murders in remote Northumberland. These appear to centre on the delusions of a madman who lives alone on the moors and believes he is the father of King Arthur of legend. Like ‘The Eighth Circle of Hell’, it focuses very much on the murder suspects and in this case, with their own battles with profound mental illness.

Beyond that, I have just begun work on my third novel. I was intrigued by reports of yeti-like creatures both north and south of the Scottish Border. That made me wonder: If a man truly believed himself to be a monster, could he actually become one?
10) What are the top three crime novels which have made a lasting impression on you?
I found that a surprisingly difficult question to answer and after a great deal of thought, I would say:

‘The Silence of the Lambs’ by Thomas Harris. Harris is a genius at portraying the human mind at its most aberrant. His attention to detail and ability to conjure a complete, (in psychological terms), monster from thin air is matchless. I have never seen the film of the book because I cannot see how the pictures could be anything like as vivid as those Harris has placed in my mind.

‘The Sign of Four’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I could probably have cited any of the great novels by Doyle. His intelligent deduction, his construction of Holmes and Watson as contrasting characters is of course classic.
The Sign of Four has a complex, multi-layered plot, which can be read again and again and I love the setting of 1850s India.

‘The Riddle of the Third Mile’ by Colin Dexter. I was first introduced to Inspector Morse by the television series but, as always, found the novels were even better. I have lived in Oxford for a time and Dexter reflects the complex character of the city perfectly and personifies it in Morse.

Back to review archive