Ever since I moved to Kells 5-6 years ago, I’ve wanted to use it as a setting in a story. It’s a lovely place both to visit and in which to live. Not only is the town picturesque and enchanting, the locals are as friendly as you’ll find anywhere. If the American Werewolf had come to Kells instead of London there would have been far less bloodshed and a lot more craic.
I seized the opportunity to incorporate Kells into my soon-to-be-released novel, Return to Reichenbach. It is set in 1899 and Queen Victoria isn’t long for this world. Ireland is still using Dublin Mean Time (25 minutes behind Greenwich), and the journey from London to Kells, County Meath takes many wearisome hours over land and sea. When Sherlock Holmes arrives – I can’t tell you why without spoiling the book – it is a couple of days before Christmas. Sadly, the meteorological records reveal there was no snowfall in Kells at the time. The weather was surprisingly mild with just a little rain. I could have invented a snowstorm, I suppose, but I wanted to keep things as ‘real’ as I could.
Imagination is an easier for the writer than fact. Why? Because imagination can take liberties that fact does not allow. For the fiction writer, there is a great deal to beguile in the world of the make-believe. Then again, if you want to your readers to become absorbed in the story, you need to ground your dream world in the factual. That means sticking to the facts wherever possible. To that end, I conduct meticulous research about the settings, the period, and the people. In my last novel (Sherlock Holmes and the Other Woman) French novelist Emile Zola made an appearance. So did Captain Alfred Dreyfus and several other real-life people. Historical events formed the backdrop to the story.
In Return to Reichenbach, I wanted to depict Kells softly, as if the reader viewed it through a slightly romantic filter. This is a novel, not a travelogue, which meant the long chunks of description had to be cut in order to keep the story moving. I hope what remains does the town justice, and also furthers the plot.
Because I was anxious to keep the details as accurate as possible, I spent hours looking at ferry routes, calculating the length of the journey, studying the names of the boats and the trains, in order to give verisimilitude to the journey. I wandered around the streets of Kells, undoubtedly looking a little batty, as I chartered my hero’s course. I asked myself what these streets would have looked like 117 years ago. Fortunately, the town has not changed too dramatically. Thanks to local historians in The Kells Experience, I was able to examine photographs, maps, and written reports of the period in question. Even though most of these items would not make a direct appearance in the book, they gave me a feel for the period, for the atmosphere of the time. Christmas, Kells, 1899. Am I the only one who finds that magical?
Even with all of the research, there are still things the writer must imagine. From what I know of Holmes, I imagined he would be a peevish passenger, restless and irritable at the long journey, particularly when there is… But, no, I can’t spoil it. Nor can I share with you any of the scenes in Kells because they are key to the plot. Instead, here’s the scene of the journey from London to Dublin, only slightly edited to avoid spoilers. Please note that the story is narrated by Holmes himself, in the form of a diary. You can decide for yourself if it feels right:
We caught the train just seconds before the whistle blew. Given the season, every compartment was full. Watson and I were compelled to share our carriage with a bishop and a young priest. Watson muttered that the vows of poverty apparently do not prevent the clergy from travelling first class. I chortled, much to the consternation of the other passengers.
At Holyhead, we disembarked the train and boarded the boat headed to the Dublin port at the North Wall. This would be a wearisome journey at the best of times, but travelling just a few days before Christmas made it almost intolerable. There was not one square foot of space on either the train or the boat. Noisy parents and their even noisier children were everywhere I looked. For a time I stood on the deck. Even the rain and spume were preferable to the chaos within. The biggest disadvantage was that the weather made it impossible to smoke.
Watson joined me and said, “You’ll catch your death out here, Holmes.”
“And I shall run mad if I have to sit with my screaming, malodourous fellow-travellers. Let me be, Watson.”
He said nothing, but stood at my side. After several minutes, he checked his watch. “We should be landing in an hour.”
I checked my own watch. “Less than half an hour by my reckoning, Watson. It is eight o’clock now and we land at eight thirty, do we not?”
“Yes, eight thirty, but local time. Ireland is twenty-five minutes behind Greenwich.”
“Tell you what, old thing, I shall stand you dinner in Dublin. A good meal and a pint of stout in a quiet hotel will set you to rights.”
“We cannot delay. We must make haste to Kells.”
He was silent. I recognised that silence.
“Well?” I demanded.
“I am afraid it isn’t a matter of getting a train to Kells, Holmes. We have to go to Amiens Street Station in Dublin and take the train to Drogheda. From there we go to Kells.”
“And how long does the train to Drogheda take?”
He studied the waves. “Well, it takes a rather convoluted route along the coast for a time. The train to Kells, though, should be much shorter.”
“Please leave me, Watson.”