Browsing on the internet one day, looking up Conan Doyle sites with the vague notion of Sherlock Holmes appearing in a detective novel for young readers I was planning, I stumbled across a casual reference to a certain H. Ashton-Wolfe. Ashton-Wolfe was a writer of true-crime adventure bestsellers, who claimed to know not only Holmes’ creator, as well as the leading lights of the French Sûreté and Scotland Yard, but also just about every famous criminal and outlaw of the day!
Several hurried orders from online used bookshops later, I had built a mini-library of Ashton-Wolfe’s books, with their gorgeously pulpy titles, such as Crimes of Love and Hate, The Thrill of Evil, Outlaws of Modern Days, and The Forgotten Clue. I plunged into the addictive joys not only of the melodramatic and exotic cases recounted in racy prose, but the vain and boastful character of Ashton-Wolfe himself, which infused the stories with unintentional hilarity. So engaging was this combination that I immediately dropped Sherlock in favor of a certain Philip Woodley-Foxe, whose adventures are legendary, not least to himself. You can find him in my mystery novel for young people, The Case of the Diamond Shadow. No prizes for guessing who he was based on!
A marvelous combination of Action Man, cheerleader for “modern” scientific detection, adventurous master of disguise and shameless name-dropper, Harry Ashton-Wolfe doesn’t just recount the cases, he inhabits them. He’s an important part of investigating teams in Paris tracking down fiendishly cunning criminals; he gets locked up and threatened with death by vicious gangsters; he is at the elbow of the greatest forensic scientists of the day; he is allowed to peruse the ”secret archives” of the Paris Prefecture; by chance, he dons disguises such as that of a Parisian Apache or a Corsican bandit to infiltrate criminal rings.
For me, finding the books of this long-forgotten true-crime celebrity writer was like being given a key to unlock my own fictional world. Once I had it, it was like everything else fell into place–characters, setting, atmosphere. I collected many old true-crime magazines as well, but it was Harry Ashton-Wolfe and the inspiration born through discovering his work and persona that gave my own project its zing and verve–much better than using Sherlock Holmes would have done.
It’s just one example of that wonderful serendipity we writers can experience in used-book stores, whether classic bricks-and-mortar or the amazing virtual used-book emporiums on the internet. Many’s the time I’ve just been browsing casually and fallen on something that has sparked a new train of thought–whether that’s in the creation of a new character, the germ of an idea, or a solution to a writing problem. It’s not always in the “usual suspect” shelves that that has happened, either; one of the beauties of browsing in used bookshops is that you can happen on something quite outside your usual field of interest, and it can trigger an unexpected idea.
But it’s not just in that way that used bookshops can be a writer’s best friend.