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Andrew Palmer
Group Editor
12:01 AM 18th June 2024
arts
Interview

Meeting A Theakston Old Peculier Shortlisted Crime Author: William Hussey

 
William Hussey, the author of Killing Jericho, has the same captivating effect as a Ferris wheel rotating on its axle, drawing the casual fairground watcher into its magical world. He is charismatic and has a wealth of fascinating tales about the lives of Travelling show people.

He paints a lovely picture of the nomadic life and recalls that whenever show people gather, they recite stories that "we all know about people who have long gone or funny incidents that we also like to retell.”

Hussey’s plethora of captivating tales and anecdotes comes from his life growing up within the Travelling community; it’s part of his DNA and part of his family’s heritage for at least 200 years, so it runs deep through his veins.

The ideas for the Jericho series had been rolling around in the back of his head for some time.

"I knew it would make a brilliant crime story because, as you can see in the book, the fairground helps people develop certain skills that make them good detectives, especially observation. For example, they only have a few hours each night to earn their living; therefore, they must sum people up very quickly because they can't waste time."

"They have to choose their customers carefully because they don't want timewasters—someone who doesn't have enough money to go on the rides or play the games." They are canny always looking for hints in body language or physical clues as to whether the person has the money to spend,” he says.

As we chat, it becomes clear that fairgrounds are on of the last great levellers; everyone comes to the fair from all strata of human society, and therefore Travellers get to know people very well.

“They understand human nature as they observe it from an outside perspective.”

A good story and intriguing characters entertain readers, as they have done since the beginning of our species.
Like Hussey, they demonstrate exceptional communication skills, possess a natural storytelling ability, the gift of the gab, can converse confidently with anyone, and foster a strong rapport. Obviously, great skills for a detective.

What kicks off the mystery in Killing Jericho is a real fairground tragedy. In the 19th century, a group of Travelling performers drowned. Hussey transforms this historical tragedy into a modern-day serial killer. The original fairground legend has endured through oral storytelling for generations. A group of Travellers were crossing over a bridge to pick hops, and several of them drowned in the river. Hussey explains that there’s a conspiracy theory, with no evidence, that the bridge may have been deliberately weakened by locals who didn't want the fair people coming in and maybe undercutting their wages. “I like to include a factual basis for that plot, so each story has a little kernel of something that has happened in the real world.”

Hussey highlights that the portrayal of fairground and Travelling people in books and films rarely comes from someone who has experienced the life firsthand, understands it thoroughly, and accurately portrays it.

"When I watch films or read about people's lives, I sometimes cringe inwardly. That's why I decided to write about their lives as a true representation of what traveling show individuals are like, from the perspective of someone who understands.

“I didn't want to do a hagiography, a rose-tinted vision of the community; I wanted to present it faithfully. I wanted to capture the incredible sense of community. We call family friends, aunts, and uncles, whether they are related to us or not, because it's all one big family.

William Hussey
Photo: Chris White
William Hussey Photo: Chris White
“As the early pages of the book demonstrate, I've always maintained that the most vulnerable individuals will always receive support and care. Of course, you will be held accountable for what you've done, but you will never be left out in the cold.”

There’s a sense that we could all learn something from this close-knit community in a world where society seems to be fracturing. As we chat, Hussey enthusiastically talks about a sense of belonging, a theme developed in his books.

He dedicated his second book to his dad, who passed away at the end of last year. He fondly recalls that his father was like the showman's showman, who knew everybody.

The last significant gathering took place at his funeral. There were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people who came from abroad and from all over the UK. Weddings, funerals, and christenings are all big community events, and everyone comes back to those events.

His mother came from a non-travelling family, which the Travellers' lexicon calls a ‘Joskin’. His maternal grandfather was very working-class, but he focused on books as a way out of poverty. When Hussey was six years old, his grandfather introduced him to Sherlock Holmes and read him the short stories at bedtime.

When I was plotting the outline for Killing Jericho, I had a completely different murderer in mind for the big reveal at the end, but as the story developed, another character came to life that was more interesting and intriguing...
A few years later, Hussey’s grandfather took him on a Sherlock Holmes walking tour in London. "I was rather precocious and corrected the guide based on his Sherlock Holmes knowledge and we were both promptly thrown off the walk," he recalls.

Decades later, Hussey continues to capture the mystery of the Travellers’ world in his books. I imagine he needs to plan, which he does, but he also adds, "When I teach creative writing, I tend to say if you do plan, don't treat it like the Bible." Just because you plan something when you get into the writing, hopefully the characters will come alive to the extent that sometimes you plan for them to do something, and because they've developed so much of their own voice and character, they won't do what they're told. Character is the most important aspect of a story, so it's critical to focus on your character rather than the plot to avoid an artificial feel.”

He also admits that sometimes, when he starts writing, a better idea may pop into his head. “When I was plotting the outline for Killing Jericho, I had a completely different murderer in mind for the big reveal at the end, but as the story developed, another character came to life that was more interesting and intriguing, and I made them the murderer; I think it worked out better that way.”

The idea of a mobile fair is intriguing because it allows the protagonist, Scott Jericho, to roam freely, preventing the Midsummer Murders phenomenon of numerous fatalities in a single location.

Hussey does not lose sight of the point. "I perceive Scott Jericho as deeply rooted in the spirit of the knight errant akin to the private-eye noir characters of Raymond Chandler who created the character Philip Marlowe." I view this as an advantage, as Scott Jericho can travel to any location, including international destinations.

Hussey also emphasises that, despite Jericho's fluidity, a travelling fair maintains a consistent layout, akin to a dynamic town, where the rides and stalls serve as the community's focal points and structures. The geography of Jericho's town fair is always going to be the same; it still has that stable location you can always return to.

You never stop being a Travelling showman, even if you're not travelling to open fairs...
Scott Jericho is in his 30s, as Hussey wants to be able to return to the character again and again. “As an Agatha Christie devotee, I learned that one of her big regrets was that she made Poirot a pensioner in the first novel. He must have been about 130 by the time he died.”

Looking to the future, Hussey says he has a World War One love story set in the trenches coming out next February and is possibly planning to do a vampire young adult novel at some point, but he has his plate full of the Jericho books now.

He also has a pragmatic view of writing.

Throughout our interview, Hussey has consistently emphasised the importance of character. "A good story and intriguing characters entertain readers, as they have done since the beginning of our species. While the details, such as movement, are important, they can also be distracting, like arranging furniture or plumping up cushions. The focus should not be on embellishing the story over the character.”

I could continue chatting with Hussey for a long time, as he is an enthralling interviewee embodying the Travellers’ tradition of oral storytelling.

"You never stop being a Travelling showman, even if you're not travelling to open fairs; it is still in your blood, and you still know the community is very present in your life."


The public are now invited to vote for the winning title at www.harrogatetheakstoncrimeaward.com. Voting closes on 11.59pm on Thursday 11th July. The winner will be revealed on the opening night of Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Thursday 18th July, receiving £3,000 and a handmade, engraved beer barrel provided by T&R Theakston Ltd.