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Historical detective novel by Cambridge lecturer explores the murky world of Victorian showmen

An astonishing tale discovered in a newspaper cutting about a group of Zulu men who were kept prisoner by a Victorian showman was the inspiration for a new novel by Anglia Ruskin University’s Dr Mick Finlay.

The dispute provides the starting point for the latest Arrowood detective novel from Dr Finlay who draws upon his academic research in psychology, specialising in social issues, to form the basis for his books.

The fourth book in the historical crime fiction series featuring detective William Arrowood and set in Victorian London, Arrowood and the Meeting House Murders nods to the 1879 true story of ‘Farini’s Zulus’, a group of five men, only one of whom could speak English, and their dispute with a showman, Mr Farini, who planned to show them in an ‘ethnic exhibition’ at the London Aquarium.

Arrowood and the Meeting House Murders, by Dr Mick Finlay. (50112106)
Arrowood and the Meeting House Murders, by Dr Mick Finlay. (50112106)

The men had claimed their contract was with a French showman for performances in Paris, but he had transferred it to Farini without their agreement. They objected to being ‘sold like cattle’ between white men. They also said they were being held prisoner in their lodging house because Farini was afraid their appearance in public would affect ticket prices.

Dr Finlay, Associate Professor in Social Psychology at ARU, was longlisted for the CWA Golden Dagger Crime Novel of the Year 2020 for his last novel, Arrowood and the Thames Corpses.

He said: “I came across this case in a collection of articles from the Illustrated Police News and thought it would be a great starting point for a crime novel.

“It made me think about the difficult situation facing these travellers, and why they would have chosen to leave colonial South Africa. They were in a bind – leaving an oppressive regime where opportunities were limited for black people, but finding themselves in a city in which they didn’t speak the language and had no contacts, and where racism was open and accepted. When they found their jobs turned them into virtual prisoners, they had few options.

“The Arrowood books are set in Victorian London, and I thought it was important not to ignore the empire and the plight of colonised peoples, and how that played a part of life in the city. Although that’s the backdrop to my book, it’s first and foremost a crime novel with plot and character at its centre, and for those who have read the previous books, there are some major developments in the characters’ lives.”

Mick Finlay (50112175)
Mick Finlay (50112175)

The Meeting House Murders opens with a fictionalised version of the Farini’s Zulus case. Five Zulu men come to private detective William Arrowood for help, having escaped from a showman called Capaldi who has been holding them prisoner, but find themselves in London with no money and no friends. Capaldi is known for violence, and they’re in fear for their lives.

When one of the Zulu men is killed and the others disappear, Arrowood and his assistant Barnett need to find them. The clues lead them through the world of London’s ‘freak shows’ and ‘ethnic exhibitions’.

Dr Finlay says: “I came across this case in the British Library newspaper archives. It was widely covered in the press because people were fascinated by the story, and partly because it allowed some of the journalists to make rather racist depictions of the Zulu men. I followed it up and found there were three different appearances in court for this particular case. And these men sort of disappeared from the newspapers for about six months until they began to reappear in different situations. The saddest one is the reappearance of one of these Zulu men about a year later in 1880 in Frankfurt. There were reports in the British newspapers about an African man sitting in the midwinter in Frankfurt railway station, unable to speak any German or English or any other language that the authorities tried on him. But he was believed to be one of these original Zulu men in the court case and somehow found his way to Frankfurt, but just was destitute there because he couldn't speak a word of the language. The most awful detail in the report was this one sentence which said, ``It was reported that he wept greatly, which is so sad.”

Author Mick Finlay (50112171)
Author Mick Finlay (50112171)

Although Dr Finlay has taken the case and then fictionalised it, he has kept many elements of the original story as he wanted to be historically accurate. He also wanted to make sure his hero, Arrowood, was sympathetic to their ;ight.

“This is always difficult when writing historical fiction because you don't want your main characters who are sympathetic characters to have attitudes that nowadays we would consider abhorrent. The lucky thing is that, although it was a racist society, that's partly because in the British Empire the idea was that British people must be superior white British people because if they weren't superior How could they have taken over a third of the world? That was sort of the assumption. So this vision these ideas were sort of shot through society. However, there were a few people arguing against those ideas.

“So that allowed me a bit of license to make Arrowood sympathetic. He's very angry at the situation that these men are in and there were some people writing in newspapers saying you know this is wrong, what you're doing to the Zulu people and you should at least give them the money to go back home if they want to go back home. Arrowood is being paid to help them, so of course he takes the case because he needs the money and he gets paid by this Quaker friendly society, who really existed, called the Aborigines Protection Society, which were there to argue for the rights of the colonised peoples.”

Dr Finlay’s next novel is a break from his historical fiction. He is writing a present day story about Westminster think tanks and the psychology of some modern political leaders.

Dr Finlay, who is a psychologist, says: “It explores the idea that some leaders become leaders because of their narcissism and sociopathy. It is inspired by the Trump era, but also I'm thinking about how our ideas about what counts as a mental disorder come about and how they can be manipulated by special interest groups and whether narcissism and sociopathy can be used by people for their own nefarious reasons.”

Arrowood and The Meeting House Murders is on sale now, published by HQ (Harper Collins).

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