11 April 2014
Now living in America, author David Hutchinson came to this country having been raised in Edinburgh, Scotland. An Arts graduate, he worked as a professional photographer based in Edinburgh. With his extensive background in photography, David has taught at tertiary level and lectured as a Visiting Professional. Though he has been writing short pieces for magazines (first published in the 1980s), DEACON BRODIE is his first novel - though after finishing this enormously successful work it seems as though he has been deep in his letters for years! He admits the growing up in Edinburgh, he became fascinated by the rich history of Scotland's capital, and especially with some of its leading characters, one of those (fortunately for us) was Deacon William Brodie, the subject of this novel based on fact but filigreed with delightfully Scottish brogue peppered fiction.
Because Hutchinson confines his novel to the last year of Deacon Brodie's life, a bit of background for those who are unaware of this historical character. William Brodie (1741 - 1788), more commonly known by his prestigious title of Deacon Brodie, was a Scottish cabinet-maker, deacon of a trades guild and Edinburgh city councilor, who maintained a secret life as a burglar, partly for the thrill, and partly to fund his gambling. By day, Brodie was a respectable tradesman and Deacon (president) of the Incorporation of Wrights, the head of the Craft of Cabinetmaking, which made him a member of the Town Council. Part of his job in building cabinets was to install and repair their locks and other security mechanisms and repair door locks. He socialized with the gentry of Edinburgh. At night, however, Brodie became a burglar and thief. He used his daytime job as a way to gain knowledge about the security mechanisms of his clients and to copy their keys using wax impressions. As the foremost wright of the city, Brodie was asked to work in the homes of many of the richest members of Edinburgh society. He used the illicit money to maintain his second life, which included a gambling habit and five children to two mistresses (who did not know of each other, and were unknown in the city). He reputedly began his criminal career around 1768 when he copied keys to a bank door and stole £800. In 1786 he recruited a gang of three thieves, John Brown (a thief escaping a seven year sentence of transportation), George Smith (a locksmith, who ran a grocer's shop in the Cowgate) and Andrew Ainslie (a shoemaker). The case that led to Brodie's downfall began later in 1788 when he organised an armed raid on an Excise office in Chessel's Court on The Canongate. Brodie's plan failed. On the same night, Brown approached the authorities to claim a King's Pardon, which had been offered after a previous robbery, and gave up the names of Smith and Ainslie (initially saying nothing of Brodie's involvement). Smith and Ainslie were arrested and the next day Brodie attempted to visit them in prison but was refused. Realising that he had to leave Edinburgh, Brodie escaped to London and then to the Netherlands intending to flee to the United States but was arrested in Amsterdam and shipped back to Edinburgh for trial. The trial of Brodie and Smith started on 27 August 1788. At first there was no hard evidence against Brodie, although the tools of his criminal trade (copied keys, a disguise and pistols) were found in his house and workshops. But with Brown's evidence and Ainslie being persuaded to turn King's Evidence, added to the self-incriminating lines in the letters he had written while on the run, the jury found Brodie and Smith guilty. Brodie and Smith were hanged at the Tolbooth Prison in the High Street on 1 October 1788.
Hutchinson makes this story come alive with additional fictitious characters and variations of the `facts ` of Brodie's life. He allows us to walk the dank streets, soak up the flavors and savors of Edinburgh and forms his own version of Brodie's last days that make the novel akin to a screenplay. As Hutchinson said in an interview, `It does have a rather dual nature (historically, from its Old Town and New Town) and Deacon Brodie is the epitome of that duality. Robert Lewis Stevenson knew the Deacon well and eventually, after a false start with a play, he wrote Jekyll and Hyde. You can't have grown up there without the city, with all its positives and negatives, having imprinted itself on you.'
David Hutchinson is a fine writer and knowing he has more novels in the works is reassuring that there will be more quality reading form his pen. Grady Harp, April 14