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Shadow of the Serpant

Bath Literature Festival

February 2011
Review from Sky Arts Website

On our final day at the Bath Lit Fest we looked in on David Ashton, scriptwriter, novelist, actor and creator of The Inspector McLevy Mysteries BBC Radio 4 crime series.

For images from The Book Show at the Bath Literature Festival - click here.

David Ashton spoke in his reassuring Scottish brogue, expertly embroidering his session with impersonations and cuttingly witty descriptions of his experiences as a scriptwriter for the BBC.

For David crime is the prism through which life is refracted and defined.  He describes himself as like Bob Dylan, ‘just a song and dance man’, someone who likes to entertain his readers while also giving them food for thought.

David Ashton at Bath Lit Fest 2011James McLevy was a real life 19th century Edinburgh detective who wrote a series of memoirs about his life on the mean streets of Old Reekie.  David came across him when he was commissioned to write a one-off drama about Arthur Conan Doyle and a curious medium called Madam Rochelle.  The former policeman’s diaries were retrieved from the vaults at the British Library and brought to David by a tall, sombre librarian who spoke not a word before placing the book on the table like a votive offering.  Wrapped in a faded yellow ribbon, David plucked it open and small cloud of dust rose from the fabric to discover James McLevy contained within.  The real James McLevy published two volumes of his diaries Curiosity of Crimes in Edinburgh and, the excellently titled, The Sliding Scale of Depravity.

McLevy’s stories were anecdotal remembrances of crimes he solved while walking the streets of Edinburgh.  Written in a grandiose style McLevy impressed David as being a man so totally himself that he immediately found him a fascinating, if misguided and egotistic character.  Therein lay the genesis of was to The Inspector McLevy Mysteries, the eighth series of which is due to start recording shortly. 

The title role is played by Brian Cox, who flies in from L.A. to record his role, a fact he never ceases to remind David about when presented with character notes.  David himself plays the part of Chief Lieutenant Roach, McLevy’s superior.  He has since expanded the character to series of novels based on the further adventures of McLevy featuring the cast of characters.  David says he feels the differing mediums inform and feed each other very well.  As an actor he is notoriously ridge about changes to the script and tolerates no ad libbing by actors. 

David read a couple of sections from his novel The Shadow and the Serpent, almost musically written he conveyed the atmosphere and the ‘contained Victorian world’ his characters inhabited.  Drawing on Prime Minister Gladstone’s habit of ‘persuading’ ladies of the night to give up their nefarious practices he falls under Inspector McLevy’s suspicion after Sadie Gorman, an old Edinburgh prostitute, is found hacked to death with an axe. 

An amusing raconteur, David had his Bath Literature Festival audience in the palm of his hand, during the reading of his novel a rapt silence fell across the listeners which minutes before had been chuckling at his Brian Cox impressions.  A genuine storyteller the seventh series of The Inspector McLey Mysteries is due to start on Wednesday the 2nd March on BBC Radio 4, but for those who can’t wait his compendium The Shadow and the Serpent is available in shops now.