Feature: Kathryn McMaster, Blackmail, Sex and Lies

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I bet that heading grabbed your attention! Today on the blog, I’m joined by Kathryn McMaster, talking about her true crime novel, Blackmail, Sex and Lies. This is a fascinating read.

Have you always been interested in true crime?

Yes, from an age where others my age were reading age-appropriate books, I had secreted away my father’s true crime books, and used to read them under the bedclothes with the aid of a torch. I didn’t always sleep well after that, for the crimes both horrified and interested me, however this morbid interest has remained. I am also very interested in why people commit the crimes they do. Reading about criminals talking about their motives and the reasons why they turned to crime, is often more of an interest than the crime itself.

Where did you come across the tale of Madeleine Smith?

Although I was not born in Scotland, my direct line on my father’s side were the McMasters from Kirkcudbrightshire, and Argyllshire before that. Madeleine Smith was discussed around a dinner table one evening when I was still in my teens.When I found the case on the Internet during one of my many searches last year, it jogged my memory. When I read the case in full, I realised that it would make a great story.

What drew you to write about her?

I wanted people to be aware of the facts in the case and that there was enough evidence to show that Madeleine could well have been innocent. For 160 years people had condemned her. Still to this day people are convinced that she poisoned her lover. Yes, L’Angelier’s death was very convenient for Madeleine, but the timing may well have been coincidental. I found sympathy for Madeleine when I realised just how abusive the relationship between them had become. She was a young woman who had no one to turn to for she had entered this relationship against her parents’ wishes, and found herself trapped in a hideous situation. Her story needed telling, but in a way where I still kept to the facts and didn’t venture too far off from what had happened.

What made you choose to write the story as creative non-fiction, rather than a purely fictional portrayal?

Writing creative nonfiction allows me to marry the two styles of writing that I really enjoy – true crime and fictional accounts based on a true crime. I have now written two novels in this genre and have several more in the pipeline, but after these, I am seriously thinking of trying my hand at investigative journalism and writing pure true crime. This has always been the heart of my interest and as creative nonfiction is still not a recognised genre, marketing such books is incredibly difficult. You also end up writing a book that is neither one thing nor the other and you alienate readers of both camps. At this stage, I feel more compelled to write to market, as there are a lot of true crime readers out there but few writers of this genre, by comparison to crime fiction writers.

Were you surprised / shocked by any of the facts?

I was shocked to learn how readily accessible arsenic was to the Victorians and how it was used in everyday products such as paint, wallpaper and even dress fabrics. Many of which had made their users ill, but their complaints had gone unheeded. People who believed that it gave them stamina and improved certain illnesses also consumed arsenic in small quantities. L’Angelier was one such person, and therefore his death from arsenic poisoning, as a known arsenic eater, already casts doubt on the whole situation of blame and accountability. Furthermore, arsenic wafers and soaps were around to soften the skin, and women who mixed raw arsenic with water, used it for the same purpose. Magazine articles and advertisements regularly appeared to encourage women to try it as a beauty product.

What was your approach to research, both in terms of the crime itself, and the wider world of 1850s Glasgow?

The research takes an enormous amount of time and effort to make sure that you have unearthed all the facts of the story and have exhausted the resources available on the subject. This can take at least three of four months, depending on the case, how accessible the records are, whether I can access them online, or have to make a personal visit, or even ask someone to access certain documents that I have identified and have them posted to me. I make sure that I always have access to both primary and secondary resources, but the court transcripts, police records, and the old newspapers make up the bulk of my research. Once I am happy that I have all the facts, I then start researching the time period. The Victorian era was a long one, so what was current in 1888 for the “Who Killed Little Johnny Gill?” story that took place in Bradford, England is not the same as the time period for “Blackmail, Sex and Lies in Glasgow”, 1857. So once again research has to take place before a believable world of that era can be created. This includes the fashions of the day, housing, transport, occupations, shops, streets, places, distances, entertainment, theatres, diaries, pastimes … the list goes on.

What advice would you give to anyone looking to write historical true crime, given the potential difficulties of accessing records etc.?

Never start writing until you have all the facts. Look at documents that you think you may not need such as census records, birth and marriage certificates, because even if you don’t use them in your story, you will still know who their immediate and extended family members were, or even their neighbours and their occupations, which helps solidify the world you understand your characters to have occupied. Always start with the primary records and be patient in retrieving these. Sometimes it can take months before someone answers your emails, or advises you that you are on the wrong track and should be contacting a different party altogether. Never give up. Most of the time, those documents are out there, you just have to find them!

What’s next for you, as a writer? Did you find any ideas to spark your imagination during your research?

I have two more creative nonfiction books to write before I can tackle the true crime I want to write. The first one is my current work in progress. It is something I started working on before “Blackmail, Sex and Lies”. This is a murder mystery at sea in 1896 that took place on a sailing boat called the Herbert Fuller, entitled, “A Triple Murder at Sea”. This will be a novella which I will be offering free of charge to people wanting to join my mailing list via my website. This should be finished before Christmas, if not sooner. The book after that is a story related to my first novel, “Who Killed Little Johnny Gill?” and will be entitled, “Six Short Summers’. This is the sad story of the murder and mutilation of young Barbara Whitham Waterhouse from Horsforth, 1891. Because her murder was very similar to that of Johnny Gill’s it was thought to have been connected, although this was later dispelled by Chief Constable Withers who had been in charge of the investigation in Bradford for the Gill murder. Anyway, that is the plan, but who knows what other case may interrupt these plans and take precedence!


Blackmail Sex Lies - Cover for advertising

Blackmail, Sex and Lies is a story of deception, scandal, and fractured traditional Victorian social values. It is the tale of a naïve, young woman caught up in a whirlwind romance with a much older man. However, both have personality flaws that result in poor choices, and ultimately lead to a tragic end.

For 160 years, people have believed Madeleine Smith to have been guilty of murder. But was she? Could she have been innocent after all?

This Victorian murder mystery, based on a true story, takes place in Glasgow, Scotland, 1857. It explores the disastrous romance between the vivacious socialite, Madeleine Hamilton Smith, and her working class lover, Pierre Emile L’Angelier.

After a two-year torrid, and forbidden relationship with L’Angelier, that takes place against her parents’ wishes, the situation changes dramatically when William Minnoch enters the scene. This new man in Madeleine’s life is handsome, rich, and of her social class. He is also a man of whom her family approve.

Sadly, insane jealous rages, and threats of blackmail, are suddenly silenced by an untimely death.


I don’t read an awful lot of true crime style books, but I absolutely tore through this, and very nearly missed my Metro stop as we reach the final act! Although the characters and events are real, and factual, it is still written with the pacing and style of a novel, keeping you hooked as the relationship between Madeleine and Emile develops. I confess there were times I was so frustrated with Madeleine, and why she couldn’t see Emile’s obvious flaws, but then, if we could all see everyone’s flaws, life would be pretty dull…

This is a fascinating piece of social history, as well as a cracking read, and written in such a way that if you love your crime novels, but don’t really see yourself as a ‘true crime’ reader, you’ll still find yourself drawn in from start to finish.


Blackmail, Sex and Lies is currently just 99p/c during this blog tour – make sure you grab your copy now!

Purchase from Amazon UK – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Blackmail-Sex-Lies-Victorian-Mystery-ebook/dp/B0758DV8CY

Purchase from Amazon.com – https://www.amazon.com/Blackmail-Sex-Lies-Victorian-Mystery-ebook/dp/B0758DV8CY/


Blackmail - kathryn mcmaster

Kathryn McMaster is a writer, entrepreneur, wife, mother, and champion of good indie authors. She co-owns the book promotion company One Stop Fiction (www.onestopfiction.com), where readers can sign up to receive news of free and discounted 4 and 5 star reviewed books. She is also a bestselling author of historical murder mysteries set in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Her debut novel, “Who Killed Little Johnny Gill?” was well received. All her novels are based on true stories, and she melds fact with fiction, writing in the creative nonfiction style. She lives on her 30 acre farm in the beautiful Casentino Valley, Italy for 6 months of the year, and during the other half of the year, on the small island of Gozo, Malta.

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