Monsters at the Bottom of the Gardens, by Carola Dunn
The setting of my new book, The Corpse at the Crystal Palace (23rd in the Daisy Dalrymple mystery series) was once for many years a prominent London landmark. Built in 1851, entirely of glass and steel, for the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, it was disassembled a year later and rebuilt on a hill in South London. Its demise in 1936 in a huge fire was by all accounts spectacular. If you go there today there is nothing to see but the foundation.
Except, that is, the monsters at the southwest corner of the extensive gardens.
The monsters are the creation of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. A naturalist and sculptor, he was commissioned by the Crystal Palace Company to create lifesize statues of some of the prehistoric beasts whose bones were then being dug up and studied in ever increasing numbers. He went to Richard Owen, the great scientist, for the latest theories of what they might have looked like when alive.
Hawkins built in concrete on a massive scale, to match the huge Palace. He and Owen gave a dinner party inside a partial mould prepared for the sculpture of an Iguanodon!
In my book, my sleuth, Daisy Dalrymple, takes her family to the Crystal Palace, including the three-year-old twins, their nanny, and a couple of young cousins visiting London from their home in the country. The younger boy, Charlie, is eager to see the “monsters,” but Daisy's stepdaughter and the older boy, Ben, insist on seeing some of the indoor exhibits first. These consisted of vast displays of the history and products of all the world (especially the British Empire), interspersed with fountains, trees, and over-lifesize sculptures, including an Egyptian temple on a scale even larger than Hawkins' monsters.
The children explore on their own. They're heading for the appointed rendezvous when they notice the twins' nanny hurrying along a deserted passage, apparently following another nanny. Intrigued, they set out in covert pursuit. Out of the building they trail the pair and across the park. The nannies disappear round a corner. Suddenly Charlie cries out in excitement: he's spotted a huge, shaggy head.
The others hurriedly shush him. They tiptoe round a bend and find Nanny lying unconscious in a pool in the midst of a horde of monsters.
(Meanwhile, hunting for her children's nurse, Daisy has found a third nanny dead in the ladies' loo...}
This is a good example of how an apparently irrelevant snippet of research can lead to an unexpected plot direction. Having read about the beastly sculptures, I went to see them. Though they differ in many ways from the theories of paleontogists today, they remain an impressive spectacle, and I knew at once I must fit them into my story if possible. Up till then, I hadn't made up my mind how to continue after Daisy's horrid discovery. The need to get the children to the monsters brought about what you might call the nanny chase, and all that followed from it.
Carola Dunn is the author of 23 Daisy Dalrymple mysteries, set in England in the 1920s, 4 Cornish mysteries, and 32 Regencies. Born and brought up in England, she set off around the world after university and ended up in the US, where she has lived for many years, presently in Oregon. She has one son and two grandchildren, and a dog, Trillian, with whom she walks every morning by the Willamette River.