Samuel Pepys: A modern man.

Here's an article I wrote recently for the English History Fiction Writers website. Enjoy.


Samuel Pepys: A man of our times. 


On the 31st May, 1669, Samuels Pepys wrote in his diary, ‘And so I betake myself to that course, which is almost as much as to see myself go into my grave: for which, and all the discomforts that will accompany my being blind, the good God prepare me!’  It was to be the last entry. For the previous nine and a half years, he had been keeping the diary religiously, writing an account of his life and the world that surrounded him. 

He was fortunate (or unfortunate) to live in an amazing time, witness to the great events that shaped Stuart Britain.  He lived through a period of turmoil; the death of one king, the reign of a dictator, Oliver Cromwell,  the restoration of the Monarchy under Charles II, the deposition of his brother, James II and the crowning of William of Orange, an outsider and king of a country which in 1667 had devastated the Navy he loved. 

Two natural disasters, The Great Plague of 1665, and the Great Fire of London in 1666, occurred in his lifetime and he described both in vivid detail. He lived in a period of great social change, when the puritan morality of the Commonwealth gave way to the more licentious and spirited society ofthe Restoration. He goes into delicious, and disturbingly honest, detail about his home life, his affairs, his ever-increasing wealth, some of it obtained dubiously,  and the passions of the court.

He witnessed it all and wrote about it in wonderfully evocative language. Here he is in November 1660,  describing a meeting with a friend who reminded him of his attendance at the beheading of Charles I when Pepys was just a 15 year-old boy.

‘He did remember that I was a great roundhead when I was a boy, and I was much afeared that he would have remembered the words that I said the day the King was beheaded that, were I to preach upon him, my text should be “The memory of the wicked shall rot”. ( November 1, 1660)

He remained in London through the plague year of 1665, writing, ‘I did in Drury-lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there – which was a sad sight to me’.  (June 7, 1665

Later, he seems more depressed as the plague has taken hold of London. Here is his entry for October 16 1665:

‘I walked to the Tower. But Lord, how empty the streets are, and melancholy, so many poor sick people in the streets, full of sores, and so many sad stories overheard as I walk, everybody talking of this dead, and that man sick, and so many in this place, and so manyin that. And they tell me that in Westminster there is never a physician, and but one apothecary left, all being dead — but that there are great hopes of a great decrease this week: God send it.’

The following year, during the Great Fire of London, he was at the centre of the efforts to save the city from the flames, reporting on the events like Dan Rather;

 ‘Some of our mayds sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast to-day, Jane called us up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So I rose and slipped on my nightgowne, and went to her window, and thought it to be on the backside of Marke-lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off; and so went to bed again and to sleep. About seven rose again to dress myself, and there looked out at the window, and saw the fire not so much as it was and further off. So to my closett to set things to rights after yesterday’s cleaning. By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down to-night by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish-street, by London Bridge.’ (September 2nd, 1666)

And later, he’s examining the fire from a better vantage point.  ‘I up to the top of Barking steeple, and there saw the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw; every where great fires, oyle-cellars, and brimstone, and other things burning. I became afeard to stay there long, and therefore down again as fast as I could, the fire being spread as far as I could see it; and to Sir W. Pen’s, and there eat a piece of cold meat, having eaten nothing since Sunday, but the remains of Sunday’s dinner.’ (September 4th 1666)

He’s very good on the details. Pepys records burying his parmesan cheese and his wine in a pit in the garden, scorched pigeons falling from the skies, a burnt cat pulled alive from a chimney, the price of a loaf (two pence), glass melted and buckled by the heat and people burning their feet on the scorched ground. 

Like the great reporter and observer Pepys is, he puts us in the middle of the action, hearing, smelling, seeing, feeling and touching the events for ourselves.

It is that ability to combine the personal with the political which makes Pepys unique. He  can go from describing what he had to eat for breakfast to the latest machinations amongst the mistresses of the King in a couple of sentences. All with a trade mark wit and power of observation.

‘I now took them to Westminster Abbey and there did show them all the tombs very finely, having one with us alone (there being other company this day to see the tombs, it being Shrove Tuesday); and here we did see, by perticular favour, the body of Queen Katherine of Valois, and had her upper part of her body in my hands. And I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it that I did kiss a Queen, and that this was my birthday, 36 years old, that I did first kiss a Queen.’ (Feb 29th 1669).

There is so much to love and admire in the Pepys Diaries. If you are in the UK, there is a wonderful exhibition on until March at Greenwich featuring the man and his times.

Finally, here is his entry for this day 350 years ago on February 23rd 1666, when he seems happy with the world.

‘So I supped, and was merry at home all the evening, and the rather it being my birthday, 33 years, for which God be praised that I am in so good a condition of healthe and estate, and every thing else as I am, beyond expectation, in all. So she to Mrs. Turner’s to lie, and we to bed. Mightily pleased to find myself in condition to have these people come about me and to be able to entertain them, and have the pleasure of their qualities, than which no man can have more in the world.’

A wonderful epitaph for the man and his life.

Death in Shanghai on Historic Shanghai



Here is the text of an interview I did recently with Historic Shanghai, a great website for all things to do with the city and it's wonderful past. Enjoy.


MJ Lee’s Death in Shanghai is a delicious crime novel set in old Shanghai. Terrific plot, great characters, superb writing – and oh, the historical detail! It truly brings old Shanghai to life, infusing the characters, and even the crime. We wanted to know more, and author Martin Lee obliged us with an interview.

Historic Shanghai: How, and why, did you select Shanghai in 1928 as your setting for a crime novel? Which came first – the setting or the story?

MJ Lee: I remember very clearly when the idea for writing a novel came to me. I was living and working in Shanghai at the time, and was out walking one evening. It was around dusk in October, one of the best times of the year in Shanghai. Perfect walking weather. I reached the crossroads at Jiangxi Zhong Lu and Fuzhou Lu, just opposite the Metropole Hotel, where those three Art Deco skyscrapers look down on you. For a moment, there was no traffic and no people, a strange occurrence in Shanghai. I was suddenly transported back to the 1930s, imagining old Dodges and Chevrolets rolling up to the hotel, discharging carloads of flappers and elegant men wearing tuxedos. A lovely moment. It was then that I decided to start writing. So I guess it was the setting that inspired me. The idea of a crime novel came after I had done some research, realizing that the period was the perfect location for such a story.

The Metropole Hotel and Hamilton House: the spot that inspired MJ Lee to write Death in Shanghai.


HS: You describe late 1920s Shanghai beautifully – not just the descriptions [which are lovely] but also the historical detail, which is so accurate! How, and where, did you do your research? [Lots of details, please – Historic Shanghai geeks love information like this!]

MJL: Thank you for the compliment, I love doing research. Death in Shanghai is a novel but it was important to me to get the details correct. Luckily, there are some wonderful sources. I started with Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai, the magisterial book on the Shanghai Municipal Police by Robert Bickers. That led me to autobiographies written by serving policeman, E. W. Peters and Ted Quigley, and a biography of W E Fairbairn. Once I understood the background, the Shanghai Public Security Museum, the Shanghai Municipal Council archives, the police archives, even the police handbook for 1938 written by Bill Widdowson, were indispensable.

For a flavour of the period and Shanghai style, Stella DongLynn PanAndrew David FieldChristian HenriotFrederic Wakeman, Jr. and Bernard Wasserstein helped enormously.

To bring the past to life, I used the Reverend C. E. Darwent’s guide for 1911, Gow’s Guide to Shanghai 1924, and Paul French’s The Old Shanghai A-Z, which is simply the best street guide to colonial Shanghai. His book on Carl Crow  also gives a wonderful feel for the period. Tales of Old Shanghai by Earnshaw Books also gave a gossipy (in the nicest way) introduction to the people and stories of the period.

On the web, Robert Bickers has created a wonderful visual resource in Historical Photographs of China as has Virtual Shanghai. There are few very useful blogs, all of which I’m happy to say I found here on Historic Shanghai. Finally, Youtube has a great Russian silent documentary, The Shanghai Document, shot in 1928. I used one of the images in this to help Inspector Danilov solve the crime!

These are just a few of the sources. There are still others I am tracking down. But most of all, I just loved walking around the streets of the city. At first, I used the excellent walking guides published by Old China Hand Press, but after a while I just used to wander wherever I felt like going. The Chinese people I met were very tolerant of this strange foreigner intruding in their space. Shanghai is such a great city to wander around.

Despite all the research, I still made mistakes, placing Danilov’s dwelling in Medhurst Apartments. Your readers will be aware that this building wasn’t constructed until 1934. I’m happy to hear if readers spot other mistakes as I will change them in the next edition. But Death in Shanghai is a work of imagination, not a history. Sometimes, one has to bend the past to suit the exigencies of story and plot.


Lee’s research including reading police biographies from the period.


HS: You’ve said that you learned a great deal from talking with older Shanghai residents – tell us more!

MJL: The main oral source was my father-in-law, Mr Kao Chin Pong, and his opera buddies. He grew up in Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s, living around Jing’an Temple. He has an unpublished memoir which my wife translated for me. Most of it concerns daily life at the time and his school days. He seems to have spent a lot of his youth in opera houses, tea houses, cinemas and theatres! Perhaps that was why he became an actor in later life. I would love to meet people who grew up in the period. They will be in their eighties at they moment, though.

HS: Your main character, Danilov, is a White Russian and his sidekick, Strachan, is half-Shanghainese, half-Scottish. Both were prevalent in old Shanghai, but they don’t appear very much in the literature of old Shanghai. Why do you think that is? And why did you select these particular ethnicities/nationalities to tell your story?

MJL: Actually, there are very few novels written about the period, only three or four I think, which was one of the attractions for me. I’ve deliberately avoided reading them, preferring to create my own version of the Shanghai of the period based on my research.

Both Danilov and Strachan are outsiders, in a society full of outsiders. It gave me the ability to distance them from the rest of the police force, and from the society of the time. Mavericks are always so much more interesting to read about and to write. The choice of Danilov as the lead in the books actually came from a line in E. W. Peters’ memoir. He mentioned that when they had a problem, both the French and Shanghai police turned to White Russian members of their forces to solve it for them.

The Russian Auxiliary Police in the French Concession police force – the real-life inspiration for Inspector Danilov.


HS: Tell us about the next book.

The next book is called City of Shadows and will be published on March 11th. It details the murder of a family of four in one of the lanes off Hankow Road. Danilov and Strachan are called in to investigate, forcing them to confront a terrible murder and their own image of a what a loving family means