Present-day northern California isn't exactly a desert when it comes to . . . let's call them imaginative health treatments. Now, we've all got our folklore about health - I'll tell mine below (with details of a book giveaway), but in my new home there's no physical or psychological complaint from restless toe syndrome to teenage non-compliance disorder that you can't find a crystal, chant or appliance to cure.
Victorian, Edwardian and inter-war Britain, though, can give the twenty-first-century worried well a decent run for their money. Scotland in particular has a rich history of bonkers medical procedures, reassuringly expensive and convincingly unpleasant for the most part.
It was in Scotland and the north of England that "hydros" grew up thickest in Victorian times. The hydro or hydropathic establishment was born out of A. temperance B. the wacky new wonder that was electricity and C. the eternal folk belief that if something's disgusting it's propbably beneficial. So you found - and still find in a diluted form - a luxurious if rather wholesome hotel, with a staggering array of "baths" which are actually all different kinds of electric lamps you lie under on a table, and at the heart of it a well or spring that pumps out characterful water - warm, cloudy, eggy, fizzy . . .
As soon as I started thinking about setting a Dandy Gilver novel in a hotel I knew that I wanted it to be a hydro. And so A DEADLY MEASURE OF BRIMSTONE takes place at the lightly fictionalised Laidlaw's Hydropathic Hotel in the Moffat hills, south of Edinburgh.
As to researching the Faradaic, galvanaic and ultra-violet lamp baths (aka a nice lie down in the warm - can you tell yet that I'm a sceptic?) that was a piece of luck.
Cue panic attack! There is nothing worse for a writer than hearing that your new book has just been written. In this case, all was well - I was over-reacting. Carola assured me that it was only one scene and went on to say that she had found a facsimile of a hydro brochure from 1925. It was annoying to her that she hadn't been able to use any of its treasures and she gladly passed the details on to me. (And they say writers have "rivals". Pah.)
The treatment brochure from Smedley's Hydro was diamonds dipped in gold-dust. It's very solemn, completely wackadoodle and, given what we now understand about the placebo effect, I'm sure the procedures for sale did a lot of good for a lot of invalids, if not for their wallets. I knew it off by heart by the time BRIMSTONE was finished.
If I could go there for a week or two to lie between starched linen sheets, bake myself under lamps, play croquet in the drizzle and eat that stodgy food, I'd book my plane ticket today.
Dandy Gilver isn't actually ill in BRIMSTONE. Her husband and sons are recovering from influenza, pneumonia, pleurisy and bronchitis. They're drinking the fizzy, eggy water and lying under the lamps. Dandy is investigating a suspicious death. Mrs Addie - a hydro regular- has allegedly dropped dead after seeing a ghost but Dandy and Alec - even bigger sceptics than me - aren't buying it.
The investigation centres on the particular area of the hydro where the ghostly appearance and its sighting are supposed to have taken place: namely the Russian and Turkish baths. The cool, warm and hot rooms, the steam room and the icy plunge pool.
No research into the Russian and Turkish was necessary, because for the five years I was an unhappy academic at Leeds University, just about the only happy times were spent with my linguistics colleagues in the Harrogate Turkish Baths. The plunge pool (above) was sometimes so cold it gave you heart arrythmia but the steam room was pure joy. (There's a story Val McDermid tells about something she overheard in the Harrogate steam room once. I couldn't share it here but if anyone wants to know it, email me . . .)
And after a cleansing couple of hours in the baths, we would all take our purified, eucalyptus-scented body-temples up the road to Betty's Tearoom and reload with carbs.
Because there (unlike in northern California) they know that chocolate, butter, cream and custard are the four main food groups and there's nothing in them to hurt you.
To celebrate the publication of A DEADLY MEASURE OF BRIMSTONE I'm giving away a signed hardback copy to anyone who comments on this blog. Any comment at all - including "gimme a book!" is fine - but I'd love to hear your health folklore. Here's some of mine: I thought, when I was a kid, that the reason you had to drink a lot of fluid when you had a cold was to "wash the germs out of your throat". I said that, as an adult, to a health professional and got the best mystified look I've ever seen. "But you'd be washing them into your stomach," she said. "How would that help?" And so, at the age of 35, I learned that you drink when you've got a cold to replace the fluids depleted by fever. (But I still make lemon and honey and whisper that I'm washing the germs out of my throat.)