The idea for my latest book, The Magical Detectives and the Forbidden Spell first began when I read a passage by the writer Thomas De Quincey. He's one of my favourite authors, not because he's a great writer. He can be pretty turgid a lot of the time but every now and again he has these little flashes of brilliance that make all the rest worth while.
For anyone who doesn't know it, De Quincey was a nineteenth century writer, a friend of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and, as he relates in his best-seller The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, a reformed drug-addict.
In his Autobiographical Sketches , which I much prefer to the Confessions, he describes the impact that hearing the story of Aladdin and his magic lamp had upon him when he was a child. But the story as De Quincey repeats it, is slightly different to the standard version. I've tried to track his version down but as far as I can see there is no evidence that it ever existed, except perhaps in his mind.
In De Quincey's Aladdin a magician living in Africa becomes aware by his secret art of an enchanted lamp locked away in a subterranean chamber from which it can only be released by the hands of an innocent child. But not just any child. The child who can bring the lamp back into the world must have a special horoscope written in the stars, entitling him to take possession of it. But where should such a child be found?
This is the point where De Quincey's version diverges from the regular version. In De Quincey's story the magician puts his ear to the ground and listens to the innumerable sounds of footsteps from every corner of the world and amongst them, at a distance of six thousand miles, playing in the streets of Baghdad he distinguishes the particular steps of Aladdin.
De Quincey was thrilled and obsessed by this image. He talked it over eagerly with his sister, Elizabeth, whom he looked up to greatly. Together they speculated about how the magician could tell from the sound of footsteps on the other side of the world, that this was the very boy he sought. And this was De Quincey's conclusion.
'It had seemed to me that the pulses of the heart, the motions of the will, the very phantoms of the brain must repeat themselves in secret hieroglyphics uttered by those flying footsteps and when I expressed this idea to Elizabeth, she nodded eagerly and told me how she firmly believed that all the inarticulate and brutal sound of the globe must represent a secret language, that somewhere there must be a key to that language and that the man or woman who could find that key would know all that there was to be known.'
When I read this passage I, too, felt thrilled because deep in some dark chamber of my mind I caught the glitter of a new story, a tale about a magical language of such incredible power that its use was forbidden and all knowledge of it hidden away from the world until a twist of fate that would bring a fragment of that language to the light of day.