When Charles Dickens was writing in the 19th century, London was far from refreshing. The streets were filled with horse dung and the air with soot. Smog would descend on the city and linger for a day or two, turning buildings black.
Dickens took note. In "Dombey and Son,"his 1848 novel, he wrote of “noxious particles” in a “dense black cloud,” “rolling slowly on to corrupt the better portion of a town.” Like other Victorians, he wondered about the connection between physical filth and sin: “If the moral pestilence that rises with them…could be made discernible too, how terrible the revelation!”
In 2012, after reading Dickens’s passage, U.K.-based author Dan Vyleta had a revelation of his own. What if every time a person sinned, he or she released a curl of smoke?
That’s the premise of Mr. Vyleta’s novel, “Smoke,” out in the U.S. on May 24 from Doubleday. With a two-book deal and an announced first print run of 200,000, plus a multicity author tour, it’s a conceit on which his publisher is betting big. The novel will be published in July in the U.K.
Dense and full of macabre Victorian detail such as body parts in glass jars, the story follows a trio of teenagers in an alternate version of England in the late 1800s. After leaving a boarding school in which pupils are taught that smoke is shameful, they arrive in London—a city so covered in the stuff that the sky is nearly always dark. “Here Smoke rules, runs rampant, fans theft, adultery, murder,” a schoolteacher tells them. “It feeds on the alcoholic, the vagrant, the prostitute; coats the very city in its Soot.”
Fantasy is new territory for the 41-year-old Mr. Vyleta, whose previous three novels are literary thrillers set in Europe around World War II. His first novel, “Pavel & I,” takes place in postwar Berlin; his most recent, “The Crooked Maid,” follows a student and a woman who return to Vienna in 1948 after a long absence. But he doesn’t see “Smoke” as terribly different. Like his earlier works, it plays with notions of class and identity.
Doubleday hopes the book will emulate recent historical-fantasy hits, including Erin Morgenstern's "The Night Circus" and Lev Grossman's “The Magicians.” “It’s a book we believe has a very broad appeal,” said William Thomas, publisher and editor in chief at Doubleday.
“I think what we forget is how stinky this world is,” said Mr. Vyleta of 19th-century London, during a recent lunch overlooking the Thames. “If you met someone on the street [at that time], even if you were blindfolded, by the level of stinky-ness you could probably determine their class,” he said.
The Victorians were fixated on air quality, he said. “They have a sense that bad air, putrid air, is how disease spreads.” Sometimes their concern veered into moral territory. “People are living too close together and that’s bad, and morally it’s concerning—there’s always this slippage between disease and vice,” he said. Mr. Vyleta is at work on a sequel titled “Soot.”
The author, who lives in Stratford-upon-Avon, took frequent walks through London while writing “Smoke.” A fan of the city’s side streets and alleys, he found himself aware of oil slicks on the water and dirt on his shoes.
Mr. Vyleta grew up in Germany and has a Ph.D. in cultural history from Kings College at the University of Cambridge. In high school, he spent a year at the Taft School in Connecticut—an experience he drew on while writing early scenes in “Smoke.” “One of the things that stuck with me from the period is the smell of the place,” he said. “That mixture of bodies and plumbing and bad cooking. It’s not attractive, but it’s very powerful.”