It may seem unusual for The Poisoned Pen to host an author at 2 PM on a Wednesday. But Tessa Arlen will be here for an Afternoon Tea on April 6, and she will also discuss and sign her latest mystery, Death Sits Down to Dinner.
I had the chance to ask Tessa about her Edwardian mysteries. This is a fun interview, split into two days of Q&A.
- Your mystery series is set in the Edwardian period before the Great War. I’m sure you could write a book about the history, but would you give us just a little background about those years? What should readers know?
The Edwardian era spans from 1901 with the coronation of King Edward VII and runs through to the beginning of WW1 in 1914, despite the fact that Edward VII died in 1910 and was succeeded by his son George V. Edward VII or Bertie has he is still affectionately known began his reign at the start of a new and exciting century full of innovation in transportation, communication and manufacturing but also in the arts.
There was a Liberal government hell bent on social reform and taxing the landed classes to provide funds for those reforms. The power of veto in the House of Lords had been broken for the first time in history simply by flooding the house with newly appointed peers of the Liberal persuasion. The age of the motor car and the fast train had contributed severely to suburbanizing the countryside around major cities, and an ever-increasing middle class enjoyed a standard of living unknown in the previous century.
In the coronation year of 1911 when George V succeeded his father as king and emperor the British Empire had already reached its zenith forty years before. It was not the end of Britain’s world power –but America was already emerging as the next economic world leader and life was still remarkably good for the rich and most of the landed aristocracy. 1911 was one of the hottest summers on record. And it almost seems as if this un-English weather fermented trouble: there was a dock-workers strike that caused havoc throughout the country which spurred on other trade unions to support strike action for better pay and working conditions; the Irish were demanding home rule; the rich had never been richer and the poor more desperate. And on top of that the Women’s Social and Political Union’s (Suffragettes) fight for the franchise under the leadership of the Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia had turned decidedly nasty. A perfect time in which to writer about murder!
- You have two amateur sleuths in the Lady Montfort series. Would you introduce them, and tell us why you have two?
Clementine Elizabeth Talbot, the Countess of Montfort is a mildly eccentric aristocrat’s wife with a good deal of vitality and a husband who admires her quick and energetic mind. She was brought up in India, the daughter of the Governor of Madras, and married the most eligible bachelor during her first London season. It is possible that her Indian upbringing made her a little less conventional than most women of her time. In 1912 she had just celebrated her fortieth birthday. She is tall with rich bay brown hair and blue eyes.
Mrs. Edith Jackson is Lady Montfort’s housekeeper and holds a very senior position in the Earl of Montfort’s country house, Iyntwood. She is single, housekeepers were given the title Mrs. out of respect even if they were spinsters. She was raised in a parish orphanage and was a working kitchen skivvy at fourteen. She taught herself to read and write and is naturally reserved. Mrs. Jackson is as circumspect as Lady Montfort is outgoing, and even though she can be quite severe she has a well-developed sense of humor and an interesting inner-monologue. She is extremely conscious of her position as senior servant to a family of consequence and is probably a far greater snob than her mistress. Like her mistress she is a tall woman with russet brown hair and large gray eyes, she is about thirty-five.
There are two of them because I wanted them to represent opposite ends of a society that held fast to the traditions of class and hierarchy that the English are famous for in this time. Without an army of well-trained and inexpensive servants the Earl of Montfort’s large, luxurious country house would not have been possible to maintain to the high standard it enjoyed. In the first book: Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman Mrs. Jackson is definitely Lady Montfort’s Watson. But as the series emerges this demarcation becomes more blurred as to two women form a sort of friendship within the constraints of the social positions.
- Would you tell us just enough about Death Sits Down to Dinner to whet our appetite?
It is November 2, 1913 with Lord and Lady Montfort attending the 39th birthday party of Winston Churchill, who is First Lord of the Admiralty, in the house of an old family friend Hermione Kingsley who runs a very large and prestigious charity called the Chimney Sweep Boys. After dinner the dead body of one of the guests is found in the dining room. At this time England is in the grip of spy mania and considerable anxiety about the very real possibilities of being drawn into a war with Germany and the investigation of the murder is kept hush-hush because of Churchill’s very senior position in government. Being the woman she is Lady Montfort cannot help but involve herself in her own clandestine inquiry and she sends to the country for Mrs. Jackson to join her at Montfort House in Belgravia. Lady Montfort is so well connected that she is invited everywhere: to the ballet, to the opera, to dinners and dances. It is against this sparkling and sophisticated backdrop populated with several real Edwardian characters that she and Mrs. Jackson winkle out the identity of the murderer.
- What would we be served at an Edwardian dinner?
Eight courses would be served when one was entertaining guests. If King Edward was a guest, he expected to be served with at least twelve. He also liked his dinners to be leisurely affairs and so three hours were usual for dinner. The English loved their roast mutton and beef, but the well-off usually ate French cuisine and often employed a French chef. Dinner would be served by footmen who offered food to the guests from the left side. Here is a sample menu for a very formal dinner –it sounds like a vast amount of food but each course would be taken by guests in a “restrained” manner. I hope you like rich food!
- Orkney oysters on the half shell
- Veal consommé with leeks
- Grilled Turbot with a cream sauce
- Rolled veal breasts stuffed with foie gras and truffles
- Roast mutton or maybe roast suckling pig or a roast goose with a red-current glaze with roast potato
- An entremets of creamed spinach, asparagus and glazed endive
- Cheese soufflé
- A moulded primrose jelly (with edible flowers in it) and decorated with whipped cream –these were exquisite affairs that were very decorative and made wonderful centrepieces
- Hot-house fruit
- Biscuit à la crème
- Your history teacher said history was simply “very old gossip”. Dish, please. What’s your favorite piece of old gossip?
So much gossip! I promise you my history teacher’s gossip was political and not racy. Upper-crust Edwardians had considerable time to devote to the leisurely art of flirtation and romantic assignation. Married women might take a lover or two after they had produced an heir and a spare, and her husband might have a mistress tucked away in Maida Vale. The country house Saturday to Monday, as Edwardians referred to a weekend, was a great opportunity for romantic liaisons BUT discretion was key! Divorce was out of the question, and there must be no letting down the side with untidy love-affairs.
Maud, Lady Cunard, wife of Sir Bache Cunard of the famous shipping line had a long love affair with Sir Thomas Beecham. One morning they were tucked up in bed together at Sir Bache’s magnificent country estate, Nevill Holt, when the closed bedroom curtains blew aside in the wind and an estate worker who was working on the roof saw them. He must have shimmied down that ladder at top speed in order to catch a train to London so he could sell the story to the newspapers. But not quite quickly enough; he was bought off by Sir Bache who most certainly did not want his wife’s love affair broadcast to the world. Country house shenanigans was a fashion set by dear old “Bertie” (King Edward VII) who slept with all of his compliant male friend’s wives if he found them attractive. Hence the witticism: Greater love hath no man than to lay down his wife for his king.
On that racy note, we’ll end today’s interview. Stop by tomorrow for the second part of the interview with Tessa Arlen. If you’re intrigued, you might want to plan now to attend the Afternoon Tea at the Poisoned Pen on Wednesday, April 6 at 2 PM.
Hats off to Jenn McKinlay as we congratulate the prolific author. Readers may know Jenn as the author of the Hat Shop mysteries, the Cupcake Bakery mysteries set in Old Town Scottsdale, and the Library Lover’s mysteries. Jenn is also a friend of the Poisoned Pen who has appeared here numerous times.
Jenn recently signed a contract for a three book deal for a women’s fiction series, beginning with ABOUT A DOG, which will be published in June 2017. The series is “about best friends, going home, shenanigans, stray puppy dogs, mischievous elderly aunts, big laughs, shared tears, hot sex, and falling unexpectedly in love”. Set in Maine among high school friends “the Maine Crew”, book one opens with a woman returning to her Maine hometown, the scene of her disgrace years before, for the wedding of her best friend in which she’s paired with the one-night stand who soothed her broken heart—who also happens to be the bride’s off-limits brother.
McKinlay’s cozy mystery fans don’t need to worry, though. BETTER LATE THAN NEVER is book 7 in the Library Lover’s Mystery series, with book 8 to follow. CARAMEL CRUSH, book 9 in the Cupcake Bakery mystery series, is due out in 2017, and there’s already a deal for book 10. The latest Cupcake Bakery mystery, Vanilla Beaned, is due out in just a couple weeks.
Fans will get a chance to ask Jenn McKinlay about all of these books, and her new series, at our Cozy Con on May 7. Watch for further details about that event. In the meantime, stop in and pick up a cozy mystery or two!
Look at that face. Does that look like someone who would be described as having his head in the clouds? When you read the conclusion of the interview with John A. Connell, you’ll find that his wife describes him that way. Today’s our day to learn a little about the personal side of the author of Spoils of Victory.
- You’re an American who has lived in Paris and Madrid. Tell us where you would like to live next, and why.
I never imagined actually living in Paris or Madrid before that prospect was staring me in the face. And if someone had told me that I would be moving to Paris six months prior to doing so, I would have called them crazy. I had a good job as a camera operator on NYPD Blue, my wife and I had just bought our dream house in Los Angeles (at least as dreamy as we could afford), and I spoke almost zero French. But when my wife was offered an excellent opportunity in Paris, I said yes with little deliberation. For years I had wanted to devote more time to writing, and I had always toyed with the idea of living in Europe. What better place to try both than in the City of Lights? 12 years later, we made the move to Madrid—another place I never imagined living. Oh, and I don’t speak Spanish—though I’m working on it.
So, who knows where I might end up next! I think it would be fun to try Rome or Munich. Rome for the history and the food, and after spending a lot of time in Munich during my research, I really fell for the city and the people. And France keeps pulling at us. There is so much history, beauty, and culture (not to mention great food and wine!) packed into a country the size of Texas, that it’s hard to resist. Especially since I’m such a history buff—my wife says I like old stones…
- Readers who want to be writers are always curious about the writing process. When and where do you write? Computer, pen and ink? Do you outline or are you a pantser, writing by the seat of your pants?
I write my first draft in longhand. I write in notebooks, leaving wide enough margins to jot down notes, revision suggestions, etc. Not very efficient, but it helps keep the thoughts flowing. And when I’m writing that first, rough draft I usually sit on my bed, legs up, with the shades closed. The darkened room helps me stay in the story moment.
I’m a hybrid—part outliner, part pantser. I don’t plan out the entire book. I have the beginning, some major plot points I want to hit along the way, and a sense of the ending, but beyond that, I write as I go. I’ve tried to start with a detailed outline, but I just couldn’t make it work. I like the spontaneity of it, though it is like writing without a net. I’m like the detective in my stories, assimilating information and deciding on the next step. That spontaneity of the story is part of the joy I get out of writing. As a matter of fact, for SPOILS OF VICTORY I didn’t really know who was the main antagonist until near the end!
- Tell us something about yourself that readers don’t know.
From a very young age and up to my mid-20s I had dreamed of being a music composer. I had a gift for performance and composing, but I lacked the passion and discipline to master the craft. And at that young age, if whatever I wrote didn’t come out as instantly brilliant then I abandoned it, which was all too often. When I finally walked away from music, I was crushed, and as a consequence I haven’t returned to keyboard since. Looking back, I realize that music was my outlet for a driving urge to create, and camerawork in film and TV served that same purpose, until I discovered my true passion—writing.
- What are you working on now?
I’m working on book #3 in the Mason Collins series. I hesitate to say anything about what’s next for fear of introducing a, well, spoiler for the end of SPOILS. I can say that my plan with each book is to pick up Mason’s journey weeks or months after the last, with Mason, like that wandering samurai, getting into trouble in some of the most volatile places in Europe and the Mediterranean.
- Describe yourself in five words, as you think your wife would describe you.
I decided to simply ask my wife. Is that cheating?
I had to use phrases rather than five single words. I know, another cheat.
- keenly perceptive of people
- “dans la lune” which I roughly translate as “head in the clouds.”
- attentive listener
- maniac for details (I tend to need to know everything, much to her consternation)
- adaptable to changing situations
Now, of course, my wife is prejudiced. I can agree that I do have my head in the clouds most of the time…
Fortunately, John A. Connell is able to adapt to changing situations. That means he’ll be here on Wednesday, March 30 at 7 PM, instead of in Spain. He’ll talk about Spoils of Victory, and sign it. He’ll be joined by Philip Kerr.
John A. Connell will be appearing at the Poisoned Pen on Wednesday, March 30 at 7 PM. The author of Spoils of Victory will join Philip Kerr as both men discuss their post-World War II crime novels.
I recently had the chance to put Connell in the hot seat, asking him ten questions. His answers were so good that we’re breaking the Q&A into two parts. Today is part 1.
- You took a circuitous route to become a writer. How did you get there?
I wrote short stories starting in my teens, mostly hybrid versions of H. G. Wells’ short stories. The first story anyone read was my history teacher in the 10th grade. I had written a gory account of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, and after reading it he suggested that I should become a novelist! But at that age I had dreams of being a rock-n-roll star. Music in my teens and twenties, then cinematography, occupied my creative life. Still, that bug to write was always with me, and then, around the age of 40, I expressed my dream of writing to a screenwriter friend, and he said, “Shut up, sit down, and write.” I did, and the writing “disease” immediately took hold. I started with screenplays, which seemed like the natural thing to do since I worked in the film business. But I became frustrated with the confinement of the screenplay form. I wanted to go deeper into my characters and the world that surrounded them. That’s when I tried my hand at novels and never looked back. Four previous, unpublished novels and a million words later, Ruins of War was born.
- Why are you writing about post-World War II Germany?
I’ve been a WW2 buff since I was a kid. I’ve read tons of books about the strategies, the politics, the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, though it’s the personal accounts of the individual soldiers that are my favorites. I felt I knew a good deal about the years leading up to and during the war, but I had neglected one vital part of that turbulent era: its aftermath. My previous notions of relative order were turned upside down while I was researching the backstory of the antagonist in an earlier, now defunct, novel.
The Germans called the time just after the war Die Stunde Null, ‘The Zero Hour.’ Germany had been bombed back to the Middle Ages. Death by famine, disease and murder had replaced the bullets and bombs. Every major city and many towns and villages had sustained up to 90% damage. The entire infrastructure – railroads, bridges and industry – had been damaged or destroyed. Up to 10% of the population had perished. Close to 10 million Displaced Persons—the people brought into Germany from every conquered country to work as domestic, agricultural or industrial slaves—along with the tens of thousands of POW and concentration camp survivors were all suddenly freed and making the difficult trek home or wandering the countryside. Then came the millions of ethnic Germans expelled from Poland and the former Czechoslovakia, streaming into Germany with nothing but what they could carry and in urgent need of already scarce supplies of food and shelter. The conquering armies, the Americans, British, French and Russians, wielded ultimate power over a humbled and desperate population, and a typical soldier could barter for almost anything with a single pack of cigarettes. The black market thrived, and gangs of deserted allied soldiers, former POWs and corrupt DPs (displaced persons) roamed the countryside.
SPOILS OF VICTORY takes place in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a picturesque town in the Bavarian Alps, with gingerbread houses on Hansel-and-Gretel lanes. But the charming facades belied what Garmisch had become those first two years after the war: the Dodge City of occupied Germany. As the Third Reich collapsed, Garmisch became the stem of the funnel for fleeing wealthy Germans and Nazi war criminals, the final depository of the Nazis’ stolen art masterpieces, gold reserves, penicillin, diamonds, uranium from the failed atomic bomb experiments, all now available for purchase on the black market. With millions of dollars to be made, murder, extortion, bribes and corruption became the norm. Add into this volatile brew, tens of thousands of bored US Army soldiers ripe for temptation, and a typical soldier could barter for almost anything with a single pack of cigarettes. The black market thrived, and gangs of deserted allied soldiers, former POWs and corrupt displaced persons roamed the countryside. Talk about fertile ground for a crime thriller!
- What do you want readers to know about your hero, Mason Collins?
Actually, Mason Collins was a villain in a previous novel (may it rest in peace on my hard drive), but I found him so compelling that I decided to make him my hero in a new novel. Despite Mason’s new status as the protagonist, I wanted him to have the potential to cross over to the dark side, to borrow a well-known phrase, which is only kept in check by a strict moral code.
Early in his detective career with the Chicago Police, Mason tries to bust a ring of corrupt cops who murdered his partner. He broke the blue code of silence by going to the district attorney, but the system turned on him, framing him for selling drugs and booting him off the force. That unjust treatment fosters Mason’s distrust and lack of respect for authority. And the experience of being a POW and interned for a short time in Buchenwald has left him bitter and disillusioned with humanity. Yet, despite those deep scars, he manages to maintain his need to right wrongs, even if it means putting himself in harm’s way.
Those two elements relentlessly weigh on Mason’s psyche, threatening to push him over the line, creating a constant clash against his values of right and wrong, his sense of justice. Mason fights the temptation to give in to those impulses, taking on life one step at a time, all the while knowing that one or two steps in the wrong direction could lead him on a very dark path. One thing I would like to explore is having him turn dark at some point in the journey, something that pushes him over the edge, and then see if he can get back again.
Finally, Ruins of War and SPOILS OF VICTORY are kind of the origin story for Mason’s future wanderings. Except for his grandmother, Mason has no family to go back to, nothing to anchor him, little to create a sense of identity except through his own convictions. He becomes like a wandering samurai, masterless, homeless, and always short of cash. In fact, Toshiro Mifune’s character in the films Yojimbo and Sanjuro were inspirations for Mason’s journey—the wandering samurai, irascible and stoic, who gets deep into trouble because of his compassion and sense of justice.
- What are you reading now? What authors influenced you?
Right now, I’m reading The Highway by C. J. Box. And I can’t wait to get my hands on Philip Kerr’s latest, The Other Side of Silence!
For my influences, they start way back to my early reading experiences, anything H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories as a teenager. My first foray into crime fiction was Agatha Christie, followed by Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler. I have so many favorite authors, crime fiction and otherwise, and scores of great works have had an influence on my writing. I can say that some of the authors who influenced my approach to Ruin of War and SPOILS OF VICTORY were James Ellroy, Dennis Lehane, Nelson DeMille, Harlan Coben, not to mention Philip Kerr, and, finally, a dash of Graham Greene.
- You’ve worked as a cameraman in film and TV. What shows have influenced your writing?
The projects that have inspired me the most were the TV shows I’ve worked on: Picket Fences and The Practice by David E. Kelley, and the most influential of all, NYPD Blue. David Milch, the creator of NYPD Blue, was a significant inspiration. He was often unsatisfied with what we had just filmed, so he would break the crew and proceed to “re-write” the scene in his head. He would then wander around the empty set, analyzing a character, or dictating new action and lines of dialogue to the script supervisor. I always elected to stay on the set during those times and watch him work, and what he came up with in those spur-of-the-moment sessions always made the scene and dialogue much more powerful.
There was also executive producer of NYPD Blue, Bill Clark. He was a retired NYPD police detective and often talked to the actors about his time on the force, what really happened behind the closed doors in interrogation rooms, or the peculiar symbiotic relationships that could develop between cop and criminal. This concept of the cop/criminal relationship intrigued me so much that I just had to include it whenever I could in my stories. I learned a lot about that world just listening to Mr. Clark’s candid remarks.
Today, the questions were about John A. Connell’s background and his books, Ruins of War, and Spoils of Victory. Wait until tomorrow when we get into some personal questions! You’ll want to read how his wife describes him!
You’ll want to be at the Poisoned Pen on Saturday, March 26 at 2 PM to meet Lyndsay Faye, the author who turns Jane Eyre upside down with her novel, Jane Steele. It’s “A reimagining of Jane Eyre as a gutsy, heroic serial killer.”
See what Jane Steele says about herself.
See what critics say about Jane Steele.
You’ll definitely want to be here Saturday to hear what author Lyndsay Faye says about her character and her book, Jane Steele.
I have worked as a librarian for over thirty-five years, and have written my own blog for over eleven. I was a regular customer of the Poisoned Pen when I lived in Arizona for eight and a half years. Unfortunately, I had to leave my favorite bookstore behind when I moved to Indiana where I work as a library manager. Now, even though I’m out of town, I hope to be able to combine my love of books, authors, and the Poisoned Pen by joining the staff as the new Poisoned Pen blogger.
I hope to have guest posts from authors, interviews with some of the authors appearing at the Pen, and pictures from the events. Hopefully, I will be able to bring pictures back from New Orleans and Bouchercon, as well as other book conferences. Check back often to see the latest blog posts and news.
Thanks for reading! – Lesa Holstine