Rescuing something from the COVID-cancelled Tucson Festival of Books, I was able to prevail upon two of my wonderful writing colleagues to share their thoughts about a question that fascinates me about female sleuths in historical settings and how they do their work of detecting.
The question I was interested in exploring was this: our fictional female detectives work before the advent of the forensics available to police work now. In a time when there were few of the forensic tools available, and women had a very different position in society that tended to limit their sphere, what kinds of tools does your detective use to solve the mystery at the centre of your book, and do you think that your detective’s gender plays into her approach to the problems she has to solve?
For this I solicited the help of Jess Montgomery, an Ohio based writer of the wonderful series about Lily Ross, a small town Ohio sheriff--her latest book is The Hollows--and Sujata Massey, author of two books in a gorgeous series featuring the character Perveen Mistry, one of the first qualified female solicitors in Bombay. Her latest is The Satapur Moonstone. These books are set in the 1920s. And finally I will include Lane Winslow, amateur sleuth and retired British SOA agent, living in British Columbia in the years immediately after WW2. Interestingly, all three characters were inspired by real people. My latest is A Match Made For Murder, due at the end of April.
I think what is interesting, as we look at the responses, is that the old cliché of ‘woman’s intuition’ does not come into the work of these female fictional characters. Instead what we see is the workings of relationship, knowledge, intelligence and social understanding. Women, who have different sorts of social lives than men in these historical settings, and therefore often interact with members of their communities in deeper more personal ways, can draw upon their understanding of people in their community in a much different way than a man might.
It is undoubtedly true that the women, especially the two women in formal positions; sheriff and solicitor, must be tougher to handle the doubt and misogyny they meet with every day. It is interesting to see how these women exploit the lowered expectations people might have of them. And finally, for both of my guest authors’ books, it is the women’s understanding of the history and rules, either formal or informal within own community, that are central to the solving of the mysteries. It is very clear that in all three cases, being a woman is an asset. It is also evident in reading the books that geography plays a part in throwing deterrents in the way of travel and communication.
Lily Ross lives and works in both a time (1920s) and place (Appalachia) where she does not have crime fighting tools that we might take for granted now--DNA testing, larger teams of law enforcement, and so on. Particularly because of where Lily is located, she would--like the real-life sheriff Maude Collins who inspired Lily's character--have only had deputies as needed, no telephone lines, few paved roads other than the main ones, and so forth. For communication, she relies on in-person conversations and the occasional telegram; for transportation, her Model T, but also for more remote locations, mule-carts or riding a mule, or good old fashioned walking. This certainly adds to her crime-fighting challenges. However, it also provides an opportunity for me, as a writer, to explore how trust, community, and intuition and logic can be employed in sleuthing. For example, Lily relies on in-person interviews and reading the sub-text of conversations as well as inferences to gather information. She also relies on logic and calculating the likelihood of various motives and actions. I think her gender helps in several ways, such as understanding subtle inferences and double meanings. Women tend to work in community now, and even more so in the past, so that also works to Lily's favor. And in some cases, lowered expectations because of her gender can lead to some men revealing more information to her, or in her presence, than they might if only they knew just how bright and savvy Lily and her female cohorts really are!”
The most exciting technology in the early 1920s was fingerprinting. It was invented in the late 19th century in Calcutta and then was refined in Britain. In the old days, men who were booked for crimes had fingerprints recorded on cards, and in big cities, servants in the homes of the wealthy were also fingerprinted. There was a lot less trust of the servant class. One wrinkle in the situation was that men were not supposed to touch women, so for a policeman to press a lady’s fingers in ink was a violation of civil standards. I write about Perveen Mistry, a young woman lawyer in the 1920s, and when the government asks her to assist in getting prints from some women, she refuses to do it, in order to protect their rights. Thus, fingerprinting becomes a plot point in my book The Widows of Malabar Hill.
Perveen is a solicitor, so her work is supposed to stay on paper and involve advocating for people’s interests…but because these are mysteries, there inevitably is a suspenseful, life-and-death criminal element. Perveen is a well-born lady of the Zoroastrian faith, and her major tool is a creative way of looking at the era’s restrictive laws. In those days, there were separate legal codes for Hindus, Muslims, Parsis and all other faiths. The right to inherit property, or to get a divorce, was contingent on which code applied to you. Perveen strategizes ways to get the desired outcome for her clients, who are mostly women and children. She also maintains a cordial relationship with the government, despite her desire for Indian independence, because she knows she has to work within the existing system to aid her clients.”
It should be said at once that my character, Lane Winslow, never sets out to sleuth, and while there are more forensic tools in the 40s than there were in the 20’s she does not have any herself. She has no official position that permits her to legitimately stick her nose in, but she becomes involved because she is a linguist, and a trained intelligence operator, and she also has a good deal of knowledge from her formal education. So while she doesn’t know the first thing about how to deal with the apple orchard on her own property, she does know that if the victim has a copy of Rosa Luxemburg by his bed, he was likely a communist sympathizer which may suggest why he was murdered. It also turns out she is a visual thinker, which comes a bit from a combination of her war time training which includes the use of maps and a focus on physical territory. She likes to visualize where things are in relation to each other and to the landscape. It helps her to make connections that might not seem obvious, and these new connections tend to open up new lines of inquiry. and increase the probability of certain outcomes. Even the real detective in my books, Inspector Darling, views these maps with interest.
In the early books she was called upon to use this knowledge of intelligence and the work and behaviour of spies, for example, and the international political undercurrents of the day, to understand the stories that lay behind the murders that might at first appear to be entirely local. Finally, Lane is very social, and she has strong feelings about people based on how they talk and how they treat others around them. These, in a way, become clues for her about what drives and motivates the characters.
Don’t miss out on these wonderful books with completely engaging female characters who live by their intelligence and their wits in difficult times!
When I contemplate that my seventh Lane Winslow Mystery will be released into the world in April of 2020, I am nearly at a loss for words. All that come are the exaggerated, clichéd words we always apply to everything from a ham sandwich to a cataclysmic volcanic eruption plunging us into an eternal winter; “amazing”, “incredible”, “unbelievable”, “dude!”.
I never thought there would be a first book, let alone a seventh. I simply wrote them out of a desire to spend time with people I love, in places I enjoy, during a period that fascinates me, together with an ample supply of murders. The fact that readers enjoy all these things as well is, I must say, an absolute delight to me.
So what is in A Match Made For Murder? Had we better address the elephant in the room? Lane Winslow’s situation is considerably altered. She is married. At the recent Vancouver Writer’s Festival I was challenged on this: Could she continue to engage the readers now that she is married? Where will the tensions in the stories come from?
It’s a funny thing about marriage in the literary world. A woman in a book apparently drops right off the face of the earth if she marries, and yet, much of the focus of the readers during the earlier life of that woman has been the earnest desire to see her become someone’s wife. A sort of Jane Austen syndrome. She is married, brava! But she is no longer interesting.
I know of actual people who found me interesting before I married and have continued to do so afterwards, showing, I must say real fortitude, because I have been married for forty years. I dare say there are other married women who have found the same. So, as I said in answer to that question at the festival, getting married, while not such a draw in these times, was often a very normal outcome of a serious romance in the 1940s.
The trick, of course, is what becomes of that woman. In many places the social expectations of the day still required that the woman give up her job, if she has one, and stay home to delight in her newfangled appliances and bring up a couple of extremely tidy children. Even my own mother, upon whom the whole idea of Lane was originally based, as unusual and bohemian as she was (she was often called this by people who struggled to explain her, though, sadly, I never saw her draped in long silk scarves), would never have considered not marrying. She even made a completely failed attempt to be uninteresting and domestic. I’m afraid appliances held no magic for her, and her children were what is called ‘free range’ today, if by that we are to understand that the parents never knew where their children were from dawn to dusk.
Of course, in real life, we are lucky if we find a partner to amuse us, to help with the bills and love the children. An author, however, faced with the marriage to which the activities of the early books has inevitably led, must find a way to continue to build a level of tension, growth, discovery, and even romance in beloved characters, or the series is over.
I believe I am lucky in Lane and Darling. They are interesting on their own, and interesting together. They are intelligent and witty and extremely in love, and have a great deal to learn about one another. Their worldviews will deepen and alter. Darling, whose brusque personality gives way in the face of Lane’s love, will have to take what she thinks into consideration because he is courteous and thoughtful, and she brings a new perspective that often matches and expands his own thinking. Lane for her part is incorrigible. She cannot stay out of cases as much as she would like to, because really, she does keep finding bodies, and she has a powerful drive to be useful. This is bound to create interesting tensions. He for example, is terrified for her. She, perhaps, is not terrified enough for herself.
So, I have sent them off on a sunny honeymoon which turns out far from idyllic, and left Ames behind to confront an extremely personal crisis as the dark Kootenay winter closes in. Let’s see what happens!
I was attending the Elephant Mountain Literary Festival in beautiful Nelson, British Columbia recently, and as I listened to readings by two wonderful Canadian poets, Marilyn Bowering and Fred Wah, I found myself asking, as one does; what is the intersection of poetry and mystery? I wrote poetry for a number of years before I started writing mysteries, and I have always considered them unlikely chums; two forms at opposite ends of the literary continuum. One could be tempted to observe that one captures the ethereal, the intangible, the abstract, and the other lives hard on the ground where the rough stuff happens. But… which is which?
I argue that both live on both planes. Both deal in spiritual uncertainty, and both explore the very gritty core of what it means to be human. Both forms are littered with clues, which the reader is put to work making sense of.
For starters, there is the economy of expression required for both forms…the sort of clarity where the author leaves out extraneous words and material, but leaves in what is critical to the final understanding.
A poet is concerned with carving a precise, if not necessarily immediately accessible, image. Poems often capture feelings that live at the edge of our minds, somewhere between the solid world of fact and the half remembered world of dreams, or impressions that appear and are gone, flicking out like fireflies, nameless, but powerful. Marilyn Bowering describes this as like standing in liminal space, on a threshold; neither in nor out, but suspended between the inner and outer worlds.
The mystery writer is concerned with a kind of precision as well. Carefully polishing and highlighting feelings, behaviours, landscapes, that exist in the fictional world of the story. The author lays out, but does not necessarily explain, all the many intangibles of the human condition that underlie the commission of a particular crime. Evidence is presented and left to be considered.
Good writing sends the mind off to wander in places created by that magical partnership between the writer’s words and the reader’s imagination. Poetry and mystery both require the reader’s imagination, and most importantly, engagement, to make sense of the gathering evidence. Though one could say that the solution of a mystery in a novel is uniquely ripe for explanation and reveal, I would argue that the last line or two of a poem often does something similar; it pulls the whole thing together, completes that imagistic circle, revealing the core of what the poet is concerned with; the mystery at the heart of the poem.
Poets often write about what is lost, lamented, remembered. Mysteries too deal with loss; the loss, most obviously of a life, but also the loss of social stability, of what once made sense and seemed safe, of what could be counted on. Mysteries serve as a reminder that, in fact, we all stand on the threshold of life itself, neither in nor out, but ever suspended in between.
The resolution of a poem contains in it a kind of admission of loss as a central condition of human life. A mystery does as well. The criminal may be caught, and society returned to a sense of order, but some of what is unravelled by the commission of this biggest of sins is never really repaired. There is an underlying sadness in even the most satisfying mystery, as there often is in the most satisfying poem.
PS: did you know Lane Winslow is also a poet? That there is one poem by her in every one of the books?
I was asked at a recent book reading if I have always thought of myself as a writer. As far back as I can remember, I have. I assumed that being a human was synonymous with being a writer, since both my parents wrote feverishly all the time. My mother was always clacking away on her Remington, waving absentmindedly at me to run along when I would appear with my friend Rolfie and say, “we’re going off to play in the train yard. We’ll probably be killed falling into an abandoned, rusty oil tanker car.”
When he wasn’t away inspecting geological specimens, my father, to whom I’d never announce my dangerous play plans, used to hide in a separate man-office and write something my mother called ‘God Books’. In later years I learned that he expended his free time writing thousands of pages intent on proving the non-existence of God. When he made no headway with it, he devoted his last few years to showing up the failures of capitalism. No one ever seemed interested in either project, but it kept him off the streets.
So, I knew that sooner or later I too would be sucked into the maw of writing. I took several early stabs at it. As an eight year old I wrote a story about a squirrel that I thought was very good. I still remember the pride I felt presenting it, complete with illustrations, to my 3rdGrade teacher, Senorita Alvarez, because, I thought, “I’m just like my parents now!” Alas, it fell flat with the critics. I suppose one ought to look no further than the illustrations; I once had an 8thgrade student put up a hand as he looked at my notes on the overhead, and ask, “Miss Whishaw, do we have to draw as badly as you?”
After the ignominy of the squirrel, I didn’t write anything till I was in my thirties when I wrote a book aimed the middle school audience called “The Silver Button”, a fascinating time travel book, no really, based on the true story of my meeting some 14th century ghosts in an English village church. I finally finished it and sent it off and it came swooping back like a boomerang with the judgement that it was not “fast enough for the age group it was intended for”. That was the year the first Harry Potter came out. Honestly I wish I’d known then that JK got rejected 12 times, I would have put in more of an effort. However, on the plus side, the book was enough to get me into the Masters program at the UBC creative writing program. I was humbled nearly out of existence by the work shopping process, but managed to produce a collection of short stories, which sit on today in my filing cabinet. I hear them squeaking from time to time, begging to be allowed out to find an audience.
I had a very successful children’s book in the 90’s, and then another long silence until 2012, when I finally began writing the Lane Winslow mysteries. Slotted in among the quiet years were some poetry publications in obscure journals read by 12 people.
Anyone with a capacity for arithmetic can readily calculate that most of my life was in fact, spent not writing. I mean, I wasn’t lying about doing my nails: there was a son to bring up, kids to teach, schools to run. That’s what I told myself, anyway.
So, was I a writer when I wasn’t writing? I was. I was a suffering, guilt-ridden wreck of a writer. I never forgot for one moment, that I was supposed to be writing and I wasn’t, failing in the most basic human expectation. I used to look at my friends; carefree happy people who liked to lunch and travel on all you can eat cruises. People who napped or went golfing without a care in the world. People who never lost a minute of sleep feeling guilty and haunted by not writing. What must that be like? I used to ask myself, wringing my hands. I feared I would never know the freedom of not wanting to write. And I haven’t. So let me just say; thank you Lane Winslow. I am no longer haunted. I just write.
I am thrilled to be attending the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting in Seattle on the weekend of the 25th of January! First of all: I LOVE libraries. Second of all: I will be signing FREE advance copies of my new book, A Deceptive Devotion (#6), on Saturday, January 26th at the Touchwood Editions booth #2404B from 2-5pm. I can't wait to see you there!
On the back of all my many well-thumbed books by PG Wodehouse is a quote from Evelyn Waugh. “Mr. Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.” I have escaped into the worlds of PG Wodehouse for as long as I can remember, and each time I’ve gone back to re- read a book, I’ve noted that the world is indeed more irksome even than the last time I read it.
I imagine we all have our escape books. Besides PG, I escape regularly into Austen. Escaping into either of their worlds is a vacation into a kind of blissful silence. Away from the noise of incessant and increasingly alarming and discouraging news, away from a world that steals contentment with the demands for one's attention and even presence on social media. Away from the idea, fully entrenched, it seems to me, that there is nothing you can afford to ignore because everything is dire.
Take Sense and Sensibility. The lives of the Dashwoods have been busily unfolding somehow on my bookshelf the whole time. They’ve been born and brought up, and their beloved papa has died, and when I arrive and open my book, they’ve just reached an awful moment when Mrs. Dashwood and the two Miss Dashwoods are about to be turned out of their comfortable house and sent to live in in a poorly heated cottage in a faraway county. I am immediately absorbed, scandalized. How could this have happened? I pray that Mrs. Dashwood's brother will be guided by kindness and good sense, and I am alarmed every time that he is so easily persuaded by his mean wife to put the Dashwoods out of sight forever.
I have read all the Austen books more times than I can count, and each and every time I am terrified that this time it will turn out badly; that Lizzie Bennet will retire to gentile spinsterhood to care for her tiresome mother, (for who could countenance the idea that she would marry the smarmy, and I’m sure, original model for Uriah Heap, Mr. Collins?) Or what if Miss Anne Elliot accepts the blandishments of the ingratiating confidence trickster, Mr. Elliot, her cousin, because Mr. Wentworth has done the expected thing and married Louisa Musgrove?
Why am I worried every single time, after so many reads, that this time there will be no happy ending? I think it is because in my mind these people are alive, their world exists, and that means that any outcome is still possible. When I open the book, the story, the world created by the author, explodes off the pages and I am completely immersed, genuinely wondering what’s gone on since I last was here.
This is on my mind at the moment because the other day I was enormously touched by a letter from a reader who had quite recently lost her elderly father. Her mother, she told me, had taken refuge in my books, and was finding them a comforting distraction in the wake of the loss of her husband of fifty years.
It put me in mind of my reason for writing them in the first place. Of course, I love the intrigue of a mystery series; but more than that, I love the places I’m writing about, and I love to contemplate the lives of decent people in 1947 when faced with the stresses of the recent war, and the dilemmas and trials of what to do, and how to behave when bad things happen. I wanted to frame the place they live, King’s Cove, as an idyllic and beautiful refuge to which everyone can return every time, and find it still much the same. The Armstrongs will always be practical and kind, Harris will always be cranky, Angela will always be enthusiastic and attentive to her adventuresome children, the Hughes's gardens will spread like an eden across the top of the hill where they live (and fresh eggs will always be available) and there is always a danger that Alice Mather will have a spell, and set off with her rifle to keep the community safe from cougars. I am just grateful to have provided an interlude at King’s Cove where my readers can go when they need a little peace and quiet, with just enough mayhem to keep people reading a little past their bedtime.
When I first began to write I saw it as a ‘solitary’ activity. Just me, my word processor and my fluffy pink bathrobe. Oh, and my tea, obviously. But what I’ve learned is that readers are an enormous part of the equation. I am so thankful to readers who reach across the void to send me notes through my website contact (keep those coming!) whether critical or appreciative, and to those who post comments on my social media and especially to those who come out to the events I’ve been involved with. Recently I’ve had the opportunity to tour Alberta, Quebec and Ontario and have spoken to great full house audiences here in Vancouver, and I have been thrilled with the reception Lane Winslow is receiving. Meeting readers personally has meant being able to interact with people who have questions and thoughts about the books, that in turn, have made me think about the whole business of writing.
I have discovered recently how these interactions have helped me to understand both my own process and my characters. I get amazingly challenging questions after my readings. Recently a girl of 10 or 11 asked me the most common question of all, "how do you think of your ideas?" and it struck me forcefully, that I'm not awfully sure about the answer to that. I've also had ‘how do you balance putting in historical detail with telling a story?’ (Or a recent favourite: 'do you have anyone you're dying to kill off in the books?')
It is fair to say that the process of writing has an instinctive quality. I typically do not second-guess myself as I’m going along. I just write. The questions readers ask about the process make me think on my feet, which is inherently exciting, (in that invigorating dangling-off-the-edge-off-a-precipice way), but I often end up thinking about these questions long afterwards, and I’ve realized how they have helped me to understand and clarify what that instinctive process is when I write.
Take the question about including historical detail. I majored in history in college, so it is tempting to want to include a lot of detail with the idea that it is important for the reader to get a strong sense of the times. But too much detail can alienate readers from the story. My solution, I realized, is to write a scene ‘showing’ instead of ‘telling’. (The central advice of all writing instructors everywhere!) A critical feature of A Sorrowful Sanctuary is the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis, and instead of ‘telling’ the reader about it, I wrote in a scene where one of my characters wakes up on the morning of the invasion and must flee. Until I had that question, I had never really thought about how I integrate history, and thanks to feedback I get, I can think more deeply about how I might continue to improve the inclusion of historical detail in a seamless and convincing way.
I often taught my students that reading a book is the building of a relationship between the story and each reader’s knowledge and point of view, and thus a book is new every time a new reader picks it up. I see now that that the interchange between reader and writer is just as critical a relationship. (and I'm hoping that I'll find the proper answer to that little girl's question before she's in her twenties!)
In a few short weeks, my new book, A Sorrowful Sanctuary will appear. It is, of course, another Lane Winslow caper, where Lane is able to provide the a kind of ‘inside line’ on what Darling and Ames are seeing with their new case, thanks to her education and experiences during the war. But it will also remind Lane, that though she has managed to find a paradise on earth to retire to and begin her new life, not even her remote haven is free from the forces that rocked and divided the world, or indeed, if she but knew, would continue to rock it.
Human stories tend to focus on those who have succeeded and risen above setbacks to create a new life. These tales are an optimistic model and inspiration for people; ‘if someone who is struggling against every deterrent can survive and prosper, then so can you or I’. But in real life, in every group struggling against odds, there are those who fail and fall by the wayside.
Murder mysteries in some way represent an antithesis to the ‘beats all odds’ narrative and instead scrabble around in the murky chronicles of the failed, because someone has been killed, and indeed, someone else has done the killing. In the Lane Winslow books there’s a pattern of who these people are. The victims are, for the most part, innocent people just wanting their own lives to buck the odds, and they die at the hands of people who are not inherently evil; they are people who either are driven to it by an inability to think of another way out, or whose tangled lives have led them in this direction.
Canada in the postwar period is an attractive country for this sort of story. The image of Canada at the time was imbedded in the illustrations of the day; a clean, robust, productive new land filled with opportunity for the hard working, and stunningly beautiful to boot. But a post war period is messy at the best of times, and as we are seeing now, world events created massive movements of people looking for new, safe places to live their lives. The darker underbelly of the times is that Canada was full of prejudices, especially against anything ‘foreign’, so while people came here in large numbers all through the twentieth century, each of them has had to overcome the prejudices of the established population, until their own descendants become the establishment.
Thus Lane, who has put in her six years fighting fascism in Europe, is dismayed to find it lying in wait among the beautiful orchards and shimmering lakes where she too has sought a clean and healthy new refuge.
*poster image courtesy of PRINTCOLLECTION.COM
I got such a nice note from a fan a the other day who was holding a book club event in which Death In The Darkening Mist was the chosen book. That was lovely on its own, but her description of the tea, complete with cucumber sandwiches, put me in mind of the teas of my childhood in the community upon which I model King’s Cove.
Tea was as necessary to life as the water in the creeks. It was breakfast, mid afternoon and often, for those who seemed unaffected by caffeine, the drink before bed. Most days tea was accompanied by some packaged biscuits, which we more commonly think of as cookies. The two that were ubiquitous that come to mind are both English; digestives and bourbon crèmes. Children were often given arrowroot cookies, which I loved, because when you dunked them in tea they became, I now see in retrospect, an unpleasant fat, soggy, paste sort of texture. If you weren’t careful the whole dunked end would cascade into your cup, where you would try to fish it out with a spoon. It was always too late, of course, and the cookie disintegrated, leaving a mess of cookie sog in the bottom of your cup. For some reason I have never understood, arrowroot was good for children. Based, perhaps, on some Victorian consistency scale; soft and pasty, children, grainy and full of roughage, grown ups. My favourite of course, were the bourbon crèmes, though I felt they too were for the grown ups, because they were fancy and tasted good.
And in the summer the glorious high teas. Teas at church fetes, or summer teas on Sundays served outside. These were the teas where the cakes came out, and the egg salad sandwiches, and on a very special day, devilled egg. There was a cake I loved, with nuts and spices and billows of icing, which I have learned is very traditional at English teas; walnut cake. And a sort of pound cake with cherries, and always something with chocolate. Brownies, maybe some sort of single layer cake that predated the sheet cake. There was a kind of fruitcake, ubiquitous in the homes of my elderly British relatives, but rarer in my childhood community. These appeared around Christmas, having been sent from ‘the old country’, and were kept in round tins and worked on till they were finally gone, some time in February. I and my childhood friends avoided these sinister, dark, slightly burnt-tasting objects. Now of course, I love a good fruitcake.
The church fetes were fantastic. I have been to many a church tea over the years since my childhood, and they have never measured up to the first ones. They were in high summer, always outside under spreading trees on tables set with a myriad of styles of table cloth. Tea wasn’t served from an urn. Milk wasn’t in a carton. Sugar wasn’t in packets. Somewhere offstage water was being boiled constantly, and the china tea pots were full all day long with hot tea. We poured milk out of a little jug into our cups, and added sugar, and a grown up, tsk tsking by the third spoon of sugar, would fill the cup with tea and send us off to sit on a rug on the grass, with urgent warnings not to spill it.
Cakes of every kind lined the tables. Of course, there were sandwiches, and we ate them if any adults were watching. Soft white bread spread with butter or margarine, still very popular after the war, with egg, or cucumber, or canned ham. It was the cake, though, that was of paramount attraction, and for these parish teas bakers put their best foot forward with cakes with three layers, and jam fillings, and icing that looked like a whirling storm at sea. If you were lucky, some of the cakes were not part of the bake sale, and were cut up to serve with the tea. I only ever rebelled at one cake; coconut. To this day I do not care to encounter shreds of coconut, tasteless and like little strips of cardboard, in any cake.
In a world where nearly everything a child was likely to want would ‘stunt your growth’, I am ever thankful that endless cups of tea with unregulated amounts of sugar and milk, never made the list.
I was asked by a woman attending a reading I did recently how I came to choose detective fiction as my chosen genre. When I hear a question like that my mind tumbles down through my years of reading to near the beginning, my Nancy Drew phase.
The Nancy Drew mysteries I read came out of the 30s’ and 40s’ when Nancy was portrayed as confident and bold. I admired her relationship with her father because she came across almost as his colleague. It mirrored my chummy relationship with my own father, and because of my rather fraught relationship with my powerful mother, it suited me perfectly that Nancy’s mother had long since died and provided no impediment to her peace of mind.
No one, in my recollection, was trying to make Nancy marry Ned, or tone it down and she never seemed to be afraid of anything. I aspired to be unafraid, and I loved Nancy for that. Certainly there was very little modeling for hesitation and fearfulness, or even good sense and natural caution, in my house. Nancy Drew was a girl that culturally I could relate to, and whose bravery I could aspire to. And in spite of my adolescent misgivings about my mother, I can see now that she was the very model of what Nancy Drew would surely grow up to be.
After I had run through all the Nancy Drews I could find, I turned to the Hardy Boys, which, as I child I assumed had come along later so that boys would have some wonderful strong characters to read about. (Of course, it was the other way around: she came along in 1930 to attract the female reader.) I wasn’t very impressed. The adventures were fine, I’m sure, but they lacked this shining central character, who always appeared in illustrations in some dangerous place at night, armed with nothing but a flashlight, and wearing a lovely dress and those high-heeled, laced or strapped shoes of women of the period. I still love the look of those shoes!
It’s probably a mistake not to be afraid of things. I remember the first time I wondered if I ought to be afraid. I was 20 years old and in a situation in a Balkan country in which I had placed myself far from help and with no notion of how the men around me might behave. Fear and caution are natural human emotions that it is prudent to have to hand, but I was disheartened to learn that beginning in the 1950s, under some social pressure I assume, Nancy Drew was made less bold, less back-chatty, more feminine in giving way to fear and her father’s expectations. It’s probably realistic to assume that someone pursuing a clue in a mineshaft at night on her own OUGHT to be afraid, but I loved it that that in those early books, she didn’t seem to be.
I have said from time to time that Lane Winslow is Nancy Drew for grown ups. I don’t mean to diminish either character with this. Lane reflects the mad crazy fearlessness of my own mother as I knew her. And here’s what I learned about my mother late in her life: she WAS afraid of things and her response was to suit up and go confront them directly. (Exhibit A: a photo I have of my mother at the age of 75 dressed in full fire-fighter’s gear after she and her colleagues at the local volunteer fire department have conducted a practice in an actual burning house. She was absolutely terrified of fire.)
Even though I love mysteries that, as Dame PD James said, are good novels, and have wonderful conflicted central male characters like Lord Peter, Dalgleish, Poirot and so on, when I began to write, I never considered for a minute that a man would hold the central spot. How could I with Nancy and my mother keeping a keen and supervisory eye on my output?
Meet Lane Winslow!