18th April 2014 - Sara Sheridan
Sara Sheridan is the author of the highly acclaimed Mirabelle Bevan Mysteries, set in London and Brighton during the 1950s, and whose investigative hero has been described 'Miss Marple with an edge'.
The third book in the series, England Expects, out in hardback now and in paperback in July, sees Mirabelle investigate the seemingly unrelated murders of a racing journalist and a cleaning woman. The trail leads them to Brighton Pavilion's crumbling passageways, to the quad of a Cambridge college and finally into the shady underworld of freemasonry in Brighton.
Here Sara explains how she approaches the issues of sex and violence, which remained largely taboo subjects in the 1950s.
It's all about keeping secrets and that's fascinating for me as a writer. As an historical novelist it's your job to spill the beans. You need to recreate a lost world - be it Roman Britain or Georgian London or 1950s Brighton - and you do that with the details. The sounds and smells, the fashions, the ins and outs of how people used money or communicated. Writing historical fiction is all about dropping in the day to day realities that bring the story to life. Historical readers are gripped by that kind of thing - how much a housemaid earned or how long it took people to get from Oxford to Cheltenham by stagecoach.
Writing crime is the very opposite. You keep every secret you can, you're stingy with your clues. Crime fiction compels readers because beneath the surface of the story there's something going on and they can't quite get at it. Famously, a third of all books sold in the UK fall into the crime genre. That's a lot of people hooked on secrets.
It's a wide genre too. I love public speaking and I spend a good portion of my year at book festivals, in libraries and bookshops, talking about what I do. The Mirabelle Bevan mysteries fall into the category of cosy crime. It's my favourite category - I idolized Agatha Christie as a teenage reader. I remember reading The ABC Murders, which I borrowed from my local library, and thinking 'I hope she's written something else...' I am hooked on secrets myself, you see.
Within the genre though, cosy crime is often considered the poor relation of more flashy thrillers and gruesome police procedurals. So when I'm at an event and I meet those kind of crime writers (standard uniform is jeans and a leather jacket) I can see their eyes glaze over when they find out that I write cosy. The truth is, though, I think cosy crime is misunderstood. Agatha Christie wasn't cosy at all. There's no detailed evisceration, gruesome weapons or pools of blood in her stories, but once you understand the historical context of the times, the shock of writing a range of characters who are by turns, gay, lesbian, divorced, abused or suffering from mental illness, really hits you. Those subjects were absolutely taboo in the 1930s and things hadn't changed much by the 1950s (when Christie was still putting pen to paper and where I now spend much of my time). Readers today just don't get shocked by the details that Christie's contemporary fans found so horrifying.
When I started to write Mirabelle's first adventure I wanted to create something that fitted the cosy crime monicker but I wanted to imbue it with the spirit of Christie. I wanted to give it an edge without having to resort to graphic descriptions of violence. I come from a background in historical fiction and what I'd found most shocking in my research for the series was a side of the 1950s that wasn't shocking at the time. I remember slouching in my seat as I watched Pathe News Reels, uncomfortable at the way men were talking about women. The discomfort ratcheted up when it came to white people talking about black people. The day to day terms are horrifying to a modern reader.
In distress myself I rang my mother. She met my father in the 1950s.
'Mum,' I asked, 'did Dad talk to you like that?'
'Oh yes, dear,' she drawled. 'It took me to 1972 to train him out of it.'
That's the thing with the 1950s - it negotiates an interesting faultline between memory, nostalgia and history. There are living links to the era right now - fading fast, but they're there in our older relations.
Thinking about it, I was taken aback by what Mum had done. Let's be frank - my parents aren't political people, they're not radical campaigners but what I realized was that Mum had changed the world. My Mum and probably yours too (or depending where you stand on that memory-nostalgia-history faultline perhaps it was your Granny). Many of the rights I enjoy are down to action those women took. And for that matter, the men as well - after all, Dad took in what Mum was saying and changed his ways. And he was not alone.
I had to write a female detective, I realized. And Vesta Churchill, Mirabelle's sidekick (the Hastings to her Poirot) had to be black. That's where the action was in the 1950s - that's where things changed.
When I did my first interviews - just after Brighton Belle came out - I could see the journalists and bloggers were a bit like the jeans and leather jacket brigade. There was an unspoken assumption that I'd written cosy crime because I couldn't write forensics. Or that I was soft. Or squeamish. So I renamed the genre.
'No, no, no,' I said. 'It's not cosy crime. It's cosy crime noir.'
That monicker genuinely suits the Mirabelle Bevan Mysteries because there is violence, there is racism and sexism too and there is (coming up later) just a little bit of sex. It's cosy crime for the contemporary reader and I'm really enjoying pushing the boundaries of the genre.