Charlie is a repeat offender as far as the comfy chair is concerned. So much so that the usual list of questions no longer apply and she has her own coffee mug on the dresser! White, no sugar, right?
She is here today to answer some questions about her new release, the latest in the wildly popular Cambridge Fellows series, Lessons for a Suspicious Mind.
Elin : In this episode of Jonty and Orlando’s adventures they are asked to investigate not one but two suicides. Suicide is a very difficult and emotive subject. Did you have any qualms about tackling it in this novel?
Charlie : I think I have qualms with every mystery I write, because there’s usually a suspicious death and death is never to be taken lightly. I once had Jonty making a flippant remark about how enjoyable a murder is to solve and Mark at Cheyenne – quite rightly – asked me to tone it down. That’s why I read/write cosy mysteries as opposed to anything with lots of gore and detail in. One can appreciate the chase and ignore the reality.
In terms of suicide, I felt that the lads had to tackle it at some point as Orlando is still so deeply affected by his father’s death, and their own first case involved somebody taking their own life. If they get asked to investigate a variety of cases they’re bound to be confronted with all sorts of things which are difficult (not least the time they had to find out who killed one of the boys who abused Jonty suffered at school) so this time Orlando has to work his way through the pain he feels. I’ve tried to have that as a thread running through the story to show the lifelong effects a suicide can have on those left behind.
Elin : As you write more Cambridge Fellows, stories do your guys come up with more surprises backstory wise?
Charlie : Do they ever. You just think you know them and…bingo! I had some of the background clear in my mind before I started writing the series (what happened to Jonty at school, Orlando having problems with his parents, although I wasn’t sure what they were) but much of it has appeared organically. All the stuff about Orlando’s grandmother and grandfather and Jonty’s sister’s phobia about sex were great surprises. I daren’t start to explore all the branches of Jonty’s family or I’d never stop turning up odd things!
Elin : The country house mystery is a mainstay of British detective fiction but some of the customs must seem rather strange to non-UK readers. How much world-building did you have to do?
Charlie : Not enough, according to my editor when he saw the first draft. Trouble is I see the location so clearly (I based Fyfield, in this book, on a hotel we’d stayed at) that I don’t always put the detail of that on the page. That all had to be rectified at the edits stage so the poor reader could get an idea of what Fyfield was like. Same for the social conventions of the era. I read lots of Victorian/Edwardian literature and so the details of what houses were like, how they were run and the like are fairly vivid for me. I live in an Edwardian property. Sash windows are part of everyday life, so it rarely occurs to me that my readers may never have had to open one. My editors have to ensure I share these important details with the reader (but that’s what editors are for, to pick up on my mistakes!)
Elin : Obviously at that time Jonty and Orlando couldn’t share a room, but what’s to stop them waiting until everyone is in bed and creeping along the landing?
Charlie : Have you ever stayed in an old house with creaky floorboards or doors? As I said, our house is Edwardian and anybody pottering about in the night makes their presence felt. Large houses also had huge numbers of staff (Downton underestimates this). Some would probably have been working late and early to clean, etc and might – possibly – have been moving about the house during the wee small hours bringing things that people had called for. No problem to us, if we were in the same position these days, just the embarassment of being seen in your nightie when you go to attend to a call of nature. But if you were a man coming out of another man’s bedroom and there was a suggestion about your appearance that you’d indulged in (to use a technical term) rumpy-pumpy, you could face at best below-stairs gossip and at worst disgrace and disaster. In Lessons for Suspicious Minds they get caught doing the midnight run and have to busk like mad to cover over what they’re really up to!
An invitation to stay at a friend of the Stewart family’s stately home can only mean one thing for Jonty Stewart and Orlando Coppersmith—a new case for the amateur sleuths! With two apparently unrelated suicides, a double chase is on.
But things never run smoothly for the Cambridge fellows. In an era when their love dare not speak its name, the chance of discovery (and disgrace) is ever present—how do you explain yourself when a servant discovers you doing the midnight run along the corridor?
The chase stops being a game for Orlando when the case brings back memories of his father’s suicide and the search for the identity of his grandfather. And the solution presents them with one of the most difficult moral decisions they’ve had to make…
“Lovely, isn’t it?” A familiar voice in Orlando’s ear announced the arrival of his light of love.
“Magnificent. Although I’m feeling rather guilty about enjoying it so much.” Orlando sipped his champagne.
“Why’s that?” Jonty leaned on the wall, fingers rubbing along the warm stone.
“Because I used to think there could never be so splendid a view as the one from my bedroom at the Old Manor.” Orlando was always given the best guest bedroom, and the view down the stream valley, with the willows and water meadows, was his constant delight. “I daren’t admire this or else I’ll feel treacherous.”
“Familial loyalty is a noble thing, but it shouldn’t blind one’s eyes to objective assessment.” Jonty cuffed his friend’s arm. “A man can like champagne and coffee without being disloyal to either. Although if you’re worried that Mama will smack your bottom again for harbouring such perfidious opinions, then I’ll keep your secret. What’s so wonderful about this view that it’s made you come over all soppy?”
Orlando quickly looked around to see if anyone could overhear, before whispering, “Apart from the fact that it’s almost as breathtakingly beautiful as you are?”
“You big Jessie. Be serious.”
“I was. There’s a second factor, though. Sussex is natural—or at least it looks natural, even if the vista I see there was probably all planned and laid out by the hand of man. Here, it’s mathematical and precise.” Orlando swept his hand towards the two matching avenues of poplars. “See how their shadows cross the lawn. I’m sure they were planted to catch the evening sun, just as the ones opposite would have been planted to catch the sunrise. Those shadows are superb.”
“They are. However, much as I’d hate to spoil your wonderful theory, the sun does move, you know. Or maybe the earth does.” Jonty scratched his head. “Anyway, it only rises due east at the equinoxes. This time of year it’s already heading north of east, or maybe it’s coming back again. Anyway, the pattern of those shadows would vary throughout the year.”
“I know that,” Orlando said, just a touch too quickly to suggest to Jonty anything other than the fact he was lying. “That’s what I admire so much—the consideration of what it must look like in the different seasons.”
Jonty made a noise which might have been written as “Pfft”; something remarkably like the hideous noise the man’s car made when the engine wasn’t quite firing as it should. “I’ve already caught Papa out, having to string a bit of a story to our host who doesn’t yet seem to be aware of the motive behind our being summoned here. His mother’s been as cagey with him as you were with me and my parents were with both of us. I’ve got my eye in for a lie and I believe you as little as I believe him.”
Many thanks, Charlie for answering my questions – again 🙂