These reviews and interviews are posted in alphabetical order
Alison Morton’s Book Blog – Jan Edwards researching ‘Golden Age’ crime
Today’s guest, Jan Edwards, is an award winning author with titles that include Winter Downs (Arnold Bennett Book Prize) and Sussex Tales (Winchester Slim Volume award).She also has a BFA Karl Edward Wagner award. A Sussex native, Jan now lives in Norths Staffs.
Her short fiction can be found in crime, horror and fantasy anthologies across the UK and USA. She was a script writer for the Dr Who DVD and book Daemons of Devil’s End. Jan is also an anthologist with the award winning Alchemy Press, co-owned with her husband Peter Coleborn. Their latest anthology is The Alchemy Press Book of Horror.
Jan tells us about writing In Her Defence, how she came to write the Bunch Courtney Investigations, and why Golden Age crime?
Over to Jan!
“Vintage Golden Age crime has always been a favourite read, so it’s not surprising that my Bunch Courtney Investigations ended up in that vein. The first in the series, Winter Downs, established Bunch Courtney and DCI Wright as the ‘phoney war’ ended and 1939 became 1940. The latest case, In Her Defence, has moved on to May 1940.
Though In Her Defence echoes something of our modern dilemma, it was not intentional. Because the main news items for May of that year 1940 were Churchill becoming PM, Dunkirk and the internment of enemy aliens, they came naturally to the fore. Murder remains the key issue along with a running theme for Bunch of the testing of old friendships and of course her abiding obsession with all things equine. It’s also a fascinating period for social change as Bunch watches her cloistered, pre-war, life rapidly dissolving. She knows that it will never return.
I am often asked how much research I carry out into the war years, and the answer is quite a lot. I’m a bit of a research geek and do get a huge kick out of tracking down minutiae so it is never a chore. I can spend happy days seeking details that have been largely forgotten and my internet search history can be colourful.
For In Her Defence it included the names of popular brands of rat poison; SOE training manuals; 1940s auction prices paid for stock; the various colours used in ration coupons; guns and their ammunition; common makes and models for a butcher’s van; agricultural machinery; or ‘Donkey stoning’ a doorstep.
Knowing what it is I need to add in is usually a matter of seeing some small snippet and following it to the next shiny thing. Very little of the information unearthed ever finds its way onto the page but it’s always an eclectic list. I throw nothing out because it could still prove useful. I suspect the goal is the same for any historical writer; to have their characters convey the reality of their workaday world but without leaving tedious info dumps for readers to trip over.
Another question I am asked a great deal is the precise location of the Courtneys’ country house. I have written a number of Sherlock Holmes stories so I took a leaf from Conan Doyle’s book and have been vague on the exact location. Storrington and Brighton exist of course, but though I drew on places known to me in my Sussex childhood the village of Wyncombe does not exist. Why? Because when for argument’s sake, you set a pharmacist in a chemist shop in any large town few people will question it. Being raised in a tiny Sussex village I realised people would tell me with great certainty that in Loxwood or Kirdford or some other hamlet it was never so – possibly because they are the son or daughter of that very chemist! Hence Wyncombe came to be out of sheer cowardice on my part.
So what next? I love writing about Bunch Courtney, and she has many more cases to investigate alongside Chief Inspector William Wright. Books 3 and 4, which are already well under way, will be taking Bunch and Wright into 1941. There is also a short DCI Wright story linked to Book 3 that may emerge as a giveaway, so watch my blog for news on that.”
Thank you, Jan! I share your fascination for research and for getting that research right.
In Her Defence is out on 4 April 2019 and will be available to order in paper and digital formats from all major suppliers, including Amazon US /UK/ AU, Indie Bound; Book Depository; Wordery; Waterstones. Also on Apple, Barnes & Noble Nook, Kobo and others.
Between The Lines blog 25th March 2019
Bunch Courtney’s hopes for a quiet market-day lunch with her sister are shattered when a Dutch refugee dies a horribly painful death before their eyes. A few days later Bunch receives a letter from her old friend Cecile saying that her father, Professor Benoir, has been murdered in an eerily similar fashion. Two deaths by poisoning in a single week. Co-incidence? Bunch does not believe that any more than Chief Inspector William Wright.
In Her Defence is set in Sussex in 1940 as the German army advances through Europe. Bunch (Rose) Courtney’s home, Perringham House, has been requisitioned by the MoD and Bunch is living with her grandmother in the Dower House while running the family estate.
Bunch had made her purchase of two Jersey heifers at auction on a busy market day. She and her recently widowed sister, Dodo (Daphne) were lunching at the local pub, along with Dodo’s father-in-law. Bunch noticed that a young woman sat alone at the bar, looking unwell, was attracting attention from the other patrons. Suddenly the woman fell to the floor writhing in agony. Panic broke out and Bunch, who is a trained nurse, tried to help but to no avail.
Several days later Bunch received a letter from an old school friend, Cecile Benoir, asking to meet her in the village. Cecile and her father left Berlin via France for England due to the war and now, after his untimely death, she is in need of a job and somewhere to live.
The woman seated in the May sunshine was slim, elegant, showing not a hint of the slightly gauche sixteen-year old Bunch recalled from school. Had the outfit she wore been less faded, this woman would have been the height of Paris chic. Her trademark mass of dark hair was tamed beneath a saucer hat, tendrils escaping to flutter around her face in a frame of tiny ringlets. Cecile Benoir was twining one of those coils around her forefinger, her expression pensive as she gazed at an ivy-covered wall.
Two suspected poisonings so close together are too much of a coincidence for Bunch. Although this is the second book in the series (I haven’t read Winter Downs, the first) there are enough back references to get a sense of the characters and know that Bunch and Chief Inspector William Wright are meeting again in less than auspicious circumstances. I get the feeling each of them would like to take their acquaintance a little further—but perhaps are held back because of the political and economic climate.
The story is told from Bunch’s perspective and it’s clear her view of the world is limited and sometimes tested due to her gender and social position. Jan Edwards conveys the time and place and the atmosphere of the war years very well. The characters are realistic, doing the best they can under the circumstances with the inclusion of rationing, land girls and the military presence. Not to mention the negative attitude towards anyone seen as a foreigner. The uncertainty and difficulty in adjusting to the changes in their way of life has affected everyone.
Bunch is a resourceful, likeable and unconventional protagonist, kind but very well able to stand her ground, and determined to find out whatever information she can regarding the deaths.
An enjoyable cosy murder mystery reminiscent of vintage classic crime.
(also posted on Goodreads and Amazon)
I enjoyed the first book featuring Bunch; Winter Downs so I was really looking forward to reading this. I was not disappointed. In Her Defence is an even better book. Bunch is a great character. The book is set during WW2. Bunch is quite the opposite of the kind of women you expect from this era. She’s feisty, opinionated and stubborn as hell at times. I loved her a little. I was rooting for her from the book’s striking opening pages. Edwards does an impressive job of bringing Britain during WW2 to vivid, memorable life. The historical details are spot on. In Her Defence gets pretty dark towards the end as Bunch and Wright start to close in on the villain. If you like historical crime this is a must read.
(also posted on Goodreads and Amazon)
Bunch Courtney is back and is as feisty as ever! She is an excellent character and it has been great to catch up with her again.
Set in Sussex in the month of May, in 1940, In Her Defence is book 2 in the Bunch Courtney series. It starts with Bunch meeting her pregnant sister, Dodo, for lunch on market day and witnessing the horrific murder of a Dutch girl. It’s obvious she has been poisoned, but by who? And why? Bunch is unable to just leave the investigation to the police. She can’t help but try to help figure things out, however often she is warned about interfering!
When an old school friend, Cecile, gets in touch saying that her father has been murdered in a similar way, alarm bells start ringing and Bunch is convinced these poisonings can’t just be a coincidence. She is determined to discover the truth and Cecile’s secretive behaviour is causing her even more concern.
Jan Edwards knows how to write interesting characters with interesting stories to tell. The descriptive language transported me to a time and place I obviously have no experience of, but could easily imagine as I lost myself in the story. It’s so beautifully written, I was completely captivated.
I highly recommend to anyone who loves a good murder mystery, historical or otherwise.
(also on goodread and amazon)
In Her Defence by Jan Edwards
This is the second Bunch Courtney story and this time Jan Edwards transports us back to July 1940 where the slower pace of life in both the Sussex countryside and wartime Britain are reflected in the style of writing. The story continues six months on from the end of book one. Bunch (Rose) Courtney has recovered from her injuries gained helping Brighton policeman DCI Wright bring down a murderous gang in the first story. Many lives were torn apart by these events and the families are gradually getting over the shock and returning to what now passes for normality. Bunch’s sister Dodo (Daphne Tinsley) is well into her pregnancy, although still grieving for her late husband Georgie. The family home, Perringham House, is still inhabited by lots of army personnel, although not the officers that were originally expected, much to Bunch’s disgust, and Bunch herself is still at the Dower House with Granny. This is a time when people from all classes are experiencing a much harder way of life. Older men are coming out of retirement to take the places of those signing up, women such as the Bunch’s Land Girls are doing harder manual work and ladies like Bunch and Granny are active running the estate and volunteer groups. Even Perry the Fell pony has been put into harness to pull the small cart. Despite the blackouts and increased rationing, there is still an air of defiant optimism, and reading it I felt sorry for them, knowing that there would be five more much harder years to come. Many of them remember the earlier Great War and still bear the physical and mental scars. There is talk of internment on the South Coast and an increasing mistrust of anyone with a foreign accent.
Bunch is meeting her sister and George’s father Barty for a pub lunch after the fortnightly livestock market when a young woman with a strange accent is suddenly taken violently ill and dies in Bunch’s arms before the doctor can arrive. The investigation into the death of the Dutch girl falls to DCI Wright and crime reunites the pair. It looks to all those present very much like a poisoning. A few days later Bunch receives a letter from an old school friend. Cecile had an English mother and French father, and before they were forced to flee back to France has spent much of her life working for her scientist father in Germany. Now living locally she begs Bunch to meet her. Bunch is intrigued, and at the meeting finds out that her friend’s father Professor Benoir has also died from poisoning very recently. Surely it can’t be a coincidence and despite warnings to stay away, she just can’t help getting involved, particularly when she believes she can get more out of the locals than the police ever can. She gives Cecile a job and a home but suspicion is rife, and even Bunch can’t help wondering what it is her friend can’t tell her. Within two weeks more grim events take place, and when Bunch is warned not to get involved by her diplomat father she starts to wonder just how serious the situation is and what sinister military forces are at work.
The wartime setting is vital to the story, since it affects everyone’s behaviour and way of thinking, and this makes for an excellent murder mystery. Once more the pace is relatively gentle but all the clues are there for the reader to find along the way. The characters are well described as we get to know many of them better, and Bunch and DCI Wright are starting to make an excellent team. The author has clearly done a great deal of research. I particularly liked the ending to this story and all the local words and dialect that were included. Field mice will always be sheer-meeces now! I am already looking forward to the next story in this series.
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INTERVIEW WITH JAN EDWARDS, AUTHOR OF THE “BUNCH COURTNEY INVESTIGATES” HISTORICAL MYSTERIES
The Indie Crime Scene is pleased to interview Jan Edwards, author of Winter Downs and the upcoming In Her Defence in the Bunch Courtney Investigates series of historical mysteries. This interview was conducted by Dennis Chekalov.
How did you realize that you wanted to become a writer?
It sounds corny but I have to be honest and say I don’t recall a time when being a teller of tales wasn’t an aspiration. I spent one summer holiday, aged around eight or nine, speaking in the third person because I was imagining my world as a book. To be fair I didn’t know what ‘third person’ was at that age but I had a whole raft of characters who got up to all kinds of things. These were characters in my book and not imaginary friends I hasten to add! So when did I realise? Apparently at some point before my ninth birthday.
Why did you choose WWII as your historical setting?
I have always loved Golden Age crime and having written some Sherlock Holmes shorts, as well as some diesel punk set in the 1920s/30s it somehow seemed a natural progression.
Where I was brought up in Sussex the landscape is – or at least was back then – littered with remnants of the defences thrown up in haste between 1939 and 42. Pillboxes and dugouts that were supposed to be secret rendezvous for a small army of resistance fighters in the event of the expected invasion were our playgrounds. Being born in the decade following WW2 it was part of the psyche as I grew up and simply rose to the surface when I started out with Winter Downs.
How do you conduct research for your books?
Ooh – don’t start me on research! It’s a favourite subject. Love it! I can and do spend many happy hours chasing down small facts, either among my books or online, which quite often will appear as a single sentence in the finished book. I strongly believe that a writer needs to get it right. This is valid whether it is contemporary or historical fiction. Small details may seem inconsequential but they build up a picture.
In researching Winter Downs the subject of gasmasks springs to mind. I was asked at a reading why my characters did not carry gasmasks. The person asking me this was convinced that it was an offence not to do so. Fortunately I had done some extensive research on the subject and knew that masks were issued for every adult and child during 1939, by January 1940 it was estimated that less than 20% or the population were bothering to carry them. The rest had apparently hung them on the coat stand in the hall where they remained until 1946.
I read (buy) a lot of books on the subject. These can be biographies of ordinary people as well as those historical volumes that concentrate on specialist areas. There are many manuals of the era available. E.G. Land Girl handbooks, pamphlets on ration book cookery, SOE training manuals.
The internet is obviously a huge resource, though I always try to find at least two unrelated sources to confirm any facts. It is amazing how many times the same facts will appear verbatim on a dozen or more sites, which is fine of those facts are accurate but I have sometimes found that not to be the case. Yes the internet is a fabulous resource but it can also be terribly misleading. The same thing applies to relying on your own memory.
Tell us please about your main character, Bunch Courtney.
Rose ‘Bunch’ Courtney has grown up with the best things in life. Bunch is her nickname in a slightly dysfunctional family. Her parents who were often away so that she was raised largely by outsiders.
Then, in 1939, her family home, the one stable element in her life, is requisitioned by the MOD. She struggles to cope with its sudden removal so that when a close friend apparently then kills himself she immerses herself in proving he was, in fact, murdered, and did not shoot himself everybody else insists.
Will your series include a cast of supporting characters, or will Bunch Courtney solve detective mysteries solo? What about Chief Inspector Wright — will we meet him again?
In Bunch Courtney Investigates #2: In Her Defence, and the provisionally titled #3: Bruised Lilacs, Chief Inspector Wright figures large. I love delving into the dynamics that is developing between them and think there is a story still to tell there. I have two more in planning with every intention on having the Courtney/Wright still working in tandem and ideas for several more. For now DCI Wright is a fixture. But Will Bunch ever go it alone? Who can tell…
When will we see the next book about Bunch Courtney? What will it be about?
In Her Defence is due out later this year with Bruised Lilacs hopefully following in early summer 2019. IHD deals with the problems of enemy aliens and how they were perceived by the general public and starts with the poisoning of a Dutch refugee on market day in a crowded hotel/pub where Bunch is having lunch with her sister Daphne. Bruised Lilacslooks at the problems that arise as the Blitz forces many to flee into the countryside every evening to avoid the bombings. These people were called Trekkers (long before Kirk was boldly going 🙂 )
Dr. Who is one of the most popular sci-fi series; please introduce to us Olive Hawthorne. What’s her role in the Dr. Who Universe?
Olive Hawthorne was a witch who realises that the village is in great danger but is initially dismissed as a crank. I found her a fascinating character. Possibly one of the few strong female characters of the Dr Who era, and I would include many of the doctor’s companions whose sole function often appeared to be getting themselves captured for the Doctor to rescue. To be fair some of the male companions were much the same, but Olive was that rare thing, a woman in those older shows who stood up to the Doctor. She was even able to resist the mesmeric gifts of the Master. A strong female all round. I had great fun helping to bring her to life for The Daemons of Devil’s End DVD and the Telos book of the same title, whicht came out shortly afterwards.
Other famous characters with whom you are well acquainted are Sherlock Holmes, Professor Moriarty, Dracula. Who is your favourite? Why?
I have a soft spot for Holmes, and in the books and also the Jeremy Brett TV era, for Watson. I get quite cross with TV and Film versions who insist in portraying Watson as the comic buffoon. And though I know many will disagree with me I would include the writers of the most recent BBC Watson in that.
Why do I like Holmes? I suppose he was the father of the whodunnit. Agatha very expertly fleshed out that construct, but in essence Poirot is Holmes’s direct descendant.
Please present us your other short fiction.
I would have to direct you to my blog and let you look for yourself. Most of my 50 odd short stories are either supernatural or folk horror. I have written several Holmes stories, including one for The Mammoth Book of Moriarty and of course a part of the The Daemons of Devil’s End – which is the book from the DVD. My next short in print, ‘A Small Thing for Yolanda’ will be out later this year in Into the Night Eternal: Tales of French Folk Horror, with Lycopolis Press, which is based on the famous unsolved crime of the murder in the Metro, so crime but with a fantastical twist.
Many of my short stories can be read in my two collections, Leinster Gardens and Other Subtleties and Fables and Fabrications.
Please tell us about your awards and nominations. What do they mean to you?
My first award was the Slim Volume prize for Sussex Tales, which was a prize gathered at the Winchester Writers Conference. I have had several short stories nominated for awards and one, ‘Otterburn’ short listed for a British Fantasy Award. The Alchemy Press gained a best Small Press award which I won co-jointly with my husband a BFS award for Best Small Press and last year I received a Karl Edward Wagner Award for body of work. My Alchemy Press Ancient Wonders and Urban Mythic 1 & 2 anthologies with Jenny Barber all gained nominations and/or were shortlisted for awards as was the Wicked Women antho that we edited for Fox Spirit. Full details on my blog site.
The most recent award is the Arnold Bennett Book Prize for Winter Downs, a golden age crime novel, which was reviewed on this site a few months ago.
All of them mean something to me because they are a sign that my work is getting out to the readers. And more to the point being read and enjoyed.
Jan Edwards is a prolific writer, and her venture into writing cozies is further proof of her talent. Her descriptions of characters and places bring the plot alive and make you wish you were right there in England with her. Her latest featuring Bunch Courtney, segues smoothly from her first book, Winter Downs. Readers who enjoyed that book, or new readers who are looking for something new to read will find it hard to put down. I understand this is the second book in a trilogy and I can’t wait to see how it all turns out.
(also on goodread and amazon)
Sussex countryside. I haven’t read Winter Downs, the first book of this series but the reader is soon up to speed with Bunch’s back story. As a result of an accident, Bunch has had to leave the ATS and has taken over management of the Perringham House estate in her father’s absence. She is aided by a team of Land Girls but since the main house has been requisitioned by the military, she shares the Dower House with her grandmother.
Bunch is happiest when riding her horse, but the constant paperwork required by the government makes estate management really onerous. Thank goodness Cecile, her old school friend from Switzerland, has come to help her with office work. But the death she witnesses at the market and the murder of Cecile’s father drive her back into detective mode despite the protests of the intriguing Chief Inspector Wright. Bunch is a prickly, outspoken young woman who has rejected the amenable personality of Dodo, her sister. There is an atmosphere of fear and unease engendered by rationing and the threat of invasion, while unpleasant attacks on locals with connections to Europe, increase the danger. The mystery behind the murders is cleverly disentangled and it is fascinating to follow the activities of a small village close to the south coast in 1940.
I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys a good “Who dunnit,” and also to those interested in the social history of the war years. I was a little confused in the first chapter by meeting several characters who used more than one name (Bunch is really Rose) so I would recommend reading Winter Downs first, but I intend to read that now since I really like Bunch’s character and the context of the mysteries.
Misha Herwin review (posted on Goodreads and Amazon)
Bunch Courtney is back. “In Her Defence” is the second book in the series, following on from “Winter Downs” winner of the Arnold Bennet Prize. As a great fan of Bunch’s it’s great to be immersed once more in the world of 1940s England. In war time, the role of women is changing and Bunch can use this to her advantage when on market day in the local town she witnesses the death of a young Dutch girl. The victim has obviously been poisoned and when Cecile, an old friend of Blanche’s, reveals that her father has recently died in similar circumstance, Blanche is keen to investigate. Teaming up with Inspector Wright the pair follow a complex paths of clues leading to an expected resolution.
“In Her Defence” is a great read. The book is tightly plotted. The period details give a depth and the author is not afraid to explore some of the darker sides of patriotism in times of war, when anyone who is the slightest bit different from the norm is immediately seen as a threat. The relationship between Bunch and Wright is developing in a highly satisfactory way and I am very much looking forward to seeing where that goes next. Bring on Book 3.
Welcome to author Jan Edwards, whose new wartime mystery novel In Her Defence has just hit the shelves. Heroine Bunch Courtney – who we met in Winter Downs two years ago – first witnesses the death of a Dutch refugee in a quiet English market town. Just days later she learns of a similar murder by poisoning. Coincidence? Bunch, her sister and Chief Inspector William Wright don’t think so. Set against a backdrop of escalating war and the massed internments of 1940, they’re drawn together to prevent the murderer from striking again.
Sounds ideal for any readers who enjoy ‘golden age’ detective fiction but, as Jan explains, her interests and writing are extremely diverse. Don’t simply dismiss In Her Defence as ‘cosy crime’ just because it’s set amid the rolling Sussex Downs during WW2. Those were dark days indeed, and this is a story which resonates down the decades with significant implications for today’s social troubles.
So let’s hear from Jan herself…
You’ve written extensively in different genres, particularly in folklore, fables, fantasy and horror. What triggered the change from myth to mystery?
Around the same time that I was involved in Sherlock Holmes projects I was also writing some diesel-punk / cosmic horror stories about one Captain Georgi: Supernatural Secret Agent (several of her adventures have been published in various anthologies with one still to come in Weirdbook Magazine #43). Bunch Courtney arrived fully formed out of those two strands. Don’t ask me how. The workings of my inner logic are a mystery to me.
When you turned to crime with Sherlock Holmes vs Moriarty, how did that happen?
Initially it was a commission to write a Sherlock Holmes steampunk adventure as part of a series. The project never happened, although I delivered the book. At some point I shall rewrite it and publish it for myself. It was from that starting point that I wrote a straight ‘canon’ story for The Mammoth Book of the Adventures of Moriarty: The Secret Life of Sherlock Holmes’s Nemesis, followed by more straightforward Holmesian fiction in the MX Books New of Sherlock Holmes Stories vols V, VI and VII. I have several more ideas for short Holmes adventures but have not had time to write them as yet.
For your full-length crime fiction, why did you choose the ‘golden age’ era of classic crime? Were you at all tempted by the rise of contemporary noir or the new genre of the domestic / psychological thriller?
I have always had a liking for classic golden age crime and the era is fascinating. Writing about the amateur sleuth in a modern setting is never quite the same.
If I am honest I am comfortable in a world without technology. Not because I don’t understand it but I simply don’t / can’t use phones, etc. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am death to any gadgets that require a battery. When I ran a security company I was forbidden by the engineers to unpack deliveries because 7/10 PCBs and chips that I handled would fail out in the field. This would be a cool superpower if I could control it but sadly it’s just a random and just annoying trait.
Was there a particular reason to set your first story, Winter Downs, during WW2?
I have been asked that question many times and I am not really sure where it came from. Growing up in Sussex I was surrounded by the pill boxes and dugouts left over from the preparations for invasion so perhaps that had some bearing. Otherwise it was just something that came to me through osmosis.
Winter Downs often gets described by readers and reviewers as ‘cosy crime’. Are you happy with that label?
I find ‘cosy crime’ an odd and potentially misleading category. It seems to cover such a wide range from MC Beaton’s lightly comic style with Agatha Raisin to Ellie Griffith’s Ruth Galloway. I have even seen Robert Galbraith’s Strike novels listed as cosy. Many other books placed in that category have a surprisingly high body count so the term ‘cosy’ does often miss the mark. Anything set pre-1980s especially seems to be seen as cosy. As for the Bunch Courtney investigations as cosy crime, I don’t dwell on the viscera of murder but neither do I shy away from it. Winter Downsbegins with a body whose face had been shot off. The first chapter of In Her Defence describes a young woman dying a painful death through poisoning. I must admit that I prefer the term ‘golden age’ crime.
Bunch Courtney, the heroine of Winter Downs and In Her Defence is a tomboy-type who bucks the trends of the time and breaks certain gender boundaries. Even so, she’s still bound by the conventions of the class system and her social standing. How tricky is it to keep your characters in line with their era? Are you tempted to allow modern sensibilities to sneak through or are you ruthless about outlawing anachronisms?
Keeping true to the era is a juggling act. The logistics of clothes and cars and even language can be kept up with research. Maintaining a sense of era is tougher. I had one reviewer comment that Bunch is a snob and criticised the way she spoke to her staff. The truth is I wound back on that side of things. If I had Bunch and her family treat the people around them as they would have been treated in that time, or had men treat women as they would have in that era, then most modern readers would be appalled. Yes I do get Bunch to stretch the boundaries as far as I can but I also try to show Bunch expressing her frustration at the restrictions of society in that time.
In Her Defence tackles the thorny subject of ‘enemy aliens’ living in the UK during the war, a subject which inevitably strikes a chord today on the theme of asylum seekers. Was that intentional, and if so what do you hope your readers take from your story?
In Her Defence deals with how the internment of enemy aliens in early 1940 was viewed by the village worthies. I outlined this book before the Brexit debate began and it was never intended to play a major part, but modern events have caught up with me. What started as a murder committed by a damaged personality became something eerily closer to home than I had first imagined. The propaganda posters and public information newsreels of the war years were designed to make the public aware of the need for vigilance, but resulted in some terrible attacks on innocent refugees. History has a lamentable habit of repeating itself and if there is a message then it is how harm is inflicted on innocent people through blind fear.
How accurate is your depiction of detection in the 1940s? Did you research the detail of how a suicide or murder might’ve been investigated back then? Or are you aiming for the flavour of the era without getting bogged down in the intricacies?
I try to make sure that I have the research done. Hard to imagine now but suicide was a crime. That it also ruled out a church burial was one of the main driving forces behind Winter Downs. Jonathan was also gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal, making Bunch’s defence of him doubly courageous. But Bunch was determined that her best friend would not be written off on either count.
Murder was punishable by death in the 1940s, as was espionage, treason and treachery. Looting was added to the list capital crimes list, and though nobody ever hung for it looters did receive long sentences.
Which part of writing a crime novel do you enjoy the most: crafting the characters or devious plotting to introduce twists, turns and red herrings?
Both. I do love creating the characters and quite often those plotting twists and turns arise directly from their foibles and dysfunctionalities. That said I do like to add in those tiny details for the discerning puzzle solver to pick up on. It’s rather like that radio panel game The Unbelievable Truth; seeing how many clues I can sneak past the unwary eye is a fun game to play. It is the very essence of the golden age ‘whodunnit’ crime story.
There’s a certain nostalgia for WW2 at the moment, with many films and books harking back to what seems to be considered Britain’s ‘finest hour’. But global conflict is an horrific business: how do you balance the historical impact of the war with the conventions of classic crime fiction?
The Bunch Courtney Investigations are very much about how those global events directly affect home front. Bunch might be a bit posh, but she is occupying the same world as her Land Army girls, or the housekeeper, or the village shopkeeper. Rationing of food was huge, though I keep a careful eye on what went onto ration books at what time as it was a gradual process.
Petrol was a different matter. One of my pet peeves is the way that films and books show people zipping around in private cars when, in point of fact, most private vehicles were mothballed in 1939 for the duration because people simply could not get the fuel to run them. Bunch’s household resurrect their pony carts discarded in the 1900s, a trend recorded in many diaries of the time.
Does the war impact on the nature of classic crime? Of course it does. Crime was rampant in the war years through a number of factors. Police numbers much depleted as officers joined the armed forces. Many prisoners were released when war broke out. The movement of people due to the call up, homes destroyed by bombs, folks moving to avoid the raids, influxes of refugees and the arrival of allied troops, made it impossible for the hard-pressed police to keep track. It made rich pickings for the criminals then and for crime writers now.
And finally… David Suchet or John Malkovich?
Probably Suchet. Malkovich’s performance was decent enough but hampered by the script.
In Her Defence : Bunch Courtney Investigation #2 takes place in the depths of the Sussex countryside during May of 1940. Rose ‘Bunch’ Courtney is once again a thorn in the side of Detective Chief Inspector William Wright in his duties with the Sussex Constabulary as they investigate a series of apparently random deaths.
Many writers will say that they know their main characters as well as any real person and I do have a huge affection for Rose ‘Bunch’ Courtney and Detective Chief Inspector William Wright. Knowing them as well as I do, one of the hardest things has been knowing how much of their background to retell in books one and two. You want new readers to be aware of how Bunch came to be involved in solving crimes but I am always aware of the risk of boring those who are already acquainted with her.
I will own up to being a bit of a research nerd, so tracking down background facts that may seem obvious at first glance is more pleasure than chore. I know that I spend far more time on it than I should and only ever use a tiny fraction of the facts that I dig up. Often half a sentence of background detail has taken me three hours to dig up and verify. The things that need to be checked can be quite basic but you just know people will pick up on if you get it wrong.
Take the humble cup of tea, for example, the staple of British life. I went to check that, in the time span between Winter Downsand In Her Defence, tea had indeed gone on ration at 2 ounces per head per week. In the process of that fact checking, I came across a snippet of tea-related fact that I had never heard of before. In 1942, with Britain under siege from the German war machine and Japan invading large sections of Asia, our government made the decision to buy up every available pound of tea from every country in the world (except for Japan, obviously). One estimate shows government purchases in 1942, in order of weight, to be bullets, tea, artillery shells, bombs and explosives. Now Bunch is currently still set in 1940 so it will be a while before she reaches ’42, but it’s a fabulous snippet to squirrel away for future use.
Research has also made me shelve a particular story line that involved ‘trekkers’. In 1940s Britain they were not fans of the TV show but the hordes of people who left major cities every evening to seek the relative safety of the countryside. A few slept in B&Bs, some went to friends or relations, but many more slept in cars and barns and woodlands, anywhere that they saw as safer than city shelters. And every morning they returned to put in their usual day’s work. The trekkers did not exist in huge numbers until the height of the bombings and as that did not occur with any ferocity until later in 1940, it was wrong for either book one or two. I had written some 30,000 words of the novel before I realised the timing was all wrong for other logistical reasons. It may be an idea I can resurrect for a future book, but for now it remains one of those Routemaster moments that will sit in the research pile, along with a dozen more that will need some rethinking. They may see light of day in a future Bunch Courtney investigation or they may simply remain an interesting fact.
Writing the “Bunch Courtney Investigations” has changed the way that I write. I have always been a seat-of-the-pants writer. I had an idea and ran with it. But writing golden age crime has made that far harder. Yes, there is the research to consider, but being ‘investigations’ has meant that there needs to be a trail for the reader to follow and to lay that trail I have had to (horror of horrors) be more organised in how I go about it. There is a need for keeping meticulous records of bit players and places that wander in and out, such as the local chemist, or the name of the village pub. There is also a need to be logical in how I plot the story line. There need to be clues and markers left along the way that allow a reader the chance to get to the conclusion at the same time that I do.
It has been a fun series to write and I am really hoping to be able to stay with Bunch right up until D-Day and maybe even beyond that if the readers call for it.
Stefloz Book Blog Steph Lawrence 25th march (also posted on Goodreads and Amazon)
“With the setting in the Sussex countryside, I felt the heat of the unseasonably warm Spring.
The author’s descriptive writing took me into a world gone by. I loved the details of the war years. I loved the horsey side of things too.
Rose (Bunch) Courtney’s childhood home, Perringham House, has been taken over for the war effort. Bunch and her grandmother and staff are living in the Dower House. There is a hierarchy of diplomats, military and civilians.
Bunch and her sister Dodo witness a horrible death in the pub on a busy market day.
She receives news that an old friend’s father has died a similar horrible death, looks like poisoning. Could they be connected?
With further deaths the locals get twitchy. Bunch is again the amateur sleuth along with Chief Inspector Wright. Bunch keeps her eyes open and her ear to the ground, pursuing the locals for any gossip which may shed light on the goings on. There were plenty of twists and turns in this murder mystery.
The author’s attention to detail made for a great read, especially with the local dialect (I was reading in the accent in my head!)
I usually read fast-paced crime fiction set in the present day, so this was different for me. I really enjoyed it.
Thanks to the author for the review copy in which I give my honest opinion.”