I am really excited by Jane's new look. This cover may look merely gorgeous, but it incorporates a lot of the ideas in the book. It's got brains as well as beauty!
So the exciting thing is, I was interviewed for CUNY TV's Arts in the City. The nervous breakdown inducing thing is, footage exists of me speaking for half an hour. But Carol Anne Riddell is a terrific interviewer. Funny, generous, and extremely well-prepared. She and her crew were great. So I urge you to check out her program here. (And if you watch the one with me in it, email and let me know how I did. I can't watch!)
I didn't let myself buy this gorgeous book until I had a contract for future Jane Prescotts.
This just arrived in the mail.
Death of a New American will be out next April. Jane 3 out the following year. And yes, this book is part of my research for Jane 3. Armory Show!
When the text came through—"You're going to be reviewed by the NYTBR!"—the acronym didn't make sense. National Youth Tribunal of Bored Raccoons? Notable Yams Toasted, Baked, Roasted?
Because it couldn't be the New York Times Book Review. That NYTBR could not be reviewing my book. That was absurd. I had been told Marilyn Stasio didn't like historical mysteries. Long ago, my parents had worked for the Times magazine—well before Ms. Stasio joined the paper. So long that I hadn't even considered beating the brittle bushes for contacts.
Obviously she would hate it. Or no, she'd like it, but the review would get cut for space. Thomas Harris would shock the publishing world with a new Hannibal Lecter novel and boom, there would go my write up in the Times.
But Thomas Harris stayed quiet and Marilyn Stasio did like the book, albeit with one caveat. I'd like to tell you it wasn't ridiculously affirming—but it was. I'm a New Yorker. The Times was and is holy writ in my house. We may parse, argue, defy and deny it at times. But it's still the New York Times.
You can read the full review here.
The week your book comes out is always crazy. This was without question the best book launch I've ever had.
On the actual publication day, I signed copies at Barnes and Nobles.
The day after, the book was officially launched with a talk at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore (where I used to work for the grand salary of $4.25 an hour).
And the next day, I had a great talk at the Astoria Bookshop with Radha Vatsal, author of the Kitty Weeks mystery series which is also set in 1910s New York. Were my mother alive, she would tell me I'm slouching.
- May 6th, 4:00 PM
- Panel Discussion with Nancy Bilyeau, Carol Goodman, Jennifer Kitses, Triss Stein, and Radha Vatsal
- Oblong Books in Rhinebeck
- 6422 Montgomery Street
- May 20th, 11:00 AM
- Reading, Chat, and Signing
- Byrd's Books
- 126 Greenwood Avenue
- Bethel, CT
- May 30th, 7:00 PM
- Panel Discussion with Nancy Bilyeau, Jennifer Kitses, Laura Joh Rowland, Triss Stein, and Radha Vatsal
- Book Culture
- 26-09 Jackson Avenue
- Long Island City, NY
- June 5th, 7:00 PM
- Reading and Chat
- East Meadow Library
- 1886 Front Street
- East Meadow, NY
- June 12th, 11:00 AM
- Reading and Chat
- Franklin Square Library
- 19 Lincoln Road
- Franklin Square, NY
- June 19th, 7:30 PM
- Reading and Chat
- Port Washington Library
- 1 Library Drive
- Port Washington, NY
I did the Ripper tour. The one led by Donald Rumbelow where you end up in The Ten Bells pub. I am a Ripper junkie. I watch the movies (Time After Time! David Warner as Jack in horrendous 70s clothes!) I read the books. The Complete Jack the Ripper, The Women of Whitechapel, and of course, From Hell.
Last year, I dove into The Ripper's Shadow by Laura Joh Rowland. When some of her "boudoir portrait" clients are murdered, photographer Sarah Bain sets out to solve the Ripper slayings. The reveal was fresh and original, something this Ripper addict hadn't seen before. Independent outsider Sarah Bain is excellent company, so I was thrilled when Sarah and her fellow amateur detective, Lord Hugh, came back for another outing in A Mortal Likeness.
In their last outing, Sarah and Lord Hugh solved the Ripper case. That's a hard act to follow—for them and for you. How did you come up with the crime at the heart of this book?
I turned to my favorite source of inspiration: History. The kidnapping in A Mortal Likeness is based on the 1932 Lindbergh baby kidnapping. I borrowed some elements from that big case—the famous father, the media sensation. But since my book is fiction, I created my own set of suspects and motives. And unlike the Lindbergh case, the kidnapping in A Mortal Likeness is solved with all the loose ends tied up and no questions left unanswered.
I thought the resolution was particularly satisfying, one of those "Oh, man, it was them! That's so cool!" moments. How do you decide who dunnit?
I was surprised to realize that nobody has ever asked me that! It’s a good question. When I start planning a book, I don’t know who the killer is. At some point in the process, his identity emerges from the personalities and motives of the suspects. He has to be someone who’s interesting but can hide among the other suspects, which means they all need to be interesting. By the time I start writing page one, I know who he is.
You build worlds so well. Victorian England is not an overlooked era in fiction. How do you tackle the challenge of showing us something new?
I show everything from the perspective of Sarah Bain, my narrator. Everything the reader sees is filtered through and perhaps distorted by the lens of her personal experience and outlook. She’s a photographer, so she notices details that other people might miss.
Can I say how happy I am that sexual desire is part of your stories? Maybe it's because I grew up in the age of Krantz and Collins, but I feel like fewer and fewer writers dare to talk about sex.
A lot of mystery authors turn down the heat and close the bedroom door on sex scenes or skip them altogether. Some authors have told me that they’re uncomfortable with writing sex scenes. Sometimes an explicit description of sex and the accompanying feelings would distract from the plot and be out of tune with the overall mood of the book. But I like to show everything important that happens to my characters, and I like to play the full range of human emotion and experience. Leaving out sex would mean leaving out a lot.
There's one character whose fate is left ambiguous at the end. Can I vote for them to come back?
Sure. I often bring back characters, and they join the continuing cast. My first mystery series started with Sano the samurai detective as a classic lone wolf. By book #18, the last in the series, he’d acquired a sidekick, a lord, an archenemy, a wife, two kids, and a grandchild on the way. Sarah Bain has already acquired some colleagues (Lord Hugh Staunton, Mick O’Reilly) since the beginning of The Ripper’s Shadow, the first book in her series. I expect the list to grow for as long as the series continues.
Discover the world of Sarah Bain in The Ripper's Shadow and A Mortal Likeness. (To find out more, click on the titles.)
Readings! Signings! If you're one of those increasingly rare and lovely people who like attending readings, I will be launching A Death of No Importance at not one, but two amazing bookstores. (Come just to be in these stores, never mind me.)
- April 11th, 6:30 PM
- Reading, Chat, and Signing
- Shakespeare & Co.
- 69th Street and Lexington Avenue
- April 12th, 7:00 PM
- Reading, Chat, and Signing
- Astoria Bookshop
- 31-29 31st Street, Astoria, NY
Oh-and reviews. Reviews have started to come in. This is always a fun time, despite the fact that most book reviewers are generous book loving souls. But sending a book into the world is like sending your toddler off to school; you never know what those first critics are going to say. "Splendid! Doesn't bite!" Or, "Oh, dear, it's a mess."
Thankfully, the first two were very kind. They had stars and everything.
“A sparkling mystery . . . The novel's voice, plotting, pace, characterization, and historical background are all expertly crafted, while the resolution—which feels both surprising and convincing—will leave readers hungry for more.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"A richly detailed historical that addresses the social issues and class inequities of the early 20th century. Jane is an appealing amateur sleuth, an orphan exposed to the excesses of the wealthy while remaining friends with union organizers and anarchists. VERDICT With its vivid depiction of contrasting worlds this series debut should appeal to readers of Alyssa Maxwell's "Gilded Age" historical mysteries."—Library Journal (starred review)
As a young ladies maid who can’t yet vote, Jane Prescott doesn’t take a huge interest in national politics. (Local and domestic politics are a different story.) But writing a mystery set in the late Gilded Age, I wanted some sense of what was happening in Washington at the time. So I talked to Joseph Cummins, author of Anything For a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises in U.S. Presidential Campaigns.
Me: A Death of No Importance takes place in 1910. So the most recent election was 1908 Taft vs. Bryan. Would it be right to say that this wasn't one of our more thrilling political battles?
Joseph Cummins: In 1904, on the very eve of his election win against Alton Parker—yes, one of the most boring presidential candidates in American history—Teddy Roosevelt made the cardinal error of his political life, saying that he would not run for another elected term as president. Roosevelt disliked his own veep, Charles W. Fairbanks, so he decided to throw his weight behind his friend, Secretary of War William Howard Taft. Taft was a very capable guy, having held numerous high-level positions, including governor of the Philippines, but he was also sort of a dufus. There was a joke that Taft’s name was an acronym for Takes Advice From Teddy—and Taft did visit Roosevelt throughout the campaign for advice. In the election of 1908, Taft weighed 330 pounds; since his running mate, “Sunny” Jim Sherman weighed 200, they may have been pound for pound the heaviest ticket in presidential history. But yes, the election was pretty boring. 1912 on the other hand…
1908 was Bryan's third try. Couldn't the Democrats get anyone else?
Since Teddy was enormously popular, his man Taft was, too. The Dems threw the old warhorse Bryan out there for lack of anyone better to waste against a sure thing like Taft; however, though Taft won the electoral college by a wide margin, he only garnered 51.6 percent of the popular vote.
Who was a Republican? Who was a Democrat? And what about those Progressives?
In 1912, traditional conservative Republicans were led by Taft and they were much like the Republicans of, say, the 1950s, especially in the support of the economic game-changer of the time, which was the emergence of the corporations, what reformers called “trusts,” where economic power was concentrated in railway and oil barons and Wall Street financial interests in an unprecedented way. Americans weren’t used to it; Progressives saw it as a threat not only to economic balance in the country, but to the very heart of the democratic American way of life. They were certain (with some reason) that these trusts corrupted leaders in government. 1893-1897 had seen a terrible depression where 15,000 small businesses went under, four million people lost their jobs, bands of homeless people wandered the country, seeking work, and people marched on Washington in protest. (Socialism would reach its ascendency in 1912 with the independent candidacy of Eugene Debs.)
In 1912 the Republicans had held the White House, with the exception of Grover Cleveland’s two non-consecutive terms, for an astonishing 44 years. This is the longest time a major American party has been in power; which means the Democrats were the ones out of power. When Teddy Roosevelt chose to buck the party system and run against Taft, his Progressive, or “Bull Moose” party (so-named because Roosevelt declared himself “fit as a Bull Moose”) drew a lot of dissatisfied Dems — a really interesting assortment of socialists, reformers, Christians who believed in social action, and advocacy groups, particularly of women. Their champions included the journalist Jane Addams and the writer William Allen White. They wanted to create a minimum wage and cap working hours, oversee financial markets, even enact a national health insurance. Sounds like the Democratic party of the New Deal and the 1960s, right?
But the actual Dems in 1912, were more conservative than these Progressives. They ran with the academic and rather dry Woodrow Wilson. The reason Wilson won was, of course, that Roosevelt’s move split the Republican party and handed Wilson the vote, which meant that Wilson actually won with only 41 percent of the popular vote.
We think politics is ugly now, but they talked a lot of smack in the Gilded Age. Nastiest political insult?
Yes, it was nasty. Roosevelt in particular. Although less crude, and of course different politically than Trump, TR was similar in his highly personal way of attacking his opponents. He called the admittedly dull Alton Parker “that neutral tinted individual.” And when he turned on Taft, he called him “a fathead with the brains of a guinea pig” and “a rat in a corner.”
When rumors came out that Wilson may have been having an affair, Roosevelt remarked: “You can’t cast a man as Romeo who looks and acts so much like an apothecary clerk.”
And he famously advised the portly Taft’s handlers never to let him be seen on a horse: “Dangerous for him and cruelty to the animal.”
I get sad when mystery writers dislike their detectives. Arthur Conan Doyle famously resented Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie once called Hercule Poirot a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep.”
But I get it. It takes a lot of work to conjure the encyclopedic knowledge of Holmes or the nimble dance of Poirot’s little gray cells. I didn’t give my detective, Jane Prescott, monster brains—although she’s very bright. But I did give her knowledge and skills that surpass mine. Jane Prescott is a ladies maid. She knows all about fashion, how to style hair, set a hat, the proper care of crepe de chine.
Her creator wears jeans and a Marimekko top every day of the week.
Jane’s attention to detail is part of her crime-solving repertoire. As such, those details have to be part of her story. Also, what’s a historical for if not to revel in the styles of an earlier time, especially one as resplendent as the Gilded Age?
So, I pore over books. I read the blogs of the clothing-obsessed. I talk to my friends who know such things. (“It’s not a blouse in 1910, it’s a waist.”) And when the Downton Abbey Exhibition comes to town, I make a beeline for it because IT’S RESEARCH!
It’s still November in New York, but oh, it’s Christmas at Downton. As you enter the exhibit, you’re greeted by an enormous tree, pine garlands, swathes of red, and twinkling lights. Everyone working at the exhibit seems giddy to be part of it and there are many jokes about making sure everything’s up to Mr. Carson’s standards or please walk quietly, we don’t want to disturb Lady Mary.
I am not concerned with Lady Mary, however. I’m interested in her maid. So I’m thrilled when the first items on display are Anna’s dresses. Now New York was not as formal as an English country estate. But it’s still helpful to get a sense of what a staff member who’s both servant and style confidante would wear. Here is Anna pre-promotion.
And Anna post-promotion to ladies maid…
Accompanied by thoughtful descriptions for the fashion imbeciles among us…
Floral silk damask. Who knew?
Ah, hugely helpful. A peek at Anna's tool kit.
Hello, Daisy and Mrs. Patmore.
Here we have Mr. Carson's study. This thrills me for two reasons. Carson and Mrs. Hughes were my favorites on the show. And there is a servants' phone! I have such a phone in the novel. At times I've worried that I gave 1910 New York a few more phones than it really would have had. But America was ahead of England in phone use and if Carson has one, Jane can have one, too.
Research done, even I want to see the pretty, pretty dresses.
And finally, an outfit I like to imagine Jane wearing on a day off. Minus the pearls.
Now, I couldn’t tell you what these dresses are made of or how they’re cut or who designed them. But Jane could. And that's why she's the detective and I'm just the writer. (FYI—Downton fans should not miss Jessica Fellowes's The Mitford Murders, on sale January 23.)
On my night table at the moment is Simon Schama's The Face of Britain, a much-read, much-loved copy of The Scold's Bridle, and a recent book on Kitty Genovese, who was murdered a few miles from my house.
History. Mystery. Crime. I read a lot of books with dead people. What can I say? The departed—and the stories of how they made the trip—are fascinating. Especially when someone helped them along.
So this website is going to dedicated to that subject. Muhr-der. Throughout history. Both fictional and not. I'll be talking to many people who write about murder professionally. (Not so many who commit murder professionally, but we can always hope.) The narratives we construct around death—say, the Triangle Fire or Nicole Brown Simpson—reveal a lot. I'll talk about my books as well. But really, this site is a way to waste time thinking about one of my favorite obsessions.
Dead people. And how they got that way.