A Visit to Downton Abbey

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.

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And Anna post-promotion to ladies maid…

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Accompanied by thoughtful descriptions for the fashion imbeciles among us…

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Floral silk damask. Who knew?

Ah, hugely helpful. A peek at Anna's tool kit.

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Hello, Daisy and Mrs. Patmore.

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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.

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Research done, even I want to see the pretty, pretty dresses.

Oooh…

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Ahhh…

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Hats…

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And finally, an outfit I like to imagine Jane wearing on a day off. Minus the pearls.

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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.)

 

The Dead Do So Tell Tales

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.