Talking with Laura Joh Rowland About Sex, Death, and History

Confession time.

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.)