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 Downs begins 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.
MASSIVE THANKS to Jan Edwards for her detailed and enlightening answers
Interview by Rowena Hoseason