Born in the mid-’60s, I grew up in London in the 1970s when everything was flared and brown and mostly made of corduroy. I studied history at the University of Bristol in the 1980s where hair was big and spectacles bigger. I worked in magazine publishing in the ’90s and for a famous website in the early 2000s. I have three grown-up children and live near Bristol in a house that we share with several guitars, two drum kits and a new robot vacuum cleaner. I drive a red car which I have named “Armstrong” because she’s small and feisty.
How did you get started writing?
I always wanted to write, but as a child I hated the actual physical process of writing. I’m left-handed and I never found handwriting easy or fun, nor did I ever find the results in any way pleasing to look at, so I was always disappointed by my efforts at writing stories. Everything was a mess and there was no way to edit it. In 1988 I bought an Amstrad PCW 8256. It was essentially a stripped-down PC designed for one job – it was a word processor. And suddenly everything clicked. I could write what I wanted and it always looked good. I could edit it as much as I wanted and it always looked good. I started writing stories, TV scripts. . . anything I could think of. A few years later I got my first magazine job, working on an assortment of computer games magazines, but I still dabbled in fiction in my spare time. The fiction was always just for my own amusement, though, and a great many projects were never finished. I felt a strong resistance to the idea of spending my time writing anything I didn’t think anyone would ever read. What’s the point? But by 2014, self publishing was well-established and I realized that now there was a point. If I finished a project I could publish it myself and people might read it. They might not, but “might not” is better than “definitely wouldn’t.” I’d been kicking an idea about for some time about a couple of Edwardian detectives and I decided that they’d be ideal for my first attempt at this self publishing malarkey.
You hold a degree in medieval history, yet your series takes place in 1908. Why did you select that date during which to set your books and not the era you studied?
I do love the medieval period, but by the time I graduated my focus was very narrowly on the “history of ideas.” My undergraduate dissertation, for instance, was called “Science and Theology in Medieval Scholarship.” Possibly not an ideal setting for lighthearted murder mysteries. There are a few problems when it comes to writing medieval mysteries.
The first, obviously, is Ellis Peters. Her Cadfael Chronicles are superb and she pretty much has Medieval England and Wales to herself. I mean, who can you cast as the detective? The only people with any serious level of education at the time were monks, and we already have Brother Cadfael, so why would we need another crime-solving monk? And if we couldn’t have a crime-solving monk, who would be clever and well-informed enough to do the job?
The second issue is a more personal failing. My knowledge of the political shenanigans of the period (in England, at least) are pretty much up to snuff. Given a little while to prepare, I could also go ten rounds on the rise of the universities and the birth of empirical science. But the social history of Medieval England is a bit of a grey area for me. One day I’ll indulge myself and do the reading to find out how real people really lived, but not yet.
And finally. . . Although I’m passionate about the period, I wasn’t sure that anyone else would be particularly interested. There’s no pleasure in writing something you know no one will ever read, so it was hard to justify the effort that would be required. Actually, that’s not quite true. People are interested in matters medieval, but they prefer them in the form of Fantasy. Maybe I should branch out. One day, though, I just might write a medieval adventure. I had an idea on a recent trip to York that might provide me with a detective, so you never know.
Your books feature a unique friendship between the upper class Lady Hardcastle and her ladies’ maid Florence Armstrong, who is really more like a companion than a servant. How realistic would that have been?
Not realistic at all, but that’s sort of the point. I’d originally wanted to explore how social barriers might break down between employer and servant when they depended on each other for survival rather than just getting dressed in the morning. There’s a long chain of reasoning (clunkily expressed here – I really ought to rewrite that) where I get from “employer and servant” to “genuine friends.” When I decided to put my characters into a murder mystery, I saw no reason not to jump straight into the “genuine friends” stage and leave the explanation to the backstory. I thought that their bemusement at the social conventions they had to follow but no longer truly believed in might be a good way to ease us all into their world. They sort of see it as we do.
As for the “companion” thing, that’s a genuine class distinction. Companions were never drawn from Flo’s social class so, weirdly, it would actually be less realistic for her to be employed as a companion than for her to be a lady’s maid and friend. Froma practical point of view (theirs and mine) it’s also helpful if she remains a proper servant (although a very senior one) – it gets her into places Lady Hardcastle can’t go.
Your books feature a lot of word play and puns. Is that your natural mode of speech, or do you have to work to develop this style in your writing? What led to your choosing to include such silly speech amid serious content?
No, I don’t talk like that all the time in real life – that would be spectacularly annoying. But I don’t have to work at it – it comes naturally. There’s a fantastic book by Kate Fox, a Social Anthropologist, called Watching the English. In it she describes all the little social conventions and aspects of behaviour that make English people English. (Incidentally, she does explain why she uses “English” and not “British,” but I can’t remember – I’m pretty sure most of what she says applies to the British in general, but I’ll mostly stick with her terminology.) One of her chapters is called “The Importance of Not Being Earnest” where she explains at length that we take a very dim view of people who take themselves, or anything, too seriously. There’s another chapter entirely devoted to humour. It’s a common belief among the English that no one else in the world has quite as good a sense of humour as we do. Fox explains that this isn't at all the case, but that there is a very important difference between us and the rest of the world. Almost all other cultures have times when it’s appropriate to make jokes and times when it most definitely isn’t. But the English have no Off switch. Our jokes aren’t better or funnier than anyone else’s; it’s just that we never stop making them. There is no time in English daily life when a joke cannot – or even should not – be made. There are no circumstances when we think that a joke won’t make things a little better. So, if you add all that together, you end up with silly, jokey speech in “serious” stories about people being bumped off. It’s not a contrived thing, it’s just how I see the world.(Actually, it irritates me that “serious” British dramas often include so few jokes – that’s just not how we behave. Faced with adversity, or with personal – even national – tragedy, the British response is to make a joke. Usually quite a funny one.)
During your second book, In the Market for Murder, they hold a seance. Spiritualism in England became a really popular practice following World War I among those desperate to reach out to loved ones killed in the war. How widespread was the practice before the war?
Spiritualism started in the USA in 1848, and the first Spiritualist church in the UK opened in 1853. By 1909 (when the story is set), it was well established in Great Britain and had gained a substantial following. The war did see an increase in a belief in Spiritualism, it’s true, but it didn’t come out of nowhere – it had been around for a while. Private séances had been popular for some time, just as they had in the USA, and “public” (paid) meetings had been held regularly, too.
You live in England. I have been informed by a fellow countryman of yours that cozy mysteries are really rare and not generally popular in England. He even says he has trouble getting Agatha Christie’s books in most bookstores. So to what do you contribute the success of your books in a market that is not very friendly to your genre?
It’s so rare, in fact, that I wasn’t really aware of it as a specific sub-genre until after I started writing the first Lady Hardcastle stories. I chose to write a story about two detectives in an idealized fantasy version of an Edwardian English village. It seemed to me that it was a perfectly acceptable setting for murder mysteries and a “no sex, violence or swearing” rule suited the style. As I wrote, though, it occurred to me that I needed to know how to classify it when I eventually published. A little research showed that I’d stumbled into the fringes of the “cozy” genre. I was worried at first that I wouldn’t be welcome there – I wasn’t writing about cats, or cupcakes, or young women with media careers and shiftless boyfriends. I was also being very English about the whole thing and not taking myself in the least bit seriously. There were jokes and grotesque characters. It wasn’t serious and sensible. Would I fit in? Would cozy fans think I was taking the mickey? (I wasn’t, by the way.) The cozy seemed to be a well-established genre whose conventions I didn’t know, and it was extremely likely that I’d irritate a lot of people when they read the stories and found I wasn’t following the rules. But I had to find a sales bucket to put them in, and cozy was the closest fit.
Once the first book was published, I ran into the problem your friend pointed out: Cozies aren’t fantastically popular in the UK. I’d sort of expected that there’d be limited interest in the book and that I’d sell a few at home but hardly any anywhere else. Very few people anywhere would be interested in gentle, old fashioned murder mysteries. And who outside England could possibly want to read detective stories set in Edwardian England? But it was the other way round – UK readers don’t really care for cozies of any sort, and it turns out that by far the biggest proportion of my readers are in the USA. The advantage of self publishing through KDP, and now being published by Thomas & Mercer is that they have such a strong international presence. I’m able to reach audiences in foreign parts without having to leave Bristol. So my “success” is down to a quirk of modern publishing where international boundaries aren’t nearly so important. I can sit in my study in the West Country and reach an audience thousands of miles away.
On your Facebook page, you call yourself a “mystery writer, drummer, balloon sculptor.” What an eclectic combination! Tell us about the drumming and balloon sculpting. Do you do anything else professionally to support yourself?
I’m not sure if it’s quite the done thing, but my author bio has always been true. I genuinely do play the drums in a covers band. We don’t seem to be playing quite as many gigs as we used to, but we’re still together. (Drum fans might want to know that I play a Roland TD-20 electronic kit at home and at small venues, and a Natal maple acoustic kit with short-stack toms and Sabian cymbals everywhere else). Claiming to be a balloon sculptor is a tiny bit of a cheat but I do know the basics. I can bend balloons into a variety of animal shapes and I always have modelling balloons in the house, but it’s not really an actual hobby. I was amused by the whimsy of it so I dropped it into the bio. Since the beginning of 2016 I’ve been a full-time author and I’m lucky enough to be able to make my living from it. I honestly don’t have time for anything else.
The genre of cozy mystery (toned down language and violence and no graphic sex scenes) is so dominated by women that one of the most successful in the field, Dean James, actually took on the nom de plume Miranda James. Why do you think there are almost no men writing these books, and what do you think has made you, a man, so successful, even hitting the top 100 cozy mysteries in Amazon’s rankings?
As I said, I wasn’t aware when I started that I was writing a cozy. I just wrote what it entertained me to write. Once I did the research and decided that I was going to have to put it in the cozy market, I also found that there were precious few men writing them. I was also a little concerned that no one would trust an unknown male author to write convincing female characters. It’s ok when it’s someone whose work you know, but some new bloke coming out of nowhere? It’s bound to be rubbish, right? So I did the thing that female authors have been doing for years – I hid behind my initials. I didn’t go to the lengths of assuming a female nom de plume, but I made sure that my original author bio was gender neutral and kept it pic-free. To this day some readers still assume I’m a woman, which amuses my editor and my friends far more than is seemly. But I don’t know why there aren’t more male authors in the genre. In its “pure” form the cozy is just a bit of good, clean, murderous fun and there’s no reason men wouldn’t want to write that. But I think, perhaps, the genre has evolved. It might have started out as an evocation of an older style of writing from “the Golden Age,” but it’s become a “thing” in its own right now. As fans have become authors, they’ve brought in other influences and it definitely seems to have become more feminine. So perhaps that puts a lot of male authors off from the start. As for my success. . . I have no idea. I write stories that entertain me about characters I’m fond of in a style that I find pleasing. I think it’s almost entirely down to luck that other people like them, too. I’ve been surprised and delighted by the reaction I’ve got, but I try not to overthink it. I’ll just carry on writing what I enjoy writing and try not to worry too much about why other people like it too.
What did you like to read as a child, and what authors do you enjoy reading now?
My earliest memories of being read to were Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (incidentally, I was 20 by the time I read Winnie the Pooh). Once I started reading for myself, I tried anything I could find,but I remember a fondness for Nils-Olof Franzén’s Agaton Sax stories (translated, of course) and Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear series. In my teens I read as much science fiction as I could get my hands on. Larry Niven remains a favourite, though I have a soft spot for Arthur C. Clarke and Harry Harrison (especially the Stainless Steel Rat series). I went through a Robert Heinlein phase, but I tried reading his books again since then and found that I absolutely hated them the second time around. Funny how one’s taste changes (I think it was probably a political/philosophical thing in Heinlein’s case). I also read a bunch of thrillers (Frederick Forsyth was always a favourite). I tried fantasy but it didn’t grab me in the same way that sci-fi did (although Raymond Feist’s Magician series started well when I read that later). I loved Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide books (though I preferred the original radio series). In my twenties I discovered Sherlock Holmes as well as the works of PG Wodehouse. I was also reading anything Ben Elton wrote.These days it feels like I read much less. I still occasionally pick up a Christopher (or Chris, depending on what he’s writing) Brookmyre, and sometimes Carl Hiassen. I’m a big fan of Jasper Fforde, too, but I’m more likely to be reading something like Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence. On the other hand, I do have a weakness for things like The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern) or Carter Beats the Devil (Glen David Gold). I discovered Agatha Christie rather late on (I’d watched TV adaptations of Miss Marple and Poirot but I’d never read the books). And somehow I can’t stop myself buying historical thrillers, so you never know what might catch my eye while I’m wandering round a bookshop.
You just released your third book in the Lady Hardcastle series. Do you want to tell us about Death around the Bend?
I’m always on the lookout for little snippets about Edwardian life (one day, this will have to feature). While I was writing the original version of Book 2 in 2015, I came upon a reference to Brooklands racing circuit in Surrey, which opened in 1907. It was the world’s first purpose-built racing circuit and I thought it would be just the sort of thing that Lady Hardcastle would be interested in. Eventually, I came up with a story about an aristocrat who has built a racing circuit on his estate where he can test his own racing cars. Lady Hardcastle and Flo are invited for a week of racing and parties but, obviously, murder ensues.
Where can your fans go to connect with you?
For news and semi-regular updates, you could try Facebook.
For occasional irrelevant and pointless photos try Instagram.
There’s Twitter, but I seldom remember to say anything.
website that will frustrate you because I don’t update it often enough.
Oh, and my author page on Amazon is a good starting point for the buying of books.
Read my review of Quiet Life in the Country
Read my review of In the Market for Murder
Read my review of Death around the Bend