Carola Dunn was born and grew up in England. For many years she resided in Southern California, but Oregon has been her home for just as long now. However, she still lives vicariously in the UK through the characters in her 23 Daisy Dalrymple mysteries, 4 Cornish mysteries, and 32 Regencies, most of which are set in England. Reading, walking, gardening, and listening to classical music are her favourite occupations. She has a son and two grandchildren, and a dog whose parentage is anyone’s guess.
Her next book, The Corpse at the Crystal Palace, is 23rd in the Daisy series. It comes out in this month from Minotaur.
How did you get started writing fiction?
It all started — believe it or not — with the history essays I wrote for my husband’s world history class. As an engineer, he hadn’t a clue, but I got four As for him. That convinced him I ought to write a book, as he brought up now and then.
While my son was small, and we kept moving, I had various part-time and temp jobs. Then we settled down and bought a house. My husband (now ex) wanted me to get a full-time job leading to a career. The prospect appalled me. So I sat down at the kitchen table and wrote a book (longhand).
I chose to write a Regency romance because I had read Georgette Heyer’s books so many times I knew what was coming on the next page. I tried some of those being published at the time (late ’70s), and many were so bad I figured I couldn’t possibly do worse. So
Starting out, I doubted I could actually write a whole book, let alone sell it. But once it was finished, it seemed silly not to type it up and submit it. Of the six editors who saw it, four expressed interest and two made offers. At that point it seemed silly not to write another!
You are from England but have lived in the United States for years. How did you end up here?
After university, I set out around the world. My father lived in Michigan at the time, and after spending several months with him and my stepmother, I had saved enough to get to Australia. I crossed the US by bus and flew to Hawaii, where I met my then-future, now-ex-husband, a Californian. After a brief trip to the Samoas and Fiji, I went back to the mainland with him and we married.
For the last few years I’ve seen reviews compare your books to Downton Abbey, but your books came long before the TV series. How do you feel about these comparisons, and do you think they are appropriate?
I can’t comment on specifics because I haven’t seen any such comparisons. I don’t see how you can compare mystery novels to a TV show fictionalising social history. But the Daisy mysteries are set in the same period, at least partly, and some of the books are set in stately homes, so there is an undeniable connection. In fact, when Barnes & Noble did a Downton Abbey cross-promotion, my Anthem for Doomed Youth was one of the books they chose to promote. Which is kind of funny because it’s not set in a stately home…
You have written about 60 books: 23 Daisy Dalrymple books set in the 1920s, 4 police procedurals set in 1970s Cornwall, and 32 Regency romances. How does the experience of writing each genre and era differ from the next?
Switching periods involves a lot of research, not only into history but into the social attitudes -—the “feeling” — of the times (Zeitgeist). Reading fiction written in the relevant period can be a good guide, obviously much easier for the 20th century than the early 19th, because there’s much more available.
For instance, relationships between the classes changed enormously. In the early 1800s, servants knew their place; in the 1920s, there was a sometimes uneasy truce between servants and their employers; by 1970, servants in the old sense were virtually extinct.
The position of women is another factor that changed beyond recognition. Contrast Jane Austen — who was middle aged by contemporary standards before her family would let her travel without an escorting male relative — with pilot and engineer Amy Johnson, whose father gave her money to buy her first airplane (in which she flew solo to Australia from Britain in 1930).
In many ways, however, switching genres is a bigger change than time periods. Romances have a simple basic timeline: hero and heroine meet, they overcome obstacles and/or conflict between themselves, and they end up happy ever after. Within that line the author can introduce any number of twists and turns—I wrote adventure Regencies, smugglers, travel, spies, war, time travel, fantasy, etc.–but the line never becomes tangled in the way a mystery can.
In a mystery, as well as all the concerns of making your characters real, your setting vivid, and your plot gripping, you have to mystify your readers. You have to provide them with enough clues to be able to figure out whodunnit, and enough red herrings so that they don’t. At the end you want them to think, “I should have known!” That is quite a challenge!
Daisy Dalrymple, your most famous series, is a mystery set in the 1920s where the main characters are the daughter of a viscount and the middle class Detective Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard. Why did you choose to focus on that era?
I’d already been writing Regencies for a good few years and I was intrigued by certain parallels between the 1920s and the 18-teens.
For instance, I’ve already talked about some of the changes in the lives of women between the two periods. But the Regency was already changing their situation. In terms of basics, look at the change in clothes. The wide hooped skirts of the earlier Georgians gave way to the Empire line, allowing far more freedom of movement. Fashion moved backwards later, alas, to hoops and bustles and 18″ waists, and then the horrific “S” bend of Edwardian corsetting. But by Daisy’s time, partly because of fabric shortages during WWI, clothes at last resembled something we might well wear today.
Ease of travel was another parallel. Compared to earlier Georgian times, in the Regency, roads were much improved, footpads and highwaymen much less frequently encountered, and someone invented springs for carriages, making them much more comfortable. The railway came along later, but unless you had money and lived not too far from a station, foot, horse, cart, or carriage was the way you travelled. In Daisy’s time, of course, the railways were still a common way to travel for all and sundry, but were supplemented by motor-cars and motor-buses that made it easier to reach out of the way places. The arrival of cars on the scene was an enormous change; so too was the influence of WWI in freeing women from the chaperonage regarded as desirable even in trains in Victorian times.
A key theme of the Daisy Dalrymple books is that of class and the intersection with gender roles, such as Daisy and Lucy, members of the nobility, live in bohemian Chelsea and work to support themselves. Even race becomes an element. How realistic would these things have been then, and how much is this inserting modern sensibilities into the past?
There’s a fine line between showing the classist, racist, and gender prejudices of the past and endorsing them. I try to walk that line by showing minor characters who endorse those views and having my main characters reject them — to one extent or another — while recognising their existence and influence. Not everyone in Britain held the same opinions on such subjects, differing as much as on any other, from politics to child-raising. Otherwise nothing would ever have changed.
After getting married and having children Daisy notices how much the middle class lifestyle is good for the family and what she missed out on while being reared by nannies. But then she seems to be trying to recreate the same lifestyle with her own children in hiring a live-in nanny and other full- time staff. This comes off as a contradiction to me, so what is the rationale and logic to make it this way?
For a start, human beings are contradictory, inconsistent creatures. I suspect you, like anyone else, have ideas about how certain things should be done while failing at times to reach your ideals. I know I do. Be firm and consistent with your dog—Yes, great in principle, but….
Daisy was not entirely enamoured of middle-class child raising. How could she be when Alec’s mother so manifestly failed to bring up Belinda as a self-confident young woman? Besides, the middle class was almost as likely to have a nursemaid, if not a fully trained nanny, when children were young. And after that, if the parents had any aspirations at all for their children, boys were sent away to school, while girls might go away to school or have a governess at home. Most middle class mothers probably had more contact with their children than most upper class mothers, but there were no hard and fast rules.
As a child, Daisy rarely saw her parents, and when she did, it would be a formal — and terrifying — visit to the drawing room at tea-time under the aegis of her nurse. She has, as a matter of choice, far more contact and less formal contact with her own children.
Your Cornish mysteries, set about 1970, feature the first female detective constable in her region and her diplomat aunt as they deal with the counterculture. What would you like your readers to understand about that period?
Gender roles were still evolving, as they are to this day. Female officers at Scotland Yard were not allowed the rank of Detective until 1973, though they worked as detectives long before. That was one reason why Megan left the Met to move to Cornwall. A fascinating book on the subject is A Different Shade of Blue by Adam Eisenberg, Commissioner of Seattle Municipal Court in Seattle, who interviewed many Seattle policewomen about their experiences.
As for Eleanor, in her early life she was an eccentric, way ahead of her time, but it’s noteworthy that her responsibility was to smooth the way, not to run projects nor to troubleshoot, as her husband did. By the time she retires to Cornwall, her independent character doesn’t stand out so much. After all, it was at that time that I set out alone around the world, and my sister went to Brazil to investigate the eradication of native tribes — she was eventually declared persona non grata as a troublemaker. She later worked for charities in Africa, which gave me the initial idea for Eleanor.
Some of your books, such as The Bloody Tower, have a great deal of research in them. Tell us about the research process that goes into your books.
All the books require research of some kind, whether into photography or the history of the Tower of London. When I started writing, it was mostly a matter of finding the necessary books. Now, of course, it’s mostly a matter of weeding out the reams of unneeded or erroneous information on the Internet.
Throughout, I’ve often resorted to getting in contact with experts on a given subject. For The Bloody Tower, for instance, I was in touch by email with the Librarian of the Royal Armoury Library at the Tower. She answered my questions most helpfully and then, when I went to pay a visit (not having been there since childhood) she provided not only a free entrance pass, but a box of books she thought might be useful, including the Governor’s Day Book for the actual week Daisy spent there. She also made for me a large-scale copy of a detailed plan of the Tower.
In my experience, most experts are delighted to share their knowledge. And for some reason, most are thrilled to be sharing it with a mystery writer!
What authors and books would you say have shaped your career as a writer?
First and foremost Georgette Heyer’s Regencies, as I explained above. She inspired me to start writing. I can credit Jane Austen with having interested me in the period, thus leading me to Heyer.
Mystery influences are far too many to list. Some of the most significant are Patricia Wentworth, Michael Innes, Cyril Hare, Dorothy Sayers (of course), Edmund Crispin, Ngaio Marsh, and Josephine Tey. It was Tey’s Brat Farrar that first showed me it’s possible to write a murder story in which virtually all the characters are people I would like to know.
You can check out Carola at the following sites: