Published by St. Martin's Press Genres: Historical Mystery
Source: the publisher
Also in this series: The Counterfeit Heiress, The Adventuress, The Edge of Dreams
Also by this author: The Twelve Clues of Christmas, Heirs and Graces, The Edge of Dreams, In Farleigh Field, The Counterfeit Heiress, The Adventuress
Journeys to the Past
a guest post by Rhys Bowen and Tasha Alexander
RHYS: When you write historical novels as Tasha and I do, a lot of time is spent on research and making sure we get it all right. You would think, since we can’t time travel, that our research revolves around dusty old books, libraries and museums.
The wonderful thing I have discovered is that snippets of my research allow me to live in the past, to experience how my heroines really lived. Molly Murphy, whose fourteenth adventure, the Edge of Dreams, comes out on March 4, lived and worked in New York City. I had always made visits to New York and it was a trip to Ellis Island and the emotional experience I had there that made me start the series. So I started seeing New York through Molly’s eyes. And do you know what? A good chunk of it is still there. I chose Patchin Place for Molly to live. It is an adorable backwater at the edge of Greenwich Village—a cobbled street of about twenty houses. I love going to stand outside Molly’s house, listening to the muted noises of the city. A few years ago I got a letter from a professor at Rutgers who said, “I live in Molly’s house.” He sent me lots of photos. Then the Patchin Place residents adopted me and invited me to their Christmas party.
When I’m starting a new book I wander through Molly’s New York, aware of the sounds of children playing in Washington Square, the stiff breeze off the Hudson. I can eat at Pete’s Tavern and sit in a booth that Molly might have sat in (only as a woman she would not have been allowed in a tavern!)
Several cases have taken place in the Lower East Side and much of that has not changed since 1900. I can walk up Mulberry, Hester, Essex. I can stand in Chinatown on Mott Street and still experience the same sort of smells, sights and sounds… only perhaps a little cleaner and less intense. But occasionally the universe gives you a gift. I was on Mulberry Street for the festival of San Genaro one September. Booths lined both sides of the street, lit by hissing kerosene lamps. Good smells wafted to me: garlic and cinnamon and sizzling coils of sausage. Because the booths lined the street the crowd was channeled down the middle and the noise level, bouncing back from those high tenements, was intense. I stood there, transfixed, thinking “this is how it was!”
And then the hair on the back of my neck prickled. Halfway up the street there was a booth and a sign saying FREAK SHOW. COME AND SEE THE SNAKE WOMAN 50 cents. “I’ve been transported back,” I thought. I did see the snake woman and she featured in Oh Danny Boy.
And of course much of the research for my other Royal Spyness series involves visiting my husband’s upper class family and friends in their lovely stately homes and manor houses and just listening to them talk. “Do you remember that time we played that joke on the butler?” I scribble it down. It all makes great copy!
So Tasha, do you also have a chance to go back in time when you are doing your research?
TASHA: Rhys, I am an enormous fan of going back in time. The frustrating thing, of course, is that so often places have changed over the centuries. Much of Emily’s London was decimated first by the Blitz and then by the sale and destruction of many of the magnificent townhomes that, after the war, could no longer be afforded by the families who owned them. Emily’s and Colin’s townhouse is in Park Lane, but a stroll along the street today would take you by more modern buildings than gracious mansions. There are still parts of the city that remain as they were in the nineteenth century, such as Hyde Park, but many of the things we now identify as quintessentially London have changed. For example, the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace obviously was not there when the queen was still alive. The English countryside, however, is an entirely different matter. When researching country estates, I was able to visit loads of them, and picturing the way they looked in the late nineteenth century took very little effort. Castle Howard, Chatsworth, Haddon Hall, and Harewood House all contributed to my ideas, but I based much of Colin’s family seat, Anglemore Park, on Burton Agnes Hall.
My favorite research in terms of feeling as if I had traveled back in time took place in Venice, a place less ravaged by the centuries than any other in the world. The very foundations of the city make it impossible for it to expand beyond its current boundaries—it was built on more than a hundred small islands, connected by canals and bridges. There is no possibility for urban sprawl, and because every square inch that could be used had already been used by the Renaissance, there are very few modern buildings. When one wanders through Venice, it looks very much as it did not only in the nineteenth century, but as it did going back to the sixteenth century. Furthermore, there are no cars—a pleasant side effect of having canals instead of streets—so the city does not sound contemporary. Yes, there are motorboats, but the din they produce is not constantly heard, and they aren’t on every canal all the time. The pavements, the buildings, and the sounds of gondoliers singing transports you back in time. Heaven for a writer of historical fiction.
But even when the location has changed over time, I find it is still useful to go there—there’s no better way of soaking up the atmosphere, understanding the layout of a place, and getting a sense of what it feels like to be there. Old photographs and descriptions in books can reveal a lot about buildings that are no longer standing, but that alone is not always enough. I will remember those images while I walk along the pavement and fill in the details in my mind, so that in the end, I hope, my readers can feel transported back in time. After all, one of the most appealing things about historical fiction is the way it enables us to travel through the centuries.
The Edge of Dreams and The Counterfeit Heiress
When I was asked to review The Edge of Dreams and The Counterfeit Heiress for this tour, I jumped at the chance. Both Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy series and Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily series have been on my “I want to read this someday” list for several years, but you know how it goes – I kept getting distracted by other books. Well, shame on me for not picking them up sooner, because I completely fell in love with both series after reading these books!
Alexander and Bowen have each created wonderful main characters for their series, and have set them in slightly different time periods and decidedly different social settings. Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily books are set in the late 19th century, mostly in England and Europe; The Counterfeit Heiress takes place partly in London but mainly in Paris. Her heroine, Lady Emily, is an aristocrat and well-to-do. Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy series is set around and just after the turn of the century, mainly in New York. Molly is a working girl to begin with, a young woman trying to make her way in the world. But both young women share an independence of mind, a lively intellect, curiosity, and a refusal to be either defined or confined by society’s expectations and restrictions. By the time of the current book, Molly and Lady Emily have each married and had a child or children; their husbands are at least somewhat supportive of their continued interest in solving mysteries, though not to the same degree. Yet for all their similarities, Lady Emily and Molly are distinctly different individuals.
I’m not going to go into the plot of each story here; I’ll be reviewing the books separately and in more depth in the next day or two. However, I will say that Bowen and Alexander are both skilled writers who know how to craft a mystery, build suspense, and (re)create a historical and geographical setting so well that you can practically smell the scents from the cafes as their character walks down the street. As far as I could tell, they’re also historically accurate – in fact, both books include events which really happened. Historical settings are part of what I love about historical mysteries, and both of these are great choices: the period from the late 1800s to the early 1900s was a period of great social and technological change, which offers plenty of scope for crime as well as for conflict and character growth.
Finally and best of all, the authors know how to make you care about their characters. I enjoyed making the acquaintance of Molly and Lady Emily, and I can’t wait to go back and read their earlier books!
If you love historical mysteries and you haven’t read one or both of these series yet, do yourself a favor. Run right out and get these books, or start at the beginning with Murphy’s Law (Bowen) and And Only to Deceive (Alexander.) As for me, I’ve just added both series to my TBR list. It may take me a while, but I’m determined to catch up!