Please welcome historical mystery author Clara Benson!
Clara Benson is the author of the Angela Marchmont Mysteries and Freddy Pilkington-Soames Adventures – traditional English mysteries in authentic style set in the 1920s and 30s. One day she would like to drink cocktails and solve mysteries in a sequinned dress and evening gloves. In the meantime she lives in the north of England with her family and doesn’t do any of those things.
- What was your path to becoming a writer?
– I started out as a translator (Italian to English, since you asked), but I always thought I would write a book at some point, and eventually I decided that if I was going to do it I’d better get on with it! It took four years to write my first, in between moving, having kids, house renovations, etc, and I’m surprised I ever got it finished, to be honest. But once it was done and published and people were buying it, that spurred me on to write more. Now I can’t imagine doing anything else.
- What do you enjoy most about historical mysteries?
– I love the innocence of them! We’ve all read all the mysteries these days, so it’s difficult to truly surprise the reader, and nowadays the solution is far more likely to hang on a microscopic piece of forensic evidence than on anything else. But I love the fact that in historical mysteries the detective can sweep in, point at someone and say, “The clock said 6.05 instead of 6.08, and your train ticket was dated Wednesday not Tuesday, which proves you are the murderer! Inspector, arrest this man!” And the murderer always snarls and says, “Damn you, you’re as cunning as the devil!” And they arrest him and take him away and it’s all wrapped up in a nice neat bow.
- Why do you write English mysteries set in the 1920’s and 30’s?
– Because that’s what I like to read. I’m a huge fan of Golden Age mystery writers – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Josephine Tey and so on, and I wanted to try and write something similar to the stories they wrote that I love so much.
- Who is Angela Marchmont and why choose her as a protagonist?
– Angela Marchmont is something of an enigma to start with, and we don’t know much about her except that she’s a wealthy, fashionable and independent woman in her late thirties who’s a bit secretive about her past. As the series continues, we find out more about her, and by the final two books there are a few revelations as all her secrets come out! I didn’t exactly choose her – she kind of developed herself along the way. She was meant to be older and more eccentric, but she had her own ideas, and emerged as a younger and much more charming character than I expected!
- What makes her a good detective?
– She’s curious by nature, and has a questioning mind. She’s smart, obviously, but also very cool, logical and level-headed. She’s quite good at cutting through the red herrings and getting to the solution.
- Tell us about the Freddy Pilkington-Soames series.
– Freddy was an occasional sidekick of Angela’s, and he was such a strong character I thought he deserved his own series. He’s younger than Angela – only in his early twenties – and he works (I use the word loosely) as a reporter for an early tabloid newspaper, the Clarion. He’s hedonistic, chaotic, very full of himself, and prone to getting into awkward situations. In his attempts to solve a mystery he can often be found dangling off a rooftop, getting into a fight, or kissing someone else’s girlfriend – not always through any fault of his own.
- What was your experience transitioning from Angela Marchmont mysteries to writing Freddy Pilkington-Soames?
– It’s quite different writing Freddy, as he’s a lot more active than Angela – partly because of his job – so I have to think of a lot of places for him to go, rather than just weekend country house parties. In addition, he’s a bit of an unruly sort, so I have to think up difficult situations for him to get out of. He’s a bit of a smart alec too, so I spend a lot of time rewriting his dialogue to make it wittier!
- How do you conduct research for your books?
– This is one of the best parts of writing! Although I’m not one for packing a lot of historical detail into my books, I do like to get things right, so I’ve read quite a few history books about the period, and I also make fairly heavy use of the Times Digital Archive (through my library) and the British Newspaper Archive (paid subscription). I’m a big stickler for using the correct language of the period, and for that I use the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary (also via the library), which shows when words were first used. Then of course there’s Google and Wikipedia…
- What’s the historical background of A Case of Duplicity in Dorset?
– None, I’m afraid! It all came out of my own head, although I did get some inspiration for Belsingham from some grand stately homes near where I live, most notably Nostell Priory and Harewood House.
- Who are your favorite mystery authors?
– As I said, I’m a big fan of Golden Age authors, but I’ve read all kinds of mystery writers, from Ruth Rendell and PD James to Sue Grafton, Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs. Unfortunately, I don’t get to read many new mysteries these days, as I find it interferes with the writing, so I find myself going back to the old favourites time and time again.
- If you had to write in another genre which would it be?
– I do occasionally branch out into romantic suspense, and I have a few ideas for future books in that genre which I will write when they pass a law to add more hours to the day…
- What’s next for you?
– I had a bit of a go-slow year last year, as I felt I needed to recharge after several years of frantic writing activity, but I’m well and truly back in the saddle now – possibly too much, as I’m busy trying to write two books at once! One is a historical novel set during World War 2, which is much more serious and sombre in tone than my usual style, and the other is Book 5 in the Freddy series, entitled A Case of Suicide in St. James’s, in which Freddy investigates the apparent suicide of a young man at a society ball. This one is turning out to be fun, and I hope to get it finished very soon!