Cherilyn Parsons is a visionary, pure and simple. The founder/director of the Bay Area Book Festival, she also knows how to execute. I offered to help a bit as a liaison to the mystery/crime fiction community, assisting noted author Cara Black. Later Cara asked me to moderate a panel. This would be a rather public and literary venue and I was intimidated. My first instinct was to say no. However, I have made a point these past couple of years to “lean into” my fear. So I said yes.
I spent a month reading the work of “my” authors, Laurie King, Catriona McPherson, and Kelli Stanley. I wrote their intros and prepared the structure for our panel, “How to Get Away with Murder—On the Page.” Finally, I selected a passage from one of their books for each to read to the audience.
The event took place the beautiful weekend of June 6-7, 2015 in Berkeley. We arrived from the Green Room to find a long line outside our venue, the Marsh Theater, and an already almost full house inside. This was not surprising given the renown of these three multi award-winning author scholars. I thought I’d introduce them to you here with my words of that day:
In his new book, The Golden Age of Murder, Martin Edwards tells us of the Detection Club organized in 1930 by British crime novelists including A.A. Milne, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy Sayers, who wrote the rules. There would be no cheap tricks on the reader, no stories solved by recourse to “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God.”
You may rest assured that all of our authors “play fair” with credible characters grounded in credible worlds. Their work takes us on surprising journeys through many cultures and lands. As Mrs. Badger says in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, “It’s the world, dear. Did you expect it to be small?” These are large-spirited authors who bring history and place alive with wit and grace.
Laurie King is a master of voice with an operatic range, beginning with the acclaimed Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes series in which the Victorian detective meets his match—in every way—in a twentieth-century female and feminist individual. Mary Russell is her own woman and would not take kindly to being described as Sherlock’s sidekick, although they are true partners in the best sense. The Russell stories deal with politics, women’s rights, religious expression, governmental oppression–as well as being grand international adventures. Her latest, Dreaming Spies, takes the couple to Japan and devious intrigue. Set later in the 1920s, King’s gritty Stuyvesant-Gray novels explore the turmoil of Europe between the Wars via a gruff American investigator and his aristocratic British “touchstone.” Her most recent, The Bones of Paris, is a chilling and atmospheric view of the art scene of the day. King has created another strong-willed character in Kate Martinelli, an SFPD homicide detective whose cases lead us deep into the beauty, eccentricity, and squalor of her city.
Catriona McPherson was born in Scotland and immigrated to America in 2010. She is proud to be the 2015 president of Sisters in Crime. She received her PhD in Linguistics from the University of Edinburgh, her thesis being “Existence and Truth in Discourse.” From there it was but a short hop to meeting up with society sleuth Dandy Gilver and, for example, A Bothersome Number of Corpses. On her website McPherson calls the Dandy series her “preposterous 1920s detective novels,” but don’t be fooled, they are smart and beautifully written with keen insight into the social issues of the day, not to mention “Dandy’s drop-dead vocabulary,” per The Scotsman. McPherson also writes what Library Journalcalls “tales of modern gothic suspense,” including The Day She Died and her latest, Come to Harm. Whether working in a whimsical or darker vein, “she is,” according to the San Francisco Book Review, “a master of dialogue, understatement and slightly twisted humor.” Which surely describes the author herself.
Kelli Stanley is the author of the Miranda Corbie detective series set in 1940s SF. Miranda is a glamorous, tough-talking investigator with a fierce commitment to justice and an inability to put up with BS. Her cases deal with anti-Semitism, racial injustice, and in her latest, City of Ghosts, Nazi art theft. Once you’ve read them, I urge you to seek out her Roman Noir novels set during the Roman occupation of Britain. Her protagonist is a mixed race doctor—“native” and Roman—an outsider-insider in service to Rome’s governor. In the midst of the crime solving, Kelli gives us a subtext of colonialism and class as well as a fascinating view of a very distant culture. Formerly out of print, Nox Dormienda—A Long Night for Sleeping—is available as an ebook. WSJ crime fiction critic Tom Nolan writes of both series: “Stanley…knows how to bring the past to life…with a wealth of references…attitudes (and) dialogue…that seem both true to another time and as spontaneous as right this minute...”
After their readings, we moved into the discussion. As these authors all write historical mysteries, I asked them how murder in “their” periods are different—and the same—from today. Basically, how are people the same over time and how does our society and culture change us?
Having recently written an historical myself, I asked about their thoughts on research, accuracy vs. “creativity.” And also about the role of geography in a story, the specificity of place.
The following was for Laurie: You write on your website: “One of the pleasures of novels is learning about different times, other places, unexpected ways of seeing the world. Setting aside the minor fact that novelists lie for a living, a novel can both open windows, and open minds.” You also write, “Historical fiction is both a window and a mirror.” Can you reflect further on this?
I had discovered a similarity between their series characters and posed this one to them all: Mary Russell, Dandy Gilver, and Miranda Corbie each seems to be writing her own script about the role of women in her period. Along with Arcturus, the British-Roman doctor (in Kellie’s Roman Noir), they are all outsiders to some extent. How does that affect their lives and work?
We discussed plotting and then took some questions and our fifty-minute panel was over too quickly. All my anxiety was for naught!
Afterward, my daughter and I explored the rest of the festival and especially, the “Lacuna” of books. Tune in next time.