I recently attended an event featuring three historical mystery writers at Aunt Agatha’s bookstore. Two of the authors – Jeanne M. Dams and D.E. Johnson – set their mystery series in the United States during the early 1900s. The third, Carrie Bebris, writes mysteries set in Regency England. And for AAR readers who like mysteries with a bit of romance, I can definitely recommend the books by Ms. Dams and Ms. Bebris.
Jeanne M. Dams, Murder in Burnt Orange, is the 7th in her Hilda Johansson series, set in early 1900s South Bend, Indiana. When the series began, Hilda was a maid to the Studebakers, the wealthy South Bend family who owned the Studebaker car company. Hilda quickly became involved with mysteries. A lot has changed for Hilda over the course of the series, and by the seventh book, she’s married and pregnant with her first child. Ms. Dams also writes the Dorothy Martin series featuring an ex-pat American widow in her sixties who lives in England.
Carrie Bebris’ The Deception at Lyme, is the sixth in her Mr. and Mrs. Darcy series; yes, that Mr. and Mrs. Darcy. Each book in the series is based loosely on the characters from a Jane Austen books. Ms. Bebris refers to them as the Nick and Nora Charles of Regency England, but they drink tea instead of alcohol. In her latest, Elizabeth and Darcy go to Lyme (setting for the seawall scene in Austen’s Persuasion).
D. E. Johnson’s latest book, his second, Motor City Shakedown is set in 1911 Detroit. His protagonist, Will Anderson, is the fictional son of a real Detroit car company owner. In his second book, Will walks into the first mob war in Detroit history.
The owner of the bookstore introduced the authors, and they pretty much took over from there. It was a lively discussion covering a large number of topics. I found it interesting from a procedural standpoint, as the authors each asked their fellow authors questions, and at times offered tips or suggestions.
One of the more interesting discussions focused on how the authors plot their books. Ms. Dams said that she starts every book with the setting. Then she decides what group of people will inhabit the setting and what types of trouble they’ll get into. At that point, she lets the characters tell her what’s going to happen. Ms. Dams said that in her current work in progress, she didn’t know who the murderer was going to be until she was two-thirds through writing the book.
Carrie Bebris commented that plotting is her weak point. She said that she begins with the characters in the specific Austen book she’s working from, and then rereads the Austen novel to look for threads Austen didn’t fully explore. Ms. Bebris said that that Austen resolved the romance in Persuasion (the inspiration for her latest release) in a very satisfactory way, but left a lot else unexplored. At that point Ms. Bebris does extensive research on the historical facts appropriate for the book. For The Deception at Lyme, she did extensive research on the Royal Navy. She commented that the research often gives her ideas for plot points.
Ms. Dams picked up on the notion of thorough research. She said that she wanted to set a murder in Buckingham Palace for one of her Dorothy Martin books. However, when she took a tour of Buckingham Palace she discovered that there are security cameras everywhere, which would have made the murder she had in mind implausible.
D.E. Johnson said that he tries to emphasize a different aspect of Detroit’s history in each book. While his current book incorporates early Detroit mob wars, his next will focus on Eloise Hospital, a rather notorious psychiatric hospital at the time.
Another interesting discussion focused on keeping their characters authentic for the time period. Ms. Dams said that she tries her best “not to turn Hilda into a 21st century feminist.” However, she noted that it’s difficult dealing with the prejudices of the time without offending and angering modern readers.
Carrie Bebris picked up on this and said that she also has to stay true to Austen’s characters. In one of her recent books, gypsies were critical to the plot. She had to write the gypsies realistically, but also had to be authentic to the prejudice against gypsies at the time. Ms. Bebris noted that it’s a difficult balancing act staying true to the culture of the times while not offending current readers. D.E. Johnson commented that he struggles to make his character authentic, but also sympathetic.
The authors briefly touched on future projects. Carrie Bebris’ next book will be based on Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon. After that, she’s contemplating a number of projects. When asked, she said that her future works will probably also have literary connections, noting that she enjoys reading mysteries with literary connections such as Amanda Cross’ Kate Fansler series and Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series.
Jeanne Dams noted that she’s a lay preacher and is toying with a possible new series featuring a woman lay preacher who goes from church to church, finding mysteries at each one. But she assured the audience that she is still writing both the Hilda Johansson and Dorothy Martin books.
D.E. Johnson said that he’s not a big believer in happy endings. His protaganist is learning “every game comes with a cost.” He said that he doesn’t “think” he’ll kill his protaganist off, but also doesn’t think he’ll have him get together with Elizabeth, his ex-fiancee. He said he wants to maintain the sexual tension. Johnson said that he is exploring writing books outside of mysteries, perhaps a fantasy set in 1910-1912.
I’ve had D. E. Johnson’s first book, The Detroit Electric Scheme, in my TBR pile for nearly a year. I’m afraid it may be just a bit too dark for my tastes. However, I’ve personally read all but the latest by Carrie Bebris and have enjoyed the series. I’ve only read the first of Jeanne M. Dam’s Hilda Johansson series, but am looking forward to reading more. It’s really a different setting, and I enjoy the incorporation of historical events into the books. I think that both of these series may appeal to AAR readers who enjoy historical mysteries with a bit of romance.
– LinnieGayl AAR