In Bas Bleu’s Autumn 2016 edition, we featured Lesley Thomson’s mystery The Detective’s Daughter, which our reviewer hailed as “one of those page-turning, satisfying mysteries that may have you canceling plans in favor of staying in to read.” Our readers snapped it up, so we added the other three installments in the series to our line-up…and you loved those too! Recently, we reached out to the British novelist to find out more about what housekeepers and detectives have in common, how photography aids her writing, and her love of the subway.
Bas Bleu: The main characters of the Detective’s Daughter series are Stella Darnell and Jack Harmon, yet Stella’s father, Terry, remains a looming presence throughout, even though he dies in the beginning of the first book. How important to the series is Terry? Did you ever consider writing a book with him as the protagonist?
Lesley Thomson: I am looking at featuring Terry in more depth in a future story, as I did in The Detective’s Daughter, where Terry has scenes that only the reader “experiences” because Stella and Jack can’t be there. Terry is vital to the series. He is why Stella becomes a detective. Detection is in her blood and—unconsciously—she is drawn to it as a way to find connection with her dead father. However, I haven’t considered devoting a whole novel to Terry.
BB: We read that you once worked in an Australian subway station. How did that experience inform a character like Jack, who drives a train for the London Underground? Do you know anyone with any of Jack’s peculiar quirks?
LT: I sold newspapers and books in a subway concession. It’s still my favorite job. I loved getting to know the passengers and being slick with giving them change and the right paper in double quick time so they could get their train. However, it didn’t influence my invention of Jack. I do know a character with some of his quirks. Me. I love the clatter and darkness of subway stations, whether in New York, Sydney, or in London where I grew up. I love the mystery of tunnels, and I’m obsessive about number plates. There the similarity stops! If I could tell my left from my right, I’d have loved to be an Underground train driver. Actually, thinking about it, since a train is on a set of tracks maybe that’s not out of the question…
BB: When she’s not solving cold cases and hunting murderers, Stella Darnell runs a successful house cleaning business. We (like many of your readers, we’d imagine) would pay good money for Stella to give our houses a deep clean. Are you as meticulous and tidy as Stella? Why did you decide to have her be a professional cleaner?
LT: No, I’m a lackadaisical cleaner. I’m rather a stranger to the mop and bucket. When I do clean, it’s like charades, I do it “in the manner” of Stella and I deep clean. I haven’t accepted that eventually dust returns and cleaning isn’t a one-off activity. I’d love to have Stella clean for me. She’s thorough and she’s not judgmental about mess. In my study, I’m surrounded by piles of books, boxes of research papers and edited typescripts. Today, bits of shredded paper are scattered like confetti over the carpet from my clumsy emptying of the shredder.
A cleaner, like a detective, has the right to enter strangers’ houses and offices and get into the darkest corners. They have a forensic approach and notice tiny detail. A cleaner and a detective arrive into chaos and, by removing stains and solving crimes, they restore order. As the daughter of a detective, Stella is in contention with the profession. At eighteen, she refused to join the police as an act of rebellion against her dad. But she chose a profession that demanded similar qualities and skills. Although I don’t think Stella could solve murders without Jack’s intuition and odd take on life. They need each other.
BB: When you starting writing The Detective’s Daughter (the first book in the series), did you have a multi-book series in mind, or did that concept develop later?
LT: I always intended to write a series. I love reading crime series. These days most crime-writers develop storylines for their main characters, which carry through subsequent books. The characters develop and change with experience. I find this as rewarding as the suspense of each individual novel.
BB: We saw on your website that you use photography in developing your stories. Can you discuss that process?
LT: I’ve always taken photographs. My dad had a darkroom in our cellar and I was given a Box Brownie camera aged about eight. Now I use my phone, which has a good lens. I love the instant appearance of an image—although I used to find it magical to watch a photograph emerge in the developing fluid shrouded in the darkness of the cellar. There was a tension that the picture would emerge at all!
I write with a visual perspective. I see each scene, framed like a picture. For me the two mediums are inextricably linked. In the early stages of writing a novel, I take pictures of the location—partly for record, but also because on these visits I inhabit the character (e.g. Jack or Stella and always the murderer!) and my pictures are taken from their points of view. I become immersed in the developing story. Later, I use the photos to confirm detail and to re-enter the atmosphere. The pictures on my website are from the story not just for the story.
BB: Your books are engrossing investigations of chilling crimes, yet they’re also compelling and well-developed character studies. What drew you to the mystery genre? Which authors have influenced your work?
LT: I’m fascinated by the effects of a dramatic event on the individuals concerned. On their relationships and lives at the time and over time, a span of years. Murder is life-changing for those left behind. As a reader I’m keen to know “whodunit” so that’s always a consideration, but I want to know why it was done and what happened next and long after. What makes people kill? How does an event when someone was a child change their life? I’m interested in the stuff of life. And death. The mystery genre offers huge scope for drama and suspense, it’s perfect for the stories I want to tell.
My big influences include: Charles Dickens, (Jack loves Our Mutual Friend), Wilkie Collins, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters (Emily’s Wuthering Heights is the only novel that Stella has read), Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine blew my mind in my twenties, E.M. Forster (particularly Howard’s End), and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books.
BB: What other books would you recommend for Bas Bleu readers who loved your series?
LT: Anything by Elly Griffiths. I’ve just finished and enjoyed, The Chalk Pit. I love her warm, witty, absorbing stories and engaging characters. There’s always something to learn whether about archeological finds or how to perform magic. I recently discovered Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series and am hooked. I love Ann Cleeves’s novels. Like Elly Griffiths—who brings the Norfolk coast alive—Cleeves conjures up the gusty unforgiving landscape of Shetland and makes me want to go there. I return again and again to Agatha Christie (4.50 from Paddington, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd…) I’ve been a fan of Sue Grafton since A is for Alibi and eagerly await the publication of each “alphabet letter”—respect!
BB: What future projects can readers look forward to seeing from you?
LT: The Dog Walker, the fifth in the series, comes out in the next weeks. It’s a creepy, scary story set on a dark and lonely towpath by the River Thames in London. There’re lots of dogs in it—including Stanley, Stella’s poodle. I spend a couple of hours each day tramping over the hills with my small dog, solving plot issues and inventing stories. All the dog walkers I meet are nice but I wondered, supposing one of them wasn’t so nice…?
I’m currently writing the sixth in the series due out in 2018. Stella and Jack move to the countryside to solve a murder. It’s a setting that neither of them relishes—too much mud for Stella and not enough streets for Jack, although he likes the pitch-black of the nights and the eerie hoot of a short-eared owl.
BB: Many thanks to Lesley Thomson for sharing her insight into her novels and characters!
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