Susanna Calkins, author of A Death Along the River Fleet — the 4th Lucy Campion Mystery — was kind enough to answer some of Criminal Element's questions about her love for the mystery genre, writing about 17th century England, and being nominated for this year's Mary Higgin's Clark Award.
What authors have inspired your writing?
Like most mystery authors, I was hugely inspired by Agatha Christie. Hers were the first books I ever purchased for myself—when I was 12 years old, I remember going to the bookstore to buy one every time I could muster up $2.50. I also loved Lois Duncan and Phyllis Whitney, and later on, Anne Perry, who in their own ways all influenced me greatly, particularly in terms of writing suspense and mystery.
What is it about 17th Century London that appeals so much to you?
Two events: the Plague of 1664-1665 and the Great Fire of London (which occurred in the “Devils year”: 1666). The whole world was turned upside down from these calamitous events, and bonds of community were completely disrupted. Lots of identity theft occurred—apprentices became masters, servants took over households—with no one the wiser. And with so much death around, it was not so hard to commit murder…
Tell us about Lucy Campion. Where did you draw her from? Was she based off anyone you know?
I think in some ways Lucy—a chambermaid-turned-printer’s-apprentice—reflects the kind of person I’d like to have been, had I lived in the 17th century. I’m pretty sure I would have been an uneducated servant, like her, and I would like to believe that I would have tried to teach myself to read and write, as she did. But otherwise she’s definitely not me; if I saw a dead body, I’d run away screaming, not try to pluckily solve the crime or bring murderers to justice.
In the past, you've written for us about the various forensic crime solving methods available to 17th Century sleuths, including autopsies, dental records, and even fingerprinting. Which old-school method is your favorite to write about? And can we expect any new tricks to be hidden up Lucy Campion's sleeve in A Death Along the River Fleet?
Great question! In addition to autopsies, in A Death Along the River Fleet, Lucy and Constable Duncan discover clues by reading “True Accounts” of murder, examining the cloth of a partially-burned dress, identifying crushed herbs within an amulet, and perhaps most surprisingly, discovering who had performed blood-letting on a mysterious woman’s body.
You've already discussed Anne Holmes, who is quite possibly England's first female sleuth. Is Lucy based off Anne? Do you have any other interesting characters from history that have influenced your writing? Or any fun stories we may have missed in history class?
I didn’t know about Anne Holmes specifically when I started writing about Lucy, but history is full of curious, determined people (women as well as men). The penny press that informs my mysteries is full of fascinating accounts of crime, describing not only the murderers and their victims, but also the community members who pursued the perpetrators and brought them to justice. (This may seem surprising, but in my time, there was not yet an established police force). I try to write my stories the same way I teach history—by using vivid examples of odd, bizarre characters and events, to keep my readers entertained.
What are you currently binging on Netflix?
Ha! All crime-related dramas basically. Currently re-binging on Nikita with my older son Alex.
What book(s) are you currently reading?
I’m really enjoying reading Chris Colfer’s Land of Stories with my younger son Quentin. For my personal reading, I’ve recently read Duane Swierczynski’s Canary (as you know!), Lou Berney’s The Long and Far Away Gone, and Catriona MacPherson’s The Child Garden. I’m really looking forward to reading: Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye.
What does it mean to see your novel nominated for this year's Mary Higgins Clark Award?
To say that I’m thrilled and honored sounds like such a cliché, but it is completely true. I remember reading Mary Higgins Clark's Where Are the Children? when I was a teenager and it was nothing like anything I had ever read before. In fact, there were scenes from that novel that I’ve thought about off and on over the years which, to me, epitomizes excellent story-telling and true suspense. I was walking by a bookstore the other day and I saw her most recent novel in the window (As Time Goes By). I thought, “My goodness, my book has been nominated for an award named in honor of this amazing author.” That was another breath-taking moment, to be sure.
What do you think of your competition in the category?
You know, I’ve already read two of my sister nominees’ books and I can’t wait to read the others. From Hollywood to a small town in Indiana, from the wilds of the Scottish countryside to a more serene post-WWI English country manor, the other nominees’ books offer a wonderful range of dramatic backdrops. Frances Brody’s A Woman Unknown is exactly the kind of book I’d like to curl up with a cup of tea. Catriona Mcpherson’s The Child Garden is beautifully written and really put me in dark shivery and delicious mood (I had tea with that one too, but I think I pulled the blanket around me a little tighter. But it is an enthralling read). Hallie Ephron’s Night Night, Sleep Tight sounds so suspenseful and dramatic, and has such an intriguing premise…I’ll probably have a glass of wine when I read that one! Lastly, Lori Rader-Day’s Little Pretty Things vividly brought me back to my own high school days and how those long-ago rivalries can still haunt us today. Hers is a captivating and engaging page-turner. Naturally, I highly recommend all of them!
How has Mary Higgins Clark's writing influenced your own?
I think that I’ve always been drawn to compelling mysteries with a resourceful female lead who can take care of herself and get herself out of trouble, which is one of the hallmarks of MHC’s novels. I wanted Lucy to push the restrictive boundaries of 17th century patriarchy (in a plausible and realistic way). For this reason, I had her create for herself a fairly novel position in this society—a female printer’s apprentice and bookseller. I’ve never enjoyed reading stories about females who can’t or won't overcome their circumstances, nor do I enjoy gratuitous violence or sex in mysteries. So I basically write the books I enjoy reading. But I didn’t want to gloss over the violence of the era either, since it was certainly a tough time in which to live — disease, fire, and even simple accidents could bring about a quick end. While I allude to the miserable conditions that surround Lucy, particularly in the aftermath of the plague and Great Fire of London, I’m much more interested in the impact of violence on a community, rather than describing the violence itself (which mostly occurs off-scene).
Susanna Calkins became fascinated with seventeenth-century England while pursuing her doctorate in British history and uses her fiction to explore this chaotic period. Originally from Philadelphia, Calkins now lives outside of Chicago with her husband and two sons.A Death Along the River Fleet is her fourth novel.