Agatha Christie is famous the world over for her crime fiction, from stand alone novels to the eponymous Poirot and Marple with only the Bible and Shakespeare out selling her novels. From today until Christmas Eve, I will be having a post every day focussing on Agatha Christie. There will be a range of posts from reviews to guest posts, all celebrating the doyenne of crime fiction. First up on the Twelve Days of Christiemas (not sorry) is Sara Sheridan. Sara is the author of the Mirabelle Bevan series, The Secret Mandarin and The Ice Maiden.
What Agatha Did
I was about 12 when I first read an Agatha Christie novel – it was on the bookshelf in a holiday house we were staying in. I had no idea who she was and remember wondering if she’d written anything else. At home I checked her out in the adult section of the library, to which I’d recently graduated from the children’s section and for several months I read just about everything she had written. Safe to say, I was hooked.
The joy of Christie is her accessibility. Like many mid-20th century female writers, she is highly readable. Later, I would catch the same tone of voice in the work of DE Stevenson and Dot Allan, among others. It’s a commercial tone. But what makes Christie’s books different is her control of the story and her sense of intrigue. Every novel is an exercise in cracking a puzzle.
I never intended to write crime fiction, but in between historical novels, one summer I wrote a short story set in 1951 in Brighton. It was a present for my father’s birthday. From there, things escalated. The short story became a novel and before it was even finished, I knew I was writing a series. The 1950s is a seminal decade in British culture. It’s like visiting the place you live in a dream, and discovering that it is different in 1000 tiny ways – a house that was redecorated and remodeled, but still a place you know well. For me writing murder mysteries is a way of looking at where I come from (both personally and culturally – my father was brought up in London and Brighton in the 1940s and 1950s so lots of details in the stories relate to family tales.)
Christie is still in there, of course, but not because of the period. People forget that she was a contemporary novelist and her reputation is as a traditional crime writer – classifications like ‘cosy crime’ are often used to describe her work. This mystifies me because her storylines are darker than those of many contemporary police procedural novels. In her day, she was considered edgy, not only because of her plots but because she included characters, for example, who were gay or divorced (both subjects taboo in polite society of the period) and because her books discussed money (the British in the 1950s would pretty much rather die than discuss finances.)
For me, when I was designing the Mirabelle Bevan Mysteries, I wanted to capture some of Agatha’s techniques but some of her sharp edges feel charming these days – like a comfortable old jumper that used to be scratchy. While the puzzles endure, the lure is often the lush settings of her work – the Orient Express or the glamor of archaeological digs in 1930s Egypt. We think of her as a historical novelist. I spent a lot of time researching the 1950s – I am a self-confessed swot – and while Christie’s array of personal relationships ceased to be culturally shocking decades ago, unearthing Pathe newsreels made me realise that the edge of the 1950s now resides in gender politics and race relations. Footage of men talking about women and white people talking about black people genuinely shocked me. This was the world I wanted to revisit – the world in which my mother met my father, the advent of Windrush generation – directly after the war, when our grannies had been running the country. That in itself, for me, was a box I wanted to unlock and Christie, of course, held many of the keys.
About the books
The latest in the Mirabelle Bevan series, Russian Roulette, was published by Constable on 6 July 2018.
When Mirabelle’s on-off boyfriend, Superintendent Alan McGregor, is taken off a gruesome murder case because the key suspect is an old school friend, Mirabelle steps in to unravel the tangle of poisoned gin, call girls and high stakes gambling that surrounds the death. It isn’t long before McGregor’s integrity is called into question and Mirabelle finds herself doubting him. So when a wartime hero’s body turns up on the Sussex Downs, she is glad that McGregor is caught up in a mystery of his own as Brighton’s establishment closes ranks.
Mirabelle is in a dangerous situation though and she doesn’t have McGregor watching her back on this one. And when the dead man on the Downs turns out to have been a member of a deadly thrillseekers club, related to the earlier murder, Mirabelle is determined to uncover the truth and free the innocent people who are bearing the brunt of the cover up. As her relationship with McGregor reaches breaking point, she has to draw on all her wartime experience to stand up for what she believes in – even if it means their relationship may not survive.
The Ice Maiden was published by Severn House on 31 July 2018.
1842. Karina, disguised as a cabin boy, stows away on a British ship, but she is in for a nasty shock. As conditions worsen onboard, Karina and the crew tested to their limits. Then something extraordinary happens and Karina’s story becomes intertwined with some of the 20th century’s bravest Polar explorers.
About the author
Sara Sheridan was born in Edinburgh and studied at Trinity College, Dublin. As well as writing the popular Mirabelle Bevan Murder Mysteries, she also writes a set of historical novels set between 1820 and 1845, one of which was shortlisted for the Wilbur Smith Award 2017. Fascinated particularly by female history, she is a cultural commentator who appears regularly on television and radio. She also writes commercial non-fiction, including the 2017 tie-in book for the ITV series Victoria and, in 2018, an imagined female atlas of Scotland.
Sara tweets about her writing life as @sarasheridan and has a Facebook page at @sarasheridanwriter.