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Monday 1 February 2021

Interview - Victoria Dowd

Dot Marshall-Gent in conversation with
Victoria Dowd

Victoria Dowd studied law at Cambridge University and worked as a criminal barrister before becoming a full-time author. 
She is a successful writer of short fiction and has won several awards including the Go Gothic Short Story Award 2019 for her tale, Vengeance and the Doctor  Victoria also writes the Adapting Agatha series about adaptations of Agatha Christie’s work. 
She has had short stories published in the BTS Literary and Arts Annual, Dream Catcher arts journal and Gold Dust Magazine. 
Her historical fiction, The Painter of Siena, was published in 2016. 
Victoria’s debut crime fiction novel, The Smart Woman’s Guide to Murder,
has received great reviews and was announced as Book of the Year 2020 by In Search of the Classic Mystery.  She has just been announced as a finalist in The People’s Book Prize for the novel.  Along with these accolades she has been invited to speak at this year’s International Agatha Christie festival.  2021 promises to be a busy year!

Dot: Hi Victoria, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for Mystery People.  I’d like to begin by talking about your debut novel The Smart Woman’s Guide To Murder.  It is the perfect blend of comedy and crime, sometimes I laughed at things I thought I shouldn’t have!  What inspires you to inject humour into your writing?
Hi Dot and thank you very much. That’s really kind of you. I love comedy that comes at really awkward, unexpected moments. I think some of the funniest things can happen at the most inappropriate moments. Murder mysteries are all about death, of course, but I think they present a huge opportunity for darkly comic moments. I love that moment when emotions are so heightened and the tension is excruciating, then just dropping in something so unexpected. It’s that point where they intersect that I think is just wonderful. I love writing those moments!

Dot: I loved Ursula’s wry observations of her mother’s book club.  Could you say something about the importance of the daughter and mother connection, or should I say disconnection, within the novel.
Golden Age Detective novels are sometimes criticised for having somewhat one-dimensional characters. The twisted plot is the main focus. However, I wanted to have a classic murder mystery but with real characters that modern readers could relate to. I chose a book club because it’s pretty familiar territory for many people these days and they are a source of a huge amount of turmoil and gossip. But Ursula and her mother’s relationship is really at the centre of the book and drives everything else. I wanted to write a book with very strong, but realistic women at the heart of it. That can feel really raw sometimes. They don’t care what anyone else thinks about their relationship. This is the reality of them. It’s very tangled and enmeshed with their mutual grief. It’s difficult and often incredibly abrasive. But strong relationships in families can be like that. It can be difficult to watch. They are often so caught up in their own complicated relationship that they’re utterly unaware of how the outside world will see them. I wanted the reader to see all those intensely private, difficult moments so they really knew these women up close and personal.

Dot: Early in the novel you punctuate the action to allow Ursula, and the reader, a moment to contemplate grief and loss.  Would you tell us why it was important for you to include these often unexpectedly confessional moments?
Something I think murder mysteries often don’t pay very much attention to is the characters’ response to death, which is a strange thing given that there’s a dead body at the middle of everything. I wanted to move death and, more importantly, our response to it right to the heart of the book. Ursula is a very fractured character and grief is the over-riding reason for that. She’s never really got over the death of her father and it has coloured every part of her, particularly her relationship with her mother. I didn’t want to push that to the side. I thought it would be rather false to ignore the fact that she’s far from perfect and the reasons for that. To put someone who is already very damaged and frightened by death into a murder mystery situation felt like I was really pushing her to the absolute edge of what she could deal with and that can be a fascinating place to put a character because no one really has any idea how she’s going to act. If she was going to be genuine and someone readers could believe in, then her darker moments had to be allowed to shine as well. I wanted the readers to see exactly who she really is.

Dot: I am not the only reader or reviewer who has commented on your use of luxurious prose to evoke gothic horror.  This prompts me to ask which authors’ works you enjoy reading and how they impact on your writing.
Victoria: Yes, that has attracted a lot of comment and I didn’t really expect that. Murder mysteries do tend to have a very stark writing style a lot of the time so I think it comes as a bit of a surprise that I do write in a slightly different way. But I’m a huge fan of gothic fiction. I grew up in Yorkshire and developed a bit of an obsession with the Brontes! I love that feeling of the dark drawing in and cold isolation that books such as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre so beautifully capture. I personally think murder mysteries are a perfect place for that. It’s an isolated country house and there’s a killer on the loose so, to me, fear and the creepy setting are an essential part of the story. I love Daphne du Maurier and books such as Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel where the dark, shadowy setting is so key to the story. It’s disorientating and heightens that sense of anxiety from the very beginning. I’m a huge fan of writers such as Susan Hill. She creates that amazing sense of tension and darkness before anything else. I am also very influenced by writers who go even further into actual horror such as M.R. James. I love the excruciating fear he creates and, although my book has comedy, I wanted there to be moments when the reader was genuinely scared. I think it’s something people don’t talk about so much in Golden Age Fiction. But often there is a sense of real fear. I vividly remember first reading Murder on the Orient Express and being absolutely terrified at this dark, cold world of isolation Agatha Christie had created where any one of the passengers was a potential murderer. I love And Then There Were None for that terrible feeling of darkness and desolation where the victims are trapped with no way out and seemingly no one is coming to rescue them. I love how Agatha Christie often injects the possibility of there being an element of the supernatural at work. A gothic crumbling house seemed like the perfect place to set my book. I’m also a huge fan of Josephine Tey, who uses quite lyrical writing in her murder mysteries. I read a lot of Golden Age Detective fiction from people such as Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers and John Dickson Carr. I’ve also recently discovered a reprint of Brian Flynn’s books which are absolutely wonderful.

Dot: How did you develop the plot in The Smart Woman’s Guide To Murder and do you have a clear process when you write or do you have an idea that is a starting point and then run with it?
I am very methodical in the way I work. I think most whodunnit writers are. The central bones of the book are the plot, the red herrings and all those tiny clues. I have to get that spot on as I know people are trying to work out the puzzle more than anything else. I can’t afford to get one tiny thing out of place so I plan a lot. I have my ‘murder boards’ where all the maps, photographs, little snippets go and then I start to link it all together. It can look a little like I’m actually planning a murder! Once I’ve got the structure in place, then I start to add little extra clues and lots of blind alleys. I’m trying to lead the reader astray whilst playing fair with them and giving every piece of information they need to work it out without them paying that any attention at all.

Dot: Could you tell us something about how you made the transition from being a defence barrister to becoming a full-time writer?

Victoria: It’s been quite a long road really. Although, I was a criminal barrister and always wanted to write crime fiction, I started with short stories, which I still love writing. They were mostly dark tales and ghost stories. Ididn’t really ever see it as a full-time job though. But I started to get a few things published in literary journals and magazines. I think the real turning point came when I won the Gothic Fiction prize for short fiction and then I started to think I could actually do this. When Joffe Books said they wanted to publish my books it was just so amazing as they’re such a fabulous home for a crime writer. It was a perfect fit.

 Dot: And, along with the successes you have had with your short stories, you’ve also published a work of historical fiction The Painter of Siena.  What challenges do you face when you decide to write a new story or contemplate writing the next novel?
I think the most challenging thing is when the idea has formed, the plan is made and I’ve written the first draft. I read that back and think, ‘Oh my, how is this ever going to be a book/story?’ That first draft is always so far below the image of what I had in mind that the challenge of actually forming it into what I wanted it to be is huge. I’ve learnt that it’s actually just daily slog from that point and reading and re-reading it a thousand times!

 Dot: That leads perfectly into my next question which is about your writing schedule.  Do you write each day for a prescribed time and how do you fit in work on your website alongside your other writing commitments?

Victoria: I’m quite strict with myself. I write for about 5 to 6 hours a day usually. The book always takes priority as I’ve found it’s far too easy to spend a whole day on other things such as social media. If I’m going to do something like work on the website, I’ll do that first thing and devote an hour to it before starting writing. I work with ear plugs in so I completely shut out the outside world.

Dot: The Smart Woman’s Guide To Murder introduces several characters who actually survive the book club weekend.  Despite Ursula’s dismissive attitude to them, understandable though it is, I am looking forward to meeting them again in the sequel which I believe is coming early in 2021.  Could you tell us a little bit about it?
Thank you. The sequel is called Body on the Island and is due out on 23rd February 2021. This one has been wonderful fun to write as it’s the characters who survived the first book. They decide they weren’t actually very good at surviving so embark on a Bear Grylls’ style survival course to the Outer Hebrides. Not everything goes according to plan and they end up on an isolated, uninhabited island and the murders begin. It’s been very funny to write, as it’s not really their natural habitat, but also a fantastic opportunity to write about this wonderful environment. It’s based on a real island in the Outer Hebrides that I discovered from the work of an amazing photographer. I won’t say which island, as there’s going to be a little competition to see who can guess the name of the island. But it’s a beautiful, wild place with only one house and a chapel. No one lives there anymore but I’ve spoken to the owner and had plans to visit which have been slightly put on hold due to the current situation. It also provides a wonderful opportunity for me to indulge all those gothic themes I love so much. The islands have a rich tradition of folk tales and all manner of strange and frightening myths that have been fantastic to research.

Dot: Finally, you obviously have a pretty full schedule but is there anything else on your literary horizon that we can look out for?
I’ve got a few things lined up for next year. Obviously, everyone is unsure about various literary festivals and events this year but hopefully those will open up at some time. I’m speaking at the International Agatha Christie festival this year which isn’t until September so might be a live event. I’m also a finalist in the People’s Book Prize which is hopefully going to be a lovely evening later in the year and will be my first prize giving ceremony! With the book coming out in February, I have a few wonderful interviews scheduled, which will be on Zoom I suspect, coming up with people such as the Motherload book club and the UK Crime Book Club. I’m also a member of the D20 authors who are a fantastic group of authors who all had the pleasure of being Debut authors in 2020! We’re hoping to put out a collection of short stories this year and that will be a fabulous eclectic mix of authors from crime to historical fiction, fact and children’s books. I do hope some of the literary festivals happen later in the year as I’m looking forward to finally meeting in person all the lovely people I’ve met online this year!

 Dot: Sentiments that I know are shared by the Mystery People community.  Meanwhile, thank you giving us such a fascinating insight into your work as a writer, Victoria. 

Note: Readers can vote for The Smart Woman’s Guide To Murder via the People’s Book Prize website just follow this link:
Voting continues until 30th April 2021

Victoria’s website can be accessed via:

where you will find the Adapting Agatha series and can watch the author read excerpts from
The Smart Woman’s Guide To Murder.
Dot Marshall-Gent worked in the emergency services for twenty years first as a police officer, then as a paramedic and finally as a fire control officer before graduating from King’s College, London as a teacher of English in her mid-forties.  She completed a M.A. in Special and Inclusive Education at the Institute of Education, London and now teaches part-time and writes mainly about educational issues.  Dot sings jazz and country music and plays guitar, banjo and piano as well as being addicted to reading mystery and crime fiction. 

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