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Saturday 5 February 2022

Writing Golden Age-style mysteries for the 21st Century by Fiona Veitch Smith


Fiona Veitch Smith

Any mystery, crime or detective story set in the 1920s or 30s will immediately draw comparisons with the greats of the Golden Age: Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Chesterton, Allingham, and their peers. However, it is quite different writing a book set in that period to writing a book during that period.

I did not set out to write Golden Age-style mysteries. I simply wrote a story that caught my imagination. Comparisons with the Golden Age writers only emerged in the reviews, with, to my surprise, people comparing me to both Christie and Sayers. I have read and enjoyed them both – Sayers particularly – but I can’t say I ever immersed myself in their books. However, after this comparison kept coming up, I started reading them again. I see now that my writing, unconsciously, is a cross between the two. I have the plotting of Christie and the characterisation and style of Sayers. Or at least a pale shadow of them.

The Sayers comparison particularly pleased me as what I saw in the Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane books, apart from the delicious mystery, was astute social observation and an author with something to say about the world. I hope to do something similar with my Poppy Denby books. When I look at the challenges women in the 1920s faced, I hope to point beyond that to the challenges women face today (something that Sayers did so well, particularly in her classic Gaudy Night). In the Wimsey and Vane books there is also a balance between darkness and light, seriousness and wit that I too try to convey.

Christie is the queen of plotting and I know I don’t come near her fiendish cleverness in the mysteries I weave. But I do try. My favourite Christies are And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express. Both are masterclasses in claustrophobia and the twist at the end of the tail. I also enjoy what Christie is subtly saying about corporate guilt and that all of us have the potential and motive within us to kill. I consciously drew on this in the fourth book of the series, The Cairo Brief, which is the only one of my books which is a deliberate homage to Agatha Christie.

Christie’s characterisation at times lacks depth, and in that Sayers takes the crown. However, in the Tommy and Tuppence books (loved and hated with equal passion) I enjoy the playfulness of the characters and the vibrant charm of 1920s London, and I think some of that is reflected in my Poppy Denby books.

As an author, one of the most common questions you are asked is: where do you get your ideas? That’s a hard question to answer, as my creative antennae are constantly tuned for inspiration. However, looking back there are often spark moments.

With The Jazz Files, it was while I was in Morpeth, laying flowers on the grave of Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragette who died throwing a scarf onto the King’s horse, at the Epsom Derby in 1913. I remember musing: what if I write about a suffragette detective investigating the murder of some of Emily’s associates? I like to think, perhaps, that the ghost of Emily was whispering in my ear.

The second book, The Kill Fee, came from reading a book about the survivors of the
Romanov family fleeing the Russian Revolution and coming to London and Paris. The book mentioned that the family were carrying ‘rolled-up Rembrandts and Faberge eggs in their luggage’ and I wondered what might happen if my reporter sleuth, Poppy, met some of the Romanovs in London and if a Faberge egg were stolen.

The Death Beat, set in New York, had a more contemporary spark. I was watching the news about the first wave of refugees fleeing the Syrian war in boats and was reminded that this was not the first or last time in history something like this had happened. I looked back at the refugees fleeing Eastern Europe after WW1, many of them heading to America, and saw so many parallels with today.

The Cairo Brief was inspired by news about artefacts at the British Museum being claimed by their original owners.


The Art Fiasco was sparked by a visit to the Laing Art Gallery
in Newcastle while I was reading a biography of Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell, as well as a murder in my own family history.

Then finally, my most recent book, The Crystal Crypt, was birthed as I was listening to a radio documentary about Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964. She had been overlooked for years by the Nobel committee, until eventually, some male scientists applied pressure for her recognition.  The headline in British newspapers the next day was ‘Oxford housewife wins Nobel Prize’ – I was absolutely outraged when I heard this and immediately had the idea of focusing the next book on a brilliant female scientist and her struggle for respect.

Hodgkin was influential in confirming the structure of penicillin, vitamin B12 and insulin and when I discovered she had a laboratory in Oxford in the 1920s it was too much of a temptation to resist. The laboratory was in the basement of what is now the Science Museum on Broad Street where she and her colleagues worked on experiments involving Xray crystallography.

However, like with all my books, events of the past seem to find contemporary resonance. I began writing The Crystal Crypt back in December 2019 and was fortunate to be able to visit Oxford for research before the national lockdown began in March 2020, and then again, with the lockdown partially lifted, in August. When I was there I became aware that my story was set in the same city where one of the Covid vaccines was being developed by a team led by Professor Sarah Gilbert.

Suddenly my idea about these female Oxford scientists who had been overlooked and not championed or fully appreciated in their lifetime took on new meaning as we started hearing the name of Professor Gilbert and her team more frequently on the news, while she and her colleagues were being lauded (Professor Gilbert now has her own Barbie doll!) and sadly derided. But they were definitely not being ignored. It hit me how far female scientists have come from being overlooked back in Hodgkin’s day.

It seemed appropriate that I finished writing the foreword for the book in March 2021 with a slightly sore arm, because I had just had the Oxford Astra Zeneca vaccine. It was a physical reminder of these amazing women of science that I wanted to celebrate with this book.

Fiona Veitch Smith’s Poppy Denby Investigates books are set in the roaring 20s. Immersed in the fashion, culture, politics and social challenges of the time, the novels weave intricate mysteries packed with whodunits and red herrings. Fiona, like Poppy, was formerly a journalist, and lives in Newcastle upon Tyne with her husband and teenage daughter.

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