Dot Marshall-Gent in Conversation with
Judith Cutler hails from the Midlands where she lived for many years.
She studied English at university and worked as an English lecturer at an inner-city college of further education; later she taught Creative Writing at Birmingham University amongst other places, including on a Greek Island and in a maximum security prison!
Marrying Edward Marston, Judith moved from her beloved Birmingham to Kent and then the Cotswolds.
She has written no fewer than six contemporary series featuring strong female protagonists, five stand-alone novels and two historical series one set in the Regency Period and another in the Victorian era. This amounts to forty-nine novels not to mention a plethora of short stories which have been broadcast and published in magazines and anthologies. Most of her novels are available as audiobooks. Judith has been Secretary of the Crime Writers’ Association and amongst her many speaking engagements was a Keynote speaker at the 2023 Mystery Fest in Portsmouth.
Dot: Hi Judith and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for Mystery People. May I begin by asking about your latest book, The Dead Hand. It’s an intriguing title and reflects the mystery at the heart of the novel. Could you tell our readers how the Harriet and Matthew Rowsley series came about and where you get your ideas from?
Judith: Thank you for inviting me to wave to such a lovely supportive group. In these torrid times, it’s wonderful to read reviews which don’t rely on mockery or vituperation.Historians will often talk about ‘their’ period – an era in which they specialise. For me (not a historian!) it’s the Regency, in which I set my Tobias Campion series. I knew comparatively little about the Victorians – I amlearning fast. I would have liked to resume the Campion series, but for various reasons that wasn’t possible. I toyed with the idea of making Matthew Tobias’ grandson, but then Harriet popped up, and I wanted to explore with her all the problems and possibilities women experienced during Victoria’s reign. Most of all, I wanted to tell my great- grandmother’s story. A serving-wench, she was seduced by the Younger Son of an aristocratic family; when her father, a gatekeeper, complained to his lordship, he was told that his daughter must leave the estate at once – any argument and the whole family would be turfed out. Just like that. The young woman walked from Shropshire to the Black Country, where in absolute poverty she gave birth to my Grannie Cutler. Noblesse oblige? I am still outraged that such a professedly moral society could countenance such hypocritical criminal cruelty.
Dot: I’m not surprised at your outrage - I had no idea about your personal link to the period. I love the way the couple defy convention both in their marriage and as they negotiate their way through Victorian society. Was this something you intended to address when you began the series?
Judith: I wanted Harriet and Matthew to address it. A workhouse orphan and the grandson of an earl? What on earth could they have in common?
Dot: Indeed. The Dead Hand, like your other historical novels, is confidently authentic and includes many interesting and unusual details. Would you say something about the research that underpins the novel.
Judith: It’s necessary! Thank goodness for Google. Actually, there are some very fine books (by women) which were invaluable: Keeping their Place (Sambrook); The Housekeeper’s Tale (Boase); The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant (Horn); The Victorian Kitchen (Davies). And visiting Calke Abbey (National Trust, Derbyshire) was an inspiration – though Harriet would never have let the place fall into such sad disorder.
Dot: I’d like to stay with your historical novels if I may, because the first book of yours I read was Cheating The Hangman. Like the Rowsleys, I found the clergyman protagonist, Tobias Campion, an
unusual and fascinating character. However, the novel was quite different from previous Regency Period stories I had read, and I’m interested to know how the Tobias Campion series came about.
Judith: I cut my teeth on Georgette Heyer – the wit, the immaculate plotting, the sheer fun. I had a Bath romantic novel in my head, but Tobias emerged instead. He was my first male protagonist, a chaste young man because I wasn’t sure I could write convincingly about male sexuality.
Dot: And how would you say the two periods, Regency and Victorian, compare as fertile ground for your writing?
Judith: About equal. But it’s the Rowsleys’ ambiguous social position and their role as estate trustees that gives me freedom to explore beyond the usual horizons of their time. I loved my foray into Roman archaeology, which was inspired by two things. The first was a holiday led by a wonderful archaeologist who was a born communicator – thank you, Peter Yeoman. The other was a visit to Chedworth Roman villa, where the volunteer guides were inspirational.
Dot: What prompted you to turn your hand to historical crime fiction, after all you had achieved great success with your contemporary crime series?
Judith: Money. Amongst other things. Actually, and very soberingly, the wonderful police officers who had provided invaluable help with the contemporary series retired. Their replacements were too busy to help, sometimes because technological change was so much of a challenge to traditional policing. Now crime has got nastier and the chances of getting caught and sent down are so vanishingly small I felt depressed before I started. The Jane Cowan series gave me nightmares – and I was the one creating the characters and their situation!
Dot: Did you choose the crime fiction genre from the outset and, if so, could you say why?
Judith: I wrote two or three tester novels, all of which were kindly rejected. (Two were published later, radically rewritten.) Crime came about because a young agent, Sara Menguc, was sufficiently interested to remind me of the basis of good writing – to write what I knew. I knew a lot about Birmingham, its music (nothing suspicious there) and a lot about further education, which was in a dangerous state of flux at the time. The then-unfinished Symphony Hall sparked the first strand of Dying Fall. A night when I was on duty on the thirteenth floor of Matthew Boulton College with no one in earshot gave me the second. Incidentally, when I was attacked there, the perpetrator followed an escape route I had described, but I can’t flatter myself that she had read the book.
Dot: That really does put writing about what you know into context! Can we take a step back now? Your first series was set in the late 1900s and featured Sophie Rivers who happens to be a college lecturer, a career you are familiar with. Did you know when Dying Fall was published in 1995 that you would go on to write another nine Sophie Rivers novels all of which would be published?
Judith: They were never best-sellers, alas. Just steady mid-listers. Sadly – before Peaky Blinders – Birmingham wasn’t a fashionable place to set books. I’ve not had to retire to a tax haven.
Dot: You have written several stand-alone novels. Do you have a different approach when you write a stand-alone and what would you say are the advantages and drawbacks compared to writing a series?
Judith: I wrote some standalones in the hope or expectation of writing a series. Each book – first or last in a series – has to be self-contained, obviously, but I do like digging into the mind of characters over a long period. But there must come a point when those characters, that scenario, have said all they have to offer.
Dot: As I mentioned earlier you have 49 published novels and many short stories besides. Do you have a strict routine when writing. Are you an assiduous planner or do your books have minds of their own?
Judith: When I wrote two a year, I pretty well followed a standard working day, the sort I was used to from my college days. Now I can be more flexible, and need to be: at my age I must exercise for the sake of my body and, of course, my brain. So, three days a week – not just the warm sunny ones! – you will find me on the tennis court. I spend a lot of time in the garden. As for structuring the books, the only time I did a detailed plot summary before I wrote I got so bored I had to change the gender of one of the characters. But flying in the dark is not without risks. I wrote The Dead Hand under the influence of long Covid, and my wonderful editor, Tine Pietron, had to help me chisel the story out of the mess I’d made.
Dot: What aspect of the process of writing do you like the most?
Judith: Going on holiday and coming back with a gift-wrapped plot! Seriously, the day the idea comes in is lovely. And it was staring at the tarpaulins covering a dig on the Ness of Brodgar that I got the idea for
The Dead Hand.
Dot: Your life as an author sounds very busy, Judith, what do you do when you are not sitting in front of a computer screen or with a pen in your hand?
Judith: First, rarely a pen – except for the one on the pad I keep beside my bed. Plot-holes are more obvious at three in the morning. There is truly not enough time for everything I want to do. There’s so much music to listen to (no, not while I’m writing – I need to concentrate on both), so many paintings to look at (I’m a keen photographer but it’s a long time since my O level Art)… Oh, and on top of the garden and tennis, there’s ballroom dancing and cooking and washing and ironing and watching cricket and… One of the most important parts of my daily routine is writing a blog for a hedgehog whose activities I film overnight: David Superhog, self-styled star of Hedgehog Highways FB page!
Dot: Ah yes, that reminds me that when I read my first Harriet and Matthew Rowsley mystery your description of Harriet’s cricketing prowess was a wonderful surprise. I’d never come across anyone else who knew that Victorian women played cricket. Finally, can you tell us what you are currently working on?
Judith: Novel number fifty. It’s tentatively called In at the Death and concerns the arrival at Thorncroft of the newly discovered heir. And a detached head.
Dot: A half-century and based in Shropshire – I can’t wait! It only remains for me to say thanks so much for taking the time for this interview, it’s been fascinating and very enjoyable.
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.